Let's start this week's review with a list, shall we?
Things I'd rather do than play King Arthur:
1. Jab myself in the eye with a dirty needle.
2. Wax Bea Arthur's "bikini area."
3. Go snorkeling in the sewer.
4. Punch myself repeatedly in the testicles.
5. Build a log cabin out of dog turds.
6. Roll through a briar patch naked, then take an alcohol shower.
7. Watch a 36-hour marathon of The View, followed by a Real World-esque experiment where I live with Star Jones for a year.
8. Listen to country music.
9. Model a pair of ass-less chaps for the general population of San Quentin.
10. Play Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis.
Yes, as you can no doubt surmise, my experience with King Arthur wasn't a pleasant one. What, at first glance, looked like an average hack-and-slash game based on a mediocre movie license soon became the very bane of my existence. Konami owes me a new Dual Shock 2 controller to replace the one I destroyed while suffering through their "game." Konami owes my wife an apology for having to endure two full days of not only some of my most vile swearing ever (no small feat for those who know me in person) but also the inevitable black mood that followed any extended session with the title. Konami owes me ten or so hours of my life back—and the money for the therapy to erase the memory of this experience forever. I have seen the true face of evil, and it comes not as a beast, but as a DVD disc.
Using the lame "summer blockbuster" as their inspiration, developer Krome has crafted a game that taught me there are two kinds of bad games: games destined to suck because they didn't have a budget or were made by small upstart developers still learning their craft, and games that did have funding and a team that should have known better and just phoned it in. King Arthur falls squarely into camp B. Now, to be fair, this title isn't one of those games that inspires rage because it crashes or because it's incomplete. I've seen worse games. But King Arthur has this unique talent for managing to do things poorly at the worst possible moments, thereby souring the entire experience for anyone unfortunate enough to play it. There were times where I could have given this title a close to average score, and each and every time I felt that way yet another problem reared its ugly head and made me hate the experience all over again. Patient and forgiving gamers may well be able to overlook the problems in this title, but why would they want to? With all the genuinely great games vying for attention in game stores everywhere, haven't we reached the point where it's time to stop cutting mediocre/borderline awful games so much slack? I think so.
Ever play a really cool action game where it feels like you're part of the game because the character is such a perfect extension of yourself? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, King Arthur is not one of those games. Controlling the characters in the game is sort of like driving an Escalade down an icy slope with no brakes and four flat tires. The controls are so loose you could call them Paris Hilton. Maneuvering your character through most of the title is like trying to park an Abrams tank in a compact car spot. Put the characters on horseback and it manages to get even worse. This is the first game I've played where just being able to walk feels like a major accomplishment. In the game's defense, players will eventually get used to the shoddy controls—at least when they're not on a horse. Being on a horse sounds like a marvelous idea on paper, yet the execution is so terrible that gamers will find themselves shuddering uncontrollably any time a horse mission shows up on the screen. I'm not sure why the horse combat is such a problem. I mean, the Dynasty Warriors games managed to implement it years ago. The primary problem with horse combat is the same one that mars the rest of the game. It just feels clunky. Horses have a variety of moves at their disposal, but lining them up with enemies to actually perform said moves is like mission impossible thanks to the largely unresponsive controls.
Foot combat doesn't fare much better. Players have combos at their disposal and these attacks can be upgraded using the title's RPG-esque upgrade system. The game also features a block button, which seems almost essential to surviving some of the later skirmishes in the game, but it is again so poorly implemented into the core gameplay that using it properly is more a case of luckily mashing the button at the proper instant than actually blocking an attack based on an animation.
Compounding these problems is a camera system that quite simply blows chunks. The camera has players so far back from the action that trying to read the attack animations in order to know when to block is all but impossible unless the player has eyes like a predatory bird. Worse still is the fact that characters get "lost" in large scale skirmishes because the surrounding hordes block the view. Just try to block or attack when you can't even see the onscreen character.
If all this weren't bad enough, the game is genuinely cheap at a number of points, which guarantees it to inspire frustration. It's all too easy to get "caught" on something in the environment and be unable to move while the enemies surround the player and hack him to pieces. Getting surrounded in King Arthur is pretty much a guarantee of instant death, and it's far too easy to get cornered thanks to the small and uninspired environments. The game showcases a lot of richly drawn vistas (including icy ranges and lush forests) but players will never really get to explore them. Instead, the game offers up a generic path through each area without the ability to ever break from the main trail and explore.
Since getting cornered or surrounded assures an instant death in almost every instance, we can now discuss the game's next tragic flaw:the lack of in-mission save or checkpoint system. The game is broken up into chapters and each chapter is entirely devoid of save points or even a checkpoint to mark progress. As the game advances and the cheapness and challenge multiply almost exponentially, this becomes a major issue. Players will die at the very end of a chapter only to have to respawn way back at the beginning and do the entire thing over, which is even more fun when it's a chapter with a lot of places where the player can get surrounded and killed in short order. I'm not sure who told Krome that this archaic type of game design was okay in this day and age, but the developers should have known better.
As masochistic players advance through the game, it becomes obvious why this design choice was implemented: King Arthur isn't a very long game. The title follows the plotline of the film closely and can be beaten,even with all the aggravating factors, in well under fifteen hours. Adding in checkpoints or anything like that would have surely chopped another few hours off the final tally. Of course, why anyone would want a bad game to last longer than necessary is totally beyond me, but this is probably why I don't work in marketing or advertising.
Finally, the game is largely unbalanced. Fighting on foot melee style is a good way to wind up dead…often. Fortunately, the bow is so overpowered that using it from a strategic position (one where the environment bottlenecks is a prime location) makes pretty much any obstacle beatable. And since the game's level-up system is just as generic as everything else, one doesn't even have to use a character suited to archery to reap the benefits of the bow. Nice game design, guys.
About the only nice thing I can say about King Arthur is that this is one of the few games that actually manages to take cinematic cut-scenes and implement them almost seamlessly into the game's narrative. The title does this really cool thing (first seen in EA's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) where it shows a scene from the film, then transitions that into the game's graphics before letting the player move on to the action. It's a great effect and one that more developers should consider.
Of course, one positive doesn't even make a dent in the battleship of negatives that is King Arthur. This is not the worst game ever made, but it's so inept at so many different points that it inspires more anger than a genuinely awful game. This is a title where the developers should have spotted the problems long before the game was released and fixed them. Instead, they shipped it out the door with all the problems intact and fleeced a few unsuspecting gamers out of $40 to $50. Don't fall prey to this scam. Even if other gamers don't hate this game as much as I did, it's still a below-average experience even in the best of circumstances. There are better games out there. Buy them instead.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.