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Lords of the Realm III PC CD-ROM

Published by Sierra (Vivendi Universal)
Developed by Impressions Games
Released: Out Now
Price: £19.99

I've been a fan of Impressions Games ever since Caesar III. I didn't play any of their early games but after playing a demo of Caesar III, continuously, I went out and bought the full game and ever since, I've managed to play and be impressed by, every other game they've developed. Of course the previous two Lords of the Realm games came a long time before Caesar III so I can't comment on how this latest title in the series compares but I have to say that it surprised me and wasn't at all what I had expected.

Now I have to completely honest here and say that I came to the game expecting something completely different and initially I was disappointed however, after putting in a serious amount of hours and, I'll be completely honest here, searching the Internet for all the advice I could find I finally began to feel comfortable with the game. Lords of the Realm III is a real-time strategy that really feels like it should be a turn-based game. It's not a resource producing, city building game, a genre that Impressions have virtual total domination over, and it's not a Command and Conquer style game either. In fact at it's heart it's more like a board game, an advanced take on Risk if you like (but focusing on single countries), where you and the AI get to carry out your strategies at the same time. Seem confusing? Well initially it's very confusing but put the time in and you get to realise the game play is not half as confusing as it initially seems.

The key ingredient to being successful in Lords of the Realm III is being very efficient with your time management. I remember when PC Zone reviewed Caesar III and the reviewer (Steve Hill I think it was) commented that the game was the modern equivalent of spinning plates. What he meant by that was that although everything needs your attention you have to be selective about giving your attention to matters that need it most at any particular time. In this respect Lords of the Realm III is just like all the other Impressions Games titles I've played. The game is split into two levels, the strategic level and the battle level. Unlike games such as Medieval: Total War though the game doesn't pause when you enter a battle and actions are still being carried out. This can be very frustrating to begin with as during a battle it's possible, and more than likely, that you'll be attacked somewhere else and how can you be in two places at once? Fortunately the game is designed so you don't have to be everywhere at once.

Before we go on I'd better describe just how the game works. As we said earlier the game is split into two distinct parts the strategic level and the battle level. Most of your important decisions will be made at the strategic level. Essentially you'll play on maps that are split into regions. Each region is split into an estate and areas known as parcels. The estate is the main area in a region and if lost the control over a region will also be lost. You don't get to control the production of resources in Lords of the Realm III. Instead each parcel is dedicated for a single use. The use of a parcel is determined by the vassal that you allocate to each parcel. Allocate a knight and you'll have a castle or fief. A burgher will give you a new town or city that will produce gold for your kingdom. A serf will construct a farm and produce food to help sustain your armies. Finally a clergyman will build a church or cathedral and improve not only your kingdom's christianity rating but also the general performance of your other parcels. You can also control the movement of your armies and there are diplomatic options available too, although these feel rather inadequate compared to those seen in other games.

Once you've allocated vassals to your parcels you don't really have any control over what is built so choosing the correct vassals is essential. To make things even more interesting vassals come in three categories, lesser, common and those with elaborate titles and special abilities. Throughout the course of a game more vassals will become available as you satisfy the conditions required for some of the 'specialist' vassals to join you. Siege warfare is a key part of the gameplay so you'll want to choose a vassal who comes with siege weapons as you can't build them yourself. In fact you'll often find yourself swapping vassals for more suitable ones during the course of a game.

As we mentioned earlier the battles that occur don't pause time and you can continue to come under threat in other areas whilst you are involved in a battle. Thankfully you don't need to control every battle and it's possible to leave a battle to a general and the AI is actually quite competent. You can take charge at any moment though should you feel the need to suddenly take control. The battles themselves are actually very enjoyable. There are an impressive collection of both ranged and melee units such as swordsmen, Welsh long bowmen, highlanders, Genose cross bowmen, chevaliers and cavalry. You also get the rather grotesque units such as boiling oil which is for stopping those enemies from scaling the castle walls. Control is given over companies and not single units and without the ability to create your own units you'll have to use your men wisely during a battle. The real problem I have with the battles is when an entire company will use a single ladder to attempt to climb a fortified wall. This actually makes it quite easy for them to be killed one by one. You'll also notice that the siege weapons such as ballista are too powerful and can destroy a castle wall with only a few hits. Of course this works both for and against you so it's probably not a disadvantage.

The single player gamer consists of five tutorials and four campaigns set in Ireland, England, Germany and France. There are also a variety of battles to take part in if you feel like a change from the strategy level of the game. The tutorials cover the basics of the game and nothing more. Once you've finished the tutorials you'll head off to play the Ireland campaign, which is quite simple compared to the rest of the games campaigns and is only a single scenario. What you'll notice when playing the Irish campaign though is how ill-equipped you are to play the game. The tutorials showed you the controls but they left too many questions unanswered. Thinking of turning to the manual (after all manuals to Impressions Games titles are usually very good) then think again as there isn't one in the box. A pdf manual comes with the game and whilst this is useful it still doesn't tell all you need to know. It took me at least 3 hours to grasp the basics of the game and even longer to be fully comfortable with it and even now I still can't complete the English campaign. Once the basics are grasped though it becomes a lot more interesting. Multiplayer games can be played over a LAN or the Internet and either scenarios or battles can be played. In fact multiplayer is where the game can really shine as it's not quite so daunting against human opposition as opposed to the AI which doesn't need any time to think.

Graphically Lords of the Realm III is a real mixed bag. The strategic level maps look rather good and you can even see the shadows from the clouds as the move over the landscape. The battle level of the game doesn't look so good though and there are a number of issues here. There are various times when units will simply bunch up together to form what can only be described as a horrible mess. The damage modeling on the castle walls also seems poor. The units themselves look OK and the siege weapons in particular have some good animations for loading and firing. Whilst the graphics are certainly not the best out there, they compare favourably to most games in the strategy genre.

Lords of the Realm III isn't fully subtitled but there aren't any major problems for deaf gamers. The basics of the tutorial are shown in text and whilst there is speech that is not subtitled, it isn't important. Occasionally you'll get comments from your units when issuing orders and these are also not shown in text. The game has a few cutscenes and these are not subtitled but they are simply there to set the scene for the campaign scenarios and whilst it's a shame they aren't subtitled it doesn't harm the game play. All important information in the game is shown either in text or through icons. The mini-map will also highlight where a battle has occurred which is useful.

The main problem gamers are going to have with Lords of the Realm III is that in some ways it's quite unlike any other strategy game out there. It looks like a turn-based game on the strategic level and indeed I personally would have preferred it to have been turn-based. However it's real-time and at no point do the events of the game pause to give you a breather. It's all about learning to decide which matters need your attention the most and thankfully the AI is sufficient enough to command a battle or two whilst other matters get your attention. However, in the later campaigns the AI becomes rather fiendish and more often than not you'll want to take charge of military matters yourself and this can cause a problem if you have to contend with multiple battles. Those who like to tinker with the resource management in great depth simply won't like it. This is no Caesar III, Pharaoh, Zeus or Empire and for me this was very disappointing at first. However playing the game for what it is reveals the fact that Impressions have created something very original which is a very bold thing to do. Now all that's left to ask is when are Caesar IV and Pharaoh II going to arrive?

Overall Game Rating: 7.9/10
A unique and challenging RTS from Impressions Games but not everybody will take to it. It has a fairly steep learning curve and requires a lot of time to get to grips with the game.

Deaf Gamers comments:
There are some areas of the game which are not subtitled but on the whole this doesn't cause any real problems.