In this first North American release from Bulgarian developer Black Sea Studios, players set out to conquer all of Europe in a seamless, real-time flow of development, destruction, and diplomacy. Billed as the first "Empire-Conquering Simulation in Real-Time," Knights of Honor is a real-time strategy game that combines the historical context of Age of Empires with the empire-building elements of Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns or Medieval: Total War.
Players are placed in the role of a monarch, who must oversee every major aspect of the growing empire. Since hands-on management would be far too great a task for any single person, the monarch must employ knight characters, who will carry out various orders across the continent. There are six different types of knights: Marshal, Spy, Merchant, Landlord, Builder, and Cleric. Each offers different bonuses and restrictions.
Games are set in one of three medieval periods -- "Early" (circa 1000 A.D.), "Middle" (1200 A.D.), or "Late" (1350 A.D.) -- each with its own distinct challenges based on the historical politics and technologies of the time. In any of these eras, Knights of Honor features three large geographical regions to conquer, with over 150 individual provinces to claim. Once players have learned to rule a computer-controlled medieval Europe, they can compete against up to five other human opponents, over a local network or the Internet.
Black Sea Studio's Knights of Honor is a sweeping epic of a medieval strategy game that's busy sweeping the floor with other titles that simulate the Dark Ages. Challenging you to conquer Europe in one of three time periods during the Age of Chivalry, it leaps from a grand strategy simulator to a tactical-combat game and back, and it does so with the polish of a big studio production and the attention to detail of a wargaming startup.
Knights of Honor wows you with its scale. In your quest to become the supreme ruler of the Old World, you have to take on diplomatic relations with other kingdoms, create and maintain a healthy economy with the ever-looming possibility of inflation, train and command a strong army to protect your lands, and, if you wish, to conquer others. You'll delegate your authority through a royal court, which can include merchants, clerics, marshals, and spies; you'll inspire your people and keep the morale of your kingdom high, quelling rebellion should it rear its treacherous head; and you lead your soldiers on the field of battle, siege castles and plunder towns.
A pausable, plausible real-time sim, Knights of Honor gives you the choice of playing a quick battle, in which you control squads of soldiers in a fairly standard real-time strategy setting, or the campaign, which is infinitely more satisfying. The latter thrusts you into the britches of a custodian of a kingdom in early, high or late Middle Ages. The territories on the map depend upon the period you elect to play, but it covers Europe from Munster in the west, to Georgia in the east, from Norway in the north to Algeria in the south.
You're offered three difficulty settings, but be warned: even on "easy" the game is devilishly tricky. In fact, that brings up my biggest complaint: the learning curve is one hell of an incline to scale. While the manual is fairly explanatory, it's not well organized, and a tutorial goes over some of the more common tasks but doesn't walk you through a sample game. It'll take a lot of experimental play, and many trips to the online library (accessible from within the game) before you really feel like you know what you're doing.
You can choose how you wish to win; for example, you can attempt to conquer Europe through diplomacy, by military might, by becoming the most technologically advanced kingdom, or, most likely, through a balance of several elements. You control a royal dynasty comprised of a king figure, a queen, and several children. The male royals, or other promoted officials, can become your knights. You can have up to nine knights in your court, and they can serve different purposes: marshals lead your armies, merchants trade with other kingdoms in an attempt to secure gold or resources, clerics can convert provinces that you have conquered, and so on. You can even recruit spies, which can infiltrate the royal courts of enemy nations and steal gold, sabotage trade, or assassinate members of the royal family. Of course, the possibility always exists that one of your own royal knights is a spy for an enemy nation...
While games start rather slowly in most cases, things can quickly spiral to the point at which you have to pause and really think about what to do next. You might start off forging relationships with various kingdoms around you, establishing trade agreements and alliances. Later, one of those kingdoms might suddenly demand that you honor your alliance by declaring war on its enemy -- which could be another of your allies.
You do what you can to build the royal treasury, by trading and taxing your peasants, only to discover the perils of inflation. You build town structures, like training grounds, churches, siege equipment factories, and other improvements, only to lose them when a powerful kingdom takes the town (and its province) by force. You struggle to control resources like kingdom resources such as gold, piety, books, and town resources like food and workers, only to have townships rebel against your authority. There are always fires to put out, and staying on top of them is the game's biggest challenge.
It's made more challenging by the clunky interface. With so much going on, there were bound to be tough decisions in presenting all the information and options at your fingertips, and it's done well -- to a point. Learning where to click to open various windows and sidebars took some time, and straddling the two major views -- the grand political view and the tighter strategic view -- was a hurdle. For example, I couldn't for the life of me remember how to get an audience with a ruler of another kingdom in order to offer a trade agreement. As it turns out, I had to switch to the political view, click on the kingdom to open an information bar across the bottom of the screen, and then click on his portrait to request and audience. Such conundrums will undoubtedly haunt your first few hours of play. Colorful graphics, though they lack 3D fanciness of which so many current games boast, serve Knights of Honor well, as do many filters for the mini-map and political view to show various situational data like world religions, stances, relations, and so on.
A third view, battle view, presents itself when two armies collide. You can choose to let the computer simulate the outcome, or you can go in and control your forces in a stripped-down version of a medieval RTS. While you can't rotate the map, zoom, or perform other 3D tricks, elements like terrain and formation come into play. It's not as detailed as, say, an Age of Empires battle, but it's occasionally satisfying to take the reigns as the battlefield commander. Sieges of enemy strongholds (or, if you're not doing terribly well, your own castles) are especially interesting.
Unfortunately, multiplayer options are limited to battlefield encounters and don't encompass the much more satisfying grand strategic aspects of Knights of Honor. On the other hand, that's probably because a full game can last hours upon hours, even with the ability to compress time during the less frenetic bits. Still, it would be interesting to match wits against a Europe populated by human rulers.
Multiplayer options notwithstanding, Knights of Honor is a triumph of play balance, attention to detail, and a wealth of elements coming together to present a challenging and authentic-feeling simulation of medieval politics. Once you learn the interface and get past the slow, steep climb from newbie to confident king, you'll delight in the kingdom building, cautious comradely, back-stabbing, and other treachery that comes with the attempt to rule the known world.
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Knights of the Temple II, Heroes of Might and Magic V, Gun, Jagged Alliance 2: Wildfire, Heroes of Annihilated Empires, Icewind Dale 2, Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition, Icewind Dale
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