Preview by Dennis Sloutsky
Ever wanted to be a legendary hero, steal from the rich and give to the poor, while fighting against the corrupt government? Well, now you can, in Strategy First's Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood (this preview copy was graciously provided by them as well). In the game you assume the role of the legendary Robin of Locksley and take control of his band or Merry Men. For those that never heard about Robin Hood, here's a brief introduction (may I be forgiven for those of you that know history better than me and find some mistakes): Robin of Locksley was an actual historical character in medieval England, that lived at the same time as King Richard the Lion Heart. Robin was a nobleman, with a proud family heritage, a family castle and lots of land belonging to him. After King Richard decided to go on his (rather unsuccessful) crusade to Holy Land, Robin followed him, but managed to escape before its end, deadly for thousands of people following the King. While Richard remained in Muslim captivity in the Holy Land, Robin returned home just to find that while he was away his father has died and using that the Sheriff of Notingham pronounced him dead and annexed his lands - leaving Robin to literally live on the streets! Not only that, but he sucks the local population dry with his taxes, pillages villages and kills everyone opposing his reign of terror. Furthermore, Robin discovers that Prince John, Richard's younger brother isn't exactly a nice person, as he wants to become the next King of England using his brother's captivity (while refusing to pay the ransom for him), and doesn't do anything to help the simple folks. Robin Hood, being homeless and very loyal to King Richard at the same time, decides to fight the government injustice, finds refuge in the Sherwood Forest with a band of rebels (and often simple bandits) like him and starts robbing the rich while helping the poor, periodically making ambushes in the forest and sometimes even infiltrating surrounding towns and fighting Sheriff's men there. And that's where the game starts...
Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood is a tactical real time strategy, with strong elements of RPG. Huh, so what does "tactical real time strategy, with strong elements of RPG" actually stand for? In short, the game is a blend of Commandos, Lords of the Realm and Diablo. How does that work you might ask? Well, let me explain...
The Commandos part starts when you assume real-time control of Robin Hood and his Merry Men in different missions, that might have different goals, and which might include: robbing a wealthy merchant or a tax collector (you'd expect them to be heavily guarded of course) in the middle of Sherwood Forest, infiltrating a castle and stealing something from it or freeing someone held hostage in that castle, defending a castle against enemy attack or freeing a village run over by enemy soldiers. Like you might've understood the missions are very varied... Before entering each mission you have the chance to choose who from the merry men will go on that mission (depending on a mission, up to 6 characters can be chosen). And that's where you'd have to make some difficult decisions: in the game there are different main characters (such as Robin himself, his lieutenant Stuteley, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and so on) and different generic character types (Strong Merry Man, Aggressive Merry Man and Mustachioed Marry Man), each of the characters possessing different skills often needed to complete the game successfully, as well as hit points and stats (more on that later). Just like in Commandos, characters' abilities (if properly used) will guarantee you success in missions, and just because of that there will be a lot of teamwork involved in the game... For example, picture yourself a guard watching an entrance to the castle, so you can't enter it without drawing attention and possibly more soldiers... Well, you can get one of the Strong Merry Men to whistle from one side, which will make the guard turn that way, in the meantime Robin can sneak up from behind, knock him out, then Stuteley or one of the Mustachioed Merry Men can tie him up, and the same Strong Merry Man that whistled comes back to pick up the tied up guard, carry him to some other place, where other guards won't notice him lying tied up on the ground, nd drop him there.... And yes, just like in Commandos you'd have to use stealth, logical thinking and careful planning a lot, since scared guards will run off from you and bring more reinforcements... One thing that is completely different from Commandos, is that you can't see the line of sight of all the soldiers on the screen, but have the ability to turn it on for only one soldier at a time - that might take some time getting used to for real Commandos fans...
And here comes the Diablo part... One thing that is really similar to it and other RPG games is that your party has a certain status amongst the common people, and that status solely depends on the percentage of the enemies that you've killed... See, the common folks don't approve of violent ways of opposing the Sheriff, since it's not him that you're killing, but his soldiers who are common folk involuntarily drafted into the army. And the more of his soldiers you kill, the more displeased the common folk will be, and the less new recruits to your band of Merry Men you will get (those join you or even leave your party depending on that after every mission). So that means that you could probably even pass the few of the first missions if you play by force, always getting into direct and violent confrontations and killing everyone in sight, but after that you will simply run out of men (as you won't get any new recruits). So most of the time you'd have to use distraction tactics, then knock out or stun an opponent and then tie him up so he won't come to his senses and run away while calling from help. Next thing I'd have to mention, is that not only you have primary objectives while playing a specific mission, but you will often have secondary "quests" as well, that you might choose to complete or not complete... And often those quests are carried form one mission into another: for example in one village I spoke to a peasant woman who told me that her husband is being kept prisoner in another town - while visiting this town I indeed did find him in the local prison, and saved him, and after visiting their home village even got a reward for it, in the form of a clover leaf, which you usually get for completing one of those secondary quests, and which can resurrect one of your characters that died in battle if used later on. Another RPG-like thing in the game is that you have beggars on the map, that can tell you many interesting things if only given a little gold... Sometimes they might tell your characters optional things, such as where some enemy archers forgot some arrows that you could pocket, while at other times they might say things vital to passing the mission, such as showing you the exact classes and ranks of all soldiers nearby (you do see all the soldiers on the map when you start the game, but they remain dark shadows until they're in your line of sight, and only then you can know what kind of a particular soldier it is). Another RPG characteristic of the game would be that every one of your men has fighting skills that can be improved by training in your Sherwood Forest camp. The better their fighting skills are, the more of a chance to win in a fight against an enemy later on they'll have. By the way, as mentioned before the enemies have not only different classes (Lancer, Swordsman, Archer, Officer, Cavalryman to name you a few) with different abilities and stats each, but also different experience levels (ranks), which can usually be seen by the color of their uniform (blue is the lowest level of experience, while red is the highest). And obviously the higher is the soldier's rank, the more difficult he is to fight.
And for the Lords of the Realm part... Like I've said before, you can only select up to 6 characters to go on a mission (where you have the freedom of choice most of the times, as you can pick one of the many available missions to be next), while (depending on your popularity amongst the people) you will have new recruits most of the time between the missions and your band of merry men will gradually increase in size... What should the other characters do while the 6 selected go on a mission? Well, they won't sit on their ass, as you can command them to either train themselves in combat or archery (like mentioned in the paragraph above) OR they could produce different resources that are used by various characters... For example, one of the distraction methods that can be used by certain of your characters, might be throwing an apple or a purse of gold next to a group of enemy soldiers, which would temporarily distract them while they take the apple or fight over the gold (although different soldiers have their own weaknesses, some, like the officers, won't fall for a purse with gold, while they can be easily distracted by... a bottle of beer!). Other characters can throw rocks that knock out the soldiers that don't have helmets - and don't forget such a trivial object as arrows, yes they have to be manufactured too! So this indeed does bring a large amount of strategy into the game, as you have to plan carefully whom you have to train what, and what kinds of resources you want the Merry Men staying in Sherwood to produce, as it will influence your characters in the upcoming missions (how could you shoot someone if you've got no arrows?).
The enemy AI deserves a paragraph on itself, as the Sheriff's soldiers are usually very cautious and can even be called pretty damn smart at times. For example, two soldiers might be guarding a bridge together... You somehow take out one of them. The other soldier will probably notice that his mate is gone, and will first search for him a bit and then run over to the commanding officer and tell him about it! Furthermore, patrolling officers also notice the absence of soldiers guarding key locations and will demand their soldiers to search the vicinity for those that “abandon their posts” (not knowing of course that the soldier in question is lying tied up beneath some bush). Furthermore, when attacked with a larger force than expected, soldiers will run back and bring reinforcements with them when they come back!
The graphics are 2D and rather nice at the same time; there are lots of different locations and landscapes, and the enemy and friendly units (as well as their animations) are very well done. You can even zoom in and out of the game with your mouse scroll function. There are even some spectacular effects, such as seeing the water in a moat around a castle flow, and at the same time portray the wall's reflection, which I've never thought is possible in a 2D game. As well you will witness fog, rain, snow and other visual effects. There's also a lot of various sound effects in the game, very authentic to those times music and lot of speech, that is generally very well done.
Overall, I've genuinely enjoyed the 40 hours or so that I've spent with the game until now (while only completing around 45% of it! And I don't think I'm such a bad player; it's just that speed of you passing the level will depend on whether you want to hurt anyone or not, and my typical "spared enemy lives" statistic is between 95% to 100%), I think it's a very interesting mixture of many genres... Most of the game's ideas are not original or revolutionary and were in large part taken from other games: but never before a game has combined all of them together, and this is what makes Robin Hood so innovative and enjoyable. The game is also very involving as you get to see your characters "grow", at least stats wise. The non-linear campaign brings much more enjoyment than trying to pass the same mission over and over again and failing in many other games. The sound and video are very solid, and there are little to none bugs left in this beta version. Even understanding that this is a beta version, I'd recommend it to any strategy and RPG fan, as this game manages to combine the best parts of both genres (although fans of Real War and other “dumb” RTS games shouldn't apply)... Stay tuned for a full-featured review of the game as soon as we'll get the final version over here, while in the meantime you can check out some brand new exclusive shots I've made and download the game demo.