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Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown Review

GAME INFO
publisher: Capcom Entertainment
developer: Capcom Entertainment
genre: Strategy

MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS
PII400, 64MB RAM, 16MB Video Card, 1.1GB HD
ESRB rating: T
homepage:
www.cinemaware.com/robinhood_main.asp

release date: Oct 06, 03
» All About Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown on ActionTrip


If you've been a gamer for, oh, twenty years now like I have, there is a very good chance that you have one or two games that you cherish like old friends. (Ed. - Final Fantasy I and the original Legend of Zelda.) You keep this game close to your heart, for it's a golden oldie that sparked your imagination as a kid and kept you up for many long nights in front of your computer. I remember the days when I used to game on my dad's PC XT, spending many hours dreaming I was Sir Ivanhoe or the valiant Robin of Locksley. For its time, Cinemaware's gem Defender of the Crown had the most amazing graphics and captivating gameplay you could find on the PC. Not that there was anything else out there that was worth much, but Defender of the Crown was still way ahead of its time. It brought an interesting blend of action mini-games and strategy and management genres to the dreary and block-infested world of PC games. Not to mention that when Robin would save a fair maiden from the clutches of an evil Norman lord he'd get a passionate kiss and maybe something more that was only implied in that romantic scene. Ah, those were the days... (Ed. - You know in Golgo 13, you actually got to have the sex with all the fine ladies. It ruled!)

It seems, however, I wasn't the only one who thought this game had something special. After a really long wait Cinemaware had finally decided to create a remake that would rekindle the old flames for gamer dads, and introduce the long lost franchise to the generations to come. We're bombarded with numerous games at ActionTrip almost on a daily basis, but that still didn't diminish my enthusiasm about this true classic. I couldn't wait to play it. I wanted to joust, raid and save fair maidens again! Yes, I am "slightly" older now, but it seems that certain romantic postulates in epic tales strike that special chord in us regardless of our age or maturity. That is indeed a good thing.

Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown takes place in the eleventh century. Those were feudal times of course and England was governed by the nobility. This noble class was made up of lords and knights that controlled chunks of the land and fought over the coveted crown of England. Our hero, Robin of Locksley (not yet Sir at the time) lives in a land where Prince John has proclaimed himself the king after his brother, King Richard the Lionhearted, was taken captive during one of his holy crusades. As you all know, Robin is a true rebel (kind of like the Sex Pistols), stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, making sure that things are as they should be beneath the centuries old bowers of the Sherwood Forest. His only quarrel is with the Sheriff of Nottingham, a nasty character that has banned hunting in the Sherwood Forest, and would rather see its people die than hunt a deer or two to survive. But the fate has other plans for our expert archer. Trouble is brewing in England, there is no true king to make matters right, and the country stands on the brink of anarchy. People need guidance and knights need a true leader. With a little nudge from his darling Marian and a helping hand from his comrades Little John and Friar Tuck, and the nobleman Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Robin will take the matters into his own hands. How you ask? Well, step one is to get rid of the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham and then go on to reunite England and save it from its impending doom.

Probably the biggest improvement over the original, besides the obvious ones, like the graphics and sound, comes in the form of a truly witty, genuine and very lifelike dialogue that breathes new life into the franchise. Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown is one of the rare games that bring warmth to the characters, and unadulterated feeling; they're not your typical heroes and anti-heroes but human beings with their matchless flaws and opinions. For example, Robin is certainly an adventurous spirit, but he's also a little rash and immature. He's in a way a flawed hero, but a fitting one nonetheless. He has no insight into the matters of politics and diplomacy is certainly not one of his strong sides. Although he's a looker and knows how to woo a woman, he needs Marian because she is much more rational. Without her, Robin would've never taken up the task of uniting England. In a very real way, she is the silent force that stirs him in the right path. On the other hand, we have Little John and Sir Ivanhoe. Both are not blindly following Robin and very much have ideas of their own. They bicker among themselves a lot - and with Robin as well - but that's because they are strong personalities with ambitions of their own. Sir Ivanhoe is somewhat of a snob. He is nobility after all and very reluctant to join forces with a "common outlaw" like Robin Hood. The script brings tons of personality and some genuinely funny moments. Most of the dialogue takes place on the action screen, but some of it is delivered through cut-scenes, which are excellently directed and a joy to watch. The character voicing is naturally very good too, as the good writing couldn't have been brought to life in such a way if the actors didn't do their job right.

I was truly pleasantly surprised to play a game with characters that have so much spirit. If there is one thing about Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown that deserves praise, it's the presentation of the story and the way it has evolved and matured. Don't mistake though, it still keeps a very lighthearted note that will appeal to a broad spectrum of gamers on many levels. Unfortunately, while one element of the original matured, the other one grew, got prettier, but never really came of age.

The actual gameplay in Defender of the Crown is a mix of several different genres, but mostly it's a turn-based strategy game with some management and mini-game sequences added for good measure. The key resource in the game is gold, the more gold you have, the more troops you'll be able to recruit. (Ed. - Reminds me of the Golden Rule, he that has the gold makes the rules.) The first task that Robin has to accomplish is defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham in order to advance to the next level. The Sherwood Forest scenario acts as a tutorial for what's to come later. Once you've conquered Sheriff's stronghold and gotten rid of his presence in the Sherwood Forest it will be time to move on and unite the whole of England. This means you'll be going on from a smaller map to a larger one with two more important mini-games to master if you're to win the day. Mini games are an important segment of the gameplay, adding a much needed arcade twist to the turn-based strategy component. The first mini-game is the archery raid - Robin sits on top of a tree somewhere and uses his trusted bow and arrows to strike down enemy knights and caravans protected by enemy archers. The reward is gold, naturally. There are also jousting tournaments where Sir Ivanhoe will use his skill with a horse to advance your cause. Continuing, we have castle raids where Robin displays his swordsmanship skills against knights and footmen that defend the castle treasure, and castle sieges, where you defeat an enemy lord. Of course to win the castle siege you'll have to haul a lot of catapults near the keep and bring down his wall defenses before storming it. Out of all these mini-games only castle raids and sieges will be truly vital to your success. A winning castle raid will bank in something like an access of four hundred gold pieces, which will buy the allegiance of a lot of troops. Castle raid is divided into three or four segments where you'll have to run through different parts of the castle and better the defending knights and footmen. The actual sword fighting feels a little restricted. The characters aren't so well animated and the number of combat moves leaves something to be desired. It's not that bad, it's just that it's not memorable in any way either. Ironically, shooting your bow from a first-person perspective was more fun, but the archer raid mini game was a lot less useful, so I didn't use it that much. The other important mini game as I said is the castle siege. Players are given four days to bring down the enemy walls. Each day has a time limit forcing you to think quickly about which huge stone to load onto the catapult and how much you should wind the catapult before firing. You use boulders to bring down the walls and then burning oil (Greek fire) and plague infested missiles to kill as many defenders as possible. Wind your catapult just right and the wall will come down bit by bit. Once the breach is down, swing a few plague packages at them to lower their numbers. A successful castle siege can go a long way to ensuring that an enemy lord is left with a handful of defenders once you've stormed the keep. Finally, the jousting game, although fun, serves very little purpose and can be easily disregarded on your road to victory. It's modestly entertaining but it's not essential to your cause.

The overall impression I got from playing the mini-games is that they have, for better of for worse, stayed true to the original concepts. That is not an entirely bad thing necessarily, but it might eventually dishearten people who have never played the original. The arcade portion just doesn't offer the same kind of masterfully choreographed action as seen in some other contemporary games. One other thing that bothered me about it is the blatantly apparent porting job that's most evident in the way controls are handled. Although you can use your mouse to do most of the actions that are required from you, it feels crude and clumsy. In other words, you'll be much better off using just the keyboard. It seems like the game was tailored for the gamepad and only rehashed here and there to make the switch from the Xbox to the PC.

The same interface woes apply to the turn-based strategy contests and tactical map. It's just too tiresome to use your mouse for transferring, recruiting or commanding your troops in combat. For all intents and purposes conquering is still the bread and butter of the gameplay, so it's really sad to see that it has suffered the most in this remake. The actual battle mechanics are much the same as in the original. The battlefield is divided by several impassable islands of land. In each attacking lane created by these "islands" you can have one of the following troops: peasants (the weakest bunch, but they're faster moving), footmen (kind of like your infantry), archers, knights and catapults (heavy artillery). The entire strategy of every fray comes down to making sure your ranged units are out of enemy reach, and that your knights and footmen are strong enough to withstand the shower of boulders and arrows and get to enemy ranged units first. In all honesty, there are some more advanced skirmish options available, but I wasn't compelled to use them ever because I was winning all the time. The sad truth is the battles look and play too simply. The battlefield is represented like a board game and the units look like chess figures. That's not bad per se, just as long as the clashes required a little more strategic thinking, which they don't. As it stands, this aspect of the game's core gameplay component is just weak. The same applies to the tactical map. There is nothing wrong with the map itself. You attack adjacent territories, move troops around and recruit new ones to join either your campaign or the Territorial Army. You have to make sure your borders are defended before advancing further. But the enemy AI is so woefully incompetent it will lie down and die for you to conquer England! Considering there wasn't an option in there to up the difficulty level I'd say this is the easiest PC game I've ever played. Granted, I was already quite familiar with the basic concepts (even though I haven't played the game for fifteen years), but I'd still go out on a limb here and say that a ten year old would have no trouble beating Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown in no time. What's more, after acquiring certain special items that help you become better at mini-games (like the legendary sword for castle raids) it will be that much easier to hurt the other lords by robbing them blind and making sure they don't have enough money to recruit new forces. The game's difficulty is raised by a notch or two if you take in account that you'll have to pay the ransom for King Richard (10,000 gold pieces) to secure peace in England, but it's really not that difficult to do so once you've gained control of most of the territories and the other nobleman are at your mercy. Robin Hood or not, you will collect taxes from everyone who's living on the conquered territories, the more territories you have the more money you'll get after each turn.

After playing a game like Shogun: Total War (and all its expansion), one can only feel disappointment over the unrealized potential of RH: DotC. What should've been the crowning jewel to tie the good writing and decent graphics together, turned out to be its most disappointing feature. Because of the unchallenging gameplay and poorly designed AI the single-player game is terribly short, too. You cannot up the difficulty level and there is certainly no multiplayer mode. You know what that means of course; there is virtually no replay value! I fail to see why anyone would pick this game up after beating it once.

The remake to one of my favorite games of all times brings some colorful characterization and narrative, along with great voice acting and flashy particle effects, but it fails to sufficiently advance the original's simplistic gameplay. The end result is a very short and naive game that will have a very hard time staying competitive in today's PC market. After all, this is not the 1980's anymore. Ask around, Miami Vice is not a primetime show anymore. (Ed. - And for that, we are grateful.)

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HIGHS
Great dialogues, characterization and voice acting; looks solid at times (character models, facial animation, particle effects), some mini games can be fun;

LOWS
Strategy portion of the game lacks plenty more challenge and depth; the game is too easy, simplistic and over too quickly, no replay value whatsoever, dodgy animation during sword fighting sequences.

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