Reviewed: March 18, 2004
Released: February 11, 2004
It's that time of year again: the holiday feeding frenzy has come and gone, and in its place the gaming community seems to be drifting in a deep hypersleep. (The upside to this period of relative calm is that I can rest my bruised and swollen mouse finger.) Gamers needn't despair much longer, though; there's a troika of major titles slated for release by the end of April, which should put an end to the two month hangover.
In the meantime, Swedish developer Paradox Entertainment delivers Two Thrones, a real-time strategy title focused on Western Europe and the Hundred Years' War.
Underdeveloped and simplistic, Two Thrones lacks the ambitious scope of Paradox's flagship series, Europa Universalis. The RTS genre has evolved so much in the past five years, it's jarring to play a title that seems trapped in amber. Two Thrones takes two steps back with its primitive rock-paper-scissors design and never amounts to anything more than a purely mediocre RTS title.
Two Thrones spans the period between 1337 and 1485 and includes five scenarios, divided among two distinct wars: The Hundred Years' War, between England and France; and The War of the Roses, an English civil war fought between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. (Henry V was a member of the House Lancaster and hero of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.)
Victory is achieved by massing victory points (makes sense, huh?) or gaining control of the entire map. Points are awarded or subtracted for a variety of reasons: subjugating provinces, winning individual battles, forging alliances and maintaining peace.
Two Thrones uses the conventional RTS formula: build, plot, destroy. Only two resources (grain and silver) are used. Every unit and structure has prerequisites and fixed costs; creating a unit of knights, for example, costs five silver, ten grain and requires a level five castle and church. You can pause the action at any time and issue commands. This system will be familiar to anyone who has ever played an RTS game, and is nothing new.
War is a simple matter of amassing a vast army, merging your units and then overwhelming your opponent. The bulk of battles are won through sheer strength of numbers, so you're prime objective will be to swarm en masse. This is a perfectly acceptable method of winning a battle, of course, but that discounts numerous other factors. Other strategy games, such as Medieval: Total War, calculate many more variables (weather, terrain, leadership, individual unit skill) and force you to weigh your options with great care. The game manual suggests that a balance of combat units works best, but I disagree: overwhelming numbers and brute force are paramount.
The AI is pliable and prone to manipulation. It's too easy to steer diplomatic stalemates in your favor. Neighbors and potential enemies are readily appeased. You have to make only the most minimal overtures to keep your neighbors in check. Sending a gift or an offer of marriage is usually enough to curb hostilities. This is precisely how you can mass a formidable army and sweep down upon your next target.
You can toggle options such as AI aggressiveness, game speed, fog of war and autosave to tailor the game to your personal taste and skill level. Regardless of settings, though, there's a common theme: might makes right. Breed a redoubtable army and Europe is yours for the taking.
Two Thrones does throw an occasional curve ball: Scripted historical events, such as the Black Death plague, crop up periodically and can have a crushing impact on your conquest. The problem is that once an event is triggered, you must make a decision, and you are told in explicit game terms the precise outcome of each option. This takes all the mystery and risk and intrigue out of the events and reduces them to a purely mathematical crisis. Paradox should have added a toggle feature to hide the outcomes. It's a noble stab at innovation, but woefully implemented.
You will have to balance economic aspects (specifically: taxes) and maintain loyalty as well. There are four social groups vying for your affections: the peasants, the burghers, the clergy and the nobility. Unlike combat, loyalty does require that you strike a perfect balance. Each class has a loyalty score ranging from one to ten; if a particular group's loyalty gets too low, they will revolt, and force you to deal with an uprising.
The more territory you control, the greater your influence and wealth. Those looking for pure economic stimulation, though, can pick up the Wall Street Journal. Two Thrones is rooted in war and conquest.
The multiplayer component appears to be in a state of decay. As with Europa Universalis, would-be conquerors can hook up on the Valkyrienet (Paradox Entertainment's virtual battlefield), over LAN, or via a direct IP connection. I couldn't find a single game -- not one -- despite repeated attempts. That's not a good sign. Granted, it may take some time for an online community to flower, but it seems to me the feature is dead in the water.
Two Thrones is played from a top-down view, allowing you to scroll over each province and plot your next move. The map is colorful and has a quaint, rustic charm -- it reminds me of the old RISK game board. Provinces are colored in luminous shades of green and yellow, each dotted with numerous static structures: castles, farms, markets, towns and city walls. Bodies of water are also rendered with fidelity, so you can gaze across the English Channel and fantasize of sending your fleet to smash France -- or vice versa. Conquer Le Gay Paris and let 'em eat Freedom Fish n' Chips. Fox News would be proud.
2D sprites are used to represent both army and navy units. The sprites don't match the sculpted 3D detail of a four-star RTS title like Warcraft III, but they're perfectly functional and get the job done.
Quality audio is not the hallmark of budget titles, and Two Thrones is no exception. Recorded in flimsy 8-bit WAV format, the sound effects are marred by static hisses and pops -- it sounds as though they're emanating from an archaic transistor radio. The result is a dismal hack job. This is notthe game you want to cue up to test out your new Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speakers and stimulate your tympanic membrane.
There's no musical score to speak of. There are abrupt snippets of fuzzy old chamber music here and there, so you can dust off your old smoking jacket, break out your pipe and lay the blueprint for conquering Europe. Capital!
Unless you have a particular fondness for the Hundred Years' War, or you're confounded by the complexity of competing RTS titles, I would recommend that you pass on this one.
$19.99 is a fair price, but there are over a dozen strategy games in the same price bracket which are far superior to Two Thrones. Empires: Dawn of the Modern World and the sorely underappreciated Rise of Nations come to mind. It's a shame I wasn't able to put the multiplayer mode through the grinder, but in truth, I can't imagine it's much better than the mediocre single-player component.
Two Thrones is terminally flawed, a hollow exercise in empire building -- call it real-time strategy for Dummies. There's nothing wrong with focusing on a particular time period, but the design seems willfully shallow and superficial.
Paradox Entertainment has cultivated a devout fan base, and hopefully this will be nothing more than a hiccup. Save your cash for the impending April/May bonanza -- you'll thank me.