If, like me, you're a bit of a hopeless romantic then you'll probably have spent more afternoons than you'd care to admit pondering what life would have been like in the middle ages. It's the kind of escapism all geeks are guilty of while they stand in line at the supermarket. They ask themselves; Would I be a gallant knight of the realm? A powerful land baron, zealously milking his cash cow? A rugged outlaw with a heart of stone? Well, now that The Guild II is released, a game that thoroughly simulates medieval life, these questions can at last be answered! Or so one might have hoped by reading the box.
As always, the reality isn't actually as elaborate as the boasted 'realistic medieval life simulation' and the gameplay behind The Guild II is actually quite limited. You can't for example choose to be a knight or hero, which I had thought until now was actually required of any game in the medieval setting. Instead, as I quickly found out, The Guild II is a game which really emphasises the mundane realism of medieval life, almost down to the stench of the peasants. Straight away the player is forced to choose one of three types of trader (Patron, Craftsman or Scholar) or instead be a simple rogue. The only real difference in gameplay between any of the classes is that the first three sell things and the last one steals things. Anything beyond this is a purely cosmetic difference which will only affect the priorities you place on skills in the RPG-lite stats system. No matter what choice you make, you'll still end up walking around a small town clicking on people and buildings to peddle inane objects like walking sticks to the NPCS. Not that it matters much because whatever you click on you can usually be sure that the process will be completed with jerky animation and poor pathfinding - something for which there is no excuse for in such small, pre-designed play areas.
This brings me to The Guild II's biggest problem. Put simply, The Guild II is a game which can't really decide if it should be a dedicated RPG or RTS simulation, and has instead opted to be in both genres at the same time. Normally this would be a good thing, but with The Guild II the two parts just don't mix well enough. To use a medieval metaphor, it's akin to an inexperienced Blacksmith who has sat down and decided to design a new type of weapon:
"What I'll do," He says, scribbling down a sketch of his 'masterpiece', "is take the sharp end of a sword - because they're so good and involving - and put an axe blade bit where the handle should be, because sharp bits are so popular right now."
Sure, that's all fine on paper, but the problem occurs when someone tries to pick it up and ends up with no fingers left - which is how you feel when playing. You've got two promising elements crippling each other as they try to entertain you. So, unfortunately, while the RPG side of the game has some nicely thought out perks and an attractive stats system, it's stunted by the fact that there is nowhere in the game you can go or explore, because gameplay mainly involves walking units around the same town over and over. Likewise, the RTS side of the game isn't bad in and of itself, but you can never really focus on it because you're too busy trying to level up and marry off your character to an NPC - hence my fingerless frustration.
The game isn't all bad though, and despite the genre conflicts there are still some things to really like about The Guild II. The level of detail, for example, is probably enough to interest some history buff somewhere, and the weather effects offer some of the best replications of a proper British downpour that I've ever seen in a game. Moreover, dictator-wannabes who are tired out by DEFCON's global conflicts will more than likely enjoy moving their battlefield to a smaller, more peaceful location like Sherwood Forest, as they vie for familial dominance instead of high bodycounts. The sound, too, manages to keep its head above water, with some good background pieces and a few voiceovers that are funny for the first hundred or so times you hear them.
Ultimately, however, The Guild II is a maddening example of a game that was ruined by a lack of focus in its design stages - had it been released with a wider scope it may have made a great RPG, or had it been a little faster paced and involving it may have made a mediocre RTS. As it is though, it's stuck somewhere in No Man's Land, suffering from schizophrenic gameplay and a refusal to grow up.