ESCC - The Story of Charlemagne
The Story of Charlemagne has had a rough time of it on the blacksmith;bad description, uninspiring name, no reviews, little comment, no downloads. That last one wont change as the smithy is low in activity these days, but at least i can give this overlooked gem in the rough the recognition it surely deserves. This is a top notch scenario with only a few minor weaknesses keeping it from earning near-perfect scores in all categories. It should be remembered this is a now 17 year old scenario from AoK that in my humble opinion holds up well even today.
The initial barrier to playing Story of Charlemagne is the lengthy story and dialogue. The player has to wait until 6:00 on fast to begin playing, and for people that havnt had their curiosity piqued by the good map design, maybe they wouldnt give it a chance compared to faster paced maps. However this time is well spent in setting up the action, you are immersed into the story and it adds weight and meaning to the action that follows, far more so than if the player had been dumped into the action 10 seconds in after a single sentence. I rather think this is a good thing, not a negative.
However it must be said that the pacing at times could have been improved. Even playing on fast, when the scenario seemed to be intended for medium, resulted in some delays in events and somewhat-lengthy walk times. The B&D section was a bit much, placing the player in a rather boring task to gather supplies for the upcoming campaign. The unnecessary addition of this gameplay makes it hard to seriously consider a 5 rating. Its probably the single biggest misstep in this scenarios design.
The lack of player agency in the unfolding of events is a slight problem, as choices are very limited in nature, which are mostly battlefield tactical decisions. After the right approach has been found to winning a battle, there is not a large incentive to play again as there is not a wide variety of viable ways to conquer each section. Adding in optional side objectives, or some choices in soldier selection would have made a good case for earning the full 5 in this category, as the player could be interested in replaying to attempt different battle strategies, or needing to retry after failing with a subotimal configuration.
That all said, i had an immense enjoyment of this scenario. The battles were hard fought and i was on the seat of my pants the entire way. I found the mix of battle with story to be quite a nice mixup from the monotone B&D so often encountered. The playability fell in the final acts of the scenario as a the two final acts were rather underwhelming, one because its a challenging concept seen in many scenarios but has never been perfected IMHO(no scenario designer is good enough to make simfarm fun...sorry), and the finale was not up to the standards set by the scenarios own gameplay. In conclusion i had an overall blast while playing but would have to reserve a 5 score for a scenario that kept up the gameplay all the way through to the end, with a strong finish.
The difficulty of the initial phase was well designed. During the assault on the town the defenders put up an appropriate level of resistance for a Hard setting, with the player having enough to succeed but not if he is frivolous with his mens lives. There was a good pressure placed on the player as the defenders could whittle you down if you didnt hurry. This state of affairs was kept up throughout the scenario and provided a good experience of intense warfare for the player. I managed to achieve victory throughout, yet everytime felt that defeat was just a few mistakes away. Unfortunately the scenario stumbled at the finish line, with the final 2 acts being absurdly easy, and the final siege put up a feeble defence with exceptionally lackluster units replenishment for the enemy. Something of a mistake was made with the Mongolian adversary, as a frankish civ was used for the enemy in this siege. If only the mongols had managed to deliver an epic finale to this scenario, i was easily rating this category a 5. But the final battle is simply too poor to overlook and also the simfarm section before it certainly wasnt difficult.
A difficulty leveling system was included, allowing the player to make it easier or harder as needed to reflect their own skill. I played on hard which i found to offer a compelling challenge while never encountering anything in the way of an excessively difficult hill to climb.
I found the scenario to be highly creative, with the author making good use of varied gameplay to switch things up and keep offering different and varied gameplay. Even though the gameplay largely took the form of a series of Fixed Force battles depicting various campaigns of Charlemagne's life, each one had its own character sufficient to keep things getting stale from repeated battles. The use of triggers was excellent and conducted at a high level of proficiency, with no issues or bugs whatsoever. Even the combat itself was a nice changeup, as even for large battles the scenario kept to a feudal age type warfare whereas many scenarios lategame involves large swarms of the most advanced imperial units colliding. It should be realized that while everything in this scenario has by now been done elsewhere and arguably better, and the scenario offers no revolutionary advances on any front, that this creativity can consist of a combination of various existing gameplay mechanics into one new cohesive whole, and both for its release in 00 as a Aok scenario its quite a top notch effort, and i do believe it holds up to what you would expect in gameplay variance even today. There seemed to be even more gameplay elements planned, as certain areas of the map unused were developed but these were not seen in play.
Map Design 4
This map is an excellent piece of work, starting with a cinematic view of a cliffside overlooking a beach. Every single square inch has been detailed as you would expect in a good scenario. The cities are fairly nice, when its considered that making good cities is so very difficult in AoC. Printing out a 1:1 bitmap render and examining the aesthetics was something i found to be enjoyable. The forest cores are probably the biggest obstacle preventing this map from contending for a 5\5 score, as they are not exceptional in any way, but instead plain and nondescript(forest cores=dense forest that seals off various gameplay areas). There are also a number of minor issues that crop up that also need to be addressed when contemplating giving that 5\5, such as that old plague that infects so many Aoe1\Aoe2 scenarios, the exposed cliff diagonal. Argh! There is also the issue of consistency, as various playable areas are of a somewhat poorer quality than the best the map could offer.
Ultimately the lack of an exceptional outstanding quality combined with some minor issues convinced me a 5\5 was not merited, though its close. If the cities had been slightly more inspired, or perhaps the battlefields looking a bit less spartan, and this map may well have earned a 5, but i do believe this score should be reserved for the most excellent scenarios with near perfect mapping.
As alluded to in the Playability section, the story takes its time to be told. For those with little patience this may be a negative, but i found it enjoyable, setting up the story in a good way and i do believe the time spent to be well worth it to immerse the player into the setting. The author places Charlemagne in the role of tutor to his son, narrating the various wars, trials, and tribulations of his career.
A minor point would be that objectives should be marked with flags more often, although the instructions are clear enough when read to avoid confusion, there should be a visual reinforcement on the map so you can have no doubt whatsoever as to your next actions.
A weak point was certainly the language grammar. I dont deduct points for this, but it is certainly a missed opportunity to deliver a finer story. Much of the dialogue was written in a way to imitate historical speaking(which is a fiction of course as these characters would speak old french not english) but oddly enough not only is the grammar often wrong in a basic way but many misspellings occur, and im not sure all of these are because of the attempt at imitating old english. I find it odd because if this was effected by a translation, as some other ESCC entries were, i dont know how the author could simultaneously have the skill to deliver a fine story while also making basic mistakes. The only explanation i can come up with is the vast dialogue was too much to perfect and proofread in the time the author was allotted before the contest deadline. This scenario probably has more exposition than all the other ESCC entries combined.
Final Thoughts: While ultimately falling short of masterpiece status, "The Story of Charlemagne" is certainly a very nice scenario, with good polish, no outstanding issues, and scoring easy 4's in all category. It certainly fares well when compared head to head with its highly rated rivals in this ESCC roundup such as "Charlemagne, King and Emperor", " Anno 782 - Saxonrevolt" or "The Spanish March". These scenarios have been some of my favorites with multiple playthroughs each over the many years since, this scenario easily holds up equally well against any of them, and in my judgement could have had an even-odds chance of winning this field outright. Its a shame this map didnt even make it as a finalist, as it surely deserved such a finish. Its easily worth a download, and gets a strong recommendation from me that you do so.
[Edited on 03/04/17 @ 08:53 AM]