Instead of wilting in the dark and heat of the vast E3 conference centre, German strategy specialist Sunflowers - previously responsible for Anno 1503 - was positively blooming, showcasing several new titles. Among these was the prehistoric 3D RTS ParaWorld, plus the announcement of the new Anno War. But it was the medieval Machiavellian machinations of Knights Of Honor that continued to whet our strategy appetite.
Since we last saw the game in September last year, Sunflowers, along with co-developer Black Sea Studios, has been gathering feedback from internal QA, press tours and fan forums to add features and tweak existing code. It hopes this will ensure that Knights Of Honor becomes one of the must-have single-player and multiplayer empire-conquering sims for 2004.
Knights Of Honor begins in one of three medieval periods ranging from 1000AD to 1350AD, each with different political situations and national borders. You start in one country as king and use diplomacy, espionage, war, economic and trade management through the power of your knights to be crowned emperor of Europe.
As monarch, you concentrate on the overall running of your countries and provinces within, while employing up to nine loyal knights to carry out your good/evil commands on a local level.
Knights can have six different professions, including marshal (for raising and commanding armies), landlord (managing food production and tax collection) and cleric (converting local populations to your chosen religion).
However, the most intriguing role for a knight is becoming a spy, as you can then plot to overthrow a rival king by taking over his armies and forcing him to give you a town's keys without a battle. Or, you could murder him in his sleep just after he's 'coincidentally' married one of your lucky daughters, thus presenting you his entire kingdom on a silver platter complete with plague-free trimmings. Every successful task completed by your knight gives him experience or 'fame' points, which you can use to spend on useful skills, such as healing, tactics and leadership to boost your troops' morale.
Once you've developed your towns, using the extensive tech trees and economic system to increase population, learning, prosperity, happiness and wealth (somewhat reminiscent of Civilization), you can really start causing medieval mayhem by waging war against your neighbours.
Using our English marshal knights, we decided to create a grand army made up of burly peasants, skilled archers, masterful cavalry and siege equipment to take a leisurely pop at the King Sancho of Navarr.
Zooming into the close-in Battle view, we arranged the formations using a simple regiment-based tactical system that enabled us to position the troops on the battlefield with a few taps of the left mouse-button. Within minutes, the Spanish king's castle was breached, his troops fleeing in terror, many screaming and burning alive in a hail of fire arrows. Hilarious.
Knights Of Honor's graphics may be lacking a little when compared with an RTS like Rome: Total War, but there's no doubting the game's potentially intoxicating mix of empire building, political intrigue and warmongering. Watch out for a bigger preview later in the year.