It seems every financial quarter in the gaming industry produces at least a half-dozen titles in the RTS genre. Most of these try elaborately to break away from the genre's pre-dominant titles by introducing strange worlds, new resources or different interfaces. Despite the spin they put on their titles, developers tend more often than not to end up with something that is a half-inspired clone. Just placing a game world in different environs is indeed not a guarantee for commercial or even critical success. TimeGate Studios, though, have opted for a unique approach. They basically take the traditional fantasy swords and sorcery model and put it on its head to create a refreshing RTS game.
Moreover, TimeGate Studios have wrapped the entire title in a scintillating storyline. The premise rests on you assuming the persona of Darius Javidan, a Kohan and most apt to resemble the subtitle; an immortal sovereign. Here, shades of Planescape: Torment seem to appear. Darius, like many of the Kohan, is reawakened by mortals and, like the hero of Torment, cannot remember much about his past life. Unlike that RPG though, Darius obviously remembers his name and recollects enough to still champion his cause in restoring the forces of good in Khaldun, the world in which the game takes place. A deity known as the Creator created Khaldun and subsequently two disciples charged with presenting the architecture of the inhabitants have a difference of opinion and this provides the impetus for conflict between the Kohans. The initial Kohan race are splintered off because of a series of cataclysms that apparently dislodge the incumbent powers every time peace and prosperity is achieved. Darius is just but one of many trying to reassert Kohan dominance. The oppressors are evil creatures of all sorts but also include exiled Kohan figures called the Ceyah. Added to the protagonist's problems is dissent among the good forces of Kohan, which are separated into Royalists, Nationalists and Council factions. Each believes the path and nature Kohan restoration is different. It becomes Darius' prerogative to achieve some sort of unity among them.
The pragmatic reason for different factions is quite simple, it introduces different variants on the basic military units. In the narrative, each faction also sends Darius to achieve different side-quests so to align all of Khaldun to his side. The objectives of the Kohan are not too different from traditional RTS fare. Sometimes you are tasked to help out besieged villages. Sometimes you may be required to defend a certain area or retrieve a certain artifact. What is added is an RPG-like party. As Darius journeys throughout Khaldun, he begins to meet others like him. They too remember very little of their identity and have mortals supporting their cause as well. Experience gained by a hero can be stored and carried over to future missions. Furthermore, items or technology gained can also be carried over. These create a greater urgency to protect the welfare of your heroes. Kohan are not entirely immortal in the sense that they do not perish. They are susceptible to death in combat but once dead, may be resurrected using their token amulets. For a slight monetary charge, you can resurrect every hero including Darius over and over again. However, like Torment, they may not lose their memories but they do lose their experience, thereby diminishing their overall effectiveness in combat.
This may seem more like a pseudo-RPG with more adventuring elements than combat but the crux of this title is really the combat system. Instead of the usual RTS fare where one queues individual units and then groups them into specific squads, Kohan is able to do this automatically with their company system. In order to create any military units, you must commission a company. Each company is formed of three elements, two support units and a front line of four that is commanded by the company commander. This formulation then becomes a unit of its own on the map and is one entity indicated by a standard. For example, an archery unit will have an arrow as their standard. A company is comprised of one of the following units: infantry, cavalry, archers, engineers or settlers. The first three are quite standard fare and can be supplemented by advanced units, including any assortment of priests, paladins, magicians, rangers, among others. Heroes can substitute the company commander and provide added bonuses, like morale boosts. Combat engineers are perhaps the most versatile units in the game, rather reminiscent of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, they are able to create outposts, build mines, repair friendly or captured buildings and on average, fight proficient enough to be considered a main fighting force in itself, at least in the early stages of the game. Settlers, on the other hand, allow you to build new cities.
Companies can be arranged in various formations: pressed, column, skirmish and combat. Each formation has logically assigned penalties or enhancements on combat and movement. For example, a column formation is quick for transport but will make your troops vulnerable. Multiple companies can be locked in formation in a way that you can always keep your secondary troops in their specific formation behind the front lines. This becomes crucial when you begin to move seven or ten companies together. Companies, like heroes, also gain experience with everything from recruit to elite and unlike other titles, a companies' prowess has a definite effect on the outcome of battles. Elite companies will literally tear to pieces and rout inexperienced enemies. Heroes attached to a company can elect to engage alongside the troops or stay afar and command. One notable addition in Kohan is a measure of morale. A company's morale is the single determining factor for their battle effectiveness. Dead commanders, slain heroes or heavy casualties will cause a company to rout. Generally, routs will move into friendly territory but the clever enemy will have reserves to prevent that. Moreover, if your secondary troops are already pressing on to the company in front of them, a rout is nearly impossible. However, having a commander will let a company retreat (not rout) to a pre-destined place. This becomes crucial in feigning attacks or drawing enemies towards a trap.
Combat is as easy as pointing your military troops to attack another. In traditional RTS games, veterans will already have their ranged units, skirmish units, shock troops or what not numbered but in Kohan, these are all simplified and done for the player. Archers will automatically stay back while infantry or cavalry will move forward to engage the enemy. Special units like wizards will also display enough intellect not to rush blindly into battle (unless you direct your wizard hero to do so). Once your troops engage, all you can really do is admire the scenery or plan for your troops' retreat. Nearly everything is automated for you. In this sense, it is very much like the Warhammer RTS titles. Unlike Dark Omen, you cannot charge regiments into another, although a combat formation is supposed to help increase your chances of routing the other unit. In Dark Omen though, those developers decided to implement a button for you to press, Diablo-style, to increase chances of a rout just in case you are bored.
Terrain plays an important part in combat as well. Desert or heavy forest terrains restrict one's vision. Having scouting units like light cavalry, rangers or engineers can increase a company's field of vision. This becomes important when you are traveling through dense areas in column formation. The restricted vision literally lets one run through another enemy company. Attacks staged from a forest out into the open get defense bonuses otherwise not granted. These let smaller armies suffer less casualties and can turn the tide significantly. One small well-positioned company can fend off multiple ill-placed and ill-led opposing companies. Idle companies also fortify their positions. The longer the idle period, the stronger the fortification becomes.
The developers of Kohan have also elected to simplify the resource model. There are several of the usual resources, like stone or wood. Resources are arranged to start from zero, except for gold, which accumulates like normal. If you have a sawmill, you will add a certain number to the wood category so it will be +6. When you commission a company based on archery, not only do you pay a one time gold fee to establish that company, you also have to support the upkeep of that company by expending 6 wood units. Combining the two will make your wood production zero again. Of course, you can still commission more units but once you run out of gold to make up for resource shortfalls, you will be unable to commission more companies. There is only one solid building, aside from various resource-based mines, to erect in Kohan and that is the city. Each city can house multiple upgrades from the basic stone quarry to a temple. These upgrades can usually be upgraded again. Each city also pays taxes and in order to access some of the more advanced city upgrades, you have to upgrade the city itself. Upgrades also consume resources. For example, a stone quarry may produce stone but a fortified wall may deplete it. This balancing of resources makes the game a lot simpler and aligns it with a title like Total Annihilation.
Resources are gathered and distributed based on a supply zone. Some recent titles that also place crucial importance on the element of supply are Fate of the Dragon and Settlers IV (which arguably could be considered all about supply). However, supply is handled elegantly here by having it radiate in a zone-like manner from either cities or outposts. The building of cities or outposts increases one's supply zone so companies can replenish their numbers. Dense forests or deserts inhibit a zone's range. Mines outside a supply zone do not contribute your coffers until a city or outpost is erected near it. Hence, this places a great burden on the engineer units. Companies that are commissioned are not automatically endowed with the units you specify. Rather, the company receives its troops and heals its troops unit by unit but only within a friendly supply zone.
There are also many other zones in the game. A control zone determines the field of vision for a military company. Once your control zone overlaps with that of an enemy company's control zone, the two companies will engage at the place of overlap. This is useful in planning precise attacks. There is also a population zone, which prevents one from building a city too close to other friendly or enemy populaces.
There is, of course, like all things in this title, a valid reason for this. Each city or outpost is garrisoned automatically with a set number of troops. Like Majesty, the dissidents of your realm maintain these troops so you need not bother to fortify troops into cities. The larger a city, the more militia it can send out. Of course, your companies can supplement defense by establishing a guard zone. Each outpost also has a guard zone. City militia benefit from upgrades like barracks. From barracks, one can build a garrison that enhances the numbers of quality troops the militia will field into battle. Like troops in companies, militia also slowly regenerates over time. One interesting tactic is deliberately retreating a badly outnumbered company to a friendly city or outpost and using that building's militia as leverage in combat.
Apart from the campaigns, Kohan allows you to practice your strategic and tactical ability against other players over the net and via LAN. It also lets you play single player skirmishes as well. Typically players can assume different factions and also elect to combat monsters that are so prevalent in the single player campaign. There are several types of game modes but they mostly rest on competitive play rather than co-operative play. Kohan allows up to eight players with AI being able to substitute for vacant spots. Maps can be created with a built-in editor that is easy enough to use in the vein of Starcraft or AOE. Moreover, giving the game set parameters can randomly generate maps and there are a variety of pre-made maps included with Kohan. Additional maps can also be retrieved from the title's website as well. GameSpy powers the multiplayer component and there does not seem to be a shortage of players, even on a weekday afternoon, players would join within a few minutes.
Technically, Kohan is not absolutely spectacular but neither too dated. Its primary requirement is a 1024x768 resolution that is used at all times during gameplay. Those with older notebook systems may want to skip on this title. The graphics are in 16-bit but looks can be deceiving as much of the game is beautifully rendered. The animation is fluid and gives the games' units a pleasant look. An unobtrusive semi-transparent message bar keeps the player informed of all engagements and activities. Intermittently, cinematic cutscenes are played out to flesh out the story but most of the narrative is delivered through mission briefings and voiceovers. The cinematic sequences are rather vague at first and short enough that one might need to take a quick glance at the website or manual to really immerse yourself in the Khaldun mythos.
The in-game audio is sharp but I found some of the acknowledgement speeches a little repetitive. Not all heroes get their own speech. Male heroes, for example, share various tones (from the very soft to the very deep) of speech and all of them repeat phrases like, "By the Creator". The constant references to the Creator with a capital C is peculiarly Christian-like but sometimes I wish they would say something else, particularly because there seems to be enough variety of other sounds. What would have been nice would be to have more voiceovers, like a battlecry in a charge. The musical score is orchestral and I always found this more agreeable than the techno or rock found in Command & Conquer. However, it fails to evoke the emotions found in recent memory like the score to Icewind Dale.
One complaint I had was about the continuity from one mission to another. Heroes and technology may be carried over. Their acquirement urges players to explore a map fully, since the mission objectives usually do not demand them to do so. However, companies cannot be carried over from one mission to the next. The ability to name a company coupled with each player's unique style certainly would make this feature profitable. In fact, components to make specific companies can be loaded and saved into set configurations so you can easily recreate earlier formulations. Sometimes, the default companies the missions allot you simply do not reflect your playing style and I find that I have to spend time to disband and slowly recreate my ideal military units that are stripped of the experience they gained in previous missions. It would certainly have been nice to carry at least one or two companies, so as to minimize tedium (which is what this game excels in) and encourage a player to invest time into cultivating one's military units.
Without giving too much of the story away, there is a specific reason why the first cinematic sequences are vague. Some of the campaign is devoted to revealing Darius' origins and the relationship the Kohan heroes he recruits have to him. Though much emphasis is placed on this in the beginning, it is shunted aside in the greater goal of restoring Kohan supremacy. Not until three quarters through the game does Darius actually speak for himself and confess aloud about what he can recollect. Moreover, there is never any explanation why there is little opposition to the Kohans. My conjecture would be that immortals ruling the moral would be unwelcome in some parts, either of good or evil Kohan, but, in the course of the campaign, most cities continue to kowtow to Darius and the most effective resistance a city could put up would be neutrality. The last mission in the relatively short campaign betrays the nature of the title. Instead of tactics, it rests on numbers and trigger-happy mouse clicking. There is also a lack of finality in the end-game itself. The plot about the relationship with one specific Kohan, again without giving too much away, is completely unresolved. Darius Javidan may have united Khaldun, destroyed the Ceyah and progressed from an 'Awakened' to 'Restored' state but his character seems a bit hollow. In my view, the developers could have really capitalized on the hero's amnesia. Of course, in a traditional RTS title, these would merely be aesthetic complaints but this title transcends the RTS category into RPG and tactical genres. Kohan is a dialectic title. It simultaneously is able to remove the tedium normally attributed to such a game but yet at the same time, infuses sophistication into it. Despite this, it remains simple and through the extensive tutorials, even the casual gamer is allowed to appreciate both complexity and simplicity, normally contradictory, but in Kohan, harmoniously presented.