Admittedly, I was drawn to Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders because I heard it would be one of the few strategy titles where you'd be leading from the front. After all, I'm drawn to romantic stories about combat. Alexander the Great, it is purported, wore a white plume of feathers on his helmet and stood at the front of a wedge formation, and no doubt, he made sure his enemies knew it was him. Crusaders gives your everyday armchair general a chance to take part in some of the action.
The game begins with a five-page story about the battle between humans and enemy forces staffed by your usual assortment of fantasy creatures. Crusaders comes from Korea though, so a lot of the text translated in
English sounds complicated without a lot of meaning. It reminds me of the one time in the television series Friends where Joey uses the thesaurus for every single non-trivial word in a letter. But there is a distinct eastern influence into it, including references to the patriarch, which sounds a lot like the Orthodox church. However, the main setup is this: there are forces of good and evil in stalemate after centuries of war. Now the good guys are going to invade and take back what used to be theirs.
Typically during a battle, you are viewing your army from a slightly elevated position behind the back of the unit under your control. You can zoom out a little and use a minimap that will let you issue orders to move or attack. The strategic commands you can issue to a unit are greatly simplified. The Xbox controller is no match in sophistication compared to a full mouse and keyboard. During the later parts of the game, there's so much action going on that you would have a hard time micromanaging your units anyway.
Once you engage an enemy unit, you and the enemy unit will be enclosed in a sort of virtual circle. If the battlefield is crowded, you can go off a little bit to help the adjacent unit, but the outcome of your battle rests on your troops defeating everyone or routing the enemy. Or alternatively, a page taken from Dynasty Warriors, you can slay the officer or commander of the unit to send everyone packing. (Well actually, they just keel over or disappear off the map).
In Hollywood movies, melee battles often boil down to the good guy seeing the bad guy in the midst of a crowd and then coming together for the final showdown. Think Braveheart, Gangs of New York or The Patriot. In Crusaders, finding that pivotal bad guy can be tough, especially if they are dressed similar to the regular troops. Even when you locate the commander, it won't always be a mano a mano match. Other troops will get in your way, requiring you to dispatch them quickly. Fighting is not entirely button mashing though. During a fight, you can call in some of your sub-commanders' special skills who will appear momentarily to help you out. You can also execute combos, which are learnt as the game progresses. Some of these, when perfectly executed, will allow you to overcome the horde of enemies around you.
Like most strategy titles, your units will do better if they have tactical superiority over their opponent. Cavalry will run down archers. Archers can pick off slower moving units. It's up to you to direct your troops so they won't run into the wrong opposition. This is particularly important in the latter half of Crusaders. You will be
outnumbered and you will have to rotate your different units around to get the best unit into the action. At times, the most difficult part is getting everyone in the right position. Since the campaign missions are all scripted, sometimes it can feel like a trial and error process.
Off the battlefield, you are given an overhead map where you can move your entourage. If you fail a mission, you can sometimes go for secondary objectives that will get you some income that you can use to upgrade your troops. Crusaders features an extensive upgrade system. The officers receive items and experience separate from the main body of troops. Experience can make troops more effective but they can also let troops turn into elite units. Infantry can turn into knights for example. Items are bought with gold accumulated during battles. You can buy armor and weapons for your troops or you can buy armor and weapons for your officer.
There are a few things to do in between battles. Normally, the story is further fleshed out by hanging around the barracks or the pub. As you become more experienced, you will have more units under your control. Crusaders lets you hire mercenaries to do the job as well. You can also staff them with units that work to your playing style. If you are one to ambush a lot, then you might want to include those units instead of your usual infantry and ranged units.
This title is only available on the Xbox. With only one platform in mind, Crusaders looks very good and doesn't slow down much even with many units on the screen at once. The controller interface is also more intuitive as the controls weren't designed to be adapted to any other console. The sound effects are great but it's the voiceover work that needs desperate help. Early on, you can tell that the writers took a page out of Gladiator. Yet while some games have enlisted voice talent that evoke emotion, like when someone says "Fire!" or "Charge!",
Crusaders' voice talent sounds as excited and tenacious as someone recording voices just so they can get out of the recording studio. It's summarily depressing considering how intense the actual action can be. If you want to hear people yelling charge like they mean it, check out the old Lord of the Realms II. Those were voiced perfectly by BBC talent.
The other thing that comes as a complaint is the soundtrack. The title screen begins promisingly with your usual mix of modern classical composition and opera singing. The actual game is composed of electronic guitars that belong better in a heavy metal album than in a game like this.
Buyers opening up the box will find a paper sheet attached inside the
DVD case. It will state that the four-player mode promised in previews and on the box is actually only two players. These limit the multiplayer component to nothing more than a hack and slash with another person. Your tactical options will expand, though, since you won't have to stock up on units to handle the scripted cavalry rushes. However, you can pick a character in multiplayer and develop their skillset along with the army they raise just as you would in the single player campaign. Still, it would have been nice if more variety was thrown in.
A lot of people warned me that Crusaders is a complex title. For people who have been around games and enjoy strategy and action titles, this is a good fusion of the two genres. The strategy is dumbed down to allow the action to exist but the action compensates for that trade off. It probably won't take a person more than 30 minutes to learn everything about the interface. To be effective in using it and to get all the timing of deploying army right is another matter altogether of course.
I am reminded a lot by the concept of the game Fantasy Empires, an older PC title that mixed turn-based strategy with 2D action. It is unfortunate there isn't a free campaign mode in this game like Rome:
Total War or any of the Total War series. Such a feature would have taken this title to the next level and mitigated the shortcomings of an overly rigid single player campaign and a reduced multiplayer component. Still, it is one of a kind.