The Kingdom Under Fire series, which started out on the PC from a Korean game maker, made a natural transition to the Xbox with last year’s critically acclaimed Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders. It was an ambitious title that was wrought with some rough edges. Many people have tried to bring the genius of real time strategy titles to consoles. Few, however, have succeeded in doing so. Kingdom Under Fire sought to bring together the action that can be found in beat em up games and combine them with a simplified real time strategy title so instead of just selecting everyone and telling them to go attack an army on the other side of the map, you have the opportunity to participate in it.
Those acquainted with Koei’s perennial Dynasty Warriors will find the action part very familiar. Unlike the regular fodder troops, your heroes are able to perform combos and use special abilities to aid them during the fight. This arguably makes the characters you play more “heroic” than others, although I surmise in a real melee it’s just a bunch of bloody foes bashing at one another. The hero characters in Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, like its predecessor, also grow with time. You can adorn them with different upgrades giving the title a role playing experience.
During battles, you are able to maneuver your units using a mini map and controls on your gamepad. The game never zooms out to a strategy portion and stops to keep the flow of it going, although it can get pretty hairy when you have multiple units on the field and you’re stuck trying to take down someone yourself.
Do not mistaken this to be an in-depth and complicated strategy title though. It is not. The units shared between Humans and the Dark Legion are like black and white chess pieces. Some have slight advantages depending on what environment they’re in but ultimately it’s the same melee, ranged, cavalry and support grunts pit against one another in a rocks paper scissors formula. That you’re in the battles yourself helps glance over the fact that the units are not as ingenious or complex as say Starcraft.
Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is an enjoyable game but sometimes it can get annoying. The commands you issue to your squads aren’t always carried out exactly the way it should be. Those strategy veterans used to pinpoint mouse clicking precision will find themselves taking losses as par for the course. Ranged units often get themselves into melee trouble especially if you don’t pay attention to them during battles.
The campaign in Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes takes you up on the story of Bersia and the continuing struggle between good and evil. However, you’ll find it, like I did, difficult to follow because the dialogue and expository oscillates between incomprehensible and silly due to a poor choice of words or grammatical mistakes. It really reminded me of an episode of Friends where Joey (the not so bright one on the show) would use a thesaurus for every single word he was writing. That makes the story hard to follow and the voiceovers do not help either. They’re inconsistently acted with some people sounding too enthusiastic.
That said the mechanics of campaign play are actually fairly interesting. Units and heroes you upgrade and collect throughout gameplay can now survive outside of the campaign. So the next time around, you can utilize the fruits of your playing time to tackle more difficult challenges. There is also a little less linearity this time around with the ability to use battles to ‘level up’ before you return to the main mission tree.
There are several factors in the campaign that make the game needlessly difficult. First, the absence of a tutorial will do more than its part to scare away newcomers to the series. The original game was much easier. Here, by mission three, you’ll be coming up against some fairly harrowing battles, especially if you don’t have the mechanics down.
Second, the campaign is interested in structuring missions to pitch perfect ambushes against you. Sometimes this can come off as a little unfair since the regular skirmishes are hardly like that.
Finally, the game’s controls, even though they have been improved to prevent you from pressing the wrong buttons, still feels a little shaky. The game may be able to display hundreds of characters on screen at the same time but the controls are the reason why you can only control only a handful of squads. Any more thrown into the action and the game would be too chaotic (and difficult) to manage.
These were three of the main snags I struggled with besides the sheer difficulty of the campaign itself. Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes definitely does have its flashes of brilliance. It’s still ambitious and attempts to capture the epic battles that you would normally witness passively in Hollywood movies. The graphics engine, practically unchanged from last year, continues to handle all the action competently. The animation is good, although I would have liked to see a little more variation in the individual units.
One thing carried over from the previous game is the soundtrack. I’m not really a big fan of heavy guitar tracks. I think a pseudo Hans Zimmer like score would work perfectly here. But if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself rushing to turn off the music before you start playing.
If you were a fan of Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, you’ll want to pick this game up for the extended multiplayer features. There are now three on three player combat including a very addictive gauntlet mode with the human players trying to hold off AI hordes. No split screen play is available but that’s probably due to the stress on the Xbox hardware.
It’s difficult to justify this game to people who haven’t played the first one. Novices will even find it hard to get into this game compared to the first Xbox title. It’s equally tough to imagine people loving this game for its backdrop while overlooking its rougher edges, except for those who understand the story’s native Korean. Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, as I mentioned, is still an ambitious game. But its ambition is something we saw last year. Since then, it has essentially stayed unchanged with the exception of the multiplayer component. Thus, in the final analysis, it’s less refreshing than it could be. I still hold out hope for the genre to one day work for the masses. Somehow they’ll get it right.