Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes
Hey kids, ever wondered what it would be like to captain a small unit of troops into battle and charge through ranks of orcs, dark elves and such like, hacking and slashing furiously, while simultaneously keeping an eye on the rest of the battle field and commanding your support troops accordingly? Moving archers into a position on higher ground to take down those fire breathing wyverns, while your magician reigns down meteors on the enemyís catapults and your spearmen hold fast a charge from their finest cavalry? What about commanding giant battle scorpions, or better yet, big elephant creatures like those ones in the Lord of the Rings maybe? Well if your answer is Ďyesí to any of the above, you might really the latest action-adventure strategy title to come from our Japanese cousins: Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes.
Alright Ellen, we get the point.
This is an interesting turn of events for two reasons: firstly because itís a good Xbox game coming from Japan (there are too few these days) and secondly because itís a game that tackles the huge task of combining the best of the button-mashing mass-paste action game with the tried and tested RPG strategy genre; no mean feat if you think about all the stuff theyíve got to consider. First off itís an action title so the battle must play out in real-time, the actionís got to be smooth but suitably hectic, and the camera needs to be quite intelligent and pan out when necessary, but not too much or you lose the sense of involvement. Secondly, their must be some kind of map navigation system with an easy way of switching, selecting and commanding troops, while still being easy to flip back into the action when youíre done. Thirdly, there must be an easy-to-follow communication system in place, which updates you on what is happening elsewhere on the map while not going too overboard and putting you off your frenzied button-mashing. And finally you need a way to upgrade your troops and your heroes with new weapons, magic stuff and skills (which must integrate smoothly into the combat system somehow) and also to expand your rosters with ever increasingly bizarre troops and creatures, just to keep things interesting. Thatís the spec, which means the big question is: how does Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes measure up to itís initial design document?
Surprisingly, the answer is very well indeed. The main game is split into two modes, map mode and ground mode. Ground mode is just that; an arcade view of the near distance from behind your troops on the ground, with objective markers showing up as little triangle on the horizons. From here you control your troops manually, selecting places for them to move to or targets for them to attack, using the time while theyíre moving to cast spells, heal or switch over to other units and boss them around too. However, because of the restrictive camera, the fog of war blanketed draw distance and the groggy controls this all becomes quite unwieldy, which is where the map mode comes in. Tapping select toggles ground and map mode instantly, with map mode superimposing a giant transparent map over the battle field, and from here it becomes remarkably easy to move troops around and plan you attack, flipping back to the action when your squad makes contact with the enemy.
Dark Elves have some pretty interesting uniforms.
Which is where things get really fun. Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes does have its mindless hacking moments, but theyíre not actually as dumb as you first think. When you reach an enemy troop the camera darts straight into the battle and take control of your hero, who, under your control, dutifully hacks away at the enemy with a handful of unsurprising combos. But the trick here is that speed is of the essence; using the camera you can pull back, watch how your troops are doing and pile in where they need help. The effect is almost like herding, you tend to run around a lot pushing whole gangs of bad guys against your troops for them to deal with while you hunt down other stragglers that your troops wonít because of their somewhat limited AI. It adds a sense of urgency to the game which ramps up the tension, as there a several other factors to consider at the same time. Looking out for the enemy captain and taking him on is always a good idea as the troops soon give up when their leaderís out of the way, but keeping an eye on your own troops is equally important as you can only heal so much of the damage in the short breaks between skirmishes in the big battles. Sometimes it actually pays to run and heal, maybe with covering fire from your archers if youíve got them.
Yes, support troops play a big part. Your best friends are the archers, who you can switch to in map mode, move around and assign enemy units for them to shoot at whenever you like. Similarly you often have another infantry troop available to order about and you usually get a unit lead by a guy who can cast big ass magic (meteor showers, lightning storms and the like) and while itís shame you can only switch to arcade action mode with your chosen hero, the supporting cast are great to have around, and they beautifully demonstrate one of this games nice little touches, which is the use of audio to communicate whatís going on. Your support troops make a lot of noise shouting about, and itís so useful. Your archers, for example, get really panicky if they engage in hand to hand combat. ďArchers are engaged in melee, we must retreat!Ē shouts the lead archer, who sounds a lot like Bruce Campbell, and off you go to the map screen quickly to move them out. Similarly, spearmen arenít much cop in melee against ground troops, but they cut cavalry to shreds, and specialist units like catapults and what have you, often need protecting too. And if theyíre not getting the attention they think they deserve, they sure as hell scream about it. In this game the troops even bark up if you have given them nothing to do, ďSpearmen are awaiting orders Sir!Ē
Giant ape creatures, big old elephant things, what more do you want?
So that should give you some idea of how in the thick of it you are in the bedlam that is Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes. Admittedly itís bewildering at first: thereís a lot to do, decisions to make, orders to bark, and then buttons to mash. But while the red haze of battle field frenzy overtakes you, you must listen out. Are any of your troops in trouble? Have any won and are standing around waiting for orders? Can any be deployed more effectively? Eventually the game is a constant rotation of hack, slash and flick to the map screen to juggle troops before more hack and slash, but itís involving enough to keep you want to keep playing, pretty to look at, and rarely frustrating.
At least not when you get in to it itís not. The ground mode controls are so dreary that youíll find yourself relying on map and button mash combat for your thrills, but there are more aspects to this game than just that. Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes also has a stab at RPG style troop enhancement, with gold you get for winning battles going on equipping your guys with new weapons and armour and experience earned spent on improving skills and magical abilities. You can also improve your troops as you progress; infantry become knights or paladins, archers become longbow men, grenadiers, bombardiers even, amongst others. Itís all your choice too, meaning you can mould your team however you like it, but you have to play that age old juggling game as, like all the best RPGs, you never feel like youíve got quite enough experience to by all the improvements you want. Shame.
This guy has a beef with the hero Ellen for most of the game. She calls him fatso in retaliation. No, really…
Which all-in-all means Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is a pretty good bet if you fancy your warfare old fashioned and a bit bonkers. Be warned though that itís not without its faults: most battles do boil down to Ďgo hereí and Ďkill themí, but then itís a war game so what did you expect? Similarly the story is a problem; itís so clichťd and tedious that you often pay attention only long enough to learn what the objectives are for the next section, and nothing more, but then thatís a problem with a lot of strategy games these days so we can overlook that too, especially with battle graphics as good and smooth as these.
Finally I should mention the Xbox Live modes available. You can now battle online with up to six players in either a free-for-all battle or you can team up and test your strategy against other players. You earn experience as you fight online, which you then have to use to level up your online-specific units. There are a choice of battlefields too, but they aren’t quite as detailed as most of the battlefields in the single-player missions. You also might notice a bit of lag when playing online with five or six players, but if you have a good connection you shouldn’t be alright. Watch out, though, for your troop arrangements being reset between battles; it means you have to reconfigure your troops between each match. Itís annoying, but by know means a showstopper, although you will be very cross if you forget so trust me.
It gets pretty hectic, but doesn’t it look great?
So anyway, enough banter, Iíve been out of the trenches for too long, but Iíll leave you with this little nugget. The Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes website (click here) has more diagrams and videos explaining how the game works, so if youíre interested head over and check it out. Itís well worth it.
Eight out of ten