Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders

Sam opens fire on this fantasy RTS game...

You know you are playing a fantasy game when the names are all either stupid, un-readable, un-pronounceable or all three. Soon after starting the first campaign in Kingdom Under Fire the player is confronted with heroes named Gerald, Rupert and other names more associated with punting Cambridge University students then harbingers of death and destruction. There are two other campaigns with different races and some slightly more menacing sounding names but they do say first impressions last. This disparity between intention and execution is something which dogs the entire game.

Here the player directs their forces on the large maps against those of the enemy and then gets down to mashing buttons once the combatants are in striking range. This is the bit most people would buy the game for and rather enjoyable it often is too. But there's more to this game than simple combat and this is where the settlements come into play. After the successful completion of each mission it's back to whichever camp the hero is using for some rest and recuperation. If there's a new unit type coming up in the next mission you can go for some training. These mini missions are brief and to the point and do a fine job of slowly drip-feeding the different units into the player's war plan. If the mission permits it you can hire mercenaries down the pub. Once you hire a security contractor they will join your roster and can be upgraded and levelled up like the rest of your squads.

All of this is done down at the barracks. The barracks is the most important destination at the settlements, for keeping your army at the top of its game is central to waging a successful campaign. You can spend the experience on your hero, his comrades in arms and the officers which lead the other units in the army. Each type of soldier has a particular characteristic or two that you will want to concentrate on, so a leader of foot soldiers needs to keep his melee skill topped up while a sappers officer should have his teamwork skill regularly upgraded. If you reach a certain threshold then you can change the job that the leader's troops do. So as Gerald's melee skill rises the troops under his command can be upgraded to heavy infantry, then knights and so on. The same goes for the other unit types. There are also some magic skills to be dished out and as these will allow you to cast healing and offensive spells it's a good idea to designate an officer or two as your magic users. As well as spending earned experience you can use the looted gold to kit out the officers and their troops with better equipment. There's a really impressive amount of hardware to purchase, with much of it having an assortment of combat and defensive bonuses. One thing I would have liked is cheaper equipment. For while you can ramp up the skill levels with the abundance of XP you get, the amount of gold available is paltry by comparison. The models will be carrying the correct gear the next time they go into battle which unfortunately means that they are often swinging away with their default weapons.

Each unit will have a range of abilities at their disposal. These often depend on what skills have been chosen for that unit's leaders but some units, like sappers and archers, have built in abilities. For example, archers can shoot fire arrows. They will line up, point their arrows to the ground and a soldier will go along the line with a torch igniting them all. A shout of release and they sail off into the distance. If the target was a forest it will soon erupt in flames, either killing or driving off whatever was hiding under the branches. Using this ability with the scout ability is a clever way of reconnoitring for enemies and then drawing them away from where you want to go. Plenty of missions pit you against a numerically superior foe so you have to use smarts as well as brawn to beat the game. Sappers can lay and disable traps and if the player doesn't forget about them they can be very handy in an uneven battle. Paladins or suitably upgraded leaders can cast a range of healing spells and there are some nice offensive spells like Meteor. So it's a real shame that abilities are only available if the unit is not in melee combat which nullifies a lot of their potential benefits. Think of them more as support roles than for combat.

The mini-map works quite well, even if it does zoom in and out on its own a little too eagerly for me. For example, it will remember the last place you had the cursor so you can go back into the map and not have to swing wildly about trying to recall the last position. Setting up a battle line gets very tricky as the camera seems to randomly choose the direction it will be facing when you select a unit. This means lots of spinning to the left and the right as you try to organise your troops. The cursor will often get stuck in the scenery or in other troops, all of which adds up to an overall control system which is less helpful than it could be. Control issues are not confined to unit selection and orientation. The cavalry can get stuck rather easily as they try to keep in formation when they wheel around. Cliffs are a particular problem for the equine support division. They also refuse to take themselves out of melee combat, which forces the player to charge them in, take control of another unit while they close the distance and then abandon that unit as they have to resume control of the cavalry again to move them out of a potential massacre. Even if you set out waypoints for them they will come to a stop as soon as they have finished the charge. Most annoying.

The combat itself is an enjoyable affair. Smashing into a bunch of Orcs or puny humans is satisfying and suitably hectic. Unfortunately there are hardly any moves at your disposal; two basic attacks, blocking and a super attack. That's it. As the abilities are unavailable during melee the battles very quickly become repetitious. Finding the leader of the enemy unit is the best way to defeat them for if you take the leader down the whole unit is destroyed. So the fact that it's next to impossible to differentiate between leader and troop unless the leader happens to be a massive ogre or some such other titanic foe leaves the player with little option but to swing away until all the grunts have expired. The use of combined arms is handled well but the fiddly controls hamper the free flow of action. The trigger buttons cycle through the player's available units but as holding them down brings up the mini-map things can go a bit skew-whiff in the middle of a frantic fight. The shoddy graphics do not help much here either. While there's some nice artwork on display the engine is so poor I would not have been surprised to see this running on a PS1. Blotchy textures abound and the level of fogging is frankly atrocious. On some levels visibility is so bad you cannot see the edge of your own battle line and all through out the game you will only see the enemy about one second before they are upon you. There are coloured markers to indicate enemy positions in the distance but this is no substitute for a decent draw distance. Slow down is also a big problem with the judders kicking in whenever there's too much happening on the screen.

There are a number of tactical considerations to keep in mind. Tight formations slow the troops down and make them more susceptible to ranged attack while seriously increasing the damage the unit can handle. A loose formation allows for quicker movement across the battlefield but it weakens the units' combat abilities. Swapping is a simple matter of tapping the white or black buttons; the best implementation of those two annoying aberrations I have yet to see in an Xbox title. Hills will slow troops down as they ascend and give them a little kick of extra speed as they go down. I couldn't tell if there was much benefit to holding the high ground, but some of that may have been to do with the terrible fogging again blocking off my perceptions of the battlefield. Another example is that the angle of the sun affects archers and some other units. If they are firing at the enemy with the sun in their eyes they will have a far harder time actually striking their foes. This necessities some quick manoeuvring on the player's part.

There's not enough scope for initiative however. On more then one occasion I set my troops up in what I thought would be good position only to either be told to go somewhere else or nothing would happen and I would have to send a unit off to find the trigger point. Which would invariably result in instructions to go to another spot. So on the one hand it is good that the game does its best to try and guide the player but the parameters by which you can engage the enemy and drive the mission along are too restrictive. At the start of each mission there are very good briefings with an animated map to indicate the plan of attack. However, once on the battlefield the control issues, specifically orientation, quickly destroy any sense of space that the player may have had, turning battles into a confused and somewhat haphazard affair. And let's not even think of retaliating at your reviewer by saying that's realistic since your foes are often giant scorpions or giant flying birds. Unfortunately for my happiness the developers chose not to allow saving during the mission. Nor is there an autosave of any kind. The latter is of course inexcusable and could conceivably lead to some poor gamer losing 10 hours of their life. The former is also a rather large pain, especially in the longer missions where a lost battle against the controls can see the end of your hero, the possible end of the controller and a chipping away at any determination to finish the game.

Kingdom Under Fire has a lot going for it. It's a pleasing blend of RPG and fighting game with a reasonably recounted story and a presentational style that comes from the leftfield. Much of the game works very well and the balance between rewards and challenge is set almost perfectly. Unfortunately the technical side of things lets down the designers. The shoddy graphics engine is the most apparent deficiency while it's a pity that the fiddly control system, most specifically the errant camera, feels compelled to dampen the gamer's playing experience. Along with some frustratingly anal levels Kingdom Under Fire's attempt to be something different is sadly something of a let down. There is still a good game underneath it all, and if you give it enough time it almost becomes possible to ignore these shortcomings. A little more determination to address the problems and Kingdom Under Fire would have earned itself a better recommendation. As it is, gamer's looking for an unusual style of game will be reasonably well served by this title. Just don't go expecting a revolutionary experience that you will be talking about for years to come.