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Game Profile
GENRE: Strategy
PLAYERS:   1-6
September 20, 2005
Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom

 Written by Troy Matsumiya  on January 17, 2006

Review: Clunky controls create cruddy combat.

Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders was a sleeper hit last year with its unique blend of medieval action and real-time strategy where you commanded troops engaged in huge, epic battles against evil trolls, orcs, elves and dragons. Gamers and critics gave it the thumbs up for its cool action and use of real battlefield tactics, but a steep learning curve, clunky camera and awkward RTS command-and-control system was a big source of frustration.

For the sequel Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, South Korean developer Phantagram promised to work on not only fixing the problems but increase the fun factor by focusing more on action and less on RTS management. To their credit, they got half of it right; the action is extremely fun with massive battles consisting of up to 200 characters duking it out onscreen at the same time (yes, you read that right: 200) with no slowdowns or dropped frames. Outsmarting your opponents with your battlefield tactics is very satisfying to say the least, and deciding which upgrades to allocate to your troops can consume hours of strategic planning.

Unfortunately, all of this fun is seriously hampered with the same clunky control mechanics and annoying AI quirks that can make even the simplest of commands an agonizing exercise in frustration. And that's a real shame because it ruins an otherwise enjoyable game filled with a lot of potential.

Heroes takes place five years before Crusaders but this time around, you can play as seven secondary characters from the first game, including the humans Ellen, Rupert and Walter, the vampires Leinhart and the skimpily dressed Morene, the dark elf Cirith (who also enjoys running around half naked), and the powerful ogre Urukubarr. Each character, or Hero, has their own campaign where you learn about their backgrounds and how they came to be involved with the main characters in Crusaders (who appear as secondary NPCs in this game). You start off with only three available Heroes (Ellen, Walter and Leinhart) and unlock the others by completing campaigns. Each campaign consists of about 10 missions, each of which can take upwards of 30 minutes or more to complete.

And wow, the battles are huge; with so many characters onscreen, it really does feel like you're engaged in a chaotic medieval war. Troops on both sides will scream battle cries, run at each other with weapons raised and violently clash until one side is reduced to nothing but a pile of bloody bodies. It looks and feels like something out of a Hollywood movie and is as fun to play in as it is impressive to watch.

Your troop choices are limited at first but grow as you progress. You can select from basic Infantry to Archers, Spearmen (who are devastating against Cavalry) and Sappers (who can lay traps), and upgrade their armor, weapons and special skills by cashing in the experience and gold you earn during missions. You can also change their jobs, turning Infantry into powerful magic-casting Paladins, or Archers into Mortar or Catapult troops. You can even turn them into Special Units, which are deadly Elemental creatures like the Ice Maiden (who has a nasty freeze attack) and the formidable Thunder Rhino.

New environmental features influence the effectiveness of troops on both sides. For example, troops on high ground earn damage bonuses while troops who have the sun in their eyes will suffer attack penalties. Cool!

The developers assume you have played Crusaders and so the game jumps right into the action. This might be fine for KUF vets but for new players, your head will be spinning in confusion. Newbies will find the character's stories make little sense since they reference people, places and events that you are supposed to already know about. As well, there is no training level; instead, you are immediately thrown into combat with a few pop up gameplay tips that just cover the basics. It's up to you to learn battlefield tactics, the game's mechanics, and the strengths and weaknesses of each different troop class on your own. As a result, the steep learning curve can be a frustrating turn-off for newcomers. Further adding to the frustration is the fact that your objectives are not always clear, meaning you can waste a lot of time aimlessly wandering around the map. You are also not given any information about the next mission, making it impossible for you to strategize and pick an appropriate mix of troop units beforehand. Instead, you have to start the mission and if you find your choices are a poor match against the enemies, you have to exit, readjust your selections and start over again.

The only character you can directly control is your Hero, though you can issue commands to up to four other troop units. Your Hero will always engage in melee combat and has several combo moves and special abilities to help them beat the crap out of enemies. For example, Rupert has a warhammer baseball attack, where he can smack an enemy into the air and then hit him again on the way down, while Morene uses her chains to grab an enemy and swing him around to bash other bad guys. The combo system and special moves certainly add a nice flavor to combat but most of the time you will simply be button mashing, mainly because the awkward fighting system makes lining up your attacks more difficult than it should be. For example, you can't do anything once your Hero starts their combo animation, which often means you end up attacking nothing but air since enemies are constantly moving.

The horrible camera angles do little to help either; most of the time you will use the zoomed-out bird's eye view since that gives you the best view of your immediate surroundings. However, walk into a forest or get too close to a castle wall and the treetops or wall will annoyingly block your view. This forces you to zoom in, which is usually acceptable ? if you're on flat land. If you're on a slope, you often end up with a nice zoomed in view of your Hero's butt and can see little of what's around you ? not a good thing when enemies are attacking from all sides. Since the camera angles are fixed you often end up fighting the camera more than you fight enemies. Not fun.

Exacerbating the problem is the clunky command and control system. To issue commands you switch to your desired troop unit, move a cursor to where you want them to go, and press the A button. Sounds simple, right? And it is ? except that selecting a location with any semblance of accuracy is difficult to say the least. You can move the cursor right on the battlefield, but are limited to how far you can go since the game uses an extensive amount of ?war fog? to obscure your view beyond a few hundred yards. (To be fair, this is understandable given the graphical requirements of displaying hundreds of characters onscreen at the same time, and is a very reasonable trade-off. On the downside, there is a considerable amount of pop up and draw in.) So to move beyond the fog, you must pull up a mini-map that has a very high-level view of the battlefield and move your cursor there. But the cramped mini-map is too high-level with little detail; it also has a cursor that isn't terribly precise, which all combines to make you feel as if throwing darts at the map would be more accurate instead. You learn the hard way that you pretty much have to use the mini-map all the time because the ?on-field? cursor is even less accurate and takes an agonizingly long time to move, not a good thing when you're in the heat of battle. The cursor also ?sticks? to enemy units which is helpful when there are only a small number of bad guys, letting you issue attack orders with a minimum of fuss. However, when there are many enemy units close together, the cursor will stubbornly stick to the closest one and not let you choose any others that are beside it. Using the mini-map helps a bit, but again, picking the proper red dot out of a bunch of red dots all cramped together can get your teeth grinding in a hurry.

Worst of all is the fickle AI that may or may not listen to your commands. When you're in the middle of a battle, you have little time to baby-sit your units; you need to issue your commands and then immediately switch to the next unit. Usually this works with no problem. However, there has been many times where I've glanced at the health meters of my units only to see in dismay that one is dropping with surprising speed. I switch over to the unit who, several minutes ago, I commanded to go in and provide support, only to discover to my anger and frustration that the unit is still standing there ?awaiting orders?. This is in spite of the fact that the unit originally acknowledged the order to attack. At other times, units will literally run around in aimless circles or wander off in a completely different direction than you told them to go. Arrgh!

Troops will also automatically engage enemies when they're in range, which is normally a good thing. But sometimes, you just want your troops to skirt around the enemy and not engage in combat. There should be a way to over-ride the automatic combat system because as it stands, you are then forced to issue ?retreat? orders which are often ignored.

Adding insult to injury is the corny voice acting. With the exception of Rupert (who is actually quite funny) the bad voiceovers will have you cringing and encourage you to switch over to the original Korean voices to avoid the pain.

Somewhat making up for the shortcomings is the enhanced multiplayer mode, which supports up to six players over Xbox Live (System Link is not supported). There are three gametypes: Hero Battle, where players pit Heroes against one another for some good old fashioned deathmatches; Troop Battle, where you take your Hero and troop units to fight against other players; and Invasion, a co-operative mode where three players and their troops work together to fight against unending waves of enemies. Multiplayer is enjoyable but suffers the same command and control weaknesses as the single player campaign, which unfortunately limits the fun and replayability.

Bottom Line
The really sad thing about Heroes is that during the seemingly few times when everything works right, this is actually a pretty darn fun game. Fighting in huge epic battles against ogres, vampires, elves and even fire-breathing dragons and giant scorpions is a blast. The missions do get repetitive but overall, the action is quite enjoyable. But the fact that you usually end up fighting the controls and camera more than the enemy really ruins what could have been a premier Xbox title.

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