Korean developer Phantagram has been working on Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders for several years. Sequel to the somewhat successful PC franchise, the Xbox version focuses more on action while maintaining plenty of RTS elements, making for a more complex and engrossing version of Dynasty Warriors. If button-mashing melee combat amongst massive troops and military strategy appeals to you, then you will definitely want to give KUF a look. While it fails to execute properly on some fronts, the core idea is solid, making Kingdom Under Fire a one-of-a-kind experience on Xbox.
KUF's is broken up into four separate campaigns, where you take the role of one of a quartet of heroes. Two of these heroes work for the human faction, the other two for the enemy Dark Legion. Each campaign tells a different story of the war and each will require you to use different tactics as you tackle unique missions (with close to 60 missions total). Along with the sizable campaign, there's an interesting online campaign that allows you to battle head-to-head with online enemies while building your army to become a superior force.
Each mission involves some sort of confrontation. You will command a variety of squadrons, but in combat you will only control your hero. Each hero has their own moves, special abilities, and officers that can aid them and as you gain experience and earn cash, you can upgrade your hero and officers' skills, upgrade troop weapons and armor, and alter your troop's job. Your troop's job path is reminiscent of the sphere grid from FF X, though not as complex, with branching paths based on meeting minimum stat requirements. Evolve your archers into bombardiers or turn your lowly grunts into Paladins given time. There's a lot of customization offered that geeks like myself who love the RPG-like elements of upgrading characters will drool all over. It's set up simply, but has a lot of depth within and the choices you make throughout will affect the way you approach future battles.
Kingdom Under Fire gameplay can be broken down into two halves. First, there's the action portion. This is KUF's bread and butter and is the half of gameplay that I absolutely love. Forget Dynasty Warriors, this is the type of mass-scale combat I want on my Xbox. Once you are in combat, you control your hero, but your troops morale (and therefore fighting competence) is based on how successful you are using your hero to rip through the enemy troops.
KUF is based in a fantasy realm with shades of Dungeons & Dragons sprinkled throughout. The Dark Legion is packed with orcs, trolls, dark elves, and even dragons. You will battle with and against some truly spectacular creatures. And there will be dozens and dozens of these enemies on screen at one time. The battle map will sometimes have 200 troops and in combat you'll fight several dozen enemies at once. The sense of scale is handled perfectly and that makes the combat all the more intense.
Controlling your hero, you have only a few simple combos available, with a normal and heavy attack available, plus a block button. You can also call for help from either of your two officers, who start with some basic attacks, but can be upgraded to cast lighting, heal your troops, and slice through enemies with powerful, enchanted weapons. What makes the combat so special, aside from the sheer joy of slicing and dicing with button-mashing galore, is that you are constantly swarmed. You will literally cut down three enemies at a time with a single swing, because they are elbow to elbow, the blood staining the ground (especially impressive in the snow levels).
The camera, which can be pulled back slightly, is pretty good throughout combat. You'll want it nice and close up, though, because there's some great detail on the creatures and the terrain, with dust particles flying up when you storm across the dirt. It's impressive to see so much action on the screen at once, though there are some instances of slowdown, it's not enough to harm the gameplay. If you love mass-scale combat, then you will almost certainly love Kingdom Under Fire. Remember, though, that this is only half the game. It's the other half of KUF, the RTS elements, that hurt a bit.
As you build your troops and get deeper into the various campaigns, you'll be required to manage numerous squadrons. You tell your archers whom to attack and when, you control your cavalry and order them when to attack and how, and you direct your scout who searches ahead of the army, looking for enemy troops. It's a great set-up and you really need to keep a lot of things in mind during each mission. For one, you have to be aware of the sun. Position yourself so the sun is at your back and enemy archers will find it impossible to fire accurately, but come at the sun and you will be at a disadvantage. Send a scout to lure the enemy into traps you've set and then bring in reinforcements hiding in the forest to flank your enemy. There's a lot of thought put into the strategy possibilities, but the control just isn't there.
There are a few very annoying problems with the RTS portion of KUF. For one thing, the camera when you are moving troops seems to be set at the center of your squad. Since you can't pull the camera back to a bird's-eye view, it's often difficult to see very far, which makes moving the cursor on screen a bit troublesome. There is an option to use a pull down map to move troops, but that is better used for long distances and not for closer movements. If you move the camera low, you will be staring at a soldier's backside, because the camera can't be positioned at the front of the line. It's a problem that seems easy to solve, but one that wasn't fixed during KUF's numerous delays.
The real problem, though, is that anytime you leave your main squad (the troops your hero leads), the AI takes over his fighting for you. In general, when I left my hero to the AI, he would start getting his ass kicked. I'd come back and suddenly my troops were thinning out, my hero only fighting with moderate success. I'm such a better fighter than the AI, that leaving control of my hero hurt me and endangered my mission. But you have to leave your hero at times, because you have to take control of another troop in order to maneuver them or to perform a special move (such as using sappers to set traps).
This wouldn't be a problem at all if you could pause the game and quickly give commands, but you can't. On a keyboard, this would be an easy thing to handle since you have numerous quick keys at your fingertips, but with only the buttons on a controller, it does take time to give directions or command actions. And when you have a bunch of troops in your control, that can hurt.
Some troops require a lot of management, like the cavalry. You can't simply tell the cavalry to attack an enemy, you need to direct them past the enemy, so that they trample through them and don't simple stop in the fray. You'll then want to micro-manage their formation (wide for more mobility on the turn, tight for a better attack on the trample) for maximum effect, but that leaves your hero in the control of the AI. It's an unfortunate problem that definitely cost me several missions over the long haul.
If there were better camera options with at least three levels of magnification (as seen in the majority of RTS' out there) and the ability to order troops while staying in control of your hero, the RTS portion of KUF would be significantly better. As is, there's a lot of very good things in place, but the control isn't what it should be. It's certainly not enough to make the game bad, but it definitely keeps KUF from becoming a classic.
The Xbox Live portion of KUF is separate from the campaign and allows for head-to-head winner takes all play. The cool thing about online, which runs just as smoothly as the single-player, is that it offers its own evolution. All maps and all four heroes are available from the start, but your troops are just basic infantry. Only by winning matches online can you earn experience to upgrade your troops. You have no officers to aid you, just your hero and up to four combat troops.
Matches are very simple. You start on one end of the map, your opponent on the opposite side and you move to find one another. As you improve your character, you can set traps and find ways to flank your enemy, but in the beginning, it's really just a straight run at one another. Voice can be heard at any time, no need for proximity, so you can taunt your foe as often as you like.
Originally, KUF was to feature four-player matches, but that had to go at the last minute. However, no one took this out of the interface, so when you create a match, every map will show a player limit (always two, of course) and you can choose to join one of four teams, even though there can only be two players. That's unfortunate, because it's just a reminder of what could have been, as four-player battles would have absolutely rocked. As is, the online component will satisfy those who fall in love with KUF, but probably won't keep the interest of those who are only mildly into the RTS fighter.
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