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Kingdom Under Fire

Score: 70%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Gathering
Developer: Phantagram
Media: CD/2
Players: 1 - 8
Genre: Real-Time Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:

Kingdom Under Fire is a mixed bag when it comes to graphics. For the most part, the various units are actually quite cool-looking, especially as you get farther into the game. And the heroes are immediately distinguishable, as they're at least half again as big as the standard units in the game. It helps when the inevitable grunt rush gets your fighting forces all mixed up -- you can pick out your best units by looking for the ones that tower over the rest. But the maps themselves are almost painfully bland. The browns and greens are dull to look at, occasionally broken up by stonework or ice. The various structures are uniform and drab (although the dark side's buildings are a little cooler than the good guy's). And the RPG segments make the original Diablo look creative, graphically. It's spotty, and at times more distracting than a uniformly drab game would be. The occasional flashes of brilliance are masked by the overwhelming mediocrity.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said of KUF's sound. With a solid musical score and downright shocking voice-acting -- and I mean that in a good way -- Kingdom Under Fire manages to impress mightily when it comes to aureal effects. Sure, the accents are a little random and hazy, and the actual sound effects are definitely rather weak (although the splortch of gibbing an enemy unit is always satisfying), but as a general rule KUF shines in the sound department.


Gameplay:

It's rather unfortunate, then, that the game itself is an uninspired mix of both real-time strategy gaming and role-playing. Both have been done better before, but like many genre-straddlers, the combination ends up weakening both styles of play instead of being more than the sum of its parts.

BIG NOTE: Before you even think about playing the game, make sure that you get all of the newest patches from Phantagram. The easiest way to do this is to log in to the Wargate server and have it update the program for you. You may have to do it three or four times before you get all the patches, and those over a modem will be irritated, but the end result is a more solid gaming experience. The pathfinding is improved, along with other tweaks that make KUF more enjoyable.

That being said, all of the patches still fail to make KUF inspiring. The storyline is almost painfully hackeneyed, although the in-level drama certainly helps move the plot along better than most games of its type. The units, while plentiful, are strictly run-of-the-mill, and a classic grunt rush will win you more than any real sort of strategizing. The resources in KUF are gold, iron and mana, and all are gathered in the traditional style -- peons who can also build structures. You even have farms to sustain your troops.

It's not that Kingdom Under Fire is necessarily bad. It's just terribly uninspired. You can only do so many 'eliminate the opposition' missions before you realize that there are much better things to do with your time. And the dungeon crawls are basically excuses to level up your main heroes and get them better equipment. Said equipment must be adjusted before you leave the RPG areas, however, as you can't do anything with the items once you leave those areas.

There are the requisite two campaigns, one from the good guy point of view (the Humans) and the other from the bad guy point of view (the Orcs . . . err, Devils). The game does a few things that aren't too common in the genre, such as actual experience for each unit that increases with every kill, raising health, speed, and other such things. But the heroes are the only consistent lot through the game, and even those come and go. And since every mission ends if your heroes die, you've got to be very careful that they don't get offed halfway through a level.

And herein is the Big Problem with Kingdom Under Fire -- the game does not have in-level save. Since Ground Control came out with this 'feature', I've been complaining, and it doesn't seem that people are listening. Folks, playing through a two-hour mission three times because a main character is getting offed in the end is NOT a Good Thing, and in fact can cause large bouts of screaming and ranting. Whoever thinks that this is a cool 'design feature' needs to get a better grasp on reality.

KUF also supports multiplayer, but every time I got on Wargate I could never find anyone to play against. That may change as the game's availability in the US climbs, but for the moment you'll have to make do with friends with copies and LAN gaming.


Difficulty:

Kingdom Under Fire is annoyingly difficult, and not just because of the levels themselves. Sure, the game will cheap you out and throw surprise attacks at you just to screw you up. That wouldn't be so bad, though -- if you could SAVE in the middle of a level. Since you can't, the game often progresses like a horrible creep-and-crawl feature. You'll find yourself expanding as carefully as possible, because the last thing you want to do is rebuild your empire because you lost one of your hero units. Urgh. Before the pathfinding fix, there were a lot of problems with getting units to do intelligent things and move smart places, but that's been mostly fixed, alleviating some of the problems. Of course, the enemy AI seems to have been ramped up a bit as well, so you'll still be in for a torturous challenge when you play KUF.

Game Mechanics:

Moving units around is simple enough, but certain controls never seemed to work properly for me. Selecting a group sometimes showed all the people in the group in the window on the right -- but sometimes it didn't. This especially happened with groups of heroes. Units will ignore orders to attack or move, or move large distances all on their own because they sniffed an enemy. You can set them to stand ground, of course, but that level of micromanagement can drive you crazy. The basic spellcasting mechanism is nice, however, and the ability to have healers constantly heal when necessary is a very nice feature that more games should implement. The menus are easy enough to understand, as is most of the game text. There are a few translation errors which could have been caught by any fluent English speaker, but they're not so terrible as to completely detract from the game.

Kingdom Under Fire aspired to be a wonderful union of real-time strategy and role-playing action. In the end, it's a weak version of both, and nothing to be particularly impressed with. The standard gameplay and unforgivable lack of in-game saves mar what could have been an excellent title. As it is, only those desperate for a fantasy RPG/RTS hybrid really need to bother with Kingdom Under Fire -- and, in that case, I recommend you either play Heroes III or WarCraft II: Battle.Net Edition instead.


-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

Minimum System Requirements:



Windows 98/2K/ME, P2 266, 64MB RAM, 700MB free HD space, 4x CD-ROM, 2MB Video Card
 

Test System:



AMD K6-III 450 running Windows 98, 256 MB RAM, 6x/24x DVD-ROM, Sound Blaster Live!, Creative Labs TNT2 Ultra w/ 32 MB RAM

Windows Jagged Alliance 2: Unfinished Business Windows Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns

 
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