Genre: Action / Strategy
Release Date: October 12, 2004
Buy 'KINGDOM UNDER FIRE: Crusaders': Xbox
Console RTS games aren't exactly a hot commodity. Although titles such as StarCraft and Command and Conquer thrive in the PC market, control issues keep console RTS games from attracting a mainstream following. After all, a video game controller isn't conducive to directing the actions of dozens of units when compared to a keyboard and mouse. Korean developer Phantagram took on the challenge of a console RTS in the form of Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, the follow-up to the mediocre PC title Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes. Although the previous KUF was a disappointment, the sequel reveals itself as a perfect mix of role-playing, real-time strategic planning, and frenetic hack-n'-slash action.
The story takes place 50 years after an epic battle between good and evil. Mankind has risen to power, and has enjoyed peace for many years. The peace ended however, when the Dark Legion attacked a village, which was near holy ground. You can choose to fight for humankind or against it. Depending on your choice, you'll command a decent variety of knights, orcs, ogres, spell casters, dwarves, elves, and dragons (sorry, hobbits sit this one out).
The Crusaders employs many standard RPG elements, which are primarily managed at your base camp. You will earn cash from battles, which you can spend on weapon and armor upgrades, or mercenaries. Experience points also accumulate during battle, and are spent on learning new magic or physical abilities. Spending experience points on the skills of heroes or officers brings their level up. The ability to control the development of leaders and troops by using experience points adds a good amount of depth to the management system. Because experience points between battles are limited and must be shared between all units, players must wisely decide how to distribute them. The only problem with this is that you don't really know what the next battle holds in store for you. For example, you may have just spent most of your experience points leveling up your archers between battles, but then you realize you really should have used those points to level up cavalry. Really, that's a nit-pick, and can be avoided by saving your game before fiddling with your soldiers.
At base camp, players can also change the jobs of troops. Human units include infantry, catapults, archers and storm riders (big birds that act as air support). Dark Legion ranks include gigantic scorpions, cavalry archers, and dragons. Each unit has its strengths and weaknesses, which helps keep battles balanced. The only complaint here is that many times, the units that will take part in a battle are predetermined. Apparently, this is necessary in order to complete the rigid objectives of some missions. All in all, the troop management system is well planned and almost overwhelmingly deep (a welcome trait for most strategy fans).
Once deployed, units are controlled by selecting destination points on a two dimensional map or within the actual environment. Holding either trigger toggles the map, which is basically a simplified version of your typical StarCraft-style overhead map. Units are represented by dots, and the troops' actions are played out on screen. Controlling troops is a test in multitasking skills. You may have archers attacking from a distance while infantry engages in melee while you set your cavalry up to strike from the side. Using the Xbox controller to do all of this is frustrating at first (there's a reason why the PC is home to most RTS games), but after a couple of hours, the controller scheme feels surprisingly natural.
Many of the early battles simply have you following orders from characters; so not much strategizing is necessary. These battles act as tutorials where players learn basic techniques and controls. As the difficulty level rises, you will have more opportunities to improvise using the fundamental techniques that you learn in early missions. The learning curve is steep, but smoothly constructed.
Action plays a major role in this RTS. The melees in The Crusaders are fast-paced, bloody, and crowded, with fighting comparable to Dynasty Warriors. You only directly control the hacking and slashing of the hero of the current campaign, with the ability to call on two officers for special attack support. Using special attacks and officer support uses skill points, which are earned by slashing, smashing, and dicing your enemies. Units with leaders other than your hero are controlled by A.I. during attack situations. You still give them the commands, but they carry them out on their own.
The best way to defeat a group of enemies is to kill their leader, a task that can only be done with your hero. This sounds easy, but when you factor in dozens of warring grunts, finding the leader is a hard task. It can be frustrating, because there's no marker designating who is in command of the enemy troops. This isn't really a complaint, rather an observation, as a bull's-eye set on the enemy leader would make melees far too easy.
Overall, the RPG, strategy, and action elements intertwine very nicely in The Crusaders.
Multiplayer matches are limited to online play over Xbox Live. Here, players start from scratch, earning experience points and money to build up and acquire troops. Although the instruction booklet boasts two-on-two matches, this is a misprint. Hopefully, this will become a downloadable feature in the future, along with extra missions and maps (which are promised in the booklet). Playing online presented no noticeable lag, with gameplay virtually identical to the offline mode. Team play would have been welcome, either offline or online. Coordinating attacks with a real person would have been fun, but alas, deadlines must be met. Here's to hoping for a patch.
The sound effects for The Crusaders are clear and well done. Part of the reason the melee sequences are so satisfying is due to the quality of the clanging metal, plunging blades, and sweeping magic spells. The game supports Dolby Digital, so surround sound owners will have an audio advantage.
The voice-overs, on the other hand, are pretty bad. The operative word here is "cheesy." It's too bad, because the world of The Crusaders is quite immersive, and the bad voice acting tends to pull the player out of the world.
The music has a similar "illusion-destroying" effect on the game as the voice-overs. Instead of a rousing, orchestral soundtrack, you will be greeted by generic, "nu-metal" inspired guitar instrumentals. It's not that the music is horrid, but it's jarring when knights and orcs are engaging in an epic battle between good and evil to the tune of Godsmack rip-off riffs. Custom soundtracks are not supported, although the box states otherwise (another packaging misprint). Fortunately, you have the option to turn off both voices and music in order to enjoy the excellent sound effects.
Graphically, The Crusaders is gorgeous, with immersive environments and interesting character design. Textures are well defined, and character models, especially the heroes, are highly detailed. The frame rate stays solid, despite the fact that dozens of soldiers appear on screen at once. Special effects range from standard to spectacular, depending on your commands. The only slight flaw in the graphics department occurs during cut scenes, when characters' lips are completely out of synch with the dialogue. Just think of English-dubbed kung fu movies, and you'll get the picture. Although the Dungeons and Dragons-style settings are completely overdone, The Crusaders manages to avoid looking too generic.
As far as Xbox strategy games are concerned, the pickings are slim. Sure, Full Spectrum Warrior is another great Xbox RTS title, but who would want to play a strategy game that lacks scantily clad elven women? The most impressive quality of The Crusaders is the cohesiveness of the RPG, RTS, and action elements. Strategy fans that are looking for a deep, long-lasting console experience with frequent bouts of hacking and slashing should definitely check this game out. Casual gamers who are interested should also give the game a shot, but be ready to devote a couple hours to a steep (but smooth) learning curve. If you have the patience to get a handle on the fundamental elements of The Crusaders, you'll be able to enjoy what is certainly one of the top console RTS games available on game consoles.