Kingdom Under Scrutiny
At some point during the mid-nineties, a group of clerks at a Korean mini-mart got their hands on Blizzard's epic Warcraft II. "What more could you ever want in a videogame?" the clerks asked each other. Life was bliss for the clerks. Slurpies and Warcraft were the rule, and they were lawful citizens.
As their ultimate tribute to their favorite game, the clerks decided to make a game just like Warcraft II, but not quite as good so as not to upset the Gods of the original. Thus the clerks became game developers called Phantagram, which begot that which we call Kingdom Under Fire. Hallelujah.
Is this really how KUF came about? I have no idea. But it sure would explain a lot. KUF is a new real time strategy game that does little for the genre other than reiterate the proven formulas and suffer from old maladies.
The game is called Kingdom Under Fire because it follows the story of a kingdom, Burmecia, that is (drum roll) under fire. The fire in this case comes from an evil entity known as Rick Blood and his dark battles against noble Curian's forces of light.
Long ago, Rick Blood was named something like Rick Happy. He and his friends fought a Lich, and Rick died upon delivering the fatal blow. So, his friends got him a dragon's heart (always a good idea), and the great Rick was reborn - except now he had the heart of a giant fire-breathing, virgin-eating reptile. Thus, he changed his last name to Blood.
Then he ravaged Curian's hometown, which is where the game starts off. If you choose to play the game as the Humans you take control of Curian; if you choose the devils you begin as Likuku the huge, red ogre.
Those familiar with any RTS in the last ten years will recognize these characters as "heroes." Just like in every other game, the plot depends on the heroes to unfold it and if they die the game ends.
Fortunately the heroes are super strong, and capable of becoming stronger. In an attempt to make their run of the mill RTS run less like a mill and more like a kick ass game, Phantagram included some (3 for each race) little dungeon crawl episodes to break up the otherwise continuous RTS action. Too bad they took such an intriguing idea and did nothing with it.
Excursions into the dungeon are excruciating for two reasons: 1) If you die you have to play them over again, and 2) they aren't nearly quick enough or violent enough to be worth your while. For levels that were clearly inspired by Diablo (the control is nearly identical, and the items actually are identical), the action is awfully slow and tedious. These levels are so boring they nearly ruin the game.
The game stresses the use of heroes, but I hardly used them at all. One human hero, Moonlight, has a fairly destructive icicle rain spell (where have you heard that before), but the heroes generally don't turn the tide in a battle enough to risk putting their necks on the line. Again, if they die you start over. From the beginning.
In other words, there is no in-game save in KUF. Instead, Phantagram decided to throw in an Easy difficulty level that throws way less challenge at the player than the Normal difficulty level. I personally would have rather had the difficulty of the regular campaign with a save option.
The RTS gameplay is cut and dry. Gather resources, build buildings, resarch technology, blah, blah, blah. If you don't know the drill by now you shouldn't be reading this review.
The game suffers from some pathetic enemy and ally AI. The enemies defend poorly against flying creatures (the evil race has virtually no defense against air attacks other than archers), and units have a hell of a time moving down ramps and along narrow canyons. KUF's pathfinding must be based on algorithms learned in kindergarten, because my guys went everywhere but where I told them to go.
The units themselves are extremely familiar (orcs, ogres, axe-throwers, bird and dragon riders and nerdy, tinkering dwarves) and pretty boring. I was excited about some of the units at first, but they turned out to be either largely impotent against several forms of attack (the Elfin long-bow chicks, for example) or just units from a different game in new clothes (the vampires, which are basically just mages).
The mission objective is always to kill everything and make sure your heroes survive. Phantagram really went all out with the creativity and innovation on this one. Argh. For a game that tries to sell itself as being a unique blend, it tastes terribly bland.
On the up side, the story plays a greater part in this game than I've ever seen in an RTS, with little dialogues at the beginnings of each level (another reason I missed the in-game save) and some decent character development.
Also, the game is pleasantly long. An epic battle that seems to mark the end of the game is only the halfway point in each campaign. While the maps differ little for the opposing campaigns, it's interesting to get both sides of the stories and the opposing forces are different enough to make playing both campaigns worthwhile.
Another plus is the voice acting and sound in general. All the units have very distinct voices, and while some of them have dull responses, I chuckled upon being told by a dark elf that we could "do it...together." You naughty drow, you.
The graphics are standard 2D RTS fare. Even though the units are more detailed than the now ancient Warcraft II, some of the details are kind of gritty and most of the environments lack atmosphere.
If you get sick of the single-player campaigns you can fight skirmishes against the computer or jump online to the 'Wargate' and try to whup up on some other humans. Wargate's interface isn't the most intuitive I've seen, but it's easy enough to pick up. Unsurprisingly, KUF's multiplayer is just like every other game except with fewer options and game-types. I'd pick Red Alert II over KUF any day.
If the taste of orcs and humans battling on a 2D plain while gathering gold and other resources hasn't become stale to your senses, then by all means dive into this feast of rehashed mediocrity. I'm looking for something with a little more kick.