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ups: Intricate and demanding strategy game, online play.
downs: Lackluster story and presentation, imprecise controls, action is reduced to button-mashing.

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Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes Review
game: Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes
three star
posted by: Jeremy Kauffman
publisher: Microsoft
developer: Phantagram
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date posted: 09:11 AM Fri Nov 4th, 2005
last revision: 09:12 AM Fri Nov 4th, 2005

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Click to read.I am a console gamer at heart. I just feel more in tune with a controller than a keyboard. There are, however, some things that a controller cannot compensate for, and some game genres that will always be better on a PC. At the top of that list are RTS games. That is probably why most developers opt for the action RTS when dealing with consoles, especially after the success of the Dynasty Warrior series. Well, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is no Dynasty Warriors in terms of action, but the strategy elements are passable, and the online gameplay delivers, even if the story does not.

The story of Heroes plunges the character into the Encablossa War and the politics of vampires, orcs, and elves. It seems that a half-vampire named Valdemar has united the dark elves and enlisted the orcs in a battle to expand his territory. As prophesized, seven warriors have come forward to wage war against Valdemar and stop his evil plans. If all of this seems very dramatic, it isn\'t.

While the story serves its purpose by delivering to the player seven warriors of varying skills and abilities, and seven story paths with a great many battles to fight, it lacks any real emotional conviction or dramatic weight. The developers want this series to take on the epic scope of such fantasy classics as The Lord of the Rings, but what they fail to realize is that those stories survive by the audience\'s connection to the characters. I like vampires and elves as much as the next guy, but there has to be more at stake than the sanctity of the fictional kingdom of Bersia for me to be affected on any real level. When the characters interact only to exposit plot points, and grow only in terms of experience points and skill sets, all that is left are the academic exercises of war strategy and the chaos of combat. Doesn\'t exactly tug on one\'s heartstrings, or make the players of this game invest much outside of pointing, clicking, and mashing buttons.

As far as the academia of war strategy is concerned, Heroes does better than most console RTS games. You enter a war that already contains layers of political strategy, but it is up to your leadership to determine the outcome of each battle. You must first train yourself in the fundamentals of the game. As you win battles you gain money and experience points which can be used to attain better weapons, armor, and troops, as well as advance your skills and learn new tactics. As your hero evolves, his or her influence over the troops increases.

Entering into battle, you must consider every possible contingency. A wide formation of troops will help you gain ground, but a tight formation is more defensible. The dark elves gain their power from the forest, and the trees impede your archers, but burning it all down will leave your infantry exposed to air attacks and catapults. The terrain can give you an advantage, as can the position of the sun. You will eventually have weapons, magic, mounted warriors, air support, officers, multiple armies, even other heroes at your disposal. Of course your enemy has all of that, usually in greater numbers, as well as elemental units such as Flame Wraiths and Earth Golems. This is what you want from a fantasy RTS.

The battles are then fought in real time, in third person perspective. You focus on your hero while dozens, if not hundreds, of warriors collide around you. The battle is won when all of the enemies have been dispatched or the unit leader is killed. Obviously, the second option is the quickest way to victory, though it won\'t be easy. You fight using various combos and special abilities, and can give quick orders to your troops on the fly or call your officers and other heroes to your aid. Any deeper strategy will require you to enter the map, rendering your hero invulnerable, but also useless during that time.

The ground level combat in this game is chaotic and ultimately undermined by a weak control scheme. The battles consist primarily of you running around killing your enemies while the rest your troops clink and clank away. Most of the special moves really aren\'t that special, and they take more time to pull off than they are worth. Because of this, most of the action is reduced to pounding the A and X buttons and occasionally calling in an officer with the white or black button. When you enter the map screen, the analog stick method of pointing and clicking is slow and inaccurate, often causing you to overshoot your target. Subsequently, you are constantly forced to redirect your units. While these kinds of problems are inherent to console RTS games, there are games out there that do this kind of thing better.

The art design in Heroes is top notch, beautifully rendering the various creatures of fantasy, such as elves and ogres. The presentation, however, falls flat. The dialogue is flaccid and perfunctory, and most often delivered by character insets taking turns in the corner of the screen. The voice acting is unconvincing at best, downright irritating at worst. And the music is uninspiring.

This has a lot to do with my inability to fully engage with the story of this game. It is hard to sit through line after line of expository dialogue espoused by a couple of talking heads in the corner of a map, only to point your arrow, \"walk\" to another location, and encounter the same thing. Harder still when the acting is sub par. But it is more than that. I think it has to do with the on the ground, third person perspective. When I am distanced by the traditional RTS perspective of games like Warcraft or Age of Empires, I am able to enjoy the theater of war in purely strategic terms; the outcome is all that matters. However, when you place me in the battle, interacting on that level with the characters, I want to be moved by their plight, and champion their struggle. I want the human drama of war. I guess I am admitting my reviewer\'s bias here. It is easier for me to accept the emotional detachment of a traditional RTS game than that of an action RTS. I suppose that\'s also why games like this can benefit from being attached to an existing license, because you have a preexisting involvement with the characters and the story you are taking part in. That work is already done. All that\'s left is to play.

The saving grace of Heroes is the online gameplay. When it comes to live opponents, you are already committed...to kicking their ass (or asses: up to six players can join an online game). No one needs to convince me; that\'s what I\'m there to do. The strategy and action comes to the forefront, and if the controls are limited, your opponent is subject to the same limitations. Available online are Troop Battles, in which you guide your hero and several units against your opponents in friendly matches or ranked ladder matches; cooperative Invasions against an AI foe; or three-on-three Hero Battles. Online play can be a bit sluggish with six players, but up to that point it is fine.

Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is a decent action RTS for fans of the genre. If you are after strategy for strategy\'s sake, or something to play online with other RTS fans, then you will want to give this one a try. Just don\'t expect to be blown away.

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