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by Strategy First

Ever since Warcraft II, game companies have periodically swamped the public with gluts of real-time strategy games. There was the great RTS boom of ’97, another in ’99, and right now it looks like we’re in the middle of another one. Whenever one of these booms hits, you can be sure that the publicity machines will begin to crank out copy claiming that this new wave of RTS’s doesn’t have much in common with “your daddy’s RTS”. Sometimes they don’t—like Homeworld or Ground Control or the Close Combat series—but these games tend to be so different that they don’t really bear much resemblance to the “classic” real-time strategy game anyway. More commonly, new RTS’s are very much like your father’s, if in fact your father was playing RTS’s in 1997.  While I enjoy a good game of AoE or Red Alert 2 as much as anyone, it bespeaks a certain lack of originality when game companies churn out title after title whose only differences are minor tweaks to the game engine or a matter of setting--whether you’re fighting Space Goons, Nazis, or Elves, most RTS’s play pretty much the same. Which is why I like Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns so much. While it looks a lot like your standard cut-and-paste RTS, it’s full of elegant little quirks and variations that make it a true original. And it plays like a bastard, too.

That being said, Kohan’s setting won’t exactly overwhelm you with its novelty. Kohan takes place in the pretty standard fantasy world of Khaldun, where some really evil force has taken to setting off occasional cataclysms that destroy the world. Fortunately for you, you play the role of one of the Kohan, a race of 100,000 immortals who reawaken from these cataclysms like sailors from a bender, devoid of memory but dimly aware that some terrible event involving them has transpired in the recent past. The land they find themselves in—Khaldun--is full of monsters, and its society divided into four factions—the Nationalist, Council, Royalist, and Ceyah. The three factions consist mostly of garden-variety human troops; the Ceyah are undead. Your job is to recover you memory, confront the ultimate bad guy, and cut down on the frequency of those cataclysms.  

You’ll begin to notice the game’s originality when you first examine its resource management system. While you’ll need to manage resources carefully to win the game, Kohan’s system requires none of the tedious micromanagement of peon units that most RTS’s require. This is partly due to the fact that the game’s resources--stone, wood, iron, and mana--are produced mostly by buildings in your cities, though you’ll stumble across the occasional mine that can be exploited. These resources are used to maintain buildings and supply your units, and can also be converted to gold through exportation or building markets. Gold can also be obtained through banking and taxation, and is used to build structures and recruit troops. While the resource system is very manageable, it takes a bit of experience and subtlety to master. Resources accrue by the minute and what’s not used is lost, so it’s important to convert excess resources to gold, which can be stockpiled. On the other hand, as your empire expands you’ll find that you need more resources to maintain structures and supply units in the field. If you lack the necessary resources for upkeep, you’ll be forced to purchase them with your gold. When that runs out your units will begin to disintegrate where they stand. Resource management is almost a game in itself; it’s a very delicate and rewarding balancing act that is often decisive.

But the most innovative thing about Kohan’s gameplay is its emphasis on the company as the basic combat unit. In most RTS’s, you simply produce tons of individual units, group them either somewhat deliberately by pressing CTRL+NUM or utterly haphazardly by clicking and dragging, and send them off into battle. In Kohan, companies consist of three elements. The first of these is your “front line” element, which stands at the head of your formation dealing out hand-to-hand punishment or firing ranged weapons. These usually consist of four of your individual infantry, cavalry, or missile units. The second element of your company is the “support” element--these can either be made up of reserve units of your front line troops or ranged units that can engage the enemy from behind the protection of your grunts or (best of all) special support units like paladins, rangers, and magicians who can cast very nasty spells and provide special abilities to the company. The third element is made up of a hero, who can be either a powerful leader or one of the even more powerful Kohan you’ll find scattered throughout the scenarios. . Depending on the type of leader you use, you’ll have to decide whether to allow him or her to engage the enemy or to stand back and command the company. You can kit your companies out as you see fit, and the tripartite company composition gives your units plenty of flexibility. You can recruit heavy infantry with bow support, or muster light infantry supported by vicious magic attacks.  One of my favorite ploys is to create a heavy cavalry unit and add a ranger unit as support. Since ranger units allow companies to travel through rough terrain without penalty and also increase the company’s visual range, I like park this unit in heavy woods, from whence they can quickly charge out to ambush opposing units unawares.

You can also deploy your companies in different formations, including pressed and regular column, skirmish, and battle.  Column formation allows for fast movement but awful combat readiness, battle for slow movement but excellent combat effectiveness, skirmish for a combination of the two. Terrain must be taken into account as well; it adds to a unit’s defense value, and if a company remains in one place for long enough it will automatically fortify its position.

Tactics also play a large role in the game; tank rushing into the fray is often disastrous. It’s important to think about stuff like flanks and deployment, which play virtually no role in most RTS’s. For example, since your front line units usually are arrayed to the--well, front--of your company’s formation, it takes a while for enemy units to fight their way through them to kill your often-powerful yet fragile support units. Unless, that is, they take you in the flank, in which case said support units are toast. Kohan’s gameplay  thus places a premium on coming up with flexible and effective unit compositions, deploying them in the right formations, and carefully choosing the ground for one’s battles. This means that combat in Kohan is more deliberate and thoughtful than other RTS games. By far.

It doesn’t hurt any that the computer AI is pretty smart. It will do things like run from fights it doesn’t think it can win, and then come back later with reinforcements. Kohan also includes a diplomatic model, and the computer AI is actually on the sly side. If it thinks it can gain an advantage, it will blithely break an alliance and turn on you. Watch out.

The game’s single-player campaign is made up of sixteen missions and isn’t exactly inspired, but it does serve as an excellent tutorial for skirmish and online play. In fact, the early missions of the single player game are tutorials, and they do a fine job of introducing the player to the game’s basic and more advanced mechanics. Before you go online you’ll want to spend some time reading the manual, which is very well done but could use an index.

But if the single-player campaign is a bit lackluster,  Kohan’s skirmish and online games are stellar. There are plenty of options and maps for skirmish games, and finding a game online is a snap with Kohan’s built-in Gamespy support. Since Kohan contains so much depth and flexibility, online games never seem to play out quite the same way. One thing for sure, though; be certain to have a good grasp of how to manage resources before hooking up with the online community. Astute resource management will go a long, long, way towards making you competitive.  

The game’s graphics are excellent, and really shine during the game’s animated combats. Spell effects are particularly awe-inspiring, and the game’s interface conveys all the information you need without being intrusive. Sound is very good and voice acting better than average.

Overall, Kohan is a mighty impressive package and the best RTS we’ve played in ages. It’s good-looking, deep, smart and a lot of fun, and places more of an emphasis on strategy and tactics than any RTS I can call to mind. In fact, we’re willing to tag Kohan: Immortal Sovereigns as one of the best RTS games ever--worthy of standing alongside classics like Starcraft and Age of Empires.  

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: An excellent real-time strategy game that actually makes you use strategy; looks good, plays great.

Downs: Campaign game could have been a little more inspired.

System Reqs: PII 300, 64 MB RAM


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