Given the tremendous success of Blizzard's Warcraft and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, you might have expected a deluge of real-time fantasy games to hit the market soon afterward. Unfortunately for those who like elves and orcs, real-time strategy games took their cue more from Dune II than from the Warcraft series, and since then gamers have been treated to a steady stream of science fiction-based RTS games. Westwood's Command & Conquer series reinforced the perceived superiority of the sci-fi setting, and as a result, the number of real-time strategy games set in fantasy worlds can probably be counted on one hand.
This disparity is soon to be redressed somewhat by Kingdom Under Fire, an upcoming RTS from Korean developer Phantagram, which mines the rich possibilities of the fantasy realm and its potential for role-playing elements. In fact, these elements are given heavy emphasis in Kingdom Under Fire, to the extent that the game feels a little like a mission-oriented Baldur's Gate, where the focus is on completing quests and tasks with your characters and thereby raising their skills and abilities, rather than just progressing through a campaign with your forces. Heroes are definitely the focus of Kingdom Under Fire, much as they are in SSG's recent real-time offering, Warlords: Battlecry. The fact that two games that combine very similar strategy/RPG qualities are coming out within months of each other suggests that a new style of game might be at hand. Whether subsequent developers jump on this bandwagon depends on how well pioneers like Phantagram do in combining the strengths of two very different game genres.
At first look, Kingdom Under Fire is a straight RTS, with buildings, resources, and the tried-and-true group-and-click interface. The aforementioned RPG elements reveal themselves slowly, or in parts, and some won't even show up until the middle of the game.
Kingdom Under Fire will take you through 20 scripted missions composing two campaigns, with the action set in the world of Bersiah. A battle between the gods (actually just the latest battle in many to befall the land), known as the Battle of the Xok Knights, has divided the world into two factions, which break down along the predictable lines of good vs. evil. The good side comprises humans, elves, and other traditionally benevolent creatures, while the evil side consists of ogres, dark elves, and similar malevolent monsters. In this way, the back story is set up to explain the game's division into polar opposites: the good guys against the bad, with appropriately named and visualized monsters on each side. Building hierarchies follow the traditional RTS paradigm, with development and upgrades necessary to gain access to the really big weapons, such as the wyverns.
In keeping with its hero-based design, one intriguing aspect of Kingdom Under Fire is that rather than just limiting the role-playing aspect to the development of unit stats in the RTS portion of the game, there will be a limited role-playing mode later in the game, which will send heroes on various dungeon quests (which at E3 elicited comparisons to Diablo) to further develop their skills and, more importantly, to find important weapons and magical items to aid them later in the game. This combination of genres and play styles could really add something new to strategy gaming, but it had not yet been implemented in the build we played. Highlighting the heroes in this way truly makes them special units and not just more powerful versions of the monsters you can summon in the RTS portion. The game story will also develop the relations between the different heroes and will unfold slowly to allow for many plot twists. Things you learn about your heroes during the game might affect how you use them later.
There will be seven heroes in Kingdom Under Fire, with names like Rick Blood and Moonlight, and they can increase their skills through experience. One interesting idea Phantagram has come up with is to actually improve a unit's AI as it rises in levels. This means that as units progress, they will make more intelligent decisions about when to fight, when to run away, when to avoid more powerful monsters, and the like. In this way, as your heroes advance, they become more "trustworthy" on the field of battle, and you'll be able to give them a longer leash and not have to worry as much about them getting killed out of stupidity or neglect.
The heroes themselves will be split up between good and evil, and you'll be able to play both sides in the campaign, including different RPG missions for each. Lest it appear that Kingdom Under Fire is all about individual heroes, there will be dozens of lesser units to choose from, and these can gain experience like heroes can (although to a lesser degree). Building up a seasoned force will be a key to victory.
The graphics in Kingdom Under Fire eschew the recent trend toward making everything 3D and opt instead for detailed sprites, which give some of the terrain and structures an almost "hand-painted" feeling. Animations, such as building explosions and spell effects, are nicely done, although in some ways it's striking how similar the game looks to Warlords: Battlecry. It appears that with the detail of units and buildings having gone just about as far as it can go, these details are now the obvious "extras" to add, and Phantagram has done well in this department.
The advantage of the sprite-based system is that even in the unoptimized beta version we had, the game ran without slowdowns even when there were a lot of units on the map. Since this was one of the criticisms leveled at Cavedog's Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, it's nice to see Phantagram not getting caught in the trap of trying to maximize graphical effects and ignoring the limitations of current systems. Don't think the graphics aren't pretty, though: The spell effects in particular are very nice to look at, and the general feel of the world is quite fantasy-like and makes for a good atmosphere. The unit art is very dramatic, with the evil units in particular definitely looking the part.
The playable build we got reinforces the "action" aspect of the game, although play is very similar to any number of familiar RTS games currently on the market, such as Starcraft or Age of Empires II. There are separate resources for building structures, units, and casting spells, and the whole game runs a bit faster than the RTS pace to which most players are accustomed. Despite these minor differences, in its RTS mode, Kingdom Under Fire feels very similar to many other popular games. One feature that appears to be still under development is the formations interface - with the varying strengths and weaknesses of different units, good control over tactical unit placement is essential. This is something Phantagram is trying to improve for the final version.
One feature in Kingdom Under Fire that we were not able to see was the multiplayer mode. Phantagram is spending a lot of time developing the multiplayer aspect, and in its final form it will allow for ladder-and-league-style head-to-head and cooperative play. Phantagram will be hosting plenty of action via its servers on www.wargame.net, which will accommodate up to eight players per game. Unfortunately, this aspect is still unimplemented, although as game development progresses, we hope to give you an update on the multiplayer element when it becomes available. According to Phantagram, this is definitely going to be one of the game's strong points.
Phantagram is hard at work making Kingdom Under Fire available for both PC and console platforms. The PC version is scheduled to ship in late summer or early fall. The hybrid RTS/RPG genre is waiting to be created. Will Kingdom Under Fire bring these genres together? We'll have to wait and see until the game releases.