Heritage of Kings: The Settlers marks the return of the 11-year-old Settlers franchise. This fifth game in the series comes after a four-year hiatus, and on the surface, much has changed. The cutesy 2D graphics of the original games have given way to a beautiful and more mature 3D look. However, at its core, Heritage of Kings stays true to its predecessors, as this is a real-time strategy game that's focused far more on the process of constructing buildings rather than tearing them down. And that makes for the game's greatest strength, as well as its biggest weakness.
The campaign in Heritage of Kings tells the story of your character, Dario, as he attempts to unify the land and reclaim his rightly throne. As the lost prince of this story, it's his job to prove to the people that he's a good steward by defeating the forces of the evil and restoring the land. In addition to the various spearmen, swordsmen, archers, and cavalry that he can recruit, Dario is accompanied by various hero units, each with his or her own special powers and abilities. This all falls fairly well into the familiar real-time-strategy formula.
Where Heritage of Kings differs from most RTS games is in its focus. In most RTS games, you usually start a level with a fair bit of building and end it with a lot of combat. But in Heritage of Kings, the ratio is more like 90 percent building and 10 percent combat. This keeps in line with the earlier Settlers games, as the series has always been more about medieval city building than Command & Conquer. As such, your goal is to build a sprawling, interdependent web of buildings, where workers and peasants go about their daily lives. It's a very charming and engaging formula, at first. However, the further you get into the game, the more you realize that you're not so much playing Heritage of Kings than you are simply sitting around waiting to gather the mountain of resources you need to build up the same huge, interconnected web of buildings over and over again.
It starts with the fact that there are five resources you must gather in immense quantities: wood, clay, stone, iron, and sulfur. Aside from wood, the fastest way to gather them is to build mines atop rich deposits. But for every mine you build, you'll need to construct housing and a farm to shelter and feed the miners, lest they become unhappy. This sets up the pattern for the rest of the economy, so for every building you construct, odds are you'll need to construct another two buildings to support it. And considering the amount of resources it takes to put up a single building, it takes a considerable amount of time just to put the underlying foundation of your economy in place. The bad news is that it gets worse.
You'll also need to augment your mines by constructing smithies, brick makers, stone carvers, and alchemists, all of whom take raw material and refine it further. For example, a blacksmith can take a single piece of iron and multiply it several times over by turning it into steel. And, yes, each of these buildings needs to be supported by a farm and housing. Meanwhile, most buildings can be upgraded (some several times over), which you'll need to do to unlock new buildings, technologies, or capabilities. These upgrades require considerable amounts of resources, as well as research into new technologies. The end result is that you'll spend hours building up a single town. It's no exaggeration to say that the latter levels can easily take four hours or more to complete, and since they're all basically a repeat of what you've done a dozen times before, the novelty of the experience has worn out long before then.
Meanwhile, the combat in Heritage of Kings feels very much like an afterthought compared to the depth and detail packed into the town-building aspects of the game. It just comes off as very clumsy. For example, when armies clash, all the units run around randomly, like a school of fish in a feeding frenzy; there's little rhyme or reason to it. To succeed, you'll want to have the best available troops, which means waiting around to gather enough resources to research the tech tree while also waiting to gather even more resources to actually produce the units. If you don't, then you'll discover that your lower-quality troops die alarmingly fast on the battlefield. You can augment your armies with your heroes, which you'll often need to do. In fact, it's the heroes that do most of the heavy lifting; your troops mainly serve as cannon fodder to buy enough time for your heroes to do what they need to do. The enemy artificial intelligence is practically nonexistent. Its main tactic is to build up waves of units and throw them at you over and over again. But even then, it's not much of a factor, as few scenarios are set up where the AI is in a position to attack you constantly. Multiplayer doesn't help much in this regard, because two of the game modes, deathmatch and technology race, play out as slowly as the single-player game. The one bright spot is the points mode, which limits each match to an hour. In that mode, it's not about crushing your opponent but more about getting the most points.
The pity is that Heritage of Kings is such a pretty game. The 3D engine, powered by RenderWare, is bright and colorful and provides for a lot of detail. It's fun to watch your miners chisel out the side of a mountain for stone or use the weather machine to change the seasons. The game also has some beautiful, tapestry-like cutscenes that are reminiscent of the gilded illuminations found in medieval books. On the audio front, the game has some solid voice acting, which comes across when you hear your peasants comment on your reign or when the narrator announces that it's tax day in a soothing voice.
For all its charm though, Heritage of Kings would be a fairly enjoyable and likable game if not for its glacial pace. This is a huge game, but not in a good way. There simply just isn't enough action or variety to keep your attention, and the complex economic structure feels just a tad bit too complex for its own good. The game may appeal to you if you like slower-paced RTS fare, but even then, you're going to need a lot of patience while you plod your way through this one.