Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes Feature Preview

We get an exclusive look at the promising sequel to the Xbox action game.

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It's always nice to be surprised in a good way when it comes to games. The catch is, of course, it doesn't happen often these days. More often than not, it's possible to get a fair sense of what a game has to offer well before it ships, which takes a bit of the fun out of trying to discover little-known gems. The upside to this is that when you do come across a great game that's flown below the radar, the experience is that much more special. Such is the case with last year's Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, an original game from Phantagram for the Xbox that was the latest entry in a fairly underwhelming PC real-time-strategy franchise. Nothing in the game's past hinted at the greatness that was to be found in the Xbox version, which consisted of a mix of RTS elements, light role-playing-game mechanics, and a good old-fashioned dose of hacking and slashing. As a result, when KUF: The Crusaders hit, it made big waves on the Xbox and left fans hungering for more.

Thankfully, fans won't have to wait too much longer, because the sequel, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes, is on the horizon. We got our first look at the ambitious sequel at this year's E3 and have since had the chance to hunker down and mess about with a fairly complete work-in-progress version of the promising game. The aspiring sequel offers up most everything that was great about the first game, as well as attempts to fix what was busted. Furthermore, it adds new content. So you're basically presented with pretty much everything you'd want from a sequel. Does it all work, you ask? From the looks of things so far, we'd say yes.

Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is again being developed by Phantagram's Blue Side Studios, and it takes place on the continent of Bersia. The game is set before the events in Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders. You'll be dropped smack-dab in the middle of the Encablossa War, playing as one of seven new heroes that either hails from the good and noble human alliance or the evil, but invariably cooler-looking, dark legion. The war has been kicked off, in part, by the machinations of the kingdom of Vellond, a nation made up of half-vampires--led by the power-hungry Valdemar--and dark elves that are just looking for trouble. It seems that Valdemar has been hard at work destabilizing the nations around him by stirring up trouble and leaving everyone on edge. Unfortunately, when a mysterious army slaughters a small human village, the already skittish powers spaz out. And before you can say "Damn!", the shaky balance of power between the dark legion and the human alliance is gone, and a full-scale war, complete with a catchy name, is on.

Some of the cast of characters in Heroes will be familiar to those who played KUF: The Crusaders, as many appeared in the original game in lesser roles. The human alliance characters will include Rupert, a Hirondeiden messenger sent to rustle up help; Ellen, an Ecclesian army captain; and Walter, a soldier on a mission from God (almost an ancient Blues Brother). The dark legion is represented by Cirith, a female warrior who's a bit more savvy than her appearance suggests; Morene Strident, a scantily clad half-vampire who wields bone blades for anyone who gets fresh; Urukbarr, a powerful chieftain who guards the Dragon's Tomb; and Leinhart, son of King Valdemar. Each character will have his or her own unique storyline that's part of the larger tapestry of the war. As in the original, the characters will all interact in some ways over the course of the game, which lends a nice cohesive feel to the experience.

The action is just as furious as it was in The Crusaders--perhaps even more so.
The action is just as furious as it was in The Crusaders--perhaps even more so.

As far as the gameplay goes, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes seems to be nailing the right mix of old and new. You'll have the same basic options as in the original game--single-player and multiplayer--but both have been buffed up considerably. The single-player game will send you through each of the character's storylines, which amounts to more than 50 new missions of content. Once you've made your way through those, you'll also find some unlockable characters as well, which should continue to keep you busy. The core mechanics have stayed basically the same. The game will be broken up into several different stages as you play. Cinematics will move the story along and tie into the briefings you'll receive that will prep you for your next mission. The battles themselves will be split into tactics and action mode as you prepare your forces and then engage your foe.

Kill! Kill! Kill!

You'll start out each mission with both objectives to complete and your handpicked set of troops, led by whichever hero you've chosen. As before, you'll be able to customize and power up your forces in your castle. The leveling system has been bulked up and offers more functionality when you're managing your throngs of minions, of which there are 40 different types. Once again, you can assign leaders for clumps of your boys, and you can also assign different abilities to them. Progressing through the game will yield experience that can be used to improve your forces, in addition to currency that can be used to trick out the gang with weapons, armor, and items. Controlling your forces on the battlefield has been improved thanks to the inclusion of a waypoint system that makes it easier to get your forces in gear during a fight.

Heroes will offer a whole bunch of gameplay tweaks, from improved camera angles to a handy waypoint system.
Heroes will offer a whole bunch of gameplay tweaks, from improved camera angles to a handy waypoint system.

Better still, new camera angles give you more flexibility during combat. For those that felt the action was too close in the previous game, a new isometric camera angle gives you an eagle-eyed view of the field of battle. This will actually be pretty key, because the game will feature more real-time strategy mechanics than its predecessor, and it will require you to do some multitasking. What's more, the environment will play a significant role in combat, as elevation will offer bonuses and downgrades to your forces. Obviously, coming at foes from a higher elevation will give you an attack bonus. At the same time, trying to attack or defend yourself from foes that are at a higher elevation than you is problematic because of the penalties associated with being at a lower elevation. If this proves to be too much of a challenge for you, the game will feature additional difficulty levels.

As far as the multiplayer aspect is concerned, KUF: Heroes has really blossomed into its own, with three game types on offer--troop battle, hero battle, and invasion battle--all of which represent vast improvements over the original's skirmish fights. You'll be able to take on friends in battles via system link or Xbox Live.

The presentation has been improved over the original and features a more polished look and feel in just about every aspect. The interfaces have been slicked up some and are a bit more intuitive to use. The actual graphics have seen subtle upgrades that improve on detail and special effects. Character models and environments, which were impressive in the first game, match and even surpass what we've seen before. The greater variety in the terrain keeps the visuals interesting, and the new units, such as the elementals and swamp mammoths, look especially cool. The scope of battle is more expansive, especially when the massive mammoths barely fit onscreen as troops race around the parts of the creature that are visible.

The audio, one of the highlights of the first game, thanks to its retro '80s rock music, is in fine form. Blue Side has tapped Korean metal band Crash for some tunes that will drive you to engage in some air guitar as you play. Another returning perk to the package is the vast number of language options. The current plan calls for seven languages to present the spoken voice in the game. So far, everything we've heard matches the quality of the original, and we're pleased by how it's coming together.

Don't worry: Heroes is just as metal as the last one.
Don't worry: Heroes is just as metal as the last one.

While Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes may lack the element of surprise its predecessor possessed, the game is still shaping up to be a great follow-up to one of the Xbox's best offerings. Blue Side looks to be ably walking the line between staying true to the core mechanics people loved in the original and adding new content to enhance the experience. The new multiplayer modes and custom campaign features are all icing on the already appealing cake. If you were a fan of the original game, it's a foregone conclusion you're frothing at the mouth for Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes and will pick it up posthaste. If you're new to the series on the Xbox, you should absolutely check this game out...if you're looking for something meaty to play for a good long time.

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