Widely considered the equivalent of putting a square peg in a round hole, real-time strategy games haven’t yet effectively made the transition from PC to console. While a few sporadic attempts have been made, none came as close to succeeding as last year’s Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders for Xbox. Blending the core elements of traditional RTS gameplay with hack n’ slash action, Crusaders was a breath of fresh air and a promising start to an new era of strategy gaming for the console.

The newest installment to the series, Kingdom Under Fire: The Heroes, offers much of the same with a few incremental improvements and additions. Boasting new units, new playable heroes, six new campaigns and Xbox Live support, is this the game that finally proves the strategy genre can work on a console? Well, almost….

Heroes retains the the visual aesthetic of its predecessor, with nicely detailed character models that barely cause a flicker in framerate even when there are dozens of them onscreen at once. The heroes themselves are nicely detailed and very distinct from each other and the other units, with very fluid animations. Environments are varied, but long-range visibility is hampered significantly by a muddy fog of war. It would have been nice to see some picturesque mountain vistas on the horizon as opposed to a nondescript murkiness.

Spell and creature effects are spectacular, and really call into sharp relief the fantasy setting. Watching as dragons and wyverns swoop down and attack you, or calling forth a meteor storm to strike down your enemies lends the game an epic flair that is augmented even further when you are directly controlling your main leader in battle mode, watching the events unfold from that perspective on the field.

I am still puzzling over the soundtrack to this game. One minute you are in a mission briefing screen or the worldmap listening to the fantasy standard ‘midgets and mandolins’, and the next you are dropped into battle rocking out like a teenage boy who spends way too much time practicing Metallica tabs from a guitar magazine. While I am not a big fan of the renaissance festival music, at least it matches well with the look and feel of the game and pleasantly fades into the background. The cheese metal is just plain bad, and inspires me more to pop in some ear-plugs rather than get caught up in the heat of battle. And really, it might not have been as bad if they didn’t switch between the two so often.

The voice-over is pretty mediocre. The main heroes and officers are certainly tolerable, but when you start hearing from the rabble it becomes very apparent that some stuff was lost in the translation from Korean. This is very noticeable in the pub screen when you are trying to get some gossip out of the soldiers and locals. I really don’t think the developers intended for some of those lines to come out as humorous as they did….

This is really where console-based strategy games need the most work. The flexibility of the mouse and keyboard on a PC tends to be much more suited to the genre than a controller, but KUF:H makes a noble effort that can work really well some of the time. My biggest gripe was the inability to pull the camera out to a more tactical view. There are two main camera views that can be toggled by pressing the right thumbstick, but I found myself using the view that pulled out from the action a bit, wishing I could go out further. Sure, you can hit the select button to enlarge the mini map on the top right of the screen, but you can’t do this during combat, and it just doesn’t have the immediacy that a top-down view would have. Unfortunately the tactics/movement mode occasionally suffers from bad camera tracking, and I found myself often staring at the tops of trees instead of my troops.

While I conducted nearly all of my troop movement via the minimap and longed for a better way, the leader attack mode ended up being a much more satisfying experience. Mowing through enemies by simply using the X button, or executing one of a handful of combo moves or special abilities, getting up close and personal in a battle was downright fun. The black and white buttons activate your officer’s special abilities which became very handy to thin out the enemy at crucial moments.

The backstory for Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes doesn’t stray too far from the standard mores of fantasy RTS. You have the traditional opposing races of humans, (dark and light) elves, orcs and undead (vampires), though the dark elves and undead in this case represent one united force under the rule of the vampires. The main goal for Leinhardt the vampire’s campaign, one of the three campaigns that are available to play at the beginning of the game (four more are unlocked later as these are completed), actually has you bringing the orc tribes under the banner of the Dark Legion against the humans. Each single player campaign ramps up in difficulty rather fast, and the learning curve is rather difficult, with only a very short and unsatisfying tutorial.

Equally unsatisfying is the method in which the story is told. Poorly scripted conversations between tiny little painted portraits of the main characters are a sharp contrast with the attention to detail and fluid motion of the gameplay graphics. Nobody is expecting Blizzard-level cutscenes, but a little more effort would have made for a more immersive storyline.

But really, RTS’s aren’t generally lauded for their stories, are they? It is all about strategy gaming, and KUF’s gameplay offers up a compelling mixture of features. The trick is finding the right balance of up-close combat with your hero and pulling out to a more tactical role with your secondary companies, switching between them by using the trigger buttons. Orders for movement, attacking, and the casting of spells can be executed using both the main view and the minimap. A variety of magical creatures and special attacks spice things up a bit. Nearly all spellcasting and special ability draws from a pool of spell points, and the gauge never fills up fast enough to abuse them or overbalance the game.

Taking direct control of your main character in battle lends an epic feel that just isn’t achieved in a straight-up PC RTS. The action can get a little confusing when there are dozens of characters on-screen, but thankfully your sword is only capable of hitting the enemy. If you switch over to another company, your hero no longer engages the enemy, but he is no longer able to be touched by the enemy either.

Customization plays a huge role in the game, one I found most engaging. Through accumulated experience points and gold acquired in battle, skills and special abilities can be changed and/or upgraded, new weapons, armor and magical items that increase combat strength and special ability bonuses can be purchased for both leaders and troops, and companies can change jobs according to their race’s upgrade trees. With the right amount of experience points and the right combination and rank of skills, any company can change their role. For instance infantry can become heavy infantry or switch to another path such as archer. Heavy allocations in any one of the four elemental magic abilities can enable a job switch to an elemental creature. This is difficult to achieve and isn’t seen very much in the single player game.

The biggest change that Heroes has over Crusaders is online multiplayer, arguably a must for any strategy game as taking tactics against a real opponent is infinitely more challenging than any AI. Up to six players can compete in head-to-head and cooperative gameplay, as well as friendly and ladder matches which are kept track of with an online ranking and scoreboard system. There is the potential for downloadable content such as new maps and missions. If a solid online community forms, these features could offer up quite a bit of replay value for some time.

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