The lineage of the KUF franchise dates back some years to a hybrid RTS/RPG that was met with a lacklustre response by the PC market. Fast-forward to 2004 and along came Kingdom Under Fire: Crusaders which, along with changing platform from PC to Xbox, also completely changed the style of the game. Whilst on paper it could still be described as an RTS/RPG hybrid, this would be doing the Xbox title a disservice. In actuality, the game was more a cross between all-out brawling and RTS, with some simple RPG stuff thrown in. Think of an unholy union between Dynasty Warriors (which provided the brawling template) and Medieval Total War (which gave birth to the troop movements and planning), chuck-in the ability to level-up your troops and manage your army's abilities pre-battle and you'd start to have an idea of what you were getting into. Even then, no other game could really quite prepare you for what awaited you. You see, KUF: TC could be played at a high-level (whereby you only concentrated on moving your troops about and letting them get on with it), low-level (basic Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash style), or a mixture. And it was very, very good. Well, good news came at E3 that the follow-up - Heroes - would be hitting the Xbox later in the year, and things are shaping up nicely.
The original game told the story of a Holy Crusade conducted by the humans to reclaim the Holy Lands, lost during a Great War many years earlier (which was the subject of the original PC title) and opened up into a search for a Holy artefact of great power. Played through four campaigns (two for the forces of good, two for bad), each campaign followed a general, each telling their own story, but all coming together to give the complete picture. Missions that you had played out earlier in a different campaign would be revisited when taking command of the other side, nicely keeping the story in check.
The story for Heroes takes place prior to the events chronicled in The Crusaders, and also shifts the focus of events from the main characters of the first game to their sidekicks. This means that whereas in the first game you controlled Gerald, with assistance from Rupert and Ellen, this time around they both play much more central roles. Indeed, the campaign count increases from four to seven, allowing much greater scope to tell more stories from a different perspective. Also promised is around 30-50 hours of content which, given the brutal nature of the first game, is more than plausible. And whilst on the subject of the difficulty level (things got very hairy, very quickly, taxing all of your multitasking skills to the limit, especially on the larger battles and castle defence missions), there are to be five difficulty levels which should allow everybody to find a challenge without resorting to losing hair.
Phantagram haven't stopped there, though. New units are being added, taking the roster to over 35, along with more mission types, including sieges. Given the sense of scale The Crusaders gave, this could lead to some epic battles, with up to 200 units promised on-screen at any one time, all animated and kicking-ass. It's a sight to behold, for sure. And let us not forget that kicking-ass is central to your progress throughout the game, and more combat moves are included to allow all manner of mayhem.
Terrain is also to be given more importance. One of the joys of The Crusaders was setting up - and perfectly executing - an ambush of troops, and the game was flexible enough for you to spend a little time setting things up, like luring an army into a heavily-wooded area, then unleashing havoc with your fire archers, setting the trees (and enemy) on fire. Class. Sunshine also played its part, with archers benefiting from having the sun at their backs, meaning the enemy were blinded by the light and wouldn't see the arrows coming. Well, height will now help archers out a little more, with greater damage being inflicted the higher the arrows are being fired from. Seems more tactical options are being opened to budding generals everywhere, which can only be a good thing.
Graphically, The Crusaders looked good anyway. The number of units that were on display at any given time was impressive, given the detail they exhibited, and this hasn't changed. The engine was clearly capable before, but has gone through some tweaking to allow for some more varied terrain, with a more undulations and hills, to tie-in with the ability to make use of said extra height. One aspect that remains from the first title, though (and was a minor complaint) was that it wasn't easy to spot an enemy general when entering combat. Given the fact that by killing a general you would eliminate an entire troop in an instant, this may well have been a design decision, but it was a minor niggle of mine all the same. Another niggle shared by many (although wasn't an issue for me personally), was the soundtrack. Many reviews cited the English-dub as ruining it, so to appease them (and to save time on localisation one would guess), the game will ship with seven audio options on the disk, which is nice.
The final piece of the jigsaw is provided by a more thorough Xbox Live component. If there was a failing of the original game, it was that the online options were very limited, and the match-making service did not allow for particularly even fights. This is hopefully to be remedied, with a fuller set of match types (including a hero-only free-for-all fight) and better match-making options. And some downloadable content would be nice, too!
Having had a quick play, Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is shaping up to be a very worthy follow-up to the impressive earlier outing. The combat is a little more varied, the new units add more to your army-building options, and the new missions and multiple stories will provide plenty of game to get your teeth into. Let's hope that the game gets a little more marketing this time around, unlike the first title, which garnered much critical acclaim - which surely is tantamount to the kiss-of-death commercially (although it was huge in Korea). With the main components already in place, and some polishing to do, this is very much one to look out for.