First there was Kingdom Under Fire which didn't do as well as the developers hoped it would, this was due in part to the RTS genre already being saturated to the brim, with games like Warcraft 3 and so forth. So for the sequel the developers: Phantagram decided to give the whole genre a massive facelift and a new home.
Kingdom Under Fire 2: The Crusaders was born and the target console - the Xbox.
Cliched fantasy once more stalks our gaming halls, but that's OK, without the old cliches we wouldn't have Dragons to kill or evil Sorceresses to hunt down. Enter the Ancient Artifact that has been stolen and the world is once more on the brink of war, LotR fans will eat this up by the bucket load, and why shouldn't they.
You play the part of one of four heroes, generals that are battling for good or evil in the ongoing campaign to beat the stuffing out of the opposition. There are two heroes on the good side and two upon the evil side, but you can only progress through to the advanced characters after you finish the first character's story.
It will allow you to play 1 good hero and 1 evil hero, but the game does warn you to play the easy hero first (Gerald). For the purposes of this review I stuck with Gerald and didn't bother with the evil hero, although I have seen her played and she's a typical two-sword wielding dark elf psychopath.
Crusaders is pitched somewhere between a RTS with a bit of RPG thrown in and Dynasty Warriors, with the core gameplay wavering between both styles. You have a single general that you control in third person and your army follows you where-ever you go, you can use the simple interface to issue orders and various commands while concentrating on charging around the massive battle-fields and beating ten-types of everything out of your opponents.
Usually you have a pair of weaker heroes that provide support and can be called upon with a couple of button presses, each of these has a specific kind of ability and they can unleash their special attack to help even the odds.
Enemy units often have a leader, if you can find and cut this opponent down you'll end up smashing the units morale and they'll disband.
There's the obligatory experience upgrades which adds a level of RPG-ness to the proceedings and allows you to customise your characters abilities, skills and so forth. Moving through a simple job tree allows you to change your troops occupation, so you might want to train up some kick-ass Paladins for instance.
You can also earn gold from the various confrontations and this can be used to buy new armour, equipment and weapons for you and your various generals/troops.
The game plays surprisingly well and has a good feel to it, the confrontations are epic and there are a lot of opponents on screen at once, there's no frame rate losses and the whole thing zips along at a cinematic pace - often you can just become quite lost watching the battles unfold around you, before you realise you're smack-bang in the middle of one yourself.
In troop movement mode you don't control your hero, but you can line up a marker and order your whole army to go to a specific point on the map. Once you engage an enemy unit the game snaps into a Dynasty Warriors style and you can mash buttons to your hearts content while the virtual blood flies around to the sound of grunts and the screams of the dying.
There are also various regiments and types of units you can control, you may find you need a group of archers, a lone scout or even a bunch of lance wielding footsoldiers to face down a cavalry charge.
Again these secondary units have a leader and their own abilities, ranging from powerful healing magic to a devastating volley of fire-arrows.
Yes, even tactics play an important role in the game as you can set fire to huge swathes of forest and burn whole armies to cinders, without having to lift a single finger in battle yourself.
The game is packed with playability and vibrant action, it will have you pulling your hair out in places however as some of the missions are incredibly hard. There is a lack of in-mission saves but you can save the game when you get back to a base or City, as well as using experience and gold to make alterations to your characters/armies and so forth.
You'll also find there are huge chunks of plot in the game as the story unfolds through cinematic cut-scenes (generated by the in-game engine and in places rivalling some of the graphics seen in the recent LotR games).
So an easy to use controller system and a skillful upgrade system make the core gameplay fun, rather than a chore, score one for the developers in this particular battle - huzzah!
I think I'd describe this particular game as being lush, lush is a good word as the rendering engine exudes a lot of polish and performance. It has an element of 'Shiny' to the graphics and especially when you see the Paladins in action, their armour positively glows.
It's unlike a traditional RTS since the camera is certainly not locked to any angle, you have a full three-dimensional view of the battlefield and you can rotate and position the camera any way you see fit to zoom in on the action, again this lends a beautiful cinematic view to the whole game.
Textures and lighting are superb in Crusaders and there seems to be a similar 'bloom' effect to Fable over the character models, especially those in shiny armour and certain parts of the levels, adding a ghostly 'misty' effect.
As you know, I don't tend to go into texture details or polygons and so forth, as far as I am concerned this is a 'review' about a game not its bells and whistles, what counts is if it plays well and looks decent, doesn't have to look wonderful to qualify.
We can't really call these levels at all, they're maps and battlefields - they're also quite massive, you can find single engagements in the game's story can take up to an hour or so to complete correctly, some are considerably shorter and all offer a great deal of variety as the story becomes more and more interesting.
You'll find that the developers have put a lot of effort into these maps and they're full of ruins, rivers, forests and so forth. Terrain can be used to your advantage and in this regard there are certain rules that are active in Crusaders, such as Line Of Sight and gaining an advantage over your enemy if you're on higher ground.
Another element that has been introduced is the sun, archers will find it hard to hit you if they're shooting into the sun, conversely you'll find it hard to hit the enemy if you do the same - little touches like these are superb and show that the RTS battle genre is just as grown-up as it's counterpart - the core RTS.
The models themselves are nicely detailed and extremely life-like, overall they present a good chunk of fantasy goodness - the female characters are attired of course in as little as possible, and one often wonders if this is a requirement for a best-selling fantasy computer game? Would LotR have gone down as well as it did, if Arwen was almost flashing her boobs around?
This is only a minor cosmetic gripe of mine since we are trying to lull more women into the hobby, it would be nice to see some good solid armour, sure it can have dents in it...but I don't think two bits of chainmail and a thong would protect our heroine against the cold, let alone Gerald's massive two-handed sword.
Where was I? Ah yes, models, overall a good job that gives the right feeling of 'fantasy' to a lot of the races, the brutish Orc types are especially well done.
The animations in Crusaders are excellent apart from in one area, but we'll come to that in a moment. The battle scenes are epic and the combat animations are really well done, the characters move and run with varying degrees of animation based upon the race and type of unit.
I have to mention the animation sequence for the fire-arrows, because it truly is impressive to watch - the developers have taken the time and trouble to implement a full sequence where the torch-bearer lights the pitch-covered arrows and moves down the line, then the archers fire and a streaming mass of flaming trails sails into the sky.
Where do they fall down?
Sadly the developers didn't bother to lip-synch their characters at all, so you're left watching them waggle their jaws in a motion akin to a cow chewing cud, watch it, you'll see what I mean. I really wish they'd have bothered to lip-synch up these movements as they would have added a proper layer of dialogue and character to their heroes, all I can think of as I see them talking is - Got Milk?
This is the only area where I feel let down.
Overall there are a few path finding problems in Crusaders but they don't detract from the overall gameplay and certain don't ruin the game. The AI itself will attempt to use various tactics, such as moving into the sun so you can't use arrows, using cover and flanking etc. Your units will move around most obstacles and the AI of friendlies is rudimentary enough for them to hold their own in battle against the enemy.
Sound and Music
The clash of steel and the yells of battle bring the combat to life in a rip-roaring audio festival of sound, you're transported into the heart of a massive war and the grunts of the Orc type creatures and the various screams as units clash pull you into Crusader's world.
Spot effects are nice, from the sounds of wildlife to the rush of a nearby river and the rattle as your armoured units move across the map. Another nice level of audio to paint a picture of a world suitable for any kind of RPG.
The music adds to the overall experience mostly and some of it did sound a little out of place, but again not by much.
Voice acting varies from good to downright awful, with some really bad lines delivered in a very halting style - and while we're here, what is it about the word: Patriarch? Why can't the VA's say it? It's left out...why?
There's an online only (Through LIVE) element to Crusaders which seems to resemble a deathmatch style game, where you play against other opponents out there, it would have been nice to see a Co-op or Teams mode across the whole singleplayer game where a friend could help even the odds in some of the nastier missions later on in the game.
Perhaps that's a thought for a sequel?
Phantagram have made an ambitious step forwards in a genre replete with Warcraft 3 clones, taking their original game and remaking it with a gorgeous 3d engine and RTS/RPG/3rd person battle combination. It may not be everyones cup of tea, but for a fan of the fantasy genre like me - KUF2 is a solid contender and deserves a place on any armchair generals Xbox shelf.