The trouble with writing RTS game reviews is getting that strong sense of déjà vu: the 'Hang on, haven't I written this before?' sort of situation. It's not that a lot of games are bad, but they do tend to be derivative: new wallpaper on the same old walls.

Kohan II: Kings of War is another RTS, and in some ways it's familiar territory, but in others it's refreshing and new. It's a fantasy game, with six nicely designed races to deploy. I've not played the original game, but know it got some very good reviews: plotwise, Kohan II carries on from its predecessor. Well, I say plot, but really it's the typical fantasy trope of one race (the Kohan) against another (the Ceyan), with the latter being the bad guys. The Ceyan were vanquished in part one, but obviously have good agents because they've regrouped for a new assault on the gaming world. So really, there's not a great deal to say about the plot of the main campaign; the good guys are cross that the baddies are mustering strength again and resolve to sort them out, so off they go. But to be honest, that doesn't really matter. This isn't a role-playing game, it's RTS and a heartbeat-raising wild ride of an RTS at that!

If you're into slow strategic gaming, forget it. If you don't take aggressive action almost immediately in this game, you'll be lost. You have to be brave and bold, and not worry too much about conserving troops - but there is a feature of this game that helps off set that; more of that later. Just get in there and start wielding the weapons. This especially applies when you're playing the single player mode scenarios as opposed to the campaign. I imagine it's not so exhausting playing against another human as against the brutal AI. In fact, as a new player, the only way I could get beyond about 20 minutes of the single player scenarios was to team up with one of the AI races, who helped me fend of the ravaging hordes of the enemy, who built themselves up at preternatural speed and came at me from several different directions at once.

The game looks good, and each of the six types of town are very different and well realised. The races follow the usual fantasy lines of, on the lighter side, human, elfish-type (Haroun), dwarf-type (Gauri), and barbarians (Drauga), and on the darker side the Undead and the bizarre and eerie Shadow, who are sort of dark elfish - I liked playing them immensely. In many ways, Kohan II reminded me of Age of Wonders II, in feel as well as in some of the detail and the way it plays. You can only establish towns on predetermined settlement points, for which you have to compete with your enemies. Sometimes, these points are guarded by fierce independents. As well as places to build towns, you'll find resources on the map, which have to be 'developed' by your engineer units in order to produce resources, and various other places such as shrines and technology areas where you can attack the guardians and get bonuses for your towns. There isn't an awful lot to do on the map other than slug it out with the enemies, and the landscape itself isn't that wondrous in comparison to some other titles, (to be honest it's a bit bare, in comparison to a title like Age of Wonders II), but the towns themselves and the units within them are well-designed and pretty to look at. For one thing, the towns are big, so you can see the buildings and units in detail. As in most RTS games, you have to build up your towns by using your resources carefully and creating the right buildings to get the troops you want. You don't have to give orders to your workers, you simply click on the appropriate place to upgrade and they do it automatically. Similarly, building a wood cutter means you simply start getting wood; you don't send workers out to do it yourself. The resources are not accumulative, except for gold, so you can't stockpile and then 'spend' them on the relevant troops, who cost a certain amount of gold and/or resources to maintain. You need a certain amount of working buildings and resource points to keep things running, otherwise the deficit is taken in gold, which means you can easily end up in the red. Then things can get really wonky! You can upgrade most of the buildings several times, and at their top level, you can then start researching technologies and combat improvements. Not that you get a lot of time to do this; the main focus is on building troops. Don't wait until you have the best technologies and the top level units. Go out and rampage from the first unit you build.

The troops aren't separate units but rather squads of units. Each squad has a leader, (either a common or garden Captain, or a Kohan hero, both of which are recruitable), and around eight to ten units, depending on which buildings you've created. You can custom design the squads to include leader, archers, infantry, cavalry, magic users and healers, placing them in relevant positions to ensure maximum efficiency. There isn't a great deal of emphasis on the use of magic, which is where Kohan II differs greatly from Age of Wonders II. Your sorcerers will zap enemies, but you have no control over their spells, and although your squad leaders and units gain experience and levels to become more effective, you don't have any input into how they develop.

As I said, you have to take action in this game, and because your troops will take a battering, there is a wonderful thing called a Supply Zone that helps offset the tragic fatalities. Each town and outpost has one of these, and if you move your troops within it, they start to heal rapidly. Even dead units will revive. This includes the towns of your allies, if you have any. So as long as one unit within a squad has some life left in it, you can retreat to the nearest Supply Zone to resuscitate the dead and wounded. But even if the squad gets wiped out, and your favourite veteran leader dies, you can recruit them again in your towns. I found that sometimes it was better to let them be vanquished, since the leaders you first start with have pretty low level troops, who'll keep reviving if you continually retreat with them, and as far as I can work out you can't upgrade them to better ones. So, when that happened, I let the leader bite the dust and recruited him/her again with a better squad. This is one of the things that makes Kohan II different from other titles. You don't have to be paranoid about losing your best heroes.

You don't have a great deal of control over your squads. You simply arrange them when you recruit them in various positions (front, flank, and so on), send them out, point them at the enemy and let rip. It's a good idea to try and surround enemy units with different squads, since they'll attempt to retreat if they can, thereby being able to resuscitate veterans. You can also force your own squads to retreat when things look hopeless. Sometimes, the only way to succeed is to push your troops to the limit, reviving the limping squad remnants several times to take out the enemy.

I've played around 8 missions of the campaign before writing this. It starts off fairly low key, but rapidly becomes more difficult. (Although strangely enough around 9 or so missions in, you get to play a couple of scenarios with Undead and Shadow that are far easier, only to go straight back to difficult when you play again for the 'Light' side.) Only the most veteran players will be able to succeed at the more difficult missions in one go. You get to sample the different races, but the main emphasis is on taking action almost at once, and concentrating on the attack/retreat/heal strategy. The best way to do this is to have at least two groups of squads. (You can group several together.) Send out one, let it get trashed and stagger home, then send the other out. You have to keep up an unrelenting assault, so that the enemy has no time to build up their towns and technology, but rather has to expend resources on recruiting troops.

The only complaint I have about this game really is that I think the landscape could have been a bit more interesting, and it could have been good to have a couple of RPG elements such as sub quests to accomplish and puzzles to solve, but that's just my personal preference. On the whole I've enjoyed playing Kohan II and will continue to play. It is a thing unto itself, unashamedly being a combat heavy strategy title, with some cool graphic touches in the town development side of things. Once you get to know the six races, you'll find that each one plays differently, so you can develop different strategies to play them well. Players who like to get in there and fight in challenging scenarios will find much to delight them. The exotic races make a nice change from the typical RTS types of characters (Vikings and Romans and so on), and it's fun to watch the towns build up, especially if you have a Shadow or Haroun settlement, which are especially well conceived. With the massive slew of RTS titles available, this is one that deserves to succeed.