Down To Earth
While the original Kingdom Under Fire bore a certain resemblance to Warcraft, at first sight the sequel seems to have more in common with Koei's Kessen series. The whole game is rendered in glorious real-time 3D, providing players with a ground level view of the action as up to 450 soldiers fight their way across hills and through forests.
Developers Phantagram have set out to recreate the kind of epic battles found in movies such as Gladiator, and judging from the footage we've seen so far they may just have succeeded. Dramatic camera angles show groups of soldiers charging around the battlefield, before clashing amidst much shouting and ringing of steel, while groups of archers fire arrows into the melee from a safe distance. The evil orcish hordes are equally impressive, with huge ogres towering above the other combatants and sending troops flying in all directions with sweeping blows. The visual style throughout is eye-catching; units are intricately modelled and textured but not quite photo-realistic, resulting in graphics that look vaguely like the rotoscoping of the classic cartoon version of The Lord Of The Rings at times.
The Crusaders will also feature day and night cycles and varied weather effects, and they're not just there to look pretty. Sunlight can dazzle your troops, so forcing your enemy to attack with the sun behind you could improve your chances, while high winds can interfere with ranged fire from your archers. The detailed terrain of the battlefields also influences the outcome of a fight, and as a result taking the high ground or sneaking your way through a forest could provide a tactical advantage. On a more functional level, a simple overhead map of the battlefield is presented in the top right of the screen, from where players can set waypoints for their units and give orders to attack enemy forces. It all looks very simple, but should offer a more continuous experience than Kessen, with no messing around switching between multiple map views.
Back To Basics
All of which may leave you wondering what this all has to do with the original game. Well for starters the sequel shares the same fantasy setting, picking up the grim story some fifty years after the Great War portrayed in Kingdom Under Fire. Four playable races are on offer this time, each with their own campaign taking you through the same central storyline while offering a different perspective with unique missions and objectives.
Hero characters also return for the sequel, with each side having a main hero and a cast of sub-heroes to support him. In true Kessen style, these leaders have a range of special moves and spectacular spells at their disposal, which can turn the tide of a battle. Early in-game footage shows a sword-wielding knight by the unlikely name of Gerald using rush attacks to knock enemy soldiers off their feet, as well as devestating balls of fire falling from the sky, the blasts scattering an orc unit and sending flames rolling through the forest.
Another feature from the original game which will get a new lease of life in the sequel is the character development system. Soldiers gain experience as they fight, and this now carries over from one battle to the next, allowing you to build up a veteran army. As well as levelling your men to increase their abilites during the course of a campaign, you can also upgrade their weapons and armour between battles.
Kingdom Under Fire 2 looks to be a radical departure for the series, taking full advantage of the Xbox hardware to provide gorgeous 3D graphics and close-up action. There's also vague talk of online support on a massive scale, and given that multiplayer was the original game's strongest point, we have high hopes for the sequel. If it's half as fun as it looks, we could be in for a treat when it reaches the west early next year. And PC gamers needn't feel left out, as a version of the game is also being planned for the beige box.