- PhantagramSystem Requirements - Pentium 200 MMX or equivalent 64Mb RAM 900Mb hard drive space 8x CD-Rom drive 2Mb DirectX graphics card
Big In Korea
Computer games are a way of life in Korea, with games like Starcraft selling hundreds of thousands of copies and the top players earning six digit figures from prizes and sponsorship deals. And yet very few Korean-made games have come to the west thus far. Enter "Kingdom Under Fire", a hybrid of real-time strategy and role-playing elements set in a fantasy world of orcs and elves.
At first glance it looks like a straightforward Warcraft clone, with a story involving the usual battle between good and evil, a sprite-based 2D graphics engine clunking along behind it all, and the same tired old mixture of base building and resource gathering. There is also a relatively limited selection of units available in the early stages of the single player campaigns, and as a result you are usually heavily out-gunned by the enemy. Luckily later on in the game and in random battles there is a much wider range of units to train, buildings to construct and technologies to buy, and things start to get more interesting.
Dig a little deeper and you will find there is more to the game though. Units gain experience as they kill their enemies, which in turn gradually improves their abilities. This gives you some incentive to nurse your units through a battle rather than simply throwing them at your opponent, although the pace of the action is often so fast that it's hard to find time to micro-manage your troops or to keep track of which are rookies and which have become veterans. It's a nice touch, but doesn't have quite as much impact on the game as you might expect thanks to the fast and brutal nature of combat.
Each side also has a small cast of heroes, including the main character who you will guide throughout the entire campaign. These add some much needed variety to the proceedings, carrying their experience from one battle to the next throughout the single player campaign and gradually amassing a range of spells and special abilities which can help turn the course of a battle. An effective attack with your hero can easily lay waste to an entire enemy base as they reach ever higher levels.
Phantagram have also taken the lone wolf missions so beloved of the Command & Conquer series to the next logical level. Interrupting the two campaigns are a few missions which seem to have more in common with Diablo than Warcraft, putting you in control of your hero and allowing you to guide him through castles and dungeons, slaughtering any enemies that cross his path. Items such as armour and weapons can be picked up, increasing your character's stats and carrying over into the strategy sections, while scripted sequences help to push the storyline forward.
The only real problem with the heroes is that most of them must survive for you to win a mission, meaning that you will get a "game over" screen if any important characters are killed. This would be a little annoying at the best of times, as a single moment of carelessness or a sneak attack while your attention is on another part of the battlefield can rather abruptly end your mission. Unfortunately Kingdom Under Fire currently lacks a proper save game mechanism, meaning that if you lose you have to start the battle again from scratch. This can obviously make things rather tedious as some missions take upwards of an hour to complete, and the further you get into a mission the less keen you are to risk getting one of your heroes killed, although ironically this is when they would perhaps be most useful.
Sadly while the game has a lot of promise, it fails to gel. The artificial intelligence, even after applying the latest patch, is rather hit and miss - units can wander off in completely the opposite direction to the one you expected them to go in, and you will sometimes see enemy soldiers standing around picking their noses while you lay waste to their base just half a screen away.
Meanwhile your enemy keeps throwing troops at your base piecemeal, even when you have a solid wall of guard towers in place waiting to slaughter them when they get there. Offensives tend to be fairly half-hearted and wasteful, while defence is usually chaotic and ineffective. This doesn't make for much of a challenge in the single player game. The units are also somewhat unbalanced, with air troops tending to dominate the game as only three types of soldier on each side can fight back against them, and none of them are particularly strong.
Other units can lead to annoyingly cheap kills, such as the bizarre swamp monsters which spawn little bouncing blobs that jump on to buildings or units and then explode, or the suicide bombers which can wipe out a dozen or more low level troops in a single blast. An invisibility spell makes these even more irritating, as none of your units will respond to or attack them, leaving them free to slaughter your workers, destroy your buildings and harrass your troops until the spell wears off. And a well placed mage can keep them invisible pretty much indefinitely, or at least until you can find and kill him. It's all too easy for an enemy with a handful of these units to cause serious damage.
The game doesn't exactly look like it is at the pinnacle of technology either. The graphics are locked at 800x600 with 16 bit colour, and although the unit and building sprites are fairly large and detailed, the whole thing looks decidely antiquated. Animations are of variable quality as well, with troops often seeming to glide over the ground as if they are moonwalking.
Sounds are highly repetitive, and the standard unit acknowledgement voices soon become annoying, although the music is good and the rendered cutscenes are quite impressive - it's just a shame that there aren't more of them. You can't help but think that the game's storyline has lost something in the translation from Korean as well, with names like Rick Blood, the great wizard Moonlight and the Black Dragon Nibles, not to mention the constant cries of "not enough food, build more farm".
Where the game does shine though is with its multiplayer support. In-game chat rooms make finding opponents and setting up or joining a game incredibly easy, and up to eight players can battle it out together over a LAN or online using the WarGate service. Multiplayer is actually rather fun, although unit balancing issues do mean that battles tend to end rather suddenly once one of the players has managed to summon a hero or put together a large enough air force to flatten your base with. Still, it's an enjoyable enough experience.
Kingdom Under Fire isn't a bad game, just unremarkable. The poor AI and lack of an in-game save option makes the single player campaigns frustrating and unrewarding, and the role-playing elements don't quite work as well as they perhaps should. The rather primitive graphics engine doesn't do the game justice either, which is a shame because there is a good game somewhere in there trying to break out. If you're a multiplayer strategy fanatic it might be worth a look, and you will almost always find opponents waiting online to play against, but for the lone gamer it's hard to recommend.