Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is part of that series of games, cousin to Dynasty Warriors, in which you command units of troops in something akin to a close-camera RTS, before diving into fantasy melee and finding yourself cast as the lead pugilist in a 100-man beat Ďem up. Needless to say, such a game concept is hugely entertaining: hence the ongoing series.
But before you get to the brutality, you must parse the names. The Kingdom of Arenia, the east Bersian continent of Vellond; the annexation of Hexter by Valdemar the Half Vampire; the elves in the Hironeidian territory; the Encalblossa War, ogre tribes in the marches...
All this on the loading screen alone.
Iíve been told off by editors before for fantasy bashing on a number of occasions. But in all honesty I have no prejudice; I simply want to convey the awfulness that many games, films or books wish to pass off as some kind of story-like substance. More often than not, the cocaine of a good yarn is cut with 90 per cent powdered gibberish, and thatís going to get up anyoneís nose. (In a bad, Daniella Westbrook-type way.)
But I canít help myself: I have perverse love for the sheer audacity of the epic-fantasy insanity that games like this attempt to deliver. The dialogue is a voluminous exercise in disjointed absurdity. I baulk at imagining what the voice actors made of the script, and Iím always end thinking of what it must have been like just getting this garbage over with in their $5-per-hour studios. Perhaps theyíll give some false-gusto, clutching a cup of lukewarm Starbucks bean-mud as they recite the nonsense. This acting career was meant to be Hollywood and Shakespeare, wasnít it? Wasnít it?
Will they later buy the game and proudly demonstrate their performance to their agents and/or mother? (The lonely voice actor steps out into the rain for a good cry...)
Thereís even a guy who occasionally says "..." apropos of nothing at all. And then there are the implied events in the dialogue which, because they are taking place off-camera (while you stare a pixelly 3D world map screen), are unseen and completely obscure.
What the hell is going on?
Fortunately, I swallowed the blue pill, and instead of seeing the truth of this fantasy lard-slab, I have plunged into the fantastical battles beyond. Scene-skipping is your friend: make up your own story, put your fingers in your ears and go "la-la-la!" when the cut-scenes occur. Just think about the slaying, and give yourself over to the moment. Those giant scorpions must pay: theyíre on the wrong team.
Still with me, eh? Okay, so the truth of it is that no one is going to care about the rubbish story, because thereís something delicious under the wrinkly skin of a long-dead Tolkien. Itís this: incredible fighting.
When I say 'incredible', I donít mean as in 'leaving you incredulous', or as in some kind of fighting activity you wonít be familiar with. I mean spectacular, showy, and high-fivingly entertaining. Dragons strafe the field of battle, hordes of snarling orcs come barrelling in, axes in hand; heroes spin, kick and scythe their way through a soup of enemies, blades whirling. Itís thrilling stuff. I found myself punching the air after the defeat of one particularly hairy band of orcs; much to the bemusement of my girlfriend, who was sat behind me on the sofa, practicing her frowning.
Anyway, the tactical sections of Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes actually constitute a relatively sophisticated RTS. You take to the field with a certain set of objectives, which must be accomplished by not getting slaughtered. When the action kicks off youíll need to position ranged troops correctly and deploy units in the manner in which theyíll be most effective. Bowmen will suffer if theyíre firing into the sun, or if theyíre firing up hill. Likewise infantry will move faster if theyíre spread out, but will be more vulnerable to attack; bunch them up into that tight phalanx and youíll hit harder as you plunge into enemy ranks.
Occasionally (annoyingly) itís possible to break the sequence of events. I failed to retreat from one fight, for example, killing everyone even though they pleaded mercy, and so failed to open up the latter part of the mission where Iíd save their Elf princess. A restart was necessary. Likewise, there a few missions where - without any obvious waypoints - youíll end up wandering about aimlessly. While the over-laid map is useful for moving units and for positioning yourself with regards to enemies, it is entirely featureless and devoid of navigational use. Donít expect clues about where to go (although itís generally linear enough not to matter).
Although each of your units have all have defined roles, each one can be upgraded and re-classed in substantial action-interlude map-screen menu sections. As they level up their role can change, with infantry becoming cavalry, or heavy infantry, depending on your tactical whims. War begets experience and gold, and that must be spent on new swords and shinier shields for both men and leaders. While you wonít necessarily notice the effect of this in-game, youíll need to keep on top of their upgrade curve so that units wonít get a bloody nose in later melees.
When that close-range combat occurs, your lead unit switches from indirect RTS controls to the melee itself. This is where the titular heroes get to flex their powers, in a beat-Ďem-up style fight against potentially hundreds of enemies. Charging headlong into a churning wall of orcs is hugely satisfying, especially when your suitably supercharged weapons send them flying in a shower of blood and sparks. As with other fighting games, the right sequence of button bashing lets you pull off a sequence of moves, including the odd power-up hyperblast that youíll impress yourself with in times of need. A smattering of special characters join you on the field, too, and the tough fights can be turned with deft use of their special moves. Discovering new ways to lay the smack down brings a smile to even the stiffest upper lip. Itís stupid pixel-opera of this kind that games excel at, and the sheer simplicity of stabbing the dark legion do-badders in the face gives way to constant delight.
The melee combat is too easy and too chaotic to really be regarded as any kind of skill-based challenge, though, but it's nevertheless just relentlessly amusing, and help augment the fiddly strategic sections with gratuitous, open carnage (Whack! Stab-biff!). Nevertheless, as the game progresses it becomes tougher for you to win these skirmishes single-handedly, although the hero characters always define the course of any fight.
And thereís a lot of this incredible fighting to get through, too. There are multiple story-campaigns to enjoy, as well as a skirmish mode. You have a choice of characters to begin with, although only the default one actually leads you into the story properly. Further heroes are unlocked as you complete the early campaigns, each one representing another tier of trickiness. The war can also be played from the point of view of the evil-folk, who really do excel in the silly voice department.
Needless to say, thereís Live support too, so you can set up some grand epic-scale custom games to play online, pushing the game to its over-wrought limits. The truly top-end battles that can be produced in this way really do impress even the terminally cynical.
That said, it seems that Heroes could be a whole lot prettier. Thereís a hell of a lot of washed-out colour and bad camera wobbles in there. But when it gets it right, when the field of battle is writhing with combatants, when the archers are setting enemies on fire with flaming arrows, when meteors plunge to Earth and when dragons dive from the sky to strafe the melee with jets of green fire, then you really begin to believe. Imperfections be damned. Thereís enough energy here to make up for a hundred made-up elf names.
Actually, the finest thing about the Kingdom games (and I know Iím not the first person to point this out) is the music. Rather than default to the 'Oooo-laaa' of contemporary fantasy soundtracks, KUFH employs dense speed-metal loops for the melee, framed by incidental post-rock in the movement and map screen phases. Itís glorious, and slightly incongruous.
The orcs and the elves: they listen to Motorhead.