We’ve seen plenty of occasions where games are announced and subsequently disappear over the years. Sometimes they slink away from view, quietly sputtering out under a shower of bad decisions and poor management. Sometimes they explode in a surge of ill feeling and reprehension. Sometimes though they miraculously reappear, like a missing cat that’s reappeared at the back door, beggging for you to let them in. Kingdom under Fire II is that cat. Having gone missing for over a decade, developer Blueside have now returned, and it’s clear that they’re very, very hungry.
It’s safe to say that there have been missteps along the way. Kingdom under Fire II was originally due to launch on the PC and then the Xbox 360, at a point where it could have continued the good work done by Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom while reintroducing the RTS elements that had been the original game’s calling card. It simply wasn’t meant to be though, and a 2009 release slipped to 2010, before slipping away entirely.
What’s initially surprising, having finally played Kingdom under Fire II, is that it’s actually a game that exists in the here and now. Now an MMORPG with unique RTS elements, you control your hero drawn from one of five different classes – Gunslinger, Ranger, Berzerker, Elementalist and Spellsword – and take them into battle. Your direct control over them results in some satisfying and weighty hack and slash action that looks and feels exactly how fans of the franchise would hope.
Kingdom Under Fire II’s party trick is that you can seamlessly jump away from your hero fighting on the ground and into an RTS view, and take control of three accompanying units that could be any of an array of different troop types. It’s an enjoyably quick transition between the two, with the designers citing Dawn of War as an inspiration for how they wanted these sections to feel.
Focussing mainly on the single player side of the MMO campaign, we didn’t get to take part in any of the larger scale battles, but I can well imagine they’re going to be frantic. Archers provide long range support, while tanks smash through your enemies’ front lines. As long as the engine is capable of supporting the greater numbers efficiently, it’s a great gameplay loop, and hopping between ground level attack and battlefield strategy is a winning formula. With eighty units across ten factions and an additional forty planned for after launch, it looks as though there’ll be plenty for prospective generals to tinker with as you try to build the perfect support group.
Infantry units form the basis of close-combat melee troops, while cavalry, magic, ranged and airborne units help to further flesh out your personal army. The design of each troop type fits into the Western fantasy stereotypes that formed the foundation of the previous Kingdom Under Fire games, but where some are relatively rote, the monstrous Dark Forces and Encablossians have allowed Blueside to stretch their creative muscles.
We came up against myriad grotesque monsters who provided plenty of unlikeable fodder to clear out. Playing as the well-balanced Gunslinger class, I was able to shift between melee and ranged attack with ease. There’s a few different combos at your disposal that allow you to pummel your opponents with one armament or mix between the two. Beyond the foot soldiers, leaders in an enemy army offer a brisk challenge, while hulking boss creatures fill the screen – it feels like you’re going to have to be at the top of your game to make it past them.
Fortunately each character also has a number of mappable skills, and these will level up and grow as you progress though the game. A mix of basic and mastery skills sit beside chain skills and enhanced combo skills to provide two distinct skill trees with an ultimate skill at the end of each. They do a fantastic job of clearing the way in front of you, and I can only assume they’ll become ever more lethal as you advance.
There’s a bunch of character customisation options with more than enough flexibility to create something unique, and we saw a small number of the different costumes that will be available to you. This is Gameforge’s first full-price title, and anyone with concerns over whether their free-to-pay heritage will impact on the experience can rest assured that microtransactions will be limited to cosmetics, as in most major MMOs out there. Everything else, gear, weaponry etc. can be earned or created in-game, and they’re keen to emphasise that there are no pay-to-win mechanics.
It’s heading out with a relatively humble level cap of 30, though that will apparently still equate to around 200 hours of content, and the design team indicated that the central narrative will be enough to build your character to that level without huge rafts of grinding. Of course, if you’re getting into crafting or farming for items that time could stretch things out even further, and even when you’ve reached the level cap you can craft or gain upgrade stones that push your stats even further.
Blueside and Gameforge have a clear path for the endgame once you arrive there, built around daily quests, upgrading your gear, fighting for your guild and raids. There’ll be three 8 player raids which you’re limited to doing once per day, and 4 man raids which are limited to twice a day on top of everything else, which will hopefully satisfy fans at the outset.
They’re already talking about Kingdom Under Fire II’s future as well, and we were briefly shown the Dark Sorceress, a sixth hero class. A unique proposition amongst the Hero units, she has no close-range melee abilities, relying solely on long range and area of effect spells to keep her enemies at bay. Alongside that character – which will arrive in a free update – they’re working on a 7 phase, 16 player raid too.
There’s still some work to be done. Our demo build had been prepared a few weeks ago, and there were elements due a few more runs of polishing before the game’s launch on the 14th of November. Subtitles and speech in particular show the game’s team are still hard at work on the translation and its subsequent editing, and conversations and quest acceptance from NPC’s is needlessly clunky at the moment.
That does little to diminish the enthusiasm you should feel for the returning Kingdom Under Fire franchise. The versatile gameplay hook of switching from action to RTS is one that feels fresh, and hopefully the fantasy narrative will have enough twists and turns to carry you all the way through to the endgame. With the right support I can see it finding plenty of fans when it releases next week.
On this occasion, this is one surprising arrival you should let in.