In November of last year during G-Star, South Korea's equivalent of E3, developer Blueside announced that it would be releasing the next iteration of the Kingdom Under Fire series for PC and PS4 in 2014.
At this point, I'm sure many of you are asking, "What the heck is a Kingdom Under Fire?" Perhaps followed by, "And if it currently is, why didn't it invest in fireproof safety measures in the first place?" We can't answer the latter, but we can offer a brief history lesson for the former.
The series got its start back in 2001 as a not-so-remarkable realtime strategy game whose full title was Kingdom Under Fire: A War of Heroes.. Its sequel, Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, changed things around by focusing far more on player-controlled hack-and-slash action, with the RTS micromanaging considerably dialed back. While it didn't exactly deliver StarCraft II levels of unit-controlling and rushing, it was a good breath of fresh air at the time. Critics did love how both KUF: The Crusaders and KUF: Heroes pulled off its hybrid systems in tandem.
Then co-developer Blueside created KUF: Circle of Doom and decided to strip away the RTS-lite portions: the one mechanic that made the series stood out from the other brainless third person action titles out there with arguably higher production values. Needless to say, the franchise took a break after receiving lukewarm sales and negative reviews.
Fast forward to 2014, and Korean developer Blueside is trying to recapture that same action-slash-RTS magic it delivered a decade ago, while incorporating a free-to-play MMO format; essentially the only acceptable payment model for games in Korea, unless you're a company called Blizzard.
After fiddling around with the limited period closed beta for a number of hours, I can tell you it definitely looks promising. The action is very satisfying, and the feeling of swatting down hordes of orcs and giant scorpions with huge destructive blows and earth-sundering special moves is nicely done. Major quests seem to emulate a virtual version of the Battle of Helm's Deep crammed in an MMO format, complete with the option to give your own infantry siege orders.
Since the closed and open betas won't occur for this game on the PC and (maybe) the PS4 later this year, here's some things to take note of so that you know what you're getting into:
Remember the MMO Tera where the fighting and pummeling creatures big and small felt like Korea's take on Monster Hunter? KUF II is essentially Dynasty Warriors with a fantasy coat of paint, with a huge emphasis on war-waging.
In the main story missions taking place in the medieval kingdom of Bersia, you kill hordes of orcs, ogres, demon treefolk and kobolds with whatever weapon you have on hand. This isn't a case of your avatar and a foe or two taking turns hitting each other while waiting for cooldowns to resolve. You have dozens upon dozens of fantasy beasts fighting you and other active NPCs on the field, so you have to think fast on your plans of attack. It's true melee combat.
Your foes rely on strength in numbers to get the best of you. Sometimes, smaller groups of enemies will be led by their enormous ogre captains or chieftains, which you have to focus on taking down. Tougher than the rest, they have access to knockdown-focused tackles and crowd-control swings - which means you need to dodge and block incoming attacks while dishing out your own brand of pain to succeed. Apart from your regular and secondary attacks that come out from the left and right mouse button, you can pull off special moves that have their own combos for each mouse click.
Unless you like the idea of getting your teeth kicked in over and over, you'll have to throw away your old MMO conventions and start working on your combo timings while figuring out your player character's dodge invincibility frames.
You'll also need to know what kind of classes you get to unleash your inner beat-em-up rage with. Each class has his or her own set of two weapons to alternate between the left and right mouse button, as well as a plethora of skills to use during skirmishes. When you level up, you get a set number of skill points to distribute among your active and passive skills.
For players who want a huge heft to their attacks and don't mind taking punishment, the horned Berserker is your pick. While not exactly the fastest class on the block, he makes up for it by having all of his normal giant sword swings hit enemies surrounding him and having special attacks that knock down opponents real quick. His Earth Sunder special combos into a three-hit move that ends with a cone-shaped radius flame splash. His Aura buff powers him up in damage and defense temporarily while letting him do his knockdown combo ending moves instantly. You might want to spend skill points on the two so that he hits harder and soaks up more damage than usual.
The Spellsword class handles DPS duties and is light on her feet. While not as good at crowd control as her Berserker sibling, she can dart around the field quickly and hit enemies fast with her assortment of ice and lightning spells. Just use her disruption techniques like how you would with a hit-and-run character like Rolento from the Street Fighter series, and you'll be styling and profiling. Her horizontal ice blasts have a probability to stun and slow down foes, so that's a good skill to start investing on as soon as you level up. Her spinning bird-like lightning kick? It's flashy and fast, but her normal moves are just as quick, so there's no need to allocate anything into it.
As if it wasn't a dead giveaway, the Gunslinger is part ranged, part melee. His ranged and special attacks all rely on controlling narrow horizontal spaces and a short burst within his line of sight in a spread. He's not as fragile as the Spellsword, but he's incredibly technical that his damage output is average for both his sword and gun attacks. Right now, his shotgun blast move is incredibly useful. It's medium-ranged, hits clustered foes like a brick, and has little to no recovery time. Unless the devs fix that for the upcoming betas, you might want to invest some skill points there.
When a character reaches level six, they're given command over of a number of soldiers, which can include the likes of infantry or a archers. It's here that the game's RTS elements can be found. As enemy groups get bigger and bigger, it's a necessity to hire armies, strengthen them with badges, and pick the right ones for the job so that they support your own actions in the strategic manner that best suits your style - and exploits the enemy's weaknesses.
Aesthetically, KUF II doesn't rewrite any fantasy style books. The Berserker's beefy and comes with a pair of horns straight out of the film Legend, the Gunslinger is your literal white knight sans helmet, and the Spellslinger wears less articles of clothing as she progressively gets stronger. The content also reflects a similar lack of imagination. Quests are run-of-the-mill early on: kill wolves to collect pelts, find a dozen herbs for lazy shopkeepers, and so forth, while the game's narrative leans towards the usual "darkness comes onto the land of Bersia again, so save it with your army and chosen one skills" storyline. The only thing that makes it stand out in any way is its Korean styling and special effects eye candy.
Hopefully more sophistication will be added to the game as it's developed through 2014. There's promise of Dynasty Warriors-style territory-capturing objectives and raids against giant demon armies when you're at higher levels. The PvP modes also features Faction wars where you band up with guilds and fight others with your armies. Every PvP fight will be an actual war with many players, which should result in huge numbers of infantry and cavalry men clashing on the battlefield. Done right, it should be excessive and chaotic, but one hell of a spectacle.