Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes

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But what really impressed us most about Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes is its incredible attention to detail in battle, and not just from a graphical point of view either - although it's astounding how good every unit looks, from the individual links of chain in the human army's armour, to the rough animal-fur collars of the marauding orc hordes, this is authentic as anything Peter Jackson conjured up in his Lord of the Rings battle scenes. No, we're talking about genuine, authentic battle tactics here, and it's this more than anything that elevates Kingdom Under Fire: Heroes from colourful Dynasty Warriors homage to must-have title for anybody with even the slightest horn for strategy games.

It's not enough to just plough into the enemy, attack buttons set to auto-hammer - this is a proper field of battle and there are rules and procedures you'll need to follow if you ever hope to make it out alive. Sending out scouts, for instance. Not only will you get a good eye for the layout of the land, but you can also spot enemy units without the risk of setting off full-scale skirmishes.

Elevation is another important factor. Grabbing the high ground gives you a huge tactical advantage over those you're fighting below, especially for archers, who can rain arrows down on enemy troops far more effectively from hilltops. Likewise, the position of the sun has a big impact on proceedings. Fight with the sun to your back and you're laughing, but try shooting into the glare and you'll find yourself hitting fewer targets than a blind darts player with Parkinson's.

And on it goes. KUF: Heroes is an interactive textbook of historical battle tactics, bellowing strategies at you like Peter Snow with the world's loudest megaphone in his fist. Frustrated because your archers can't hit the enemy hidden deep within the forest? Then switch to burning arrows and smoke them out instead. Enemy continually charging you down with mounted troops? Try hiding behind a phalanx of spearmen and laugh with glee as the enemy mounts impale themselves on the protective shield of pikes. If nothing else, KUF: Heroes is the most robust, technically accurate strategy game ever to grace Xbox.

And yet somehow, controlling it all via the joypad is a breeze. Mini-maps can be pulled up on screen with the stab of a button; units can be switched between with the triggers, targets can be selected using the analogue sticks, and magic spells and skills can all be accessed with a flick of the directional pad. It's fast and instinctive and a masterclass in intelligent control design. If we have one complaint, it's that the camera can get confused amid the action. Admittedly, it does have to cope with zooming from close-up combat to eye-in-the-sky to back down on the ground again, all while cleverly avoiding the densely packed forest, but when it gets stuck on something as benign as a shallow hill you have to wonder. But what's one little camera fault when you're busy marshalling five different units at once? Screw camera issues. This is a game that pushes your tactical brain to the limits. Do you personally lead your cavalry into battle, or do you go for something more discreet instead? Decisions, decisions.


Because, just when you think you've plumbed the very last of the endless layers of depth on offer, KUF: Heroes manages to get even more complex, throwing a massively detailed RPG element in on top. It's not enough just to guide your armies to victory on the field of conflict - you have to nurture and develop them off the field as well, spending cash and experience earned in battle on new skills, abilities and equipment. Which, of course, throws up even more important tactical decisions, as each unit under your control transforms from simple infantryman into rock-hard paladin, butch catapult engineer or even spell-chucking dragon rider.

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