Transport, accommodation, and hospitality costs for this trip were covered by Gameforge.
'This is like the beginning of a slasher film.'
The hotel Weinberg-Schlößchen sits in the middle of Oberheimbach, a sleepy vintners' town on the slopes of the Rhine Valley, about an hour’s drive outside of Frankfurt. It’s a beautiful place, a long, meandering line of centuries-old timber-framed houses fringed by autumnal forest on one side and vineyards on the other. At the moment I don’t know this, however, because it’s 11pm at night and completely dark.
It’s been a stressful evening. A mix-up with the taxis at the airport meant our small group of journalists spent 40 minutes trying to figure the situation out with a German taxi driver who kept repeating 'You are not going to Bingen!' in increasingly hysterical tones. This was followed by a long, cramped drive into an increasingly isolated spot of rural Germany, a slideshow of shadowy forests with occasional flashes of civilisation.
When we finally arrive, both the village and the hotel are silent. It’s several minutes before the receptionist appears from closing the kitchen. After checking in, we’re immediately ushered into a small function room where some food has been laid out in anticipation of our late arrival. The group is highly international. Alongside myself, there is a Pole, a Hungarian, a Frenchman, three Italians, and a pleasant Danish fellow who doesn’t like salmon. None of us have ever met before, and the sparse room and total silence of the hotel is clearly making everyone feel a little uncomfortable.
That’s when I decide to make my stupid joke. Everyone laughs, albeit more from relief than anything else. Immediately afterwards, the receptionist appears and explains to one of the Italian journalists that his room is in the hotel’s special 'guest house', separate from the main building, and if he would be so inclined to accompany her, alone, into the night, she’ll show him where it is.
They leave together. Everyone else exchanges glances, clearly thinking the same thing: If she comes back alone, we’re definitely in trouble.
Nobody got murdered. Of course they didn’t! That would be absurd. We’re here to see Kingdom Under Fire II, a Korean hybrid of MMORPG and real-time strategy. Apparently it has been in development for 12 years and releases imminently, although this is the first I’ve personally heard of it.
The event is taking place in the nearby Castle Reichenstein, which must be the most German name for a castle imaginable. It’s certainly worthy of it, an imposing sprawl of stone walls and towers high on the side of the valley overlooking the Rhine. Apparently the castle was first mentioned in historical records around 1213, before proceeding on a typically castle-y history of being variously destroyed, left to rot, and rebuilt across the next 800 years.
We’re greeted at the gatehouse by a bunch of medieval re-enactors yelling 'Welcome!' at us through smoke from lit braziers and unlit smoke machines. One of them gets right in my face, and I respond by yelling 'Thank you' back, which is probably the most depressingly British thing I’ve ever done. Once the modern press has milled through the medieval press, the re-enactors have a fight in the lower courtyard while a man dressed like a jester introduces us to the day’s events.
After that, we sit through a press conference for Kingdom Under Fire II and are then free to mill about the castle. As part of the event, the organisers have set a real-life “quest-line” for the attendees to pursue. Part of this involves accepting a “potion” brewed by the castle’s alchemist, who seems to be doing an animated impression of Terry Jones in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He’s not a journalist. He’s a very naughty boy, etc. I decide against taking part in the potion brewing, because in my head I can see a very different scene the following day, namely myself trying to explain a mysterious substance in a stoppered glass phial as I pass through airport security.
I explore the castle a little more before proceeding to the play area to test the game. It really is an impressive place. Inside the main keep, the walls are covered with mounted antlers. It seems the historical occupants loved shooting the absolute shit out of deer. Unfortunately, the atmosphere is somewhat spoiled by all the cardboard cut-outs of Kingdom Under Fire II’s playable characters, three of which are elfish women with titanic breasts and an indifferent attitude toward clothing.
In principle I have nothing against sexualised depictions of women or men in games, if that’s what the developers want to make. It’s the slant of the sexuality that’s my issue. While the female characters are at risk of hypothermia and/or severe back problems, the male characters are of course are all rippling muscles with shoulders like the Himalayan plateau and clad in more armour than a tank. It’s a very generic and male-gazey depiction of fantasy, and it just seems a little bit ill-judged in 2019.
Perhaps the game will justify it, however. I head upstairs to test it out. Now it’s worth noting that the circumstances are really not ideal for testing out an MMO, so I can only give a broad impression of Kingdom Under Fire II’s first couple of hours. I tried out two of the five characters in my time with it, the Gunslinger – a hybrid character who uses both swords and guns, and the Berserker, a devilish fellow who smacks enemies about with a sword the size of a door. The game kicks off with a tutorial that involves you defending a city from a massive assault by a demonic horde of beings called the Engoblossians, which, I have to be honest, isn’t a name that strikes fear into my heart.
My immediate thoughts about Kingdom Under Fire II are twofold. Firstly, there’s clearly an awful lot of game here. Both MMOs and RTS titles tend to be sizeable games, and I would say in combining the two the developers have more than doubled the scope of what you would normally expect from either genre.
Secondly, the MMO side of the game is clearly the weaker half, with a UI and quest structures that feel very mid-2000s. Also, while I think the blend of strategy and RPG could work very well, I’m less sure about what Kingdom Under Fire II gains from being an MMO. Most of the core experience is highly instanced, so you don’t seem to interact with other players beyond seeing them wander around your world. There are multiplayer raids and stuff that like, but I didn’t see anything that demonstrated to me this needed to be massively multiplayer.
There are two things I like about the developer’s approach to MMO design, however. Firstly, it plays fast. The quests may be very simplistic, but I rattle through at least a dozen of them in the couple of hours I have with it. I like how quest-givers are quietly shuffled around behind you so that they’re in a more convenient spot for returning completed quests, helping to minimise backtracking and get you onto the next quest as efficiently as possible.
Secondly, the combat is pretty decent for an MMO, closer to Dynasty Warriors in terms of its hack-‘n’-slash action than World of Warcraft. It’s not particularly tactical, at least not in these early stages, but it is more fun than pressing A on an enemy until they fall over. Each characters has a light and heavy attack as well as the ability to dodge and block incoming attacks. As you level up, you’ll gradually unlock increasingly powerful abilities that can devastate entire crowds of opponents. Visually Kingdom Under Fire II is somewhat behind the times, at least at the smaller scale, but when you’re in the thick of battle, it can still pack in a spectacle.
It isn’t until toward the end of my time with the game that I get to glimpse the RTS side, which frankly is considerably more interesting than the MMO side. You’re able to switch seamlessly from a third-person view to an overhead strategic camera, from which you can order your units to move and attack. There are also a lot of available units, from fairly standard foot soldiers and archers to flying dragons and giant scorpions. Again, the couple of battles I get to see aren’t the most tactical of experiences, certainly not compared to, say, Total War: Warhammer. But there’s every chance the tactics will reveal themselves as more units become available to you.
Unfortunately, my time with Kingdom Under Fire was all too brief, and I have to make way for the next group of press. I returned later in the evening to play some more but still nowhere near enough to tell you anything more definitive. The build I played was quite rough around the edges, with some item and dialogue text still in Korean and an audio glitch that meant some of the sounds didn’t play. I’ve been told that this is an older build, however, so hopefully the launch version will see these bugs squashed.
As night descends and I leave Castle Reichenstein, my feelings about the game are conflicted. I think Kingdom Under Fire II has an interesting idea, and I enjoyed what I played of the RTS side. The hack-‘n’-slash combat works quite well too, but it can’t be denied that some of the MMO structure suffers from those long years in development, and I worry that perhaps the developers would have been better off focussing on a purely strategic experience or at least keeping things single-player.
Hell of a castle, though.
Kingdom Under Fire II Launches Today (November 14th)
February 17 2020 | 09:00