Like the earlier Settlers games, Heritage of Kings features a series of real-time management and battle scenarios tied together with a role-playing-style storyline. By directing both economic development and warfare in real-time, players develop the forces and influence they need to conquer their enemies. The fifth full release in the series, Heritage of Kings is designed with an even greater focus on storyline continuity, such that each new scenario has an obvious and important relevance to the overall epic.
Players lead the brave Dario, whose family suffers a vicious and unprovoked attack, to rouse his fellow villagers and stand up against the tyranny of a cruel overlord who is taking over the realm. By tending to the needs of the other peasants and directing the efforts of the villagers he meets in his journeys, Dario inspires others to join his cause, such as the noble knight Erec, the mysterious foreigner Salim, and a battle-worn loner called "the Pilgrim."
It's been a few years since the world has seen a Settlers game, and it shows. The 2D interface is gone, replaced by a fully-3D isometric view typical of modern RTS titles. The countryside and its flora are drawn beautifully -- Heritage of Kings is a gorgeous game. Little touches abound, like the ambient woodland creatures and the realistic weather system that results in rain and snow throughout the seasons. In fact, the weather affects strategy: some areas of certain maps are only accessible when the waterways isolating them from the rest of the map freeze over.
The interface is pretty standard, but one thing bugged me: you can only rotate the map temporarily, by holding down the proper key. I'd like to be able to rotate it freely as needed to witness combat behind big buildings.
The single-player campaign, following a loose plot of medieval intrigue, puts you in control of the hero Dario as he travels from territory to territory reclaiming his land from nefarious forces. It's long -- I clocked it at more than 30 hours -- but not so much due to engaging gameplay as it is to waiting for your little guys to harvest enough resources to build your town and your armies.
Typical of Settlers games, you don't directly control all the inhabitants of your settlements. You use serfs to build structures, after which little workers, whom you have little power over, come to work in the mines and factories and other buildings. The most control you have over them is to enter a state of alert when your base is attacked, causing them to hide in their structures and fire arrows at the nearest enemy.
To proceed through each mission, you have to harvest wood, clay, iron, stone, and sulfur. You can accomplish this by sending lots of surfs to manually collect resources from deposits scattered throughout the land, or, more efficiently, by building mines over rich deposits of the resources (wood excluded). Mines are staffed by settlers. You can augment the resource collection by building specific structures that multiply the raw materials, such as a sawmill for wood or a stonemason's hut for stone. Those buildings, too, are staffed by settlers. You also have to acquire money, in the form of thalers, to pay your workers and to build various units. Your primary source of thalers is the taxation of your settlement's inhabitants.
To keep your town's settlers happy, you have to house and feed them. Thus, for each structure you build, you'll probably have to build a house and a farm (the little dudes get their food directly from the farm, eschewing pesky markets). By researching the proper technologies, you can upgrade most of your buildings, including the town center, the keep, the houses and farms, the various resource handling structures, the military buildings, and so on.
Here's the problem: building and upgrading all of the necessary structures to navigate the technology tree--with the ultimate goal of raising an army of powerful units--requires resources. Resource collection in Heritage of Kings is a slow process. Therefore, a lot of your game time is spent waiting for your settlers to provide you with enough clay and iron to accomplish your goals.
That wouldn't be such a bad thing in a city-building game, but Heritage of Kings lacks the underlying strategic elements that make games like Sim City fun. Provided your workers have homes to sleep in and bellies full of farm fresh produce, there's not much to do while the resource harvesting system chugs along. You can tweak the taxation level, but you rarely have any cause to do so as resource harvesting is a much slower process than acquiring thalers.
The first few times you build a base and wander through the technology tree, it's fun. It's a thrill to see your settlement boom, to create a well oiled economy, and to keep your workers happy. Gradually, it becomes familiar. Then repetitious. And finally, dull beyond all reason.
At some point, you're going to have to build an army and assault the enemy troops and bases. The available units are typical of medieval strategy: spearmen, swordsmen, archers, mounted cavalry, cannons, and so on. You also have access to heroes who have various powers to support your troops. If you've played Warcraft III or Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth it'll all be familiar to you.
The actual battles are exciting. In RTS fashion, certain units are most effective against certain enemy units, typical of the rock-paper-scissors mentality that permeates the genre. The enemy's AI doesn't seem to pay much attention to that--the bad guys just sort of charge whichever of your squads is nearest. Even when there's an enemy base in the vicinity the town you're trying to build or restore, you're rarely in any danger: the enemy brainlessly sends occasional waves of attackers, which are easy to thwart with basic units, until you're finally ready to storm the adversary's camp.
Besides the campaign, there's an option to play custom maps. Some of them work, tossing intriguing scenarios at you that take hours to complete. A great deal of them seem broken, however. When I would try to play what I thought would be skirmish matches against computer players, and I wasn't absolutely sure what I was getting into: I know didn't select multiplayer games, but it never let me choose AI opponents before the match started. I'd slog through the endless process of building up my base, raise an army, and seek out the enemy--and I'd find them, with only the handful of units available at the start of the match, standing around doing nothing. Where was the base? Where were the armies? Where was the AI? I have no idea, and apparently, neither does Ubisoft. I hit the appropriate PR representative up for an explanation, and more than a week later I've received none. Skirmish mode seems to be broken, if it was intended for inclusion at all--so if you want raw battle without the mission intensive goals, you'll have to play a true multiplayer match.
Heritage of Kings starts out exciting as you discover the joys of creating working settlements in a deliciously attractive environment. Once you've been through the process a few times, however, it gradually becomes a snooze fest. The plot of single-player campaign has its share of twists and turns to keep the game novel, at least for a while, but by the time you've built your fifteenth or twentieth base, you'll probably want out.
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