If you haven't heard of Kingdom Under Fire 2, that might be because it's been in development so long, you actually forgot you'd heard of it a decade ago, the memories scrubbed by a dozen other MMOs that have come and gone since then. Kingdom Under Fire 2 is an ambitious mashup of MMO and action-RTS, and it's been around so long it's already lived and died in two other regions before finally debuting in North America and Europe last week.
Developer Blueside is convinced that it has finally nailed this unlikely mix of genres. It's proud of, rather than discouraged by, the more than ten years and many millions of dollars in development costs that have produced something it believes is unique and specifically tailored western players.
Blueside isn't wrong. The blend of action and RTS is unique. And it is fun, at least in the limited time I spent with it. Kingdom Under Fire 2 might even have shaken up the MMO genre with its unconventional blend—if it had come out in 2009, as originally planned.
You have my Spellsword and my axe
I'm in the thick of the battle, fighting at the front lines surrounded by my AI sword and shield infantry. Towering over us is a giant enemy scorpion with its four immense, armored legs. My infantry is slashing away at whatever scorpions call their ankles while I wade in with my own special attacks. As a level four Spellsword, I fight at melee range with flurries of saber attacks and the occasional short-range lightning spell. It approaches the gratifying quick combat of Black Desert Online, but the actual activity of pressing numbered keys to activate skills is exactly like 90% of other MMORPGs developed in the last 15 years.
My allies swarm around me, more of them than I can count at a glance, all looking for enemies to stick their swords in. It's organized chaos. Or it would be, if I had remembered to spend any time issuing orders. Instead, I'm absorbed in the fight in front of my face, attempting to take down the giant, armored critter while shoulder-to-shoulder with my troops. I'm pulled out of it when I hear "your archers are being ambushed!"
I press Tab to pull the game's camera back to the tactical RTS mode, which shows the location of all my troop groups. Kingdom Under Fire 2 restricts me to only three troops per encounter so that players can manage both the RTS and action simultaneously. Oh. My archers are indeed being ambushed.
I click on my infantry to ensure that they'll continue attacking the house-sized scorpion and then press Tab again to bring me back down to ground level over my character's shoulder. It's a quick zoom from high to low that keeps the urgency of an ongoing fight, which is where Kingdom Under Fire 2 really succeeds. Despite the action combat happening on the ground, transitioning from action to RTS is quick enough that I can afford to keep an eye on both views.
Kingdom Under Fire 2's creative director Jubo Kim explained just how vital it was to make that transition feel perfect during a Q&A session. "It may not sound like a big deal but that played a very significant role," Kim says through business development manager David Wang, who translated. "If the camera view is focused on the hero then the player will focus on just the RPG aspect, but we wanted to ensure that we have the perfect camera angle that would provide equally sensational experience of the RPG as well as promoting the RTS. [...] Finding that perfect view and also finding that method of switching view was a great challenge which we eventually achieved."
Kim also mentions that even the speed of the transition, something I noticed while playing even before our Q&A, was an important element that changed through trial and error over the years.
I've taken on this mission alone, defending against a group of long-limbed and fin-backed creatures (akin to the Alien Xenomorph) called Encablossians. In the live game, you can bring up to three other players along with their own units in these instanced RTS missions. Even alone, Kingdom Under Fire 2 gives me that feeling of epic scale that any RPG player has wished for in a fantasy setting. I've always found the overhead view of RTS games to be too detached to feel like a high-stakes Lord of the Rings style clash, but Kingdom Under Fire 2 comes extremely close, with flying beasts and giant scorpions thrown in for good measure.
I suspect that over the course of Kingdom Under Fire 2's 50 story missions I'll continue to be impressed by large and varied troop types that liven up the battlefield, and how well it pulls off this blending of genres. There's no real analogue for it in another game in 2019. Unfortunately, the third component, the MMO, squanders this potential.
This kingdom's on fire
Mowing through parades of enemies in Kingdom Under Fire 2 makes the comparison to Dynasty Warriors almost inevitable. Its skill-bar based combat is more in the style of traditional MMORPGs than proper action, but my Spellblade's sword skills carry her towards enemies, slashing through them in an arc that feels less stilted than the action in older traditional MMOs. Her lightning cone of effect skill, by contrast, forces her to stand still for a move that feels just slightly too long without allowing me to cancel out mid-attack.
It's in these details, and in its open free-roam MMO areas, that Kingdom Under Fire 2 shows its real age. Its user interface is cluttered and, in the build available to me, included pockets of untranslated Korean (a couple of which can still be spotted in the launched version). Its character animations are just slightly uncanny the way older games often are. KUF2 has been in development for more than 10 years and little omissions, like the lack of ability to jump in the open world, are petty complaints but overall make the MMO components feel like they've been left in the back of the cabinet to go stale.
The free-roam sections where I'm expected to accept quests for experience and explore the world feel by-the-book—that book being the MMO template circa 2005. In 2019, being asked to kill five wolves feels only one step removed from a 30-50 feral hogs meme. In fairness, almost every MMORPG begins with a variation on the same request. It's possible that Kingdom Under Fire 2 gets more interesting open world quests later in its story beyond the hour slot I had time to play the preview.
Even if so, Kingdom Under Fire 2's MMO and action RTS sections feel a bit like oil and water in a glass. They've been forced to occupy the same space but haven't managed to blend at all. KUF2's instanced action RTS battles seem interesting and have a balance between close-combat and tactical that I honestly enjoyed. But I couldn't help feeling that the open questing MMO sections would just become a chore between story missions, a connective tissue that never really found a good reason to exist.
Even when speaking with developers about what KUF2's endgame looks like, and how they plan for players to stay engaged past the end of the campaign, the MMORPG sections don't come up. Blueside cites daily co-op raids and especially acquiring additional troops types (of the 120 eventually available) for replaying missions as the main motivator to keep playing. If Blueside and Gameforge are marketing a unique action-RTS experience with instanced co-op, why am I playing an MMO?
It's clear that Kingdom Under Fire 2 has had a belabored trip to release, including twists and turns in how it would be sold. It was originally built for the free-to-play with microtransactions model popular in Asia, but this final version is sold up front. Why did Blueside never cut its losses and release a decent action-RTS co-op campaign, rather than an MMO RTS, years ago?
This may be a carefully curated version of the truth, but Blueside and its western publisher Gameforge are all publicly in agreement that the time spent changing Kingdom Under Fire 2 over more than 10 years has been worth it, to produce a mix of genres that they believe to be unique. But in the time it's taken to reach Western shores, it's already launched and subsequently shut down in other regions. "I think the amount of time and resources we have invested into bringing it to life truly speak volumes of how devoted we are not only to the franchise, but also to pioneering the creation of something completely new with its latest instalment," Blueside's CEO Sejung Kim tells me by email.
I can't possibly question Blueside's devotion after spending so long in development. After playing Kingdom Under Fire 2 during its launch event, though, I'm not so sure that the ambitious devotion to creating a "completely new" genre was worth keeping the best parts of KOF2 hostage for all these years.