Less than a year ago, Microsoft and Phantagram gave us Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, a game that took many gamers by surprise and built a strong and loyal following almost immediately. While not the over-the-top success of a Halo or a Jade Empire, Kingdom Under Fire's success came from the simple fact that it filled a void in many gamers' libraries. While the hack-and-slash gameplay will remind many of the Dynasty Warriors series, the simple additions of being able to control various units on the field at the push of a button, the deep strategic elements and the RPG-like character leveling seemed enough to whet almost every gamers' appetite. KUF was also a very hard game to get into because of its steep learning curve and very rigid mission structures, but those who stuck it out found something very worthy underneath. I myself longed for more of the same and wanted to play with these characters again and find out more about them and where they'd come from. I got my wish (as many gamers did) but is it really everything I had hoped for?

The first thing to note about KUF: Heroes is how little has been changed. The main menu hub may have a different feel to it, but almost everything else is identical. The story, set a few years before the events of The Crusaders, now follows the "minor" characters that we all wish we could've played as. Rupert, Ellen and Morene were three characters that I wanted so very much to use in The Crusaders that it saddens me a little to report that they aren't really as interesting as "main" characters as I'd hoped. The problem clearly stems from the fact that their "minor" characters are boring and nowhere near as fun as Rupert/Ellen were to Gerald. Rest easy though in the thought that Gerald and company all make appearances and these were, for me, the most enjoyable portions of the story. Besides, I knew the outcome of most of the events/alliances already, so it was nice to simply sit back and see how the pieces fit together.

Unlike in The Crusaders, Heroes doesn't do a lot of hand-holding. For fans of the previous game, that may be a nice thing, but for newcomers, it may be very hard to get a bearing as to what's really going on. The third-person navigation system for one, still doesn't work (at all) and the mini-map must be used at all times (as was the case with The Crusaders) but the game still tells you how to use it (and not the mini-map). Hopefully, everyone will refer to the instruction booklet and use that over the in-game tutorial. Also, the game doesn't take long to throw you into the heat of battle. This is fine, but it takes over 90 minutes before you can actually start micro-managing your characters' stats and really exploring the RPG-like aspect of Heroes. This may have also been the case for The Crusaders, but newcomers may not have that much patience.

The voice acting has also been changed, drastically, and the characters don't have the same "feel" that they did in The Crusaders. This isn't such a big deal, but the personality of the main characters is what kept me playing originally, and this time, it wasn't as appealing sometimes to trudge through 50-odd different levels with characters that I didn't care for as much. Luckily, the gameplay, the strategy and the leveling up are all back and soon I was forgetting all about any small nitpick I may have had.

At heart, KUF: Heroes is one hell of a good hack-and-slash. There's nothing more that I love then getting into the fray of battle (when I don't have to worry about my archers or sappers or any other unit) and just go "Gladiator" on waves upon waves of fodder. I try to evade this attack, counter-attack that one, work a combo here and there and just lay waste to everything around me. And in this respect, Heroes doesn't disappoint. While hack-and-slash games are nothing new, none of them ever convey that wonderful sense of awe and overwhelming greatness like KUF does. Yes, you have allies on the field, but your hero controls the outcome. It's thrilling and humbling at the same time especially when the screen seems filled to the brim with enemies, smoke clouds belching here and there, wyverns circling above and despair is almost inevitable... your life bar is dangerously low... you're 45 minutes into a map... and then it happens: You manage to pull a victory together from out of nowhere. There is no greater or more satisfying feeling than that.

If that feeling wasn't enough, KUF also allows you the ability to strategically "take" a victory. While mashing out combos may seem like the be-all and end-all of gaming, there's something to be said for taking the enemy by surprise or properly positioning your catapults or archers on the field. The simple alignment of the sun (in your enemy's eyes) can make the entire difference in battle. And while you rarely get the feeling that these little details make a big difference overall; they do. And KUF lets you take note of them and rewards you greatly for your craftiness. On the flip side however, certain maps must be won using a specific strategy and these can sometimes become frustrating exercises in trial and error. Take solace in the fact that a character will generally point out the best course of action (its implementation may take a little longer to figure out though).

The third aspect of the KUF series that generally will have you grinning from ear to ear is the troop management. This RPG-like mode lets you use Experience Points and money earned to purchase equipment, raise attributes, learn new skills and change job classes. In this mode you can tweak and prod you troop leaders, your troops and your heroes. The sad news is that, unlike in Dynasty Warriors, you can't replay missions over and over to build up your characters. The good news? Well, there are "other" missions (not really story specific) that pop up from time to time and will net you extra EXP. Also, once you finish a campaign tree, you can replay it (which I don't recall being available in The Crusaders). Also, if you want complete dominance, the new Custom Missions are for you. Here you can set maps, hero's and levels for everyone and replay them as often as you like until you build up a hero the likes of Regnier.

If you recall, The Crusaders shipped with an Attention Notice stating that you could only play one-on-one (not two-on-two) matches with other players on Xbox Live. This may have been disappointing, but it really wasn't the end of the world. Heroes, however, more than makes up for all that by allowing you head-to-head and cooperative game modes on Live for up to 6 players. The other good news is that while Ellen, Rupert and company are all playable characters online, Heroes also allows you to take a few old friends out to play with (there's something particularly thrilling about going up against Gerald, Kendal, Regnier and Lucretia). The two main multiplayer modes are Hero Battle Mode and Troop Battle Mode. In Hero Mode, you pick a hero and can either wage war heroes against heroes (3 vs 3) or play cooperatively in Invasion mode and play against the AI Enemies. Invasion really is the best way to play Hero Mode since it encourages a lot more teamwork and a little less trash talking over Live. Troop Battle Mode is also really entertaining in the fact that playing it allows you to build up your characters (in Friendly matches where you control a Hero and various troops) until you are ready to take part in Ladder Matches where you'll be playing for Online Rankings and bragging rights. As with all Xbox Live games, your enjoyment will be directly linked to the people you are playing with/against and luckily, the KUF crowd seems mature enough to take things seriously (the M-mature rating may help). I didn't have anyone on my Friends List playing this game, but I've met a lot of genuinely nice people who were willing to give me a lot of neat tips about playing each match type and the campaigns (power up your archers and develop Holy early on). In my time online, the experience has been lag free and quite enjoyable. Much like Madden or similar sport titles, it's not a game that is quickly played. You need a certain amount of time on your hands to truly enjoy KUF online.

Graphically, Heroes is almost identical to The Crusaders. From its artistic style during base/castle visits to its camera shake effect, the water effects seem to have been the only ones polished up (and boy do they look amazing). All this isn't a bad thing; The Crusaders had a look all its own and its graphics were already quite capable. From the fur on Gerald's armor to the wyverns blocking out the sun as they circle overhead, Heroes looks damn good. The armor, the insane amount of troops on the field, the smoke, the blood... Heroes does it all perfectly well. In the fray of battle however, it's sometimes hard to tell where the enemies are when few are left. In the next iteration, a small map with red dots that would remain on the side of the screen would be incredibly useful.
As mentioned earlier, the voice actors seem to have all changed for this outing and while they all sound younger and more wild-eyed (which is contextually fitting) I miss the gruff sound of Rupert or the secretly-knowing tone in Ellen's voice. And while many would claim that most of the dialog is over the top (especially the Dark Elves characters) I commend Phantagram for having so much of it and while not all as fun/funny as The Crusaders, it still kept the story going. The music is still Satriani-esque guitar solo after solo during the battles and proper themes for the base/castle visits and menus. While the heavy guitar does get a little "too much" after a while, it did bring an instant smile to my face when I saw Ellen walking towards the camera as a distorted guitar revved up in the background. More than fitting for the occasion and the music does serve its purpose of getting you into the heat of battle.

And so, is Heroes all that I had hoped for in a sequel to The Crusaders? Yes and no. In my mind, I "expected" things to be different and I "expected" to have to relearn a new KUF game, but I was also scared at what all these changes would mean. Very rarely is change in a video game franchise 100% good. But Heroes plays it carefully and gives fans more of what they really wanted; more levels, characters they know and love and more multiplayer options. In the end, Heroes may not be what I was "expecting", but I'm truly glad that it turned out to give me what I really wanted; hours and hours (and hours and hours) of amazing gameplay, unbelievable replay value and a great sense of accomplishment when I finally clear a mission tree. It may be more of the same, but I really wouldn't want it any other way.