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Retrospective: Kohan II: Kings of War

[I wrote this for PC Gamer UK much earlier this year when I found myself playing this RTS. It ended up not running for one reason or another, so I'll immortalize it on the Electric Internet. It's less born of obsessive love, more trying to explain why people really should give it a crack, especially as it's only a fiver now. Kohan developers Timegate are, of course, now continuing the FEAR series for Sierra, which as far as odd change of development team directions go, is almost up to Digital Illusions moving from Pinball Dreams to Battlefield.]

Your friends are laughing at you behind your back. It happens to everyone, at least once. You're going out with someone who no-one else can understand why you're with. While to you, they're all kinds of neat, to your friends it's a clear case of WHAT ARE YOU DOING PUTTING YOUR TONGUE IN THEIR MOUTH AND WRITHING? Some wait it out politely. Others – normally the “better” friends - feel it's in your best interest to take you to one side and question your madness. And laugh. Mainly, laugh.

I’ve been playing Kohan II: Kings of War for the last few weeks. It's been a bit like that.

Kohan II laboured under a bad sign. Virtually unknown in the UK, the original was something of a critical favourite in the USA. Which was its initial problem: its fanbase were so fanatical, they lashed out at the corruption of their game as – you know – it wasn’t just the same game again. If bad word of mouth wasn’t enough, it had the misfortune to be released on the same day as both Dawn of War and Rome: Total War. Both cleaned up commercially, the former marrying Starcraft-esque polish while raising the expected graphical standards of the genre and the latter bringing the Total War series epic worldview into polygonal 3D. Between them they had the mainstream of RTS and the other the more radical alternative secured. There wasn’t much space for the quiet child Kohan 2, and was damned with faint praise in reviews. Including Mine. Kohan II was lost in the shuffle, losing the real-time strategy battle for shelf-space and gamers’ attention.

Fast forward a couple of years. Rummaging through an enormous pile of Budget games in the Gamer office, I found its current five quid release… and it was a bit like finding a puppy at your doorstep on a stormy night. Poor bedraggled thing. Better let it in to dry off.

So suddenly I was playing Kohan II. And people were laughing.

Dragons. Though knowing Kohan, they'll be called Drahunkunksiiiaskfh or something.

If I step back, I can see why. Kohan II is a fantasy RTS, including every traditional bad point of the genre. While admirable for trying to pull away from a straight Tolkein clone, it just ends up as an unmemorable chimeric blob of randomly arranged consonants. The fantasy universe has exactly one interesting point: the games heroes – the Kohans – are Immortal, returning to life after dying. This is actually a pretty neat justification for the fact that you can re-use them in your armies when you get them killed beneath an opponent's rush or whatever. Bar that, it’s the sort of game that thinks having an elf on an ostrich makes it unique. The single-player campaign rushes from cliché to cliché, with some exchanges of dialogue so hilariously melodramatic that you wonder how the voice-actors managed to sound as if they weren’t having any fun spouting it at all. In fact, as I returned to the game, the voice-acting was the sole thing which I recalled from my initial play, due to the main female character saying “I feel nothing!” when she’s ordered to move somewhere, in exactly the same disappointed and frustrated tone you’d imagine a virginal middle-class English bride would use on a wedding night upon discovering her husband is desperately under-endowed.

(After 20 hours or so, I realised that she was actually saying “I fear nothing”, but the joke refused to shift inside my head.)

But still, while I couldn't place it in my memories, I knew there was something there. That’s the real core of why I returned, despite everyone tapping their heads behind their back and saying I'd be back with Total War before the month's out. Its memory nagged at me. I mean, even with all the problems, there was a reason why I scored it as I did. And it kept on turning up quietly in net debate in places whose opinion I rated. Kind of appropriately for a game that disappeared due to two obviously beautiful sisters-in-genre, Kohan’s beauty is an inner one.

He spilt my pint!

For almost every traditional mechanic in a real-time-strategy game, Kohan has its own distinctive take. Since the direction it went in is pretty much opposed to the way everyone else went, it means the game remains fresh. For example, it’s radically against any form of micromanagement. Units are actually arranged into companies. You choose up to a front row of troops, a flanking unit of troops, a couple support troops and a hero if you have any remaining. So, you could have a front row of swordsmen, a supporting bank of archers, and a zealot and a healer or something similar in the back, and then a wizard hero. All these are controlled and manoeuvred as a single unit. When applied to combat, all will use their special abilities automatically – the wizard lobbing fireballs, the zealots driving your troops into frenzy and the healers replenishing everyone’s energies automatically. Rather than the tactics being applied on the battlefield by desperate clicks, the tactics are worked out upfront at the point of arranging a unit. While there’s some combinations that you’ll return to again and again, there’s a mass of variation to play with, especially when economics dictate you can’t afford another unit of knights.

And economics dictate come into it far more than most RTS. If there’s been a trend in the last couple of years, it’s been away from this side of the genre, but the finesse Kohan deals with the counting of coins hints at neglected unexplored possibilities. It has five resources: gold, stone, iron, wood and gems. Gold is the master resource, spent for most things, but the other four don’t actually accumulate. So if your empire has +6 stone, it remains constant until you assign it by building troops. So if you make a construction unit (-6 stone cost), that would reduce it zero. If any of them go negative, the surplus is made up by reducing your gold income, which can cripple your kingdom. Since different units spend different resources, more than anything else, you’re left asking whether you can afford certain units at every step of the battle. Yeah, adding extra wizards to the unit would be great, but the kingdom's treasury won't stretch to it. Maybe you can expand your production of gems somehow and…

Purest Green. Oh God. That's a Blackadder joke. Damn us. Damn us to hell. Take us off your RSS feed. Never link to us. We're so ashamed. We're so fucking dirty.

Tactical decisions just compound upon each other, especially when specific elements differ slightly – yet significantly – between the six races. There’s always something to be thinking about, and it’s not usually something which you’d be thinking about if you were playing another real-time strategy game. And for a fiver, as much as its trains your economic brain in play, it won’t strain your real world finances.

In which case, it explains why I find myself in the arms of a B-level RTS from a few years back. Because it’s not a B-level RTS from a few years back. It’s its own game. It's brave, and proud and there's nothing quite like it. And I know this, and me alone. And just like the partner no-one else understands, that's more than enough.

So, laughing friends, me and Kohan II? We're laughing at you.

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