Reviewed: April 18, 2005
Released: February 24, 2005
Heritage of Kings: The Settlers (hereafter referred to as Heritage of Kings or just HoK) is the fifth installment in a series of Settlers games by the German veteran game developer studio Blue Byte. In addition to The Settlers series, which began in 1993, the team is also responsible for the strategy classic Battle Isle series. Blue Byte was once an independent game software company but now they are a subsidiary of the large France-based publisher Ubisoft. The previous titles in The Settlers series were all 2-D and HoK marks the series' entry into the world of 3-D graphics, and they have done a superb job with them.
Heritage of Kings deviates from the typical Settlers formula by being more of a real-time strategy game than the previous games in the series have been. While the series has always been about building settlements and taking over new lands, this game is more mission based, even though it does offer extensive settlement building gameplay, which in fact is the primary focus of this game.
Unlike most real-time strategy games where the focus is on the combats and battles, HoK is at least 80% about building up intricate networks of settlements, gathering resources, taxing, and diplomacy. You will have the opportunity to trade and make alliances with independent settlements as well as build up your own. Of course, there are enemies, and so you must also train up a fighting force of soldiers who can defend your lands and attack enemy settlements.
This reviewer has played quite a few real-time strategy games before, with StarCraft and Total Annihilation probably being my favorites. This game is probably most similar to the Age of Empires series of games at least in how the city building and technology research is done. I have not actually played very much of the previous Settlers games, so this review will not be judging HoK based on how closely it stays true to its roots, but rather on its own merits as a real-time strategy title.
Heritage of Kings offers several modes of play. You can play single-player either by playing through the campaign or just by playing one of the several supplied single-map missions. The way that these extra single-player maps have been done, it appears as if the developers had perhaps planned to have a mission and/or map editor for the game, but I couldn't find one if it exists.
Apart from the single-player modes, you can also play the game multi-player against other players either over your LAN or against internet opponents via ubi.com's matchmaking service (built into the game). I didn't have another player to try the LAN game, and the few times I tried the matchmaker over the internet I couldn't find any players to join in, so the multiplayer portion of the game at least as of this writing doesn't seem to be popular enough to find players.
The basic gameplay involves left-clicking to select units then right clicking what you want them to do. Your basic unit is the Serf. A serf is your builder but he can also be used to gather resources. You can use the serfs to build mines, which then attract workers. Once you have a mine you need to build cottages and farms nearby for the workers so that they can work more efficiently. What do you mine? Well there are a number of important resources, such as clay, stone, iron, sulfur, and wood.
You don't mine wood and that is the one resource that you must use serfs to generate. Also, instead of just finding mine locations you might find freestanding iron or clay deposits that you can have serfs gather. One last resource that you have is Thalers, which is money. You get this by taxing your workers, so the bigger your settlements get, the more money you can pull in.
Money is important because you not only use it for buying upgrades to things and research, but you also need money to pay off your captains in your army. Once you can build a barracks you can start training militia, such as spearmen and swordsmen. But for each "group" of soldiers you create, which is led by a captain, you must pay out some Thalers each "payday" or they will revolt. So this prevents you from building huge armies and just having them sit around, it's not worth the Thalers. Build them and use them quick, that's the best way.
Some of the other buildings you can build are the Village Center, which is where all your workers will come in from after they've heard about your settlement and jobs available from elsewhere in the lands. This building can upgrade into a marketplace where you can buy and sell units of each of the basic resources. Another important building is the University, which lets you research new technologies. This will allow you to build new buildings and upgrade existing ones. Some buildings also might allow you to "research" special abilities for the units that are associated with that building.
Most of the gameplay involves building efficient settlements and then letting them work to build up resources so you can improve the settlement and expand. You can also of course explore, and during the campaign mode you'll have various other missions and goals that are assigned to you by the story. The game also supports other settlements, which may be willing to negotiate trade deals with you. There is a Diplomacy window where you can make deals with the various other settlements you encounter.
Combat in the game is extremely simplistic, you just click on a group of soldiers and right click the enemy and watch the mayhem. It seems rather random and there doesn't seem to be a lot you can do tactically to sway the outcomes. Your heroes might have some special abilities that can be used in combat to help things but that's about it. Combat really only makes up maybe 10-20% of the gameplay, much more time is spent building up your settlements, so this game is really geared more for the city-builder fans rather than the tactical combat gamers.
One thing that does help is keeping your captains alive, because they gain ranks as they gain experience and this can improve your soldiers under their command. You can always send a captain back to the barracks or whichever building makes that unit so that you can replenish lost troops. Another factor to consider when doing battle is that certain units are naturally better against others, so learn which ones work well against your opponents units and build those. Rock, paper, scissors.
One thing that would have really helped this game is a way to speed up time for when you're just sitting around gathering resources, but most of the time you can be busy building or exploring something so the time issue isn't a game killer. However after you've done it enough times, and you're more efficient at it, you really start to wish there was a way to speed things along. But really that's about the only feature that is missing from a very polished RTS game.
Like most modern RTS games, you do not have to keep clicking on farmer to get them to farm, or clicking on miners to get them to mine. Once you start them they keep working. You can also call your units into your defensive structures when your village is being attacked so that more of them can survive and then get back to work quickly when the all-clear bell is rung. You can adjust the tax rate or make workers work overtime if you need to in a crunch, but keep in mind that workers that get too pissed off don't work very well. Adding churches can help increase your worker's motivations and thus productivity.
Really, it's hard to fault Blue Byte on their gameplay, because they thought of nearly any feature you might want in an RTS and added it. If there is any fault to the formula it's that maybe it's a bit too formulaic. But if you like a slow paced game or if you're just not already burnt out on the traditional RTS formula, you certainly can find a lot to enjoy in HoK's style of play.
The graphics for this game are outstanding. Blue Byte switched to a fully 3D engine, and they did a superb job with the modeling of all the buildings, the terrain, the units, and everything. There are all sorts of little touches that make the graphics a marvel to behold. You can zoom in on your workers and watch their day-to-day activities as they mine or research at the college, then go grab something to eat, and maybe head on home for rest. You can also see a lot of ambient life in the wilderness, such as deer and wolves in the forests, and birds flying overhead.
The trees in the forest and the bushes are well done as well. Flames on burning buildings also look very realistic. The game also has several different types of weather, such as rainstorms and snowing, and not only does the weather look great but it can impact gameplay too (such as being able to move units across a frozen lake or stream).
Animations are very good for the most part, especially the "ambient" animations of your settlement and the workers going about their business and such. The combat animations are perhaps not quite as good because they are over with so quickly and the units seem to move around haphazardly so that it's kind of hard to tell what is happening during a fight. You can watch individual soldiers swinging their weapons and such, but you'll really be too busy just making sure your commanders stay alive to bother with that too much.
The engine lets you select resolutions from 1024x768 up to 1600x1200 and scales things appropriately. You can control other graphics details to improve performance. I ran the game at 1280x960, which is my desktop resolution I use, and everything looked great with full details on maximum setting. Definitely the graphics are a major plus for this game, they are as good as any other real-time strategy game I've played and much better than most of them. This game I guess competes more with the Age of Empires style games and the graphics in this game are much more enjoyable than the games in that series.
From the moment you start the game you know you're in for an aural experience with Heritage of Kings. The music is top notch, with haunting wind instruments, moving drums, and blaring horns that call to you to explore this new land. The credits list Michael Pummel under music and he deserves some major kudos for these excellent tunes. I never got bored with the music, even though it does repeat itself, but it seems to change frequently due to different conditions during the game so it never gets old.
But the music isn't the only place where the sound excels, the ambient sounds also are top notch, from the blacksmith's hammer striking the anvil as you near his area, to the miners working the quarry, to the church bells and all the sounds of the forests, rivers, and beaches. Everywhere your focus goes you can hear new sounds as you work your way building up the settlements. The game also has a lot of voice-work, for the in-game cutscenes and also during the tutorial. While some of the dialogue is somewhat corny, the voices themselves are well done and add quite a bit to the enjoyment of the game.
Combat sounds aren't too bad either, which helps add some tension to them, but perhaps a bit more shouting and visceral war-sounds would have been appropriate. It might be a stylistic decision to downplay the combat, since the majority of the game centers around the peace-time.
As long as ubi.com can attract enough players to have a viable multi-player component, then Heritage of Kings is a very good value. There are a lot of cool things that could be done in a multiplayer game where the players agree to hang back and build up really cool settlements before destroying each other. However, since I wasn't able to test that, I really am just speculating here. But the game is just very early out so it may indeed get better over time for the multiplayer. There are not a lot of options during multiplayer at the moment however, with only 12 different maps to chose from ranging from 2-6 players per map.
As for the single player, there is a lot to keep you busy here for at least 20 or 30 hours, what with the long non-campaign missions that can take a long time to develop and also the story-driven campaign mode which is good for a bunch of hours and kind of builds up the game gradually. I didn't get a chance to finish the campaign and find out how the story ends before having to pen this review, but what I did play of it was well done and quite a bit fun, albeit pretty slow paced.
An expansion pack to the game is planned, and also an editor is planned for future release. If an editor does show up and the fans take a liking to it, there could be a lot of additional content for the game show up at some point in the future. The street price for the game at the time of this review is around $33 - $40, so it's not quite as pricey as a full-priced game, which may be an enticement for some gamers.
Heretic of Kings: The Settlers is a very polished real-time strategy game which offers gameplay fairly unique to the genre, since the emphasis is on building your settlements rather than on a lot of combat. While there is combat, it's definitely downplayed, and only consists of maybe 10-20% of your game time. The best way to win at combats is to excel at settlement building so that your forces are not only superior in number but in technology as well.
If the game has a flaw, it's perhaps that there is too much "down time" while you are waiting for the next thing to be built, and one nice missing feature would be a way to speed up the game clock. Missions can become repetitive, since you'll be constantly building the same settlements over and over, which after a time you may find monotonous and dull.
The production values of HoK, graphics and sound are very well done, and its worth taking a look at this game if you want a city-builder type gameplay with great eye and ear candy to keep you entertained while building. This game is more for the type of gamer that likes to build things and sit back and admire his well-oiled settlement be productive. A great game for an RTS newcomer, if there are any left out there. Also good for the city-builder game fan who wants to move into RTS type games at a leisurely pace.