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My mother-in-law is sure that games are a complete waste of time. Although she's come to terms with the fact that I make a living playing and writing about such silly things, she still informs me of her opinion on a regular basis. Normally I raise a stout defence. After all, isn't a Mario or a Zelda a million times more inventive and engaging than the average thing you see on TV? Don't a Sim City, a Total War or a Civilization have educational value? Aren't Bioshock and Ico fine artistic achievements? Don't games like World of Warcraft build real communities that might never have otherwise existed?
Sadly, the more I play Kingdom Under Fire: Circle of Doom, the more my belief in the value of games falters. If all games were like this, I'd have to concede that my mother-in-law has a point.
You see, on the first Xbox, the Kingdom Under Fire series built a cult following for its unusual melange of RTS and RPG elements with the kind of mass-scale combat you'd find in the Dynasty Warriors series. The series original Korean publisher, Phantagram, has already produced a similar title on the 360, Ninety Nine Nights, only with the RTS elements all but removed. Now it's the turn of the developer, Blueside, to bring the series into the HD era. The only thing is that, rather than follow the existing template, Blueside has decided to take its Kingdom Under Fire in a new direction. The result, Circle of Doom, is best described as a cross between Ninety Nine Nights and Diablo. It doesn't quite have the large-scale battles of the former, but in exchange you get the kind of levelling, armour and weapon upgrade systems of the latter. It's basically a whacking great hack-and-slash action RPG.
Let's get the praise out of the way quickly. Like Ninety Nine Nights - and it's hard to believe that the two don't share the same engine - Circle of Doom is a lovely looking game. The characters and creatures are well designed and lovingly detailed. The environments, particularly the woodlands you'll fight through early on, are bursting with eye-candy, whether gorgeous flora and sparkling waters or detailed interiors with nice dynamic lightings. Everything is covered in a nicely graduated soft-focus blur, and the overall effect resembles one of the old cover paintings you used to get on ropey fantasy novels in the seventies and eighties; the classic Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta stuff. The animation is excellent, and there are some fine effects once you start wielding the really mighty weapons, scattering enemies far and wide and dispensing death with every blow. It's easily the prettiest straight hack-and-slash RPG epic I've ever seen.
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