Never mind the crusades, the last two years have been a case of Developer Under Fire for Korean studio Phantagram. Production of its three PC/Xbox games - acrobatic action title Strident, cyberpunk RPG Duality and KUF: The Crusaders - ran afoul of strained relations with its publisher and part-owner, Korean MMORPG giant NCsoft. But after buying back its independence in time for Christmas 2003, Phantagram has concentrated on completing The Crusaders, a move that has encouraged Microsoft to publish it as a second-party title in the US.
It's not hard to see the attraction: the game rides both the enduring popularity of Koei's mass hack 'n' slash Dynasty Warriors series and the cinematic appeal of the Lord Of The Rings films' epic fantasy battles. It's also a fairly flattering demonstration of Xbox horsepower, featuring strong (if unashamedly pandering to the chainmail bikini school) art design reinforced by a sweeping, often awing depiction of scale. And the potential for Live play could be a significant notch on their online service's +10 Sword Of Wounding.
Chronicling the war between human factions and the inhuman Dark Legions, The Crusaders' singleplayer game is broken into four campaigns. Each follows the exploits of a war hero (or antihero) from the conflicting sides, offering interwoven viewpoints on the overall plot, and a varying play experience in terms of abilities and supporting units. Two were available in the preview build: the somewhat disarmingly named Gerald, a hulking, pious knight of the Hironeiden Kingdom, and Lucretia, a witch-captain of the scantily clad Dark Elf Legions. Typically, Gerald is slow but tough, and can block and counter attack opponents, whereas Lucretia is fast but frail, suited to circling enemies with speed dodges and dash attacks.
Your chosen hero and their two lieutenants take to the field at the head of an infantry unit, which can be set on the march by moving a beacon in the main game view, or on an RTS-style minimap activated with the right trigger. Secondary units under your command can be indirectly ordered to follow the hero's lead, or flicked to with the left trigger for individual instructions. Though the opening missions require only rudimentary flanking tactics and prioritising, there's certainly scope for strategy to play a more decisive role later in the game - with the system taking note of elevation, forest cover and even sun glare.
Even without tactical nuance, your army moves with an appealing sense of urgency and intent, and the enemy battle lines are equally foreboding. When the two clash, the camera thrusts forward with the front line's charge, transferring direct control to your hero in more familiar action territory. Equipped with light, heavy, and special attacks in addition to the ability to call on your lieutenants for tag-team support, you can turn the tide of battle by defeating the enemy commander, or simply hack through the ranks until your unit gains the upper hand. It's all suitably chaotic, if a little less refined than its contemporaries.
After a successful showing on the battlefield, participants gain levels and funding for the war effort, which can be put toward new equipment or changing your troops' specialist professions: the preview's glimpse of the Hironeiden upgrade chart traces a path from humble pikemen through heavy cavalry to imposing, cannonball-raining airships. Outfitting displays the same light touch that runs through The Crusaders elsewhere: deep enough to provide a tangible sense of development, but not so much as to be bogged down in micro management.
The prospect of a strong singleplayer game is welcome, of course, but even more appealing is the game's proposed Live support. Featuring 'fourplayer team-up deathmatch', it's unclear whether this will be a limited hero-vs-hero affair or the full battle royale. If the second proves to be the case, the game will be a unique experiment in bringing the online RTS experience to console, as well as cause for celebration for armchair generals everywhere - no doubt working on their best Russell Crowe drawls in the run-up to release.