Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard

Hate to disappoint a total of 33% of all the people who read my blog, but Neal, I couldn't get Myth III to run. Bugger. It's an old game and apparently not compatible with Vista. Big surprise there, not. I did, however, get another RTS game to run.

For the past five or six days I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard, and although I generally can't stand real-time strategy unless it involves building larger and larger cities to spread influence and grow population, I must say that Dragonshard's a pretty good game.
Despite this being a rather indepth real-time strategy game based on a famous role-playing game, the story of the game is a very simple one that at first glance only exists to pit these three warring factions against each other, and even the backstory of the world of Eberron where the game takes place in is a quick read. I don't mean that in a bad way, though. There world of Eberron seems deep as there are a hefty amount of lore journals you can read and historical figures the characters mention, but none of the fluff is forced down your throat. Suprising to see a game that could possibly have far more text and story to give regarding the history of it's world and gods and characters and all that jazz and not show it all off when so many games these days pretend to have deep worlds and compex characters when in fact they don't have anything richer than carboard.
Long ago three dragons were squabbling. Khyber, the bad one, killed another dragon named Siberys, the ugly I assume, and shattered the poor bastard into millions of pieces, creating the land called Ring of Storms. The good third dragon who I believe was Eberron himself then burned Khyber and cast him down as a punishment for being a complete douchebag. From these three dragons and their remains the world was created, Eberron being the overworld where sun shines in everybody's lives and men, dwarves and other almost normal creatures live happily and prosper, Khyber being the underworld where the undead, minotaur, gelatinous cubes and other nasties roam the halls of long lost cities, while the millions of pieces of Siberys' corpse called Dragonshards that occasionally rain down from the skies are the source of the worlds magic. The biggest Dragonshard in the world, known as Heart of Siberys, is said to contain an unlimited quantity of power and as such it is the MacGuffin of the story. It resides in the middle of the place where Siberys died, Ring of Storms.

The great legendary lizard champion Darroc's ghost thinks that
the lonely enemy rogue is the Lizardfolk army. Darroc actually
gets killed a second time in the story by having a small dragonshard
hit him in the head outside of battle. Seriously.
The Order of the Flame, a collection of humans, dwarves, halflings, mechanical walking tanks and whatever is considered natural good in this messed up world are after the Heart, presumably to power their upgraded version of the warforged unit, a bipedal walking tank capable of firing nuclear missiles from anywhere in the world. No, they don't actually explain to you why they want the magic rock, but who wouldn't want UNLIMITED POWAHH! In the first half of the single-player campaign you play as the Order whose champions have come in their magical flying ship to once again try and claim the Heart for themselves. You see, they've tried and failed at it miserably before due to the mysterious Lizardfolk that live near the Heart.
The other half of the campaign you play as the Lizardfolk, tribal creatures that evolved into existence by the Heart's magical powers and live not to use the Heart's power for their own gain but to protect it from being used by others.
Storywise the Lizardfolk campaign is actually far more interesting than the so-called good Order of the Flame campaign. It's so because while the Order and it's champions are just a bunch of almost unlikable, unrelatable guys seeking unlimited power for no clear reason other than to become more powerful for the good of everyone, the Lizardfolk are actual personalities that must suddenly find a way to beat these two large invading armies that have come to search for unlimited power and are killing the Lizardfolk off while doing so. The Lizardfolk are the real good guys here and the cutscenes make it painfully clear that they have much more at stake than the selfish, boring Order or the evil Umbragen.
Oh, yeah, the third army known as Umbragen from Khyber are evil. That's their backstory, and they don't have a campaign of their own.

Gameplaywise, both campaigns are excellent. Very entertaining and fun to play through.
The gameplay is basically this: You start with one of four champions (tank, healer, magic user or rogue) of whichever faction you're playing as and start building a walled main base where you have four sets of four lots to build unit production facilities on. You create your army of whichever units you like best, roam the overworld and explore the underworld, meet the victory conditions for the scenario and win.
There are only two resources to gather in the game, gold and dragonshards. Gold can be dropped by slain enemies and found in piles and chests in the underworld dungeons, but you also continously gain gold a certain amount every second in the form of taxes if you have any structures built and still standing. The more buildings you have, the more gold you gain every second. Dragonshards, however, can only be found in the overworld and has to be collected from where ever they happen to (somewhat randomly) drop. More dragonshards rain down whenever the total amount of available dragonshards in the level is low. Building structures, creating units and repairing damaged defenses all cost both dragonshards AND gold, and acquiring enough of both to do anything is the second biggest obstacle in the early phases of each scenario.

After disarming traps, the lone rogue uses his level 5
ability to cause continuous poison damage to his
oblivious enemies while still staying cloaked.
One might call it cheap, I call it fun.
The world is divided into overworld and underworld, Eberron and Khyber. Certain parts of Eberron will have entrances to Khyber, where the game starts to feel more like dungeon crawling than strategy. The gameplay stays technically the same with only one minor difference regarding the individual units' stats, and basically you just enter another part of the map, but it somehow just feels different. In Khyber you find majority of all the gold you'll use as well as a lot of powerful special items, but the dark hallways are littered with traps and the undead and many of the gold chests are locked, forcing you to send cloaked rogues ahead to detect and disarm traps and generally moving your party slower than in Eberron where you might send several smaller parties all over the map to gather resources and spy on the enemy. Khyber also has a lion's share of the game's RPGish quests and more interesting encounters, like solving simple puzzles, reclaiming stolen emeralds from enemy rogues and aiding helpless wizards to escape from his enemies or to locate his lost vials. Khyber also has more variety in neutral enemies, ranging from spiders to guardian golems to gelatinous cubes that attack all three factions if encountered.
Despite Khyber feeling a bit more like an RPG dungeoncrawl than RTS you never feel taken out from the RTS experience, and you never are taken out since both are played at the same time with minimaps on the screen showing both worlds at the same time. Instead, the Khyber dungeoneering is a solid cornerstone of the overworld strategy element and experience.

That's the basic, simple stuff, now here's what makes the gameplay so intricate.
First of all, there are 10 different regular unit types, or captains as the game calls them, for each faction, plus each faction has their own extremely expensive but extremely powerful special unit, plus there are the four different champions to choose from. The champions each have their own bonus to give to their units and their own combat abilities and powers, already making a large difference. At the start of a scenario for example using the rogue type champion allows you to enter Khyber safely immediately and gather gold faster early on, which then allows you to start cranking out your units sooner than if you'd have to wait for taxation gold to sloooowly trickle in.
Regular units each have their own pros and cons, and choosing which unit types work together best gives you more to consider before taking action. Damage and attack types and damage resistances, unit production costs, special abilities and movement speeds are all important things to pay attention to. Only ranged units can do any harm to flying creatures, only ground units can gather resources or enter Khyber, only some units see cloaked enemies and only certain unit can use cloak and disarm traps. Some units may be able to heal other units that regular healers can not, some may have animal companions to use for scouting, certain units may be far better at destroying buildings than others and so on and so forth.

What further muddles the selection of units is the way you create their production facilities. Sure, a main base has 16 slots to build on so you can easily make one of each type (which would be stupid if you ask me), but in order to use gained experience points to level up units you must build more of the unit type's production facilities adjacent to each other. Leveling up grants new powers to units, allows them to lead tiny soldier units of their own that cost nothing to produce (the previously mentioned one gameplay difference in Khyber is that soldiers fuse with their captain and buff their stats for the time they spend in Khyber) and generally makes them more powerful, so a question arises, which units to produce and level up, and then build the base accordingly after you find an answer. But wait! Instead of building more production facilities, you can also build totems that don't produce any units but grant hefty bonuses to any unit types that can be created by the adjacent buildings, so you can buff up your already powerful level 5 archers even more if you can spare the building space! Only thing is, the amount of units you can command is determined by the amount of buildings you have and totems do not contribute to this number, plus totems don't add up to your gold revenue, so there's something to think about there (the game can force extra units on you after completed quests and so the total number can exceed both your max unit count and the game's max of 20).
Balancing the creation of units and construction of buildings with each other to keep up the steady supply of resources is THE biggest obstacle at the early stages of each scenario, as you need to have both buildings and units but can't have much of both from the get go.

Each faction also differs from the others in the way their similar class units work, so unit combinations you found useful to your playstyle with Order may not be at all useful with Lizardfolk. Some Order's units have unique abilites the Lizardfolk's similar units don't have, or their abilites are only unlocked at higher levels, forcing you to first find out what the units do exactly and whether it's worth it to waste building space and experience to unlock a certain ability of a unit.
My special blend in action: The entire Lizardfolk main base
is decimated, only one of my units fell in battle

For example, in Order of the Flame campaign my simple winning blend was a small force of lvl 3 warforged, a few regular healers of lvl 2, quite a bunch of artificers and a whole lot of archers both lvl 5, a deathless guardian and a varying amoung of lvl 5 rogues. The way this worked was, while the incredibly resistant warforged tanks sucked most of the damage from the enemy, my ranged artificers and rangers stood in the back away from immediate danger and hurled their magic and poison attacks. Deathless guardian spotted cloaked enemies and the Order's rogues are cheap to produce but do pretty high ranged damage as well. The healers healed the humans and the artificers, when not attacking, healed the warforged and I lost no battle with this set up. With the Lizardfolk, on the other hand, I couldn't come up with any combination that would've been as clear or worked as well.
Having lvl 5 rogues with the Order was easily worth it at any given situation with them being cheaper copies of poison archers that could also detect traps and use the lvl 5 special attack to do hefty poison damage and stay invisible to the enemy while doing so, but Lizardfolk rogues are pretty much just weaker copies of fighters with no redeeming abilities and as such were not worth it in my opinion, choosing to play as the rogue champion was enough to cover for their absence.

Another twist to battles comes in the way of items. There's the standard fare healing and magic restoration potions and scrolls and special items that buff up the stats of one unit for the entirety of the scenario, but there are also certain unique items that can be invaluable to have, such as idols that make the enemy units blind for a period of time, medusa head that turns units to stone, minotaur horn that can summon a minotaur to fight for your cause, rings that cause elemental damage to an area and wands that charm enemies to fight for you, and more. These items can literally turn the tide in battle, in fact if it wasn't for my minotaur horns and a ring of fire the final scenario of the Lizardfolk campaign would've been far more difficult to beat. Anytime the enemy was about to win by draining the Heart of Siberys I just called in two minotaurs and a fireball to distract them long enough for me to disrupt their plans for good.
While I'm away finishing off the enemy base,
the Order sends their last guys to knock on my door.
Paid them no mind. My pet minotaur was there.
To add another layer to the gameplay and make the differences between units, factions and the qualities of the items all the more evenly useful, the victory conditions vary. Destroying an enemy main base isn't the only way to win, so brute force and a powerful army doesn't necessarily do you any good and I can safely assume that multiplayer skirmishes between intelligent players would be awesome to witness in this game (with me not being one of the intelligent players).
Think. While an army of warforged attack a Lizarfolk main base full force, a small squad of Lizardfolk rogues are about to find the key artifact in Khyber that also grants victory and the race begins, or while one player spends his time gathering dragonshards the other sends a few guys to collect all possible gold from Khyber, forcing the dragonshard gathering fool to constantly wait longer before being able to create anything, or maybe one player is holding expansion bases and the other places of power and both constantly have to halt the other's countdown to victory and leave his key locations unguarded. This really makes players think all the time, because playing the campaign the same way everytime will bite you in the ass if the opponent is a sneaky skunk and knows what he's doing.
The single-player campaign victory conditions are more objective based and often feel like RPG quests, but the RTS gameplay is still there all the time and this magical blend of objective based real-time strategy with a story and a direction is actually so good that the campaign alone is worth buying the game, which is good for me, the lonely single-playing man. The scenarios and maps in the campaign are very, very different from each other and very well crafted to fit the story points, unlike many other games that just take obvious multiplayer maps and try to work some sort of a single-player campaign in there somewhere.

The computer AI of the enemy is quite good. There are a couple of moments when you can trick the AI to do something stupid to become an easy target, but generally the chances for this are slim. The enemy gathers resources and claims places of power for themselves like any regular player, and it doesn't always just attack you head on until either one of you runs out of resources, instead it sometimes takes it's time to build it's own forces in peace and runs away from a battle it's hopelessly losing to fight another day. As there are three factions in play, you'd think that both AI controlled enemies would sort of unofficially team up and tag team you like in so many other games, but that's not the case in Dragonshard. The other two factions fight each other as much as they fight you, and in fact there were a few times when either army completely wiped out the other one without any interference from me. The AI is a believable opponent and in the more regular scenarios of the campaigns starts out with the exact same resources as you do, as I have managed to witness a few times. As such the scenarios aren't challenging because of some unfair advantage given to the enemy at the start of the game, but because the AI isn't a complete moron designed to do one thing over and over again (unless it's unable to do anything else).

The sound world of the game is great. The music is fantastic, the different sounds from the units are great, everything's great. I laughed everytime I heard one of the Lizardfolk units speaking in such a funny cockney accent that it probably was too out of place in this game, but I don't care. The dialogue in the campaign cutscenes are probably the worst sounds in the game, I suppose largely due to there being very little reason for the voice actors to care how enthusiastic they sound. The cutscenes don't allow much in the way of personality development, it's four random guys talking about nothing for the most part. The dialogue is like dialogue from an RPG that has no story.
 -Yay, we found the thing we're looking for
- I want to get paid now
- Ha ha, silly rogue! Let's go home.

Overall, the game is all around well crafted. Technically it's near flawless, the base gameplay is simple and easy to grasp and the immensely diverse units and traits, items and different possible victory conditions should allow gamers to constantly find new tactics even if they face the same opponent on the same map with the same faction several times. The campaign is well done and alone worth the price I paid for the game, the music is excellent and there's a surprising amount of depth to the world. The tutorial is well done and indepth, and most importantly completely optional so it doesn't slow you down should you replay the campaign. Different scenarios from the campaigns can be replayed freely at your leisure and completing the story scenarios in certain ways gives you bonuses for later scenarios.
I'm not the real-time strategy kinda guy but I enjoyed playing Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard a lot and can't find anything wrong about the game.

I suppose next I'll try turn-based strategy, which is more up my alley.

The story here: I have 33 units in one well balanced squad, 28 of the units being at max level 5 and archers and fighters get a boost to both attack and hit points. The champion, Redfang, gives bonus damage to all allies, carries his upgraded weapon, automatically channels damage back to the enemy when hit and has a power from a side quest that replaces him with another champion immediately should he die. On top of everything, I have two minotaur horns, a ring of fireball, a wand of fire and a wand of charm in my backpack. To my disappointment the final "battle" involved facing a total of six low level schmucks and it was literally over in 4 seconds. Too bad I couldn't take this lot straight to the endgame.

"There's no kill like OVERKILL!" --the backcover of Armed and Dangerous


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  2. Yeah, that sucks dude, I have police quest SWAT 1, hasn't run successfully since windows 98. Happens though, but it seems like D&D: Dragonshard is an interesting enough game to garner my interest :D. Looks decent too. Good review as always!