D&D goes RTS and we say WTF? Can the world's most famous RPG actually work as a strategy game, or will this be a D&D title in name only?
After spending a couple of weeks with a preview build of Liquid Entertainment's new RTS, we can definitively say that this is a good game... but is it Dungeons & Dragons? That remains to be seen.
The developer of Battle Realms (originally made up of ex-Blizzard employees), Liquid has signed up with Wizards of the Coast to create the first Dungeons & Dragons strategy experience. Just in case some of you really were born yesterday, D&D was originally a tabletop RPG system which was among the first games ever to be blamed for killing someone. Reportedly, a disturbed teen got his high-level character killed and this was apparently the last straw in his miserable life, so he ended it. Cue a non-stop string of accusations that games kill.
Anyway, D&D - or more precisely Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - has gone on to spawn many famous computer RPGs including the extremely popular Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights.
Both the above games are quintessential RPGs. Neverwinter Nights even simulates actual dice rolls in its engine. The games are all about small parties of adventurers, quests full of dungeons, dragons and plenty of other monsters, and stats. Lots and lots of stats.
So how does stat-heavy, small party gaming translate into RTS? Surprisingly well.
As we know, most RTS games feature a single map, across which armies of units crawl, fight, and die. Rinse, repeat. Developers like Blizzard (Warcraft 3) and Liquid (Battle Realms) have tried to move away from massive armies toward smaller groups of units which make up for low numbers with RPG-like stats and special abilities.
Dragonshard aims to take this one step further with a combination of an innovative unit creation and resource gathering system. In Warcraft 3, you build plenty of grunts to protect your heroes, which level up as the game progresses. In Dragonshard, your heroes - called Champions - don't level up. And instead of grunts, you build Captains, which can further recruit soldiers based on their level.
To level up a Captain, you must both gather XP from fighting the enemy or random monsters on the map, and build extra structures. To explain: the Order of the Flame can build an Altar to train Clerics. Once you've accumulated 2500XP into a central pool, you can spend this to upgrade all your existing Clerics and all future Clerics to level 2. Then, once you accumulate a further 5500XP you can upgrade your Clerics to level 3, but only if you have two or more Altars.
The mix becomes more complex when you realise there are only a limited number of spaces for adjacent buildings in your base's Nexus Grid - that's right, it's like Battle For Middle Earth, you can't build wherever you like, just on specific base foundation squares. You can also use these spaces to build monuments that give bonuses such as upgraded hit points or damage.
To level up to the highest possible level 5, you need four buildings, and that takes up a whole Nexus Grid block. So you won't be able to build any monuments to give those units bonuses. But once you've upgraded to level 5, this is permanent, even if you demolish three of the Altars.
This kind of thing makes the restricted building options more interesting. What else makes the game interesting is the Underworld. It's a whole secondary map, below the main map. It feels more like a classic D&D dungeon, in that it's full of gold and monsters. You travel to this Underworld to score gold and XP. You can also dominate the map by taking control of Places of Power, and pop up a squad next to the enemy base via an Underworld Transition gateway.
Above ground, the resource is dragonshards, which fall from the sky every five minutes or so. Unlike other RTS, resources are concentrated in these tiny pockets, so it's a bit of a race to get to them. The game is very much made up of small squads of units running around trying to score loot - which gives it the RPG flavour it needs to carry the D&D name.
Dragonshard does appear to be a pick-up-and-play game, but only just. It takes some thought to figure out how everything interlocks and how this is likely to affect the way you normally play RTS. We're looking forward to multiplayer for this one - rush tactics are unlikely to work and the Underworld is going to add spice. Not only will you fight huge high level monsters for heaps of loot, you'll fight up to eight opponents for the RIGHT to fight the high level monsters.
D&D as RTS? We say OK.
Due: September 2005