The Dungeons and Dragons license has graced some truly fine videogames. Planescape: Torment and the Baldur's Gate sagas are some of the finest gaming experiences RPG fans can cite. Dragonshard is the first melding of Dungeons and Dragons with the Real-Time Strategy genre, combining traditional RTS action with RPG elements to create a unique whole. While the game doesn't redefine my understanding of the RTS genere, it's very different from your normal title and is well worth checking out. Read on for my impressions of Liquid Entertainment's Dragonshard.
- Title: Dragonshard
- Developer: Liquid Entertainment
- Publisher: Atari
- System: PC
- Reviewer: Zonk
- Score: 8/10
Wizards of the Coast's newest campaign setting, Eberron, is the backdrop to Dragonshard. Though this is the first Eberron videogame, the pulp fantasy environment is set to play home to several types of games for a good reason. High adventure and intrigue are core concepts of the setting, and techno-magical items allow for a vaguely more modern feel while maintaining the fantasy overtones. The elements that distinguish Eberron from your standard D&D setting are woven deep into the game's structure. The construct warriors known as the Warforged, magical crystals called dragonshards, and craft-mages known as Artificers all have gameplay repercussions. Despite this, the flavour of the Eberron setting isn't captured as well as one would hope. The game is set on the jungle continent of Xen'drik, and as a result some of the most interesting Eberron-specific elements are far to the north on another continent. The wilderness-based dungeoncrawling paints the world with a generic fantasy brush that detracts from the source material substantially. While the gameworld is obviously Eberron, I would have enjoyed the inclusion of some of the most interesting setting elements (such as the Dragonmarked houses
or the intricate political situation in the wake of the Last War) into the game. My nitpicking aside, it's definitely D&D. Riffling through the Monster Manual at random will give you a good look at the critters you'll face. All the favorites are there, from Beholders to Ilithids, and they look great.
In addition to the setting, Liquid also broke new ground with gameplay elements. While most RTS titles pit you against other factions in titanic battles, Dragonshard offers more than one way to play the game. On the surface of Xen'drik you build a fortress settlement and train up characters referred to as captains. These captains fill different character templates from the Eberron setting (artificers, rogues, ranged warriors, warforged soldiers, etc). Powerful captains attract soldiers which bolster your numbers while campaigning aboveground. There are several unique hero characters you can choose from as well, and these lead your captains in battle against opposing forces. The problem is that the only resource you can gather aboveground are the semi-ubiquitous dragonshards. Like every good adventuring party, you need gold to fund your conquests. In the grand tradition of D&D there is just as much gameplay to be had belowground as above. In the dungeon realm of Khyber, which runs beneath every level's map, monstrous creatures with hordes of loot await your blade's ministrations. By taking your captains belowground you leave the common soldiery behind, reducing the game to a much more traditional dungeoncrawling experience. Defeating these creatures nets you experience, which you can apply to captain types in order to level them up. In a nice circular fashion, leveled captains gain more followers. These soldiers don't count against the maximum number of followers you can control, and above ground your captains lead huge armies against your opponents. As you conquer more of the map above, you'll find new entrances to the Underdark and new opportunities for loot.
The result is a fun combination of traditional Warcraft-like combat and something more akin to Neverwinter Nights. The focus of game's storyline is very RPG, as well. A group of good-aligned warriors united in their worship of the Holy Flame seek three mystic seals which will allow them access to a giant hunk of Dragonshard. The powerful relic has affected the local lizardfolk population, changing them in substantial ways and providing the primary adversary for the Holy Flame's army. Aside from the goals you'll attempt to fulfill in acquiring the seals, quests you receive from characters scattered throughout the map give you opportunities to gain additional power and treasure. Items can affect your Hero's stats, and some quests can even open up new captain types in your base. The experience taken as a whole is very different than your standard cookie-cutter RTS, and the variety of gameplay ensures that if you get bored with one aspect of the game you can indulge in another activity to switch things up.
Base building in Dragonshard is fairly unique as well. Bases are laid out into blocks of four squares, with a central citadel and a stout wall surrounding the buildings. Unit-building structures are built on each square. Once their training facility is constructed, captains can be trained and (if you have enough experience) upgraded to level 2. By building another of the same structure type adjacent to the original, you can train units more quickly and upgrade the captain type further. Beyond simply upgrading the captains, there are structures you can build in the square arrangement that will improve the statistics of adjacent unit structures. Placing a mana increase obelisk in an arrangement with priest and sorcerer producing buildings will allow your spellcasters to be more effective in combat. It takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of putting together a base it's easy to throw one together fairly quickly. After you've ventured into the Underdark enough times to gain some sizeable wealth you'll have a base that resembles a small city, with monuments and buildings nicely blending together.
The visual look of the game is distinct, and quite attractive. Units are highly detailed, with lots of nice touches given to the captains and heroes you'll be leading. One hero has a cross hanging from their armor that swings as she runs, while the angelic Archons wield inner-lit lightning bolts. The lizardfolk are especially intricately designed, with spines and scale flaps all over the place. The world is equally beautifully rendered, with environmental effects aplenty and a deformable terrain adding to the experience of combat in a substantial way. The most dramatic way to see the terrain deformation is the infrequent impacts of dragonshards from above. The first time it happens, it's quite startling to see. The explosions of crystalline shards are heavy enough to knock your troops off of their feet if they hit nearby, and leave collectible shards nestled in impact craters in their wake. The downside to all this pretty is a drag on your rig. While I don't have a cutting edge setup, I can play Half-Life 2 with most of the shinies turned up. Just the same, a screen full of warring armies caused me slowdowns on a couple of occasions. Despite the slowdowns, Dragonshard is a dramatic game. The auditory environment is dramatic as well, with angry cries and clashing blades adding emphasis to the visual devastation. Heroes and captains have unique vocalizations and catch phrases. As with every RTS they get old after the hundredth time you've heard them, but until you get fed up and turn them off you'll enjoy their gusto. There are precious few cinematics in the game, with most plot elements being explored via cutscenes acted out within the engine. While this is a good way to show off the game's graphical power, it can make for some odd moments. Up-close, the running animations of the heroes looks decidedly awkward. Additionally, there are no animations for characters to turn in place. When a hero turns to address one of his fellows, he rotates in place like a cardboard cutout. It's distracting, but the cut-scenes move the plot forward effectively. While some of them skirt the line of hokey gaming patter, for the most part they do a good job of keeping you informed about your goals in the single-player campaign.
The single-player mission is enjoyable, but re-playability is fairly low due to brevity. Multiplayer is where the game gets an extended life. Whatever reservations I have about the single-player are easily ignored when it comes to online play. The aboveground/Underdark gameplay makes for an even more interesting experience when other adventuring parties are thrown into the mix. In addition to probing the dungeons for treasure and experience, you have to fend off the opposing forces as well. This can be a tricky prospect if you've just put your party through a difficult boss battle. Beyond the basic gameplay, there are additional objectives that you can attempt to gain dominance. A capture-the-flag-like mode has you collecting artifacts before your opponent does, while another gametype requires you to take and hold places of power for a given span of time. Good gameplay is nothing without opponents, and I was very happy to have little problem finding folks to play against via the browser. The only catch is that you have to download a patch straight off in order to get online. A small price to play for the most entertaining way to play the game.
I didn't like this game at first. My knee-jerk reaction to this version of Eberron set me back, and the gameplay didn't jump out at me the way many other games have in the past. It's been a slow year for Real-Time Strategy, but after some time working with Dragonshard it began to grow on me. The base-building has a very different feel to it than your standard model, and the Underdark dungeoncrawling component is the perfect contrast to combat between massive armies. There are still elements that weaken the end result. The single-player game is very short, and confusingly while there are three races in the game there are only two campaigns. The game has occasional slowdowns, and the random Underdark spawn tables can make for overly interesting forays in the Multiplayer game. Overall, though, Dragonshard is well worth taking in if you're a fan of strategy games or the Dungeons and Dragons brand. Eberron is a fascinating setting, and I'm looking forward to seeing it realized more fully in future titles.