Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dungeon Lords - The Original Review, In commemoration of the release of the 'Collector's Edition' for Dungeon Lords.

OK, this review is a mess ... yet there is something about it and how it represented my feelings that I just could never delete it - so here you go, read my schizo first draft.

What does it say when it is more dangerous to say “I like this game” in the official game forums than to crawl the dungeons full of Cacodemons and Minotaurs? What happens when a reviewer has such internal difficulty with a game that the two voices manifest themselves into a two-way debate instead of a direct review … I just hope I can control them …

Dungeon Lords (PC)

Mike: Dungeon Lords is billed as a Fantasy RPG from Legendary RPG designer D. W. Bradley, famed designer of Wizardry 5 – 7 and the not –so-famed Wizards & Warriors. As he stated in an interview regarding the game “We've built Dungeon Lords from the ground up to include all the classic elements of a great RPG, while striving to make it accessible to all sorts of different players. We’ve created a huge world with thousands of interactions, and spent a lot of time balancing puzzle intricacy and innovation so that there’s something for everyone.” How does having D. W. Bradley attached to the title impact your anticipation?

Mini-Mike 1: D. W. Bradley is not part of the mainstream, and hasn’t been since before there was a GameBoy … and since most players are still under 25, that makes attaching his name irrelevant except to game media geeks and people who miss the good old days of manually tweaking IRQ’s and memory settings …

Mini-Mike 2: That just isn’t nice. D. W. Bradley has an established history of deep stories and excellent dungeons full of challenging puzzles, and *that* is what he brings to Dungeon Lords.

Mike: OK, this isn’t starting well. Let’s talk about the story – the premise is pretty standard fantasy stuff. How well does it play out?

Mini-Mike 1: Cookie cutter – you are some sort of ‘chosen one’, and you have no choice but to linearly trudge through and save the world. What if *I* wanted the power – why should I have to save all of those people? No wonder they wanted to focus so much on the combat – the story is garbage.

Mini-Mike 2: I think it depends on whether you see the traditional fantasy story as hackneyed or venerable. I choose the latter. You know going in that you are the hero – no choice about that. You learn about the basics early on, the power struggles, the inaction and indecision, the subterfuge and deceit … and you have to work your way through it all to save the land from destruction. I think it is an excellent story augmented by excellent combat.

Mini-Mike 1: Fine, you like the story, but one of the inherent means of adding replayability to a game has been to allow players to choose good or evil paths, to choose sides. And while that may not make sense to have true good and evil paths, there is no active role for the player – you merely take on quests without option to refuse and your dialog is ‘listen only’. So you are really playing a story rather than participating in an evolving plot with twists and turns and intrigue. Again, the story is garbage, but I am willing to put up with a garbage story if I get some power to shape the outcome or at least the course.

Mike: Dungeon Lords is a Combat RPG, which basically means it is an action-RPG, but with an advanced combat system.

Mini-Mike 1: What you mean, Mike, is that Dungeon Lords attempts to grab a large audience by stealing ideas from commercially and/or critically successful games like Diablo II, Gothic II, and Jedi Knight II. And, like most combinations, it ends up as a jack of all trades and a master of none – or, rather, mediocre at everything.

Mini-Mike 2: No, what he means is that Dungeon Lords takes the old school RPG out of the impersonal Wizardry and Baldur’s Gate view, and puts it into a robust 3rd person view, while implementing a combat system much more satisfying than Gothic or Morrowind.

Mini-Mike 1: (barf) Do you really believe that last line?

Mini-Mike 2: No, not really.

Mike: Dungeon Lords offers players a vast array of character customization options, from race, gender and starting class, to secondary and tertiary classes and a wide range of skill specializations.

Mini-Mike 1: Hey, you forgot the appearance customization and choice of left- or right-handedness! Oh wait, those are in the electronic manual, partially in the paper manual, and partially in the game but not available. Add to that the fact that you can obtain new guild classes (for example, Sorcerer as a second-tier Mage class) without meeting any of requirements – oh wait, it gets better, the guild master will say ‘The Requirements are X, you meet those, would you like to advance?’ That one cracks me up every time!

Mini-Mike 2: Sure, there are limitations, but they are the window-dressing. Hair? Skin? Who cares! The character customization system is deep and complex, and while it allows you to create a character that is generic and has medium levels of all skills, the very well done class advancement system gradually increases skill specializations to aid you pursuing a path to power in a single area. And while there is no enforcement of class advancement requirements, since they are stated, you can choose to enforce them yourself. My only complaint with the skill system is that the ability to disarm traps and open chests is a necessity for all characters, as there are plot-critical items in trapped chests.

Mini-Mike 1: But ultimately everyone needs a sword and some serious hacking skills … and has to take on loads of intelligence to cheapen other skills and either dexterity or strength to make your melee skills worthwhile. So you have characters with lots of points guaranteed in three categories, lots of skills in melee and thieving – even if your intention is to be a pure spellcaster. This is the inherent problem in all games that abandon strict class typing and allow cross-class skills – the difference from character to character become nuanced rather than distinct. That narrows the reasons for replaying.

Mini-Mike 2: I actually played as a mage, admittedly a ‘BattleMage’ archetype. I found the spells excellent, and some of the spell effects visually stunning. But I agree that playing a mage is a difficult course – you get scant ‘ammo’, and it recharges slowly, and the camping options are also sparse. It is hard to imagine that the game was intended to be played as a pure mage.

Mike: Dungeon Lords features a large game world full of varied creatures and regions to explore. It also features towns where players get quests from NPC’s and several complex dungeons. How does this contribute to gameplay?

Mini-Mike 1: Ever get lost in the woods? Basically the ‘large game world’ is a bunch of aimless wandering between dungeons. Once in the dungeons, you will get lost so often, stuck so many times, and die while solving cryptic riddles so many times you will be longing to get lost in the jungles again.

Mini-Mike 2: While it doesn’t have any ice areas, the world is bigger than Gothic II, and there are lakes and swamps and jungles and dungeons, dungeons, dungeons. And Mini-Mike 1, you have revealed yourself for the shallow individual you are – you should be reveling in these dungeons, not lamenting that they aren’t yet another hyper-linear trip through a mindless FPS-like world.

Mini-Mike 2: It seems obvious, but bears repeating, that this game is called Dungeon Lords for a reason – because the focus is on the dungeon crawling. And that is where the best parts of the game occur – brilliant design, challenging puzzles, and a real need to think you just don’t see in games anymore.

Mini-Mike 1: Are you serious, or are you just some apologist fanboy? Am I supposed to be happy that I had to meander through an empty world with no journal and almost no NPC’s just for the dungeons? Why not just teleport me? I admit the dungeons are cool – they are the only thing that kept me from seeing if I could use the game disks like saw blades in Half-Life 2.

Mike: Dungeon Lords is touted as featuring a wide variety of quests you obtain from NPC’s throughout the game world.

Mini-Mike 2: The quests in Dungeon Lords are very satisfying, and not just the typical ‘go there, kill this, get that, return’ type. You typically are doing something with a good story behind it, which makes it more involving.

Mini-Mike 2: Interesting fact - there are no side-quests. WHAT?!?! I got loads of side-quests! No you didn’t – you got main quests, and guild quests. Nothing else.

Mini-Mike 1: One thing I really liked about this game was the towns – there was a game called Revolution, which had a high level of environmental interaction, too much in fact, so that the player felt like a bull in a china shop, constantly knocking things around. Thankfully Dungeon Lords makes sure there are no nasty tables or chairs to bump into in any of the rooms … they even put out all of the fires in one of the major towns as a safety precaution. Very thoughtful.

Mini-Mike 2: While I loved the beautiful towns, the fact that they were essentially empty was very disappointing. Especially since the game features claim “Loads of personal quests and missions, featuring a world full of NPC characters to interact and bargain with, some who may become your ally, others who may be your enemy.” In reality, there are some guards and civilians in Fargrove to see that cannot give you quests, but aside from that, everyone you can talk to gives you a quest.

Mini-Mike 1: Another unique thing about the game I love is that they give you a ‘lite journal’ option – instead of wading through pages of completed quests and information, you get a few quests with a single line for each.

Mini-Mike 2: At this point I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or clueless. There is no ‘lite’ journal – the journal you describe is the only journal! And the journal has the distinction of being perhaps the worst I have ever seen in a RPG. Besides providing almost no information about a quest, it also provides no feedback as to whether a quest is a ‘just do it’ or a ‘do it and return’ or other type. In addition, when I was at the end of the game, I still had four quests listed in my journal – all of which I had finished many hours previously.

Mike: What other opinions do you have about the gameplay – such as the graphics, combat and enemies?

Mini-Mike 1: Imagine a world in which you are solving puzzles harder than anything in any RPG in recent years, and a continuous stream of respawning snakes comes to attack you every minute or two. The combat is thrilling and non-stop, but sometimes there should be a break. Fortunately, the enemies are all idiots, so they run at you just waiting to be taken out. Unfortunately they swarm you and can easily take you out … or at least really annoy you. The graphics for the game look decent – similar to Soldier of Fortune II, I would say. At least until you get up close. There are some things that look good from a distance but look more like 2D sprites up close.

Mini-Mike 2: I found the graphics quite pleasing – you won’t mistake the game for Half-Life 2 or Far Cry, but it is better than games like Gothic II or Morrowind or Neverwinter Nights. And I found the combat very well done. While it didn’t quite up to the lightsaber combat of Jedi Knight II, it came close. You can easily switch between ranged, melee and magic attacks, which allow you multiple strategies for taking out the swarms of enemies that inevitably arrive. As for the enemies, they were well done in terms of design, in particular I think of the enemies I regularly encountered during a ‘maze’ late in the game – they were really fun to battle. The AI did scale somewhat according to your level and the type of enemy, but largely they just swarmed you.

Mike: We have heard loads about how bug-ridden the game is – care to comment?

Mini-Mike 1: Let’s just say that the hundreds of spiders, bees and other pests are the least of your worries.

Mini-Mike 2: It is fashionable to bash on this game for being extremely buggy, but in the many, many hours I’ve played, across two computers, I have yet to have a single crash. Not one – that is better than any game I’ve played in a long time. There are bugs and vulnerabilities to crashing, things like allowing you to save in the midst of combat, but on whole I would say the game has more ‘incomplete’ stuff than bugs.

Mini-Mike 1: C’mon, how about the half-dozen reloads you did to get the messenger to land – see the pretty screenshot of where she liked to stop? Or how once you press the save game button there is no cancel? Or how the heraldries don’t show up or seem to work? What do you mean by incomplete?

Mini-Mike 2: Well, beside the things we’ve mentioned, the magic system seems incomplete, especially with regard to Rune and Celestial magic. There is the issue that the entire world seems empty and waiting to be filled with interesting characters to give the game some ‘color’. There is a death-and-revive system that seems to forget that most players, when given the chance, will hoard points for a while until the skills are cheaper as you gain a new class. There are just a number of things that point to a game not ready for release.

Mike: One of Dungeon Lords’ most touted features was the cooperative multiplayer. How has your experience been with that?

Mini-Mike 1: At first I thought it was going to be the same as single player mode except that you battle with friends or over the internet. After a while I realized that it was a quest of its’ own. You get advancement points for connecting, for getting a game to start, and for every minute you manage to play without lagging yourself into the side of a mountain.

Mini-Mike 2: I have been unable to try the LAN co-op, which I hear is loads of fun. I have made multiple attempts to play the internet mode using GameSpy, with very little success and no enjoyment. I’ve tried it on computers that I’ve played many multiplayer games with ease, but one behind a firewall I never got to connect, and the other at home I could connect but was very laggy.

Mike: OK, time to sum up and give a final score.

Mini-Mike 1: Dungeon Lords is an unfinished mess of bugs and an affront to gamers everywhere. It was delayed more than once, and a mess of a demo come out of nowhere … followed by another delay. What finally arrived was a mess that was obviously pushed out the door by the publishers – and seemingly against the will of the developers, who have made a good show of trying to get patches out and help gamers. Nonetheless, the game as shipped is missing significant features, others are a mess, and the gamer is left more afraid of hitting a game-killing bug than a character killing enemy. I finished the game, and liked a couple of things, and I can’t call it the worst game ever, but it is hard to find something objectively positive to say beyond – cool dungeons, awful game. My advice, stay away; my score: 2/10, 1 star.

Mini-Mike 2: While the lack of a map and character appearance customization is bothersome, and problems with the journal and save system are annoying, the basic game as delivered is actually quite deep and enjoyable. I put more than 60 hours into completing my first time through the game, not counting the approximately 15 hours I’ve already put into my second game and the couple of hours I’ve spent trying to get multiplayer to work. Once you sit down and start playing, it is grand fun and very challenging, and will keep you going for hours. I’m still playing, and it is hard to stop. I truly love the game, not for what it could have - or should have been, but for what it is. While my score doesn’t make mathematical sense, the excellence of the dungeons and combat and the great pacing of the story and advancement, makes me forget many of the issues and give the game a score of : 8/10, 4 stars.

Mike: Dungeon Lords could have been one of my favorite games ever. It derives much inspiration from two of my favorite games ever, and has a wonderful concept, setting and basic story. It has some of the best dungeons I’ve ever been through, and the combat is truly thrilling. But there are many, many problems, and several areas I find very disappointing. It isn’t a 2/10 game, in my opinion, but it is not an 8/10 game either. One score seems to be in step with those taken in by the hype of a game that would meld FPS and RPG in a whole new way, who are now rabid and vociferous in their hatred of the game; the other score reflects those so desperate for another Gothic-like game that they will fully embrace and love this game despite its’ flaws.

I am torn between taking an average and giving it 2.5 stars, or rewarding the excellent and challenging dungeons and combat with more of a ‘positive tilt’. On the one hand, I couldn’t stop playing, I really got into the difficult combat and puzzles and trying to make it through as a mage. On the other hand, I would only recommend this game to hard-core RPG lovers, and feel a number of caveats are in order when talking to anyone about playing the game.

My overall opinion is that as a fully finished game with working multiplayer it would be a worthwhile game to spend money buying. Not a classic, nor one of the greats, but a fun game and worthwhile addition to the genre. It has a good story, very good character development system, fun and exciting combat and excellent dungeon designs. But it is hampered by an empty world, missing or poorly implemented features, and numerous bugs and poor design choices. Some of these things balance out, and the excellent dungeons stand as truly remarkable challenges. But there is no excuse for shipping a game in this state – in a year with many unpolished releases this one manages to stand out. Therefore I am giving it a score of 6/10, or 3 stars.


Anonymous said...

Did the patches fix stuff?

txa1265 (Mike) said...

Some stuff is fixed - like 1.3 puts in the automap and the recent 1.4 puts in charactare customization, but the core stuff is still there. I hear the Collector's Edition adds a few extras, but I'm still not sure how it holds up overall