This real-time strategy game is based on the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing system and set in the officially sanctioned campaign world of Eberron, where magic and machine represent competing paths to power. Players lead one of three factions: the righteous Order of the Silver Flame, composed of humans and other good peoples of the land; the chaotic Umbragen, a vengeful people exiled from their ancestral home; or a third, mysterious race that seems to draw its strength from pure rage.
Dragonshard is presented in full 3D. Battles can take place in caves and dungeons beneath the surface of the earth as well as in the open landscapes of the surface, as in Black Hole Games' contemporary Armies of Exigo. Throughout the single-player storyline, faction development and character choices add light role-playing elements. The game's plot involves great battles for control of "dragonshards," the enormous crystals that are the source of all magical power in the land. The Dragonshard storyline was written by Keith Baker, who created of the D&D fantasy realm of Eberron.
Dragonshard blends the Dungeons & Dragons license and elements of dungeon crawling with the conventions of a real-time strategy game. Dragonshard doesn't just pay the idea lip service, either: you'll literally have small groups of explorers trolling around through twisty dungeon passages while, directly over their heads, large armies will clash on blood-stained fields of battle. Although the game borrows heavily from both the RPG and RTS genres gamers are familiar with, the combination is fresh and the result has a unique feel that stands out on its own.
The world of choice is the newest D&D campaign setting, Eberron. It turns out that Eberron is the perfect environment for this type of game: it's a troubled world where magical crystalline Dragon Shards rain from the sky, filled with cool character concepts like the self-aware metal golems known as the Warforged. Everything that makes it a great D&D campaign world also makes it perfect for an RTS.
While Dragonshard is built around some very cool ideas, and there's definitely a good deal of innovation at work, the title doesn't exactly knock it out of the park. In places (particularly the later parts of the single-player game) Dragonshard seems to trip over itself, as though the ideas never quite gelled. Moreover, we found a number of bugs still present in the game. While the joy of multiplayer skirmishes help rescue the game, we're left with the feeling that Dragonshard falls a little shy of its potential.
The single-player campaign opens with a group of heroes racing to lay claim to the mother of all Dragonshards, which has enough power to dominate the known world. The story is told through in-engine cutscenes, which can be problematic. For instance, the characters don't have any animations for turning to face one another, so frequently they'll just rotate in place without moving their feet, like characters in those old vibrating football games. The voice acting is solid, but because it sometimes pauses while character animations play, it comes across as stilted.
The single-player gameplay also comes across as a little stilted, but it's nonetheless engaging. There are some really interesting design decisions at work. For example: each type of character you can create can be leveled up from your town. On the main map, higher-level characters will call up reinforcements -- a level four paladin can call forth three other mounted knights to fight at his side for instance. However, if he descends into the dungeon below the map, his knights disappear and he fights alone. Because of this, it's easy to quickly ramp up huge armies on the surface, while you can only adventure with small parties below ground. Neat design tricks like those give the game the right feel without overcomplicating it.
There are only two resources to worry about: shards, which periodically fall from the sky and litter the main map; and gold, which can only be found in the dungeons below. A successful player has to manage both, but unlike most real-time strategy games, you can't just send a bunch of peons to fetch stuff while you worry about other things. Scouring the dungeons below requires a party of adventurers who can topple bad guys and loot chests -- it helps to have some muscle, some healers, and at least one high-level rogue to disarm traps and pick locks. You'll have to control them directly to make sure the job gets done. Gold naturally trickles into your coffers, representing tax revenue from your city, but not fast enough to spare you from the need to adventure.
In the single-player game, you can often "paint yourself into a corner" and run out of a resource, particularly gold. It's not hard to overdevelop your city, then inadvertently lose your whole adventuring party to a cataclysmic battle, at which point you'll be stuck waiting before you can build anything. Sometimes you're forced to just restart the mission, or you find yourself waiting around.
And there is a lot of waiting in the single-player game, waiting for new units to spawn, waiting for them to call up all their reinforcements, waiting for them to cross the map to where you need them -- occasionally I found myself checking my e-mail as I played. The single-player game definitely feels more like a slow, deliberate role-playing adventure than a nail-biting real-time game.
Resources aside, there are tons of interesting strategic decisions to make. Rather than building buildings at random, your city layout influences the types of heroes you can create. Your units get bonuses if you cluster buildings together, so you have to decide which classes you want to focus on. Also, you can use experience you gain in the dungeons to level up whole classes of characters. During any particular adventure you'll only have enough XP to get one or two classes to max level: which ones you choose to emphasize has a huge impact on your strategy. Moreover, during each mission you'll find items and artifacts that your characters can use, and there's a whole rewards inventory to manage between each level. All told, there are dozens of different ways to play the game.
While the single-player game may have its starts and stops, when it works, it works great: you'll feel like you're canvassing through dark dungeon passages or leading a massive army into battle, often within the same mission. The campaign bogs down in places, but there's some good gameplay in there.
While Dragonshard's single-player game can be hit or miss, in multiplayer skirmishes the gameplay really shines. The pace is absolutely frantic. In my earlier first impressions I said playing multiplayer was like trying to play two pianos simultaneously. Or, more accurately, like trying to play Dungeon Siege and Battle for Middle-earth at the same time on the same machine.
Against the computer A.I. this duality can be totally frustrating. But against other human players, it's a real joy. Nobody can really keep track of everything, so a number of different strategies come into play. What kind of army do you build? How many soldiers do you send into the dungeons? Where do you keep your main hero? Most important, where is your attention at any given time?
Before long, skirmishes break out on the surface (dueling over the latest new batch of crystals) or down below (nothing's worse than having a band of rogues jump your adventurers right after you just barely beat a big boss monster.) It's enough to make your head spin. That'll turn off some players, for sure, but we're certain many gamers are going to welcome the challenge.
A real boon to the multiplayer game is the ability to save and watch replays of a match after it's over. Skilled RTS players love this: it's the fastest way to learn. Replays are also just plain fun to watch. You can see what strategies the different players favor, or see where the lead changed hands at a critical point. In replays the dungeons are always fully lit, giving you the perverse joy of watching a bunch of crippled clerics bumble blindly into a mind-flayer's nest.
While the multiplayer is a real blast, it can be frustrating to get a game together. We managed to find games easily enough (there's usually a small crowd in the staging room), but several times we weren't able to connect to someone's game, with only a cryptic error message. Hopefully, things can be smoothed out in the future, since the online play is one of the best parts of the game.
The problems we had connecting online are symptomatic of a larger issue: Dragonshard just doesn't quite feel finished. A patch was released the day the game came out, required just to play online. It fixed a few of the bugs we mentioned in our first impressions piece, but others remain.
For instance, the game locked up in the middle of a single-player mission, forcing me to shut the game down and restart it. Less frustrating but still sloppy is the crash to desktop I experienced after watching a replay.
Then there are problems that are more about a lack of polish than straight-up bugs. Take, for instance, booby-traps in the dungeons. Rogues can spot traps and they'll be highlighted in red. I can understand non-rogue characters bumbling into them -- that's a part of gameplay. But why, when you tell a rogue to disarm a trap, will he willingly stand on another visible trap to do it? That just doesn't make sense. I've lost several rogues -- including my main story characters -- to this problem, which forces you to micromanage their every movement.
In one multiplayer skirmish, the game had just started and I formed my adventuring party and rushed to the dungeon entrance right next to my base. As soon as I stepped inside, my low-level party was assaulted by a beholder -- it carved us up like a Thanksgiving turkey, and by slaughtering my party it just about removed me from the game as soon as it started. Shouldn't the monster randomization take care not to put an uber-baddie right next to the entrance by my starting city? Things like that could've been fixed if Dragonshard had had some more time to cook before it was put on store shelves.
The Final Word
Despite all the problems, Dragonshard has a unique feel. It leverages the D&D license to create something that stands out from the me-too genre clones on the shelves. Maybe not all of the ideas came together properly, but at the end of the day it's a fresh and interesting game. Hopefully, Liquid will get a chance to perfect the formula in a sequel. In the meantime, Dragonshard may not be for everyone, but it should definitely find a following among fantasy aficionados.
People who downloaded Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard have also downloaded:
Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, Dungeon Siege, Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Dungeon Siege II, Icewind Dale 2, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Icewind Dale, Diablo 2
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