Dungeon Lords Preview
By Anthony R Brock
The first question that popped into my mind when I loaded up the press beta of Dungeon Lords was, “This was the game that was originally scheduled for release last holiday season?” Unless the team at Heuristic Park, the developer responsible for Dungeon Lords and also 2000's Wizards & Warriors, has got some incredible trick up their sleeve, or I was given an old beta that doesn't reflect their current progress, I think it highly unlikely Dungeon Lords will even make it before this holiday season, as the game is nowhere near ready. Given Heuristic's track record of 'ship first, patch later' (Wizards & Warriors was almost unplayable at release, and was never fully patched up to kill many of the more serious bugs) I think it likely we'll see a premature release followed up with patches. This is a very irritating strategy for us PC gamers, but one used by many publishers (especially ones obsessed with profit margins) to recoup money spent on development when they feel they cannot wait any longer. Even some of the better games in recent memory (Vampire, KOTOR II, et al) were clearly rushed out the door at the last minute by a publisher demanding they have the game on shelves by a certain date. In the case of KOTOR II it was obvious: They had to make the Christmas ship date for sales. In Vampire's case, it was the publisher doing a 'cut and run' because they knew the title was going to be hard pressed to dent the market. Sure enough, Troika went belly up soon after, and another sad chapter in PC development history was closed, as Troika was a great publisher with a fantastic (albeit unfinished) product in Vampire.
Here though, I think D.W. Bradley and team have got another winner. Not a big winner, but a solid product that is going to appeal to fans of the last game, as it is a quirky and flawed RPG with some solid characterization qualities and an emphasis on loot and stats. For those out there hoping for a Diablo or Dungeon Siege killer just stop reading right now and give up: This is not that game. This is much slower moving than either series and it has almost all the same goofy elements of the last game: Nonsensically implemented lock picking 'minigames', an overdose of enemies placed in bad locations that often overwhelms the player with sheer numbers when they least expect it, and a hideously flawed engine (just like Wizards & Warriors... wonder if it's the same one with technology improvements...) that looks quite dated and causes more clipping and movement bugs than trying to do gymnastics while drunk. I once spent almost 2 minutes just trying to climb up a ladder and then get off at the top! Also, I had huge problems with drawing, and how the engine would only draw the world maybe 5 feet in front of me at any given time. This was a nightmare at night and in dark areas especially, where you cannot see almost anything beyond that 5 foot radius – This cannot be a design decision, it has to be an engine limitation, because it's just crippling. You'll see it in the video at the bottom of the page, and you'll also notice severe problems with AI, like the skeleton on the bridge (and then another one later at the foot of the bridge) running in place like they were stuck on an invisible wall. I didn't try to get a video of it happening like that, it just happened – Twice in a row! Obviously, the engine needs some serious work. Any jumping puzzles in the game, and even basic tasks like moving about the world, are going to be a nightmare if they don't resolve some of these issues.
I am, however, not a graphics whore. I can overlook many flaws to enjoy a well crafted RPG, and Dungeon Lords is looking to be one, provided, and I want to make this absolutely clear, it is given the necessary polish time it clearly needs. Just like Wizards & Warriors, there is a great character creation system (though it looks like you only get to make one character for this one instead of a full suite of six) with a bunch of races (only 4 or 5 were in the beta but the final may have more) to choose from and some typical RPG classes. I noticed, as is typical of a D.W. Bradley game, there was ninja/samurai gear included, so there are probably some classes in that vein coming up in the final version or hidden later on in the game. I didn't get much feel for the story in the press beta, and I couldn't get the multiplayer aspect to work at all (maybe it wasn't ready), so I can't comment on either, except to say that supposedly Dungeon Lords is going to have full coop mode, something nearly all RPG gamers crave in any game they touch. Kudos for that Heuristic, if you actually follow through on your promises and include it. Coop mode is something nearly every game should have, of any genre.
Also a nice touch is how every item you put on your character shows up on the model, even belts and shoulderpads and such – This is something they did in Wizards & Warriors and I'm glad to see it carry over here, as visual representation of your advancement and growth is something many RPG games lack. “I know I've got a helmet of the undead king, but why can't I see it on my character!?!” is a complaint often heard from players of Baldur's Gate, but thankfully one unlikely to be heard from any players of Dungeon Lords.
The action in Dungeon Lords promises to be faster paced and more action oriented than previous Heuristic Park games, due to the move to real time hack'n'slash versus turn based combat, and if they can resolve some of these engine bugs and polish the game a lot more, this could really be one of the big titles of whatever year it eventually comes out in. As none is warranted, especially given Heuristic's record and the general attitude of PC game developers these days, I have absolutely no faith that Dungeon Lords will be released “when it's done”, because based on this press beta I can safely say it won't be ready this year, and I'm sure the pressure is mounting to get this sucker out the door as it's already far, far late to market. If it is released soon, we're in for a nearly unplayable glitch marathon based on unrefined technology that was dated when the project began years ago. Here's hoping Heuristic gives it the necessary time it needs to polish, or has a few hidden tricks up their sleeve.
A short gameplay video can be found here.