Finally, a game that could give Heroes of Might and Magic a run for its money
Let me begin with the disclaimer that I have not been able to play any Disciples game before this. With that in mind, I must say that what really first got me to play the game was its beautiful graphics, but what a surprise it was to find out that it came with a gameplay that could give 3DO's Heroes of Might and Magic a run for it's money. For those who are familiar with the Hero series, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy is a turn-based strategy game that similarly brings us into the fantasy world: a beautiful, mystic realm of dragons, faeries, magic, and creatures of all sorts. As the leader of the race you choose to control, your objective is to complete seven scenarios, each with its own mission and several sub-quests, whilst trying to keep enemy races at bay and keeping your share of resources under your control at the same time. Like in Hero and some real-time strategy games, it all boils down to one thing: resources. However, unlike real-time strategy games, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy keeps the strategy in a strategy game by introducing a new element: unit upgrades. Every time a unit survives a battle, he gains a certain amount of experience points (XP), and upon reaching a certain amount of XP, that unit will level up to the next unit in the tech tree of your choice, which usually means that the unit gets more health, more initiative, more armor, does greater damage in battle, or gives it a special ability or two. To the casual gamer, this means your scrawny unit now becomes bigger, tougher, meaner, and more badass-looking than its predecessor. Hence, the survival of your units, and more especially, your main hero, comes into play. This stimulates critical and strategic thinking in the game: "Should I attack the tougher green dragon and get more XP while risking the death of my skeleton warrior, or should I attack the troll for an easy win and get less XP instead?" or "Should I engage the enemy's hero now, or go back to my city to heal instead?" Aside from this, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy takes turn-based strategy games like Hero a step further by introducing two new elements: a customized tech tree and personalized heroes. In Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy, the heart of every race is its capital, a grand city protected by a very powerful, tough, almost undefeatable unit-the city GUARDIAN. The guardian ensures that your capital does not easily get captured by an opponent race, which would mean instant defeat for you and your race. In the capital screen, reminiscent of the city screens in Hero, is where you build structures that enable upgrades to your units. Decision-making comes in whenever a branch in the tech tree is encountered. The gamer is presented with a choice that would make his units suit his style of gameplay and strategy. Often the choice is between a creature that does a whole lot more damage versus a creature that does less damage but has special abilities. Some of these abilities may be immunities or wards against certain attack types, extra armor in exchange for more health and damage, the ability to heal all units for less hit points while curing them instead of healing just one unit for more hit points, the ability to petrify your enemies versus dealing huge amounts of damage, and the like. This makes the game a whole lot interesting, and makes it more personal by giving the player the ability to customize. Even heroes are customizable to some extent. As heroes level up, it learns new abilities. Depending on the ability the player chooses, a hero may get more armor, more health, gain the ability to use boots, gain the ability to use artifacts, gain the ability to add one more unit to his team, and many more. Also, in the Easy, Normal, and Difficult (?) mode, you get to choose a hero that you would want to carry over to the next mission. This pretty much resembles the character building in games like Diablo and Baldur's Gate and develops a sense of attachment between the player and his main hero (e.g. "I've gone so far to level up my main hero, I surely will not want him to die"). Another interesting feature of the game is the multiple sub-quests that add color to the game. By completing the quests, the player may gain a special artifact, a potion or two, or a group of units that would aid him in completing the main objective. Although some of the quests may seem totally unrelated to the story (i.e. accompanying someone's brother to his sister's territory), they provide variety in the game and some constantly remind the player of the main objective. This, however, does not keep the game from being obviously linear, and there are triggers all over the game to ensure that you are able to accomplish the mission, lest you decide to rebel and rewrite the whole story yourself. Linear though the game may be, the designers made sure that the missions are challenging and exciting enough to keep the player glued to his seat for hours (often missing sleep and forgetting to eat) in anticipation of what should come next. The story is especially well-written, so that the play may decide to play one race or another and find a story that is consistent with the overall story, or play all four races, combining all four stories into one big and richly detailed saga.
Like I stated above, the first thing that I noticed about the game was its superb graphics. From the richly detailed hand-painted unit portraits to the crisp, smooth and equally detailed 3D-rendered animations, down to the engrossing, rich environment of the overhead map, this game's graphics is unmatched by anything I have ever seen in a fantasy game. While Hero, a game loved by fantasy gamers worldwide features comic-ish graphics, while Magic: The Gathering offers us unrealistically colorful (sometimes too colorful) air-brush portraits, while Diablo 2 offers a richly-detailed yet relatively small and static environment, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy again takes a step further by combining all these elements and adding 3D animated models and an animating environment that makes this seemingly pulsate with life. A very cool feature of the game is that the background terrain of the battle scenes changes to match the current terrain where the battle is supposed to take place, so let's say you engaged the enemy's army in an undead forest, the background would show exactly this. Engage an enemy in water, and the battle would take place in a ship. Despite all these, however, it seems that the artists of Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy has taken steps to frustrate their games by constantly hiding their heroes in the overhead map. Often the game becomes a game of hide-and-seek as you search for your hidden character, which sometimes becomes hidden behind bushes, mountains, or structures in the overhead map, so that it sometimes takes a lot of time and scrutinizing just to locate your missing hero ("Oh, there he was behind that brush!"). Another really annoying element of the game is that sometimes your heroes would sometimes decide to become chameleons and blend into their environment. Do you know how annoying it is to look all over the map just to find that your dwarf's white clothes blended into the white of the snowy tundra terrain? Or how about suddenly discovering that your devil who had suddenly gone missing has s simply blended into its fiery environment? Of course, you can easily cycle through your heroes by pressing TAB or by clicking on the "next hero" button, but I like to be able to locate my units in the map instantly. Also lacking were idle animations that were present in most flying heroes, but was definitely lacking in ground heroes. If I were to leave my archmage or my thief for a while, I would expect him to get bored, restless, or hungry and not just stand still like a statue or a cardboard man. Another thing lacking in the game were damage indicators and death animations. The only indication you had that a creature was damaged was its health bar, and whenever a creature died it would simply be engulfed in smoke and fire and the next thing you find is a pile of bones where the creature used to be. If I killed a 20-foot lord of hell it would really have been cool to see him thrash, moan, and scream before collapsing into a pile of bones. Finally, a lot of the portraits, as well as the game environment in general, were a bit too dark, so that I had to put my monitor's brightness to full just to see their hidden details. Strategy First tried to fix this a bit in the patch by brightening some of the unit portraits, however, you will still miss a lot of detail not unless you turn the monitor's brightness to full. Also lacking was the ability to adjust the screen resolution. Following the path of Blizzard games, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy locks the resolution at 800 x 600, which, at an age of GPUs and 21-inch monitors, should be considered obsolete. If I had a large monitor and a fairly decent graphics card, I'd sure like to take advantage of them both. Finally, the Direct3D mode of the game looks no different from the software mode, which, in my opinion, should have made the game look a whole lot better. I am sure Strategy First intentionally wanted to make the game purely sprite-based, however, adding 3D effects would have made the game more alive. The least they could do was to make the fog of war into a real fog and not some rough-edged sprite. Despite all these, however, the hand-painted portraits, richly detailed environments, smooth 3D animation and little added details works charm and magic into the game. Turn-based fantasy games never looked this good.
Although the in-game music is no doubt very rich and theatre-quality, it was limited to only a few selections, and worse, the music did not differ from one race to another. Whether you are playing the first or the last mission, whether you are playing Empire or the Mountain Clans, it is simply the same repeating set of compositions, over, and over, and over, again, and again, and again, and again. I can even hear it playing right now at the back of my mind. Heck, after a few games I have already memorized it. Give me a keyboard and I can even play it. The bottom line is that Strategy First probably thought that the games would not mind hearing the same music again and again, so that they did not give much attention to it. In a turn-based game where you spend a lot of time just sitting in front of the monitor thinking of your next move it would have been nice to have some tunes to hear. They did remedy this a bit by giving the players the option to add a custom path so that the game would instead play some of your MP3s, but this was not enough since it still sometimes played the usual theme music, and there were long minutes where it did not play anything at all and if it did play, your songs, it was not random enough and you would sometimes hear the same track over and over again.
The sound effects, environmental effects and voice effects were pretty much okay. On the quest map depending on what part of the map you are currently viewing, the environmental sounds would change to water lapping on the shores, or fire boiling from the pits of hell. From time to time, a flock of birds would appear and fly from one part of the screen to another, which is cute but becomes boring after a while (I expect to see bats in the undead forest, not birds). The voice-over effects are well done, although it would have been cool if they gave the heroes the ability to get annoyed after too much clicking, a la Warcraft style. Idle voice-overs, however, is a nice addition to the game. Leave your Nosferat to go to the bathroom for a while and you'd hear his eerie voice calling after you. The sound effects are also nicely done, although it is obvious that there was only one sound effect per character attack. If I had a sword and was cutting through thick demon hide I expect to hear a thud rather than a clang as if I was hitting an armored paladin.
Being a huge fan of strategy games especially the likes of Heroes and Diablo, I was at first expecting a Heroes clone, but to my surprise, this was something unlike any other that I have played before. Although the game somehow resembles Warriors 2: Darklords Rising (even the titles look similar) where a part of the strategy is how your units are "stacked", there are still a lot of new and interesting features such as the customized tech tree, unit upgrades, and hero build-up that gives Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy its own distinct gameplay. A very good and well-thought of gameplay is what makes a good game, and this is something that I find lacking in most games today, most of which are just glorified clones of older, established games like Warcraft, Quake, Diablo, and Heroes of Might and Magic. Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy, although being a crossbreed of some of these games, is still a cut above the rest, so that it is well worth playing for its unique gameplay alone.
The multiplayer mode of the game features hot-seat as well as LAN and TCP/IP-based games. One thing that's lacking in this area is an easily accessible online community (like Gamespy). I have seen someone posting in the Disciples 2 messageboard asking where people played Disciples 2 online. Also, multiplayer games may prove a bit too slow especially for those who are used to playing against the computer, and you cannot play against the same race. Overall, there is still much improvement needed with regards to the multiplayer aspect of the game. Hopefully, we will see a better adaptation in the future.
Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy, while still lacking in some aspects, is sure to guarantee hours of engrossing gameplay, a type of gameplay which, for someone who is not so into strategy and thinking games, may prove a bit too challenging, but nonetheless still interesting and leaves the player "wowed". As a bit of an anecdote, I have some friends who spent most of their lives playing nothing other than Hero and Civilization. To them, there is no other game that could match Heroes. Knowing that Heroes 4 was a few weeks away from being launched, I introduced them to Disciples 2, thinking that they'd trash the game once Heroes 4 comes out. Anyway, out comes Heroes 4, which we bought the day it came out. I was shocked to see my friends still playing Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy weeks after that. They also had Hero4 installed, but my friend claims he only played it once and went back to Disciples 2 because it was much more fun that they were aiming to finish all four races. I myself stopped playing Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy for about a week and switched to Heroes 4, but after finishing the first campaign I went back to Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy, which I played until I have finished all four races, and to me, it was worth it.
Although the story is definitely well written, the individual storylines of each race seem a bit shallow and leaves a few holes unexplained. What I liked about the story is that unlike reading a fantasy novel, it is not your usual "I know what's going to happen next" story line and keeps the player wondering, even in his sleep, about what's going to happen next. Also, the stories do not have the typical happy ending, but is more of a question that leaves many things to the player's imagination. I will not go into detail, as I do not wish to be a spoiler, rest assured the story remains consistent all throughout the races and leaves enough room for a sequel.
At an age of Geforce3's and 2Ghz Pentiums, it simply amazes me to find here a quality game that does not make use of realistic 3D graphics, babes with huge boobs, or high-budget cinematics just to attract players. Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy reminds us that great, innovative gameplay and an engaging storyline is what makes a good game, and that is exactly what it gives us.