Dreamlords is quite different from most MMORPG designs. Instead of going for the usual single hero experience Dreamlords tries to combine elements from various other multiplayer games not usually seen in MMORPGs. It tries to take the addictiveness of long term web games, the strategy of Civilization- or Total War-style management plus the excitement of RTS player-on-player combat, and fuse them. While this may seem overly ambitious or like it's going in too many directions at once, the different elements do manage to come together fairly well, which is impressive and quite entertaining. This game's best audience is probably those who love the web-based play over time games and are willing to fork over some money each month for more depth and action.
Dreamlords is in many ways several games in one. It is a Total War-style game of cities, armies, technological development, and economy. It is an RTS game of deploying troops and fighting monsters and other people in real time. Finally, it is a game of cooperative competition with â€œconvergenceâ€ as you and the members of this group try to complete the game. This last part might sound confusing for any one who has not played Utopia or other web-based games. The short of it is that every player is part of a group which has several months of competition amongst player run kingdoms (convergences), until one of these kingdoms is declared the winner at which point the whole thing starts over. So there are parts of the game that restart every few months and parts that persist.
The game plays much as the saying goes: a jack of all trades is master of none. It lacks the true depth of any individual game from one of the genres it samples from, with the exception of the web based games. This is particularly apparent in the RTS section where many of the conveniences an RTS gamer has come to depend on are lacking and strategy is quite limited especially early on. The tech advancement, economy, crafting and city/empire building aspects are better.
The turn based system in Dreamlords is very nicely done. The player is able to build up action points over real time and then spend them at their leisure. This makes it possible to play often or rarely but still not fall too far behind. Missing a few days works out fine because you return to a whole lot of possibilities right away. The action points are really the glue that holds all the different elements of the game together. The play in Dreamlords never actually requires players to be on at the same time. This is great for those who hate the thought of waiting around for others, but the total lack of true group activities will certainly be disappointing to those who prefer traditional MMORPG play.
The convergence is the other area where Dreamlords shines. Unlike many other web based games, players can leave their convergence and join another until they come to one that fits their play style. This is critical as the convergence is a large part of â€œwinningâ€ the game and makes up the group of people you will not be competing with as you play. Since Dreamlords allows the player to mostly operate alone, even an inactive convergence will not completely ruin a playerâ€™s experience.
The game-play of Dreamlords breaks down into two major categories: There is the web based management of your cities, resources, technologies and armies, and the RTS client from which you fight against AI monsters, play though story scenarios and fight players in PvP combat.
The management part of the game is definitely its strong point. The web interface is good overall. Itâ€™s clean and easy to understand and you can play from anywhere. Managing the placement of buildings in your cities is fun and easy to understand. You aren't overly punished for mistakes and action points are plentiful. There are quite a number of valid strategies even at the early stages of your province development that are feasible, including focusing on developing research, war, precautions and exploration. You can expand quickly with many cities or keep a small number of larger ones. Each race has different technology trees, which makes for some interesting progression. The economy is easy to interact with, logical and has what many games should be using: a stock market-style sell and buy system. All items have intrinsic value because you can basically turn them into experience for your Dreamer. Also equipping your units allows you to focus them in different ways and there are a large number of quite varied and interesting items to use or sell.
The RTS part of this game has some highs but many lows. The graphics engine of the RTS play is modern-looking but the look and feel of the levels, units, and effects are uninspiring. In fact the sounds of the RTS play are painful after a short period of time. Controlling your units is difficult; while there are control groups there are not many of the other standard controls of RTS games, such as waypoints. The camera controls are painful. Rotating the camera is required as no one view gives you enough perspective on the level. It is impossible to zoom out far enough to get a full view of the battle. Still there are some interesting things that one can do with the different unit types. One can focus on speed versus power. Preparing a focused strategy ahead of time is key in player on player combat. However in the early stages of each raceâ€™s technology development, combat is very simplistic.
Since there is no way to accomplish any kind of combat with out going into the RTS part of the game, there is no escape from the worst part of the game. The RTS AI is totally uninteresting. Usually there is no chance of failure against it because you are bringing enough forces to completely overpower the enemy. However, regardless of the relative strengths of the forces involved, the scripting, level layout, and types of monster units for every random encounter were generally uninteresting and in some cases just bad. There is no way to skip these little slaughters so you end up entering the RTS regularly just to move-attack your troops once, wait, and leave. Any kind of auto calculated fight here would be a god-send.
The player on player combat is much more interesting, though it still suffers from the basic problems of the RTS client like camera control. There is a very nice section pre-combat where each side can use nasty tricks called precautions. The precautions are powerful enough to be very important, especially if a player focuses on them, but it is also possible to focus on just your units and have few precautions. The precautions are a nice way of keeping combat fresh adding something to the PvP play.
The races are each based on a different game-play philosophy, which is a nice touch. Each race has different strengths in the city managing game and the RTS game. Since the game ends and restarts every few months, there is nothing stopping the player from trying out all different races and strategies with each as time goes on.
Dreamlords has a few basic areas which lack polish that probably can be attributed to its being developed by a small independent. The instructions are vague or lacking and the graphics on the RTS client start-up are fairly sparse. Overall though, one can appreciate that small things must fall by the way-side to make way for bigger design issues especially in the world of MMO games where the game can be improved as time goes on as long as the basic game play is well thought out.
The story is fairly uninteresting and overly vague. The chat that appears as you progress is difficult to read and often disappears before youâ€™re even finished. The story plays out in the RTS part of the game and the problems there really hurt any chances the story has of being interesting. However, since it is key to winning the game and explaining what is happening to the world, players are at least aware of the basics.
Playing the part of a god-like being really needs some visceral punch. Unfortunately, your Dreamer avatar, while large and eventually powerful, suffers from awkward animations. All the problems of the RTS again really hurt the feel of being a powerful being. When youâ€™re using your Dreamer, your camera is locked onto him and those annoying camera controls from the RTS become even worse when glued to one unit.
The look and feel of the web client world is quite good. The graphics are simple but effective. The layout of the province looks good enough to keep you quite addicted to taking turns. The close-ups of units give you a feel for what theyâ€™re about, and their designs, when you can see them clearly, are fairly unique and interesting.
Dreamlords has managed to capture the addictive nature present in Civilization-like Empire-builders, which make you need to play just one more turn. It has also managed to capture the feeling from Utopia-like web-based games of wanting to keep tabs on your province as it grows in real time and work with your convergence towards glory. Since it is an MMO there is still ample time for improvements in the problem areas, especially since they are relatively contained or technical. Since it has a fairly small price tag for the purchase and first month, any web based game enthusiasts or Total War players who are willing to consider a monthly fee should seriously look into Dreamlords.