Dungeons & Dragons. You can almost hear younger siblings choking to death on polyhedral dice. Except no: the role-playing element has been discarded, and what remains is a click-beast of lesser resource management. Dragonshard is, remarkably, only the second RTS to be based on the popular paper/pencils past time (the first being the long-lost Blood & Magic from the ancient era of 1996). It goes without saying that Dragonshard is, like Warcraft III, a character skewed RTS world of goblins, orcs, swords, sorcerers, giant robots... Hang on, a robot?
Okay, I know World of Warcraft has robots, but this is D&D, it's traditionalist swords and sorcery... isn't it? Actually no: it's the latest D&D campaign world, Eberron, which, like a few of the offbeat settings such as Dark Sun, plays with those fantasy standards to deliver ideas other than those of the standard goblin-gang to the gamer's table. Of course there are still 'cure light wounds' spells, beholders, rangers and gelatinous cubes, but there are also flying ships, magic crystals from the sky and some iron-plated heroes.
So there I was getting oiled up for a classic gnoll-bashing session, and my RTS hero character is a giant robot with a wrecking ball for a fist. Okay, he's probably an 'automaton' or an 'iron golem' in sword-swinger terminology, but for those of raised in the era of Optimus Prime it's clearly a goddamned stompy mechanoid. It's a surprise. A pleasing one. Does this armoured surprise signal a game in which will defy our expectations? Can it be a genre-busting slayer of clichés? Find out in the next exciting paragraph!
No. Dragonshard has a fair few ideas going for it, but it's simply not up there on the precarious top rung on objective-based RTS achievement. In the spectrum of point 'n' click fantasy war it's marginally more butch than Germanic fantasy-ham Spellforce and observably worse than the titanic Warcraft III.
Nevertheless, there's an unexpected amount of fun to be found in these murky realms. Dragonshard simply has loads of things going on in it, not least of which are yet more robo-chaps, known as the Warforge. New automatons can be constructed as the game unfolds, and you'll find pieces of their wreckage lying all across the varied scenarios. In fact there are dozens of asides and subquests to be distracted by, and the campaign itself is short, but complex, with your Heroes of Light doing fisticuffs with some nefarious Lizard-folk who are warped by some powerful unpleasantness. Or something.
Anyway, the two (good/bad, with a garnish of third-party) campaigns are densely packed with fantastical materials. Initially you just have a core band of heroes, one of whom you choose to be your leading hero for each mission. He's soon joined by loads of side characters you can pick up along the way, the captains and footsoldiers. Sure, it opens with clearing some bugbears from a gold mine, but the challenges soon fork off onto more unusual terrain. Big old monsters are a regular pothole on the journey, and often take some beating.
Resources fall from the sky in the form of the Dragonshards, or must be extracted from convenient buckets filled with gold. Uniquely, much of the gold-hoovering action takes places underground in a huge network of caverns. You swap between above and below ground continually, and even have mini-maps of both areas on screen at once.
Crucially, this two-pronged approach also changes the way that the game is played. Surface missions are bolstered by a base from which you can pump out soldiers, RTS-style, and below ground your heroes are on their own, facing a more traditional-RPG 'dungeon crawling' process. Both areas are essential to the overall campaign though, as story elements, side-missions and of course loot, are uncovered both above and below ground.
This has some profound ramifications for multiplayer. While you'll be used to the base-upgrading, resource-humping, unit-pumping dynamic of the surface war, you'll also be exploring the underground realms with your heroes, which makes for some mean fights, especially when you or your opponent have just gone toe-to-toe with some of the slicker NPC denizens of the cavern-realms. On the whole I think Dragonshard is a little too awkward for it to ever seriously drive hordes of people online, but it's certainly entertaining for a few hours, especially over a LAN. (But perhaps that's true of all games...)
Part of that awkwardness comes from accessing everyone's powers. This being D&D everyone is dripping with magic and 'feats', but accessing them from a large group of select folk is unnecessarily fiddly. To get the special abilities working you have to select units individually, which can vex amid the throes of combat. More than once I found myself shaking my fist at the sky, cursing the point-and-click Gods and their lack of benevolence. Fortunately, you also get healing potions and some magic toys, which thankfully have their own icons, making them easy to deploy in the most crucial moments of combat. Hurray!
Graphically it's as predictable as Disneyland: nothing special, but it's cute and it does the job. The general theme of the presentation is all a bit over-the-top, and it feels like it could have benefited from an art director who just wanted a bit of simplicity. (Not everything in a fantasy world needs to be encrusted with glowing gems and whirling cogs, you know... Oh it does! Right. Sorry...) Nevertheless the world itself is lavishly detailed, with some silly cut-scenes and some superb scripted sequences scattered throughout the campaign.
Also, some of the dialogue is simply beautiful. There's a roar in the caverns and one of the companions says: "What was that?"
"Not to worry," pipes up the Vader-voiced robot. "It will soon be dead." Yeah, they're not exactly pinning you down with mystery with this one. What lies ahead? Fighting, and the odd annoying text box to click on.
Ah, that robot. Bastion, he's called. He's clearly better than the other heroes. Or is he? Lots of spells meant for humanfolk don't work on his cog-based physiology and, like the rest of the people in this world, he can only rest when he's underground. Ah well, he still goes: STOMP, STOMP, STOMP when I order him to crush the enemies. Occasionally he'll emit an incongruous "NOTHING CAN STOP ME" when he's gaily gathering the titular Dragonshard crystals. As mechanical archetypes go, he's a sweetie.
Oh and pressing the End key kills any of your units you have selected. For maximum incredulity try accidentally doing this when you have your whole army selected and you haven't saved for a while. Yeah, it's like that.
It's not been the best year for us real-time strategists, and Dawn of War still dominates my affections, but Dragonshard nevertheless provides some welcome distractions. It's amusingly offbeat in places, but I can't help suspecting that the D&D hardcore will be deeply dissatisfied with Atari's offerings, at least until Dungeons & Dragons Online turns up. And maybe even more so then...