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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Dungeon Runners

There is such thing as a free launch.

At first glance, and perhaps second, third and fourth, it's impossible to see Dungeon Runners as anything other than a derivative of World of Warcraft. The completely free (well, we'll come to that in a bit) MMO seems to be going out of its way to ape the 9 million selling behemoth. Everything - from the fonts used to the colour-coding of the drops to the quest window design - appears to be designed to be familiar. However, with comparatively shoddy graphics, jagged controls, and an immediately obvious miniscule scale, this all seems to be shooting itself in the level 23 boot.

That's until you play it for a bit. At the fifth glance, Dungeon Runners is, against all likelihood, a spoof of the MMO genre. NC Soft, one of the big players in the online world with City of Heroes, Lineage and the forthcoming Tabula Rasa, are taking a cheeky dig at the trend that's brought them riches. And oddly, it works.

It doesn't take long to realise this. The first equipment you will have access to is made of cardboard. Cardboard. Then soon enough the drops reveal names like the "Contaminated Costume Cereal Box Ring of the Sasquatch", or the "Smokin' Natural Wrapped Mu'umu'u of the Hot-Natured Armadillo." Mu'umu'u. That's funny. But not as funny as the "Sphincter's People's Pick of Unending Taint." Ew. When you pick up quests, the turgid babble every MMO makes you trawl through, trying to pick out how many of what you have to kill in amongst the twaddle about dying daughters and invading bees, is equally mocked. Huge long passages of nonsense introduce each challenge (thankfully completely ignorable with a useful summary at the end) filled with overwrought fantasy gibberish. Then even the enemies you need to attack are ridiculous. The Fire Mutant Puker being a favourite. I'm currently in the middle of collecting glasses of Puker Juice. Yum!

Look! A public chat window that isn't filled with people trying to sell you in-game money!

The way it's played, however, resembles more Diablo than WoW. Your hero is perfectly capable of soloing through pretty much everything, as well as tackling things in a team. And you'll be doing lots and lots of killing. Enemies are in groups, and you can forget trying to pull one from the gang in a fit of tactics. Hit one, and the whole lot come immediately. This is symptomatic of DR's simplicity - the finer nuances of the genre are absent throughout. If WoW is a fine artist chiselling the most miniature details into granite, Dungeon Runners is a three year old trying to hammer the cube shape through the triangle hole of his plastic block. But you know what? Those plastic blocks with all the colourful shapes are lots of fun. Seriously, steal one from a child and have a go. As idiotic as it seems, it's still stupidly rewarding to fit the shapes through their holes and have them clunk satisfyingly into plastic prison. That's Dungeon Runner's secret.

This distillation of the concept leads to an ingratiating nature. I'm playing a Rogue (well, a Hardy Greenhorn Arcane Rogue in DR's vocabulary) called RongeRaver, who is best equipped with a crossbow. Now, normally the big pain would be the reload wait on such a weapon. Reload wait?! Not here matey. Hold down the left mouse button and a non-stop stream of infinite bolts slaughter my foes. Throw in some of my other skills (what with the aggro rush, a non-melee character needs some area-of-effect defenses) like emitting a noxious and somewhat suspicious, green cloud of gas, and battles are more immediately involving than you'd think. This is also, blessedly, a game that lets you run away. While you can chug health potions without limit, pegging it is often the best option, then picking them off as they run after you. Being someone who finds WoW's refusal to allow running as an option for most classes astonishingly annoying, this makes me very happy.

Arranging items in your inventory is a game in itself.

You can then head back to town (there are lots of excellent insta-travel options, such as waypoint scrolls that let you leave an instanced dungeon from any point, sell your stuff in town, then leap right back in where you left things) and unload your wares. Even here the gags are flowing. Once my sale was complete, a merchant called after me, "I can put my daughter through school now."

So, Dungeon Runners is described as free. And this is completely true - you can download the client and play forever without paying a single penny. And that's rather remarkable. There are catches, however. These range from the minor - health and mana potions won't stack in your limited inventory space - to the rather hugely significant - you can't use any specialist drops. Labelled "Members only", these items are the more powerful, the more magical. This in no way makes it miserable to proceed, with regular equipment at the right level being perfectly serviceable for some areas, but it does make you feel like you're losing out on something. Without it, you'll not be able to survive the deepest dungeons or find the best treasures.

As I was playing this to review, I realised I didn't want to be missing out, and subscribed to the member's package. With my own money. Discovering it was only GBP 2.50 (USD 4.99) a month was possibly something of a contributory factor in this decision. It seems likely to me that anyone who plays this for a few hours for free, and finds themselves enjoying it as much as I did, will not be able to help throwing the price of a pint at it. £2.50? Seriously, why not? The magic being, there's no reason to not give it a go to see if it's for you.

Click on this one and read the mission description.

Something else came up while "playing it to review": I didn't seem to be getting around to reviewing it. I needed to just go into that sub-dungeon to collect the thermometers, and oh, going to level 7 of Algernon to kill that one boss, and I might as well head down to level 2 to hand in those two completed quests, and I'll just sell this loot, and, oh, there's a new quest available here which takes me back to Algor's Terror-Dome where I needed to go anyway... It's then 2am and I've not written anything after playing it for a week. But I do have the Intergalactic Wondrous Locker of the Insurgent Lobster.

At a fuller price (i.e. more expensive than free), or with a higher monthly sub for the full package (i.e. more than the price of a supermarket sandwich), the simple graphics and slightly awkward controls (they never quite feel as smooth as they ought) would give Dungeon Runners a 7. Because despite the problems, it's such a huge amount of fun. However, at free, and near-as-dammit for the membership, we throw caution to the wind. It pokes excellent fun at a pompous genre (although WoW does an occasionally decent job of this too), and remains very playable. Disagree with the score? Didn't cost you anything to find out. (Find out that you're a wrongface, that is).

Pop over to the Dungeon Runners website to find out more.

8 / 10