You know you're at GDC 2010 when you sit down and get a demonstration of the long-in-development strategy sequel Disciples III: Renaissance from its new owner, Akella. Yes, the Russian game company has assumed full ownership of the Disciples franchise--former publisher Strategy First has quietly bowed out of the picture, though Kalypso Media will help bring the game to North America. And in even better news, Disciples III's development is done--all that remains is localizing the game for countries other than Russia.
As we've mentioned in our previous coverage of the game, Disciples III is the third game in the fantasy-themed turn-based strategy series, and it deviates from the previous games somewhat by offering different playable factions. This time around, you can play as the human Empire, the demonic Legions of the Damned, and the elves (who previously became playable in Disciples II's expansion packs)--the undead aren't playable in this one. Disciples III will have 19 missions--six for each of the three factions except for the elves, who will have seven. The story begins after a shooting star--which is presumed to be an angel in disguise--descends from the heavens. Each faction reacts to this event differently--the Empire seeks to use the angel's powers to further its own religious goals, while the Legions seek to corrupt the angel's powers to resurrect their fallen lord Bethrezen...and the highly conservative elves want as little to change in the land as possible.
And now that the game is complete, we'll say that it looks considerably better than it did previously and has a much more cohesive art direction. The previous two games out of Strategy First used highly detailed 2D art, while Disciples III uses a similarly stylized, gothic art style but relies primarily on full 3D graphics and 3D renders for character portraits. However, the art is now much more consistent--all unit portraits use zoomed-in, high-resolution 3D renders that look quite good. Your hero unit, which still leads your "stack" (or war party), has a fully 3D inventory screen that will let you equip various weapons and armor that will actually show up on the model itself.
Disciples III previously had a pale, washed-out look to its graphics, but Akella has brightened up the look of the game considerably, going so far as to add day/night cycles that progress each time you end your turn from morning to noon to evening to night. For the most part, time of day doesn't really affect the gameplay experience aside from making the maps look a bit more vibrant, though time will apparently have subtle effects--the dreaded werewolves (the weapon-immune minions formerly of the undead faction) of Disciples will be even stronger after nightfall.
In addition to these tweaks, Disciples III will make additional changes to the series' formula that should offer some more strategic flexibility. For instance, while your hero unit and standard units can still gain experience levels (and your minions can still "change class" as they gain levels along a branching profession tree you build out with profession-specific buildings at your home city), your hero can now learn additional skills along a "skill board." This is a tile-based board of branching skills that includes passive enhancements and new magical powers, such as turning a powerful enemy into a harmless peasant. With each new experience level you gain, your heroes will earn two skill points that can be used to purchase two new skills. In addition, while all factions will still have numerous choices for units to join your hero, including basic foot soldiers, basic wizards, and larger heavy hitters, all units will take up only one slot in your army and require only one leadership point from your hero to recruit. Previously, certain larger units were so big and powerful that they occupied two unit slots in your retinue; now, these powerful units take only one but will cost substantially more money to recruit.
In addition, while you must still capture power nodes on the overland map to supply your faction with magical energy by placing a magical rod nearby, you don't need to recruit a rod-dropping unit from your town. Instead, any other hero can drop a rod at a power node to claim it for your faction. At that point, you can automatically recruit a "guardian" hero with the potential to lead a war party of up to three units at first (and more later, should your guardian actually gain experience levels). Plus, magic spells have been expanded in use. In the previous games, you had to commit turns and resources to research spells. Once you had researched them and had sufficient magical power to cast them, you could cast them only from the overland map. However, in Disciples III, you can use your town's mage tower to fashion a rune item that can actually reproduce that spell's effect in combat--in addition to all the potions and scrolls you can activate in battle.
Disciples III has looked better each time we've seen the game, and it's never looked better than now. The strategy sequel is planned for release in North America in July.