Dungeons & Dragons Heroes is the upcoming action RPG from Atari based on the 3rd Edition rules of the popular pen-and-paper game. Some liberties have been taken with the rules, however, because, for example, though resting for eight hours to learn spells works fine in a pen-and-paper game, console gamers would likely have some issues with such a mechanic, and the game's developer, MicroProse Studio, is aiming to create a very playable title. While Dungeons & Dragons Heroes at first looks like a variation on Midway's Gauntlet Legends or Interplay's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, the team has actually been influenced by an old 2D game: Capcom's arcade classic Tower of Doom, which offered a fast-paced four-player experience with the D&D license. Dungeons & Dragons Heroes was originally scheduled for release on all three major consoles but has since become an Xbox exclusive in the interest of developing the Xbox version to its full potential.
While the team draws inspiration from arcade games for its gameplay, the story stays pretty close to what you'd expect from a D&D game. The opening cinema details a battle between the dark lord Kaden and four heroes. Kaden is eventually taken out in suitably heroic fashion by the heroes, but not before he deals them all a deadly blow. While it's not the ideal ending for such a battle--at least not for the heroes--the locals are pretty pleased with the end result. The cinema then shifts ahead 150 years, where we see a dark cleric working some mojo in Kaden's tomb in the hopes of resurrecting the dark one and controlling him. Soon Kaden is up and about, spreading death and mayhem as if he'd never stopped, which leads us to believe that being evil is much like riding a bicycle--you never really lose the touch. This unpleasant turn of events is clearly bad news for the locals, who hadn't really planned for an apocalypse and are forced to improvise. Following in the footsteps of the recently deceased cleric who unleashed Kaden, the people do some resurrecting of their own and call up the four heroes, which is where you come in.
You'll assume the role of one of the fallen heroes--a fighter, a cleric, a rogue, or a wizard--and hunt down Kaden. The evil one is apparently pretty speedy, and he'll lead you on a chase across seven environments that are broken up into anywhere from three to four different sections and are chock-full of hazards. The long chase actually works to your benefit, since you'll need the time to level up your character, who doesn't start the game at the high power levels you saw him or her at in the opening cinema. You will have access to just two basic moves determined by your choice of character when you start your adventure. Each time your character gains an experience level by killing a certain number of enemies, you'll be alerted to the opportunity to enhance your character. You'll simply pause the game and go into a menu that will let you beef up your character's attributes. You'll find roughly 40 different combat moves for each character and a selection of special abilities. In addition to enhancing your character's abilities, you'll be able to beef up his or her weapons. Unlike in most traditional console RPGs, in Dungeons & Dragons Heroes your character will have only one weapon--the one he or she is provided with at the beginning of the game. And while there aren't any shops where you can buy new arms, you will be able to improve your weapon by equipping it with rune stones that enhance its abilities. As you progress through the game you'll collect stones that can be used to imbue your weapon with powers such as air, ice, fire, and earth. Certain gems will make weapons and any move performed with them more effective against enemies of a certain type. So, for example, a move performed against a fire-breathing dragon will be much more effective if used in tandem with the ice gem instead of the fire gem, which would actually see your attacks restoring health to the enemy rather than draining it.
In keeping with its desire to make the game accessible to console gamers, the team has designed a versatile control setup that is easy to pick up. You'll be able to customize the controller's face buttons with any configuration of moves that you'd like, assigning two attacks and two actions to the top and bottom sets of buttons, respectively. Adjusting the scheme to your liking can be done in two ways: You can pause the game and call up a list of the moves that you can match to each button and then return to the game in a manner that's fairly traditional in console games. Or, at any point during a game, you can pull the right trigger to slow the action down and call up a small menu of your buttons and the actions you've currently assigned to them. You can then use the right analog stick to move up or down the menu to select a button, and you press left or right to cycle through the actions available for assignment. Once you've made the choice, you'll just release the right trigger to return the action to full speed and resume battling evil. While the feature takes a bit of getting used to, it actually works pretty well and doesn't adversely affect the game's pacing much.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Dungeons & Dragons Heroes is the game's multiplayer component, which will let up to four people play at once. One of the mode's nice features is the ability to import a character from a memory card. As a result you'll be able to jump into games with friends with your own character, and any time you have spent playing solo to build up your character and learn new skills will pay off once a group of players gets together.
The solid gameplay is complemented by a strong presentation that's shaping up nicely since the developers can now focus all their attention on the Xbox game. You'll find liberal and appealing use of bump mapping, reflections, and dynamic lighting. The character animation has also been improved--the characters' combo attacks now animate fluidly, and a greater amount of animation has been added overall. The varied environments cover the standard ground you'd expect for a D&D game, which means you can expect to battle through staples such as caves, icy areas, fiery areas, and ruins, to name just a few. The game's 30fps frame rate stays generally solid, even during multiplayer games. The game's audio is slated to offer full Dolby 5.1 support and features a strong collection of tunes that fit the onscreen action nicely.
Based on what we've played, Dungeons & Dragons Heroes looks promising. The single- and multiplayer elements are solid--although we would have liked to see some Xbox Live support--and they should be pretty engaging. Fans of action games will want to keep an eye out for Dungeons & Dragons Heroes when it ships exclusively for the Xbox this fall.