Mobile gaming is just about the last thing you would have expected id Software technical guru John Carmack to take an interest in, but id and its codevelopers have in fact been quite successful with its first two mobile titles, Doom RPG and Orcs & Elves. Now Fountainhead Entertainment is bringing the latter fantasy dungeon crawl to the Nintendo DS, sporting a new Carmack-developed engine and a raft of new content to boot. After getting a quick first look at the game a few weeks ago, we spent some time with a prerelease version of Orcs & Elves, and while the cell-phone-style underpinnings are still evident in this new version, there seems to be plenty of depth for DS-carrying role-players to delve into as well.
You'll play as the son of an elven adventurer who is investigating an attack on a dwarven stronghold led by King Brahm, a friend of your father. When you arrive, you'll find a combined force of orcs and dark elves have laid waste to the entire fortress, so it will fall to you and your talking magic wand to journey through the castle's various levels and vanquish whatever evil lurks within. You'll spend a lot of time interacting with dwarven ghosts who will help you overcome obstacles and find new routes. All the while, you'll be hacking and slashing at orcs, rats, giant green blobs, and a whole host of other baddies. The game features standard experience-gaining and leveling through combat, healing via potions--all the trappings you'd expect from an RPG.
The core design tenets of Orcs & Elves remain essentially unchanged from those of the mobile game. You still move one square at a time, for instance, and the ostensibly real-time action really takes place in a turn-based format where you and your opponent trade attacks one after the other. However, Fountainhead and Carmack have beefed up the DS version considerably in a number of ways. The new engine allows the game to run at a constant 60 frames per second, purportedly much smoother than most cell phones. It also allowed the designers to flesh out the environments in full 3D and add more lighting effects, and when you enter a new area, you'll get a brief cinematic sequence panning around and flying through the level.
In addition to the improved visuals, Fountainhead has added several new levels to the game, some of which have been integrated into the core story-driven quest. Other new areas will be optional, however, so you can explore them for new items or simply move on with your business. We saw one new region called the burrows, a subterranean maze filled with a poisonous miasma and all sorts of nasty, buglike enemies. The area uses primarily green and purple colors (often in the ooze on the walls and floors) to give it a sickly look, which adds some visual variety in contrast to the mostly brown and gray dwarven levels we've seen so far. The most enticing aspect of the burrows is a parasitic brew, new to the DS game, that you can imbibe in order to siphon health from enemies.
In fact, there will be several new items and other goodies for you to pick up and play with in the DS game. For instance, you'll meet a ghostly dwarven brewmaster named Sarbok who will grant you his own special brew, which will naturally get you tipsy. Drunkenness will raise your strength and resistance to damage, but lower your accuracy (hey, just like in real life!), and it will also add a swirling graphical effect that distorts the screen. You can counteract the functional effects with an accuracy potion, though you won't be any less tipsy. There will be several other new consumable items--not to mention some new monsters walking the dwarven halls--in the DS version as well.
Fountainhead has added plenty of other little touches here and there to the DS game, such as improving the bartering interface you'll use to try and acquire items from a dragon's treasure hoard. You can now gauge the dragon's mood before making an offer; naturally, the better her mood, the more likely you are to lowball her on the amount of gold you're willing to pay. There's also a wererat being held captive in the dragon's prison who you'll be able to free, if you choose, and he will open up a pathway to some other optional side quests.
Orcs & Elves is slated for release in the second week of November, so we'll deliver the final verdict on the game's transition to the DS at that time. EA is preparing a promotional DS stylus that's shaped like the game's talking magic wand, which won't cost you any extra money but will only be available from specific retailers. We'll bring you word on which retailers as soon as we can.