Dawnspire: Prelude may not cost anything in monthly fees, but this hacking-and-slashing online role player from Silent Grove Studios isn't quite worth playing even if you're getting it on the cheap. While there is a tremendous amount of potential here, the game isn't totally ready for prime time, thanks to subpar artificial intelligence and a shortage of human players.
For those who've never experienced online Diablo in all its addictive glory, the concept here is simple to grasp. You log in, team up with buddies, and proceed to slaughter and loot your way through one dungeon after another until your mouse finger seizes up from the incessant clicking. Gameplay here varies little from those core clickfesty concepts, although it does introduce a dash of online first-person shooters courtesy of Relic Conquest, its capture-the-flag-inspired single mode of play (and apparently more are in the works). So instead of wandering dungeons, you sign up with the light or dark teams and, on fantasy-inspired outdoor maps, fight over three magical artifacts that need to be installed in your base to earn victory.
The RPG backbone of the game is equally straightforward. After registering a free account, you go through a quickie character-creation process where you think up a name, pick from a traditional D&D-style crew of classes that includes stand-ins for the tried-and-true cleric, mage, thief, fighter, and barbarian, and then dole out skill points among standard stat categories like health and mana. Combat is fairly simplistic for the most part, too, although in addition to melee battles with traditional fantasy accoutrements like swords and staves, you also need to astutely use a handful of class-specific special powers like the templar's clericlike heal and angelic armor, the seeker's barbarian-style berserker fury and bullrush, and the witch's nature's wrath and plague of weakness spells. All of these skills are chosen during character creation, either by custom-selecting them or by picking from two or three default loadouts.
Essentially, this is the sort of click-to-kill game you can pick up and get playing in about five minutes. But even though it has been designed for action fans who always select their RPGs from the light menu, the confined, island-style maps and rock-paper-scissors interaction of the character classes can add a lot of intensity and strategy to matches. Teamwork is vital, as characters left on their own can get shredded. You need to think of teams as you would standard D&D parties, which means that a witch needs the brute force of the melee-fighting reaver on her side, a templar requires healing and buffing skills whenever sending a seeker or a shadowblade assassin into battle, and so on. Forget this basic rule and you can get into trouble fast. You really don't want to leave a templar alone against a reaver, especially when he gets his whirlwind attack going.
Unfortunately, the appeal of a multiplayer game like this is almost totally dependent on drawing a good crowd of players, and so far Dawnspire has failed to attract many fans. There are three servers running the retail game at present, and each is devoid of other human players much of the time. Occasionally, you'll run into a reasonably full complement of 14 to 16 players who know what they're doing, and then all of the game's potential comes out. Intense matches are always the result when you get into a good game with smart allies who know the maps and realize the importance of working as part of a team. But it's more likely that you'll encounter just one or two human players and that the rest of the playing field will be filled out with bots. At times like that, you might as well not even bother logging on to a server and just play the game in the all-bot practice mode.
But you might not want to do even that, because the bots that Silent Grove subs in as teammates and opponents have a lot of problems. Enemy bots are far more powerful than beginner human characters (apparently due to rapid, smart use of special character abilities), which gives you little chance of survival when first logging in. You can fire up the game and immediately get murdered over and over again by these killer bots mere steps from spawn points. Playing against human opponents can be equally brutal. Since there is no introductory server, you often wind up facing experienced opponents who can carve you up just as efficiently as the bots until you get your feet wet. Given this questionable way of introducing new players to the game, it's not a surprise that bots seem to outnumber humans 10 to 1. The game really needs separate servers for beginners and veterans so that first-timers aren't thrown right into the deep end.
AI is perhaps an even bigger issue, at least where your bot allies are concerned. While computer-controlled teammates display some cunning when it comes to going after relics and capturing outposts, they work solo for the most part and often leave you to fight multiple foes (and inevitably get ripped apart). Since coordinated teamwork is necessary to break through enemy defenses and steal relics, or to defend relics that you've already stolen from enemy assault, matches can break down into senseless melees.
There aren't any significant visual treats to convince players that there is much point weathering the robotic onslaught or dealing with the subpar AI. Dawnspire is underdeveloped graphically, so while maps are basically attractive and quick moving, with very little lag to interfere with the hacking and slashing, they're rather banal in that they consist of little but narrow pathways through volcanic mountains or tropical island paradises with mirrored ponds. Only one map breaks this pattern, and it's just an open-air temple of sorts again filled with constricted walkways and lots of choke points. Maps are sized appropriately, at least, so you don't have to go very far to get into a fight or snatch a relic. Because of this, matches are typically so tight and so filled with crazed combat and spellcasting that you don't have time to notice the blandness of the scenery. And at least the spells are suitably catastrophic, with lots of bombastic pyrotechnics (despite an unfortunate reliance on the "glyphs on the ground" special effect that D&D games have done to death in recent years).
Audio is a real high point here. The atmospheric musical score pulls together all sorts of influences, from plucky medieval guitars to choral odes. Tunes are also nicely varied depending on the map, so you never get tired of a song. This is one game where you'll crank up the music, not dial it down or switch it off. Battle effects are also well realized. All of the usual clashes of swords and triumphant shouts and wounded groans are present, along with some extra touches like creepy chuckling and sinister hissing.
Even though Dawnspire has its good aspects, the AI problems do a lot to sink it. Granted, if more people were to actually start playing this thing, the AI might be less of a problem, but right now that's just not the case. The oft-deserted servers make engaging in the game's more intense player battles an awfully tough assignment, which ultimately robs the game of its most appealing aspect. Keep an eye on this one to see how and if it evolves, but right now, it's just not quite worth investing in.