It's a strange thought, but after a decade of real-time strategy, no one has bothered to make an actual D&D-based real-time strategy game. Oh, there have been countless real-time strategy games that clone D&D, but not an actual D&D game. That's now changed with Dragonshard, the latest game from Liquid Entertainment. And before you think that this is a standard, formulaic real-time strategy game, think again. Yes, it could have been easy to make a cookie-cutter RTS game featuring a good chunk of creatures from the latest edition of D&D's Monster Manual, but the folks at Liquid have done far better than that. By taking inspiration from D&D's role-playing roots, Liquid has made an RTS that's both interesting and new. More importantly, it's fun to play.
The basics of Dragonshard are fairly standard for the genre, but it's not until you get into the game that you discover something different. Set in D&D's Eberron campaign, Dragonshard tells the familiar tale of a great and powerful McGuffin that three factions are battling to possess. There's the Order of the Flame, an alliance of the various good races; the lizardfolk, who all descended from lizards that were mutated by the Heart of Siberys (the aforementioned McGuffin); and finally, there are the umbragen, a dark and sinister faction that lives in the vast underworld of Eberron. This underworld actually plays a key role in Dragonshard, as one of the features of the Eberron universe is that the world is split between the surface and the underworld, and the game takes full advantage of this fact.
What makes Dragonshard different is that it combines a lot of cool concepts from earlier real-time strategy games and then blends the resulting combination with D&D-style role-playing. In essence, it literally is a role-playing strategy game of sorts, with the surface portion of the world focused on real-time strategy, and the underworld, which deals with role-playing. And yet, the gameplay is subtly tied together, so that what you do in one plane has huge consequences in the other.
The surface portion feels and plays a lot like a traditional RTS, but one that's heavily influenced by the excellent Kohan games. For example, instead of being able to build a huge base anywhere on the map, you are limited to a fixed-sized base on certain points of the map. This base-building mechanic requires a lot of strategy on your part, because each base has only 16 building slots that are divided into blocks of four. What you build on those blocks determines the type of units that you construct, as well as the experience level those units can attain.
For example, if you construct a lorehold, you can recruit clerics. Now, here's where the role-playing aspect of the game kicks in, because when your faction kills enemy units, you gain experience. You can then use that experience to advance your clerics up to level 2. However, if you want to raise your clerics up to level 3, you'll need to build a second lorehold adjacent to the first one. If you want your clerics to max out at level 5, you'll need to construct four loreholds on a single block. And since you have a limited number of building slots, you need to decide what kind of army you want, because you can't have everything at once.
In order to even construct buildings, you need resources, which come in the form of gold and dragonshards, a magical element. Technically, there is an unlimited number of resources in each level, since you slowly generate gold automatically (think of it as tax revenue), while dragonshards periodically rain down from the skies and replenish the supply on the surface. However, the way Dragonshard is designed is that in order to accumulate enough gold to win, you need to take your units and adventure down to the underworld, where the role-playing comes into effect.
One of our biggest complaints about most real-time strategy games is that they, almost universally, feature levels where you're not allowed to actually build anything. Instead, you're given a predetermined group of units and then you have to jump through the hoops that the level designer wants you to. There's not much strategy involved in this process, and you're reduced to basically being a rat in a literal maze. However, Dragonshard actually makes these experiences fun, because instead of being treated like a rat in a maze, you feel more like you're playing a traditional RPG. While you're in the underground, you're slaying monsters, gathering loot, undergoing quests, disabling traps, and leveling up to become even more powerful.
The surface and the underworld gameplay basically feed off of each other in a good way. You gather dragonshards on the surface, but steal loot from the underground. You can slay beholders and other fierce creatures in the underground, which gives you enough experience points to level up on the surface. A lot of times, you have to go underground in order to find your way around an obstacle on the surface. Dragonshard manages to avoid being a micromanaging nightmare, for the most part, because you are rarely put in a situation where you have to constantly juggle multiple groups on both the surface and down below. Instead, like in a D&D game, once you have a "party," you generally stay focused on that party.
Another nice feature in the game (and one that's also influenced by Kohan) is the way your army works. When you recruit new units, you actually recruit captains. On the surface, captains actually form the core of your army. In other words, a captain automatically recruits soldiers, gaining up to four followers at level 5. This puts an emphasis on gaining experience points in the underground, because that translates into a bigger army on the surface. When you delve into the underground, the captains lose their followers and become adventurers instead.
We really enjoyed this real-time strategy/role-playing dynamic, and it's definitely something that hasn't been done before. That said, we do have some gripes about the single-player campaign. First, despite the fact that there are three factions, the game only features two campaigns, and each campaign only has seven missions. There are many quests in the game, so you can replay parts to see what you've missed. However, despite this feature, it still feels like there's a campaign that's missing that didn't make the cut. We also wish there was some kind of persistence that carried over from mission to mission, because part of the joy of role-playing is to create an ubercharacter. As it is currently, you only get to carry over a handful of specific items. But if you spent an entire mission outfitting an elite warrior with magical arms and armor, you kind of wish you could bring him along with you. The artificial intelligence also seems a bit passive for the most part, though this is probably to prevent you from having to constantly race back and forth between the surface and the underground to put out fires. Also, the AI is sufficiently annoying, so it's still very satisfying to crush it.
Despite the relative brevity of the single-player game, the multiplayer game can easily carry Dragonshard, and it'll be interesting to see if the community picks up on it, because it's certainly different. There are a number of different modes in Dragonshard, which allow for different win conditions. But the thing that struck us the most was just how nicely the role-playing/real-time strategy mechanic translates into multiplayer. For instance, standard deathmatch tactics, such as an early rush, are relatively futile in Dragonshard, since you start with relatively weak, low-level characters. You use these characters when racing to see who gets to the underground, gathers the gold and experience, and levels up first. The different win conditions can also set up some harrowing moments. For example, it's possible to win by controlling various places of the map long enough, or by getting your hands on sacred orbs (sort of like a capture-the-flag game). In one game, we were in the midst of crushing an enemy base when the enemy tried to win via a different method, and it was a race to see who would finish first.
Dragonshard itself has a nice, pleasing 3D look to it, and one that's very much reminiscent of Warcraft III. It's bright and colorful on the surface, but it also does drab and dark dungeons fairly well. Some of the units can be a bit difficult to differentiate from one another, but thankfully you can zoom down for a closer look. However, it's the monsters that really caught our attention, as the designers took some of the best creatures out of the Monster Manual, such as giant beholders, mindflayers, and three-headed dragons. The remaining production values are also well done, if a bit standard for the genre. For example, the voice acting has more than its fair share of gravelly voiced actors, and frankly, there's not much that can be done at this point to improve the sound of swords clashing.
It's been a fairly uneventful year for real-time strategy games thus far, but Dragonshard certainly bears checking out. With its innovative blend of gameplay, Dragonshard can appeal to both the real-time-strategy fan as well as the role-playing-game fan. It's good-looking and fast-paced, and it will have you crushing armies in one moment and plundering tombs the next. That's a heck of a combination.