Ever since the 1985 release of the arcade classic Gauntlet, the idea of four-or-so sword-and-sorcery-using heroes simultaneously battling it out against legions of evil monsters has been part of gamers' collective consciousness. It's hard to deny the appeal of witnessing a small band of heroic adventurers fending off waves of wicked beasts of all different shapes and sizes and generally surviving against all odds. This is partly why the recent Lord of the Rings movies have been so well received, and it's also the reason why a number of great hack-and-slash games have emerged since Gauntlet. Titles such as the blockbuster 1996 PC game Diablo and the outstanding Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, released in 2001 for the PS2 and last year for the Xbox, have continued the hack-and-slash formula and have carried it to new heights. The new Dungeons & Dragons Heroes is highly derivative of these games, and this inherently isn't a bad thing. On its own merits, it's a decent dungeon crawl that features no shortage of monsters to slay and offers support for up to four simultaneous players--just like good ol' Gauntlet. Unfortunately, the game's lackluster visuals and simple and easy gameplay prevent this experience from being anything remarkable, especially in the wake of the much better, much older games that inspired it.
In D&D Heroes, you may play as any of four different resurrected heroes charged with defeating a sinister wizard whom they once defeated over a century earlier. Revived as mere shadows of their former selves, these heroes battle through countless foes while slowly regaining their powers. After regaining their powers they can once again face their archrival. The heroes' journey is completely linear but takes them quite far, first through some catacombs to the remnants of Castle Baele and then to the heart of a portal that leads to various elemental-themed stages. Finally, the heroes reach the wizard Kaedin's fortress. The game's story doesn't figure heavily into the proceedings, and it unfolds mostly through the occasional soliloquy from a nonplayer character either in a nicely done CG cutscene or in an awkward in-engine 3D cutscene. The heroes themselves never speak (though you hear them grunting in battle) and have no real personality to them.
The heroes include a human fighter, a dwarven cleric, a halfling rogue, and an elven wizard. Based loosely on the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, these character classes each have unique skills and feats available to them, but they basically play similarly. Each can block many types of enemy attacks, but they rarely need to because they can keep wailing away with their melee weapons to inflict significant, sustained damage. Each character is self-sufficient and is perfectly capable of fighting his or her way through the game single-handedly.
The game liberally rewards you with powerful magic items as you proceed, allowing you to boost your character's key stats practically to the point of excess. You also earn a tremendous amount of gold during your quest, allowing you to buy an effectively limitless number of healing potions and "mystical will" potions--the latter of which restore the energy used for spells and special moves. Both types of potions can be used instantly, and repeatedly, in battle by using the white and black buttons, immediately restoring large portions of your character's power and allowing you to slug it out against heavy-hitting enemies. You can also buy an ample supply of "raise-dead amulets," which restore you to full health instantly should you actually run out of hit points and die. D&D Heroes offers frequent save points (though, actually, you can save your progress anytime if you wish), and from these you can use a warp stone to teleport back to the closest shop, sell loot, and stock up on more healing supplies. Given all of this, D&D Heroes actually turns out to be quite easy, even at the hard difficulty setting and regardless of whether you play alone or with others. It really doesn't offer any significant challenge, as even the game's bosses--with maybe a couple of exceptions--are total pushovers.
On the bright side, the game certainly doesn't get frustrating. Not only is the combat quite easy, but you won't find yourself getting lost, thanks to an optional real-time automap that constantly points you in the general direction you should be going. You just keep pressing on, from one area to the next. You fight tons of rather stupid enemies, frequently level up, find tons of stuff (the vast majority of which you won't need) by killing things, break tons and tons of barrels and crates, and open a plethora of chests. You begin as a first-level character, and by the time you come face-to-face with Kaedin, you're level 30 or higher--which is similar to achieving godlike status in Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, you'll feel pretty much unstoppable. Then again, you'll have practically felt this way from the get-go. It's too bad the game doesn't do a better job of balancing the costs of items versus the amount of gold you can earn during your journey. If there was ever any worry about permanently running out of healing supplies or raise-dead amulets, this might have encouraged players to fight a bit more tactically.
The core mechanics of the action are good enough. Characters lurch forward as they attack, and they can readily change direction in midcombo, allowing them to effectively battle large groups of foes, who often swarm from all sides. One of the face buttons is used for your standard melee attacks, while the other three can be remapped to correspond to any of your character's special abilities or to any of the thrown weapons (axes, daggers, exploding potions, and more) that you've collected. Special moves include damaging or defensive spells for the cleric and wizard, powerful arrow strikes for the rogue, and self-bolstering moves for the fighters. Each character can also use combo finishers, which they can first "charge up" by connecting several strikes in a row. Then the combo finisher can be unleashed at will. Everyone has his or her own version of a powerful 360-degree spinning finisher that's extremely useful and has no real disadvantages. You gain these finishers, and all your character's special abilities, by spending earned points as you level up.
As mentioned, D&D Heroes doesn't really follow the D&D rules by the book. One rather disappointing aspect of the game is that characters are extremely limited by the types of equipment they can use. The rogue is the only character who can use a bow, and the fighter (by D&D's longstanding definition, is supposedly an expert in all types of weaponry) can only use swords here and only in a two-handed fighting style. There are no shields in the game. Basically, you just end up looking out for whichever equipment boosts the one stat most important to your character. They include strength for the fighter, wisdom for the cleric, dexterity for the rogue, and intelligence for the wizard. Other than that, there's no real strategy or variety in the type of equipment you can use.
Ironically, the most variety exists in the game's various thrown weaponry, and while these can be useful, they're not at all necessary. Additionally, many of the characters' special abilities are poorly balanced and are not nearly as valuable as others. For instance, the fighter's ability to improve the rate at which his mystical will regenerates is rendered completely useless by the copious availability of potions that do a better job of doing the same thing. Meanwhile, his whirlwind finisher not only deals huge, unblockable damage in a 360-degree radius, but it tends to stun any survivors--all for a very low cost of mystical will points. The rogue's abilities to pick certain locks or disarm certain traps are also pointless, as traps are easily detectable by a distinct rumble of the controller, and skeleton keys are as cheap and limitless as potions.
You might expect a game like D&D Heroes to be considerably more entertaining when played with friends, but it really isn't. Multiplayer D&D Heroes makes the enemies slightly stronger, and that's about it. There are no new layers of depth that are added by having multiple people play simultaneously, unless you count such things as having the cleric use healing spells on his comrades (who don't need his help anyway--remember those potions?). On the other hand, multiplayer D&D Heroes actually has a number of shortcomings not found in the single-player mode. Even as they cooperate to slay foes, like hobgoblins, the walking dead, fire giants, and mind flayers, players will find themselves fighting each other over control of the game's camera angle, which can be rotated and zoomed in and out, to some extent, at anyone's whim. This is a nuisance. The camera angle also tends to be zoomed all the way out in a four-player game, at which point the characters become virtually indistinguishable. The game's default solution to this problem is to outline each player character with a bright colored circle. The result gives the impression that bright colored circles are doing all the fighting.
Also, while it's nice in theory to be able to add or subtract players from the campaign at any time, you can only jump in as a weak first-level character or as a previously saved character of some sort. So, if you wanted to join a friend who was halfway through the campaign, you might come in as a first-level cleric or as a 32nd-level fighter, but you probably won't come in as a character that's appropriate for the situation. The "join in anytime" feature just doesn't work well, so those hoping to play multiplayer had all better start at the same time--like from the beginning. The game's replay value is limited anyway. The occasional in-engine cutscenes are just long enough to be annoying in how they cannot be skipped, and the linear series of levels aren't randomized to give you a different experience on multiple plays through. The gameplay is highly repetitive, even by the time you first finish the game, so it's unlikely that D&D Heroes will hold your interest for long after you've put in the dozen-odd hours it takes to put Kaedin away.
D&D Heroes is a decent-looking game at best. An otherwise-simple action RPG really benefits from having an impressive graphical presentation, as proven by games like Diablo and Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. D&D Heroes makes obvious attempts to look similar to the latter game by directly copying Dark Alliance's distinctive water effect and shop interface, among others. However, despite its best efforts, D&D Heroes looks nowhere near as good as the 2-year-old PlayStation 2 version of Dark Alliance--which still looks impressive today (and which was ported, in all its visual splendor, to the Xbox about a year ago). Compared to Dark Alliance, and strictly on its own terms, D&D Heroes looks OK, despite its clunky-looking character models, clunky animation, and lots of bland textures. Some environments, such as a sweltering forge and a hellish-looking bridge that floats high above the sky, look much better than most of the game's other settings. The frame rate consistently disappoints because it's simply all over the place. The frame rate is very dependent on which character effects are used, how many enemies are onscreen, and what camera angle is used. The game supports progressive scan displays, but that hardly helps matters.
The audio in D&D Heroes is possibly the best aspect of the game, but it's nothing special, either. A heavy-handed symphonic soundtrack provides an appropriate backdrop for all the combat, and it is well composed and quite dramatic. Grunts and groans, emitted by the heroes and their foes, are also fitting, as are the effects for spells, slashes, and more. Voice acting for the nonplayer characters is also well done. The game supports 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound for good measure.
D&D Heroes has a number of redeeming qualities and isn't a bad way of whiling away a few minutes, or hours, if you're looking for a pure hack-and-slash action RPG. But if that's you, then you ought to have played other, similar, and far superior games before, and, as such, D&D Heroes won't do much of anything to impress you.