Diggles Preview

We take a look at this strategy game that involves a race of small creatures known as Diggles.

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In the world of Diggles, dwarves aren't the stout, full-bearded warriors you see in Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Instead, they're lanky, potbellied fools with straggly whiskers and a penchant for food and buffoonery. The name Diggles refers to both the game and the diminutive main characters in this upcoming strategy title. Already published in Germany by developer Innonics, Diggles is coming to the US via Strategy First, which hopes to publish the game in early 2002.

You'll tunnel through the earth and build a subterranean city on behalf of the god Odin.
You'll tunnel through the earth and build a subterranean city on behalf of the god Odin.

Based largely on Norse mythology, Diggles tells the tale of a clan of dwarves, tasked by Odin, king of gods, to perform a special quest. The game takes a few liberties with its source material. In popular Norse myth, Fenris is a gargantuan wolf god, as well as nemesis of the gods. But in this game, Fenris starts out as Odin's cute little puppy and, while on a walk, suddenly turns into a monstrous wolfman that stews below ground in a campaign of evil. Odin, the king of the Norse gods, is also depicted in a less-than-authentic fashion. He is not a wise, one-eyed master--he's a cherubic, long-winded fool. At the game's start, he descends from his throne in Asgard to ask the king of the Diggles for help. Since Fenris is hiding in the underground, the only people who can be trusted to reclaim him are the dwarves, who make the sunless soil their home. In exchange for the promise of full beards, gold, and elevation to demigod status, the Diggles agree to help Odin find Fenris.

Of course, finding Fenris will prove to be a difficult task. Originally, Odin kept Fenris in check with a chain made of six rings. The chain has since been broken, and the six rings are scattered in the dungeons below ground. You have to dig through the vast earth below and look for these six rings. However, crawling about the underground and lairing in hidden caverns and fortresses are trolls that serve Fenris and impede your progress. There are also other dwarf clans that live below ground, and they can either help you or hinder you. Treat them well, and they might give you hints. But steal from them, and they'll come after you with ax and club with as much fury as the trolls.

Dogging your steps are the evil trolls.
Dogging your steps are the evil trolls.

Diggles is a strategy game, and it plays in real time, but it is unlike any other real-time strategy game you've played before. Despite its 3D graphics, it's really a two-dimensional game. There is little depth in the game's environment, but there is vast width and height. Whereas in other games you are moving across and over a vast battlefield, in Diggles, you're digging down. Imagine Dig Dug, but with resource management and RTS elements, and you'll get a good picture of what this game is about.

You start out above ground initially, but there is so little room for expansion and so few resources that you invariably have to move down. While in the horizon you can see mountains, forests, and even lakes behind your initial camp, you can't actually move into it. Your one choice is to tunnel into the earth and expand your empire downward. Diggles isn't as combat-oriented as other strategy games and definitely does not emphasize large-scale battles or numerous units. The gameplay is very much about exploration, people management, and resource gathering.

Getting Down and Dirty

You'll eventually have to dig underground and build more structures, connecting them with a network of tunnels.
You'll eventually have to dig underground and build more structures, connecting them with a network of tunnels.

Diggles is small in scope; you begin initially with only five or so Diggles, and from appearances, it doesn't look like you can gain more. With your small band of dwarves, you then start digging through the ground, looking for resources and firm ground to build on. However, the ground below isn't one solid mass of dirt--there are numerous pockets that you can stumble upon. Within these pockets are small groves of mushrooms, undulating grubs, scurrying hamsters, and blocks of stone--the resources you use to construct your growing settlement. As often as not, you'll find half-finished tunnels connecting these pockets, which are clues that rival Diggle camps or troll fortresses are nearby. As you're digging, you'll also find treasure barrels. Break them open, and you might find healing potions, youth potions, books of knowledge, food, or a hiding wusker. Wuskers look like hulking ratmen, but they aren't as tough as trolls. They don't appear often in barrels, but they do keep you on your toes.

Because there are expanses of soft dirt, as well as impassable granite, you'll often have to dig circuitous pathways through the ground. Eventually, your network of tunnels will have many tendrils snaking and curling through the ground, looking like a giant version of an ant farm. It's almost impossible to not build a haphazard tunnel kingdom, especially because you can't see more than a few paces in front of your Diggles, meaning you'll often tunnel into hard stone, creating dead ends, or ditch working on one tunnel as you find better routes to connect your various caves.

While you'll be making your own caves and camps, there are also existing camps scattered throughout the world.
While you'll be making your own caves and camps, there are also existing camps scattered throughout the world.

In areas where you find enough soft dirt, you can create caverns. Tunnels are too small to support buildings and are meant to serve as passageways through the ground. To have the space to pitch tents, fireplaces, stonemasons, and other Diggle buildings, you need to excavate small caves. Your initial structure--the Diggle's version of the "town hall" or "command center"--is the fireplace. Here, you can create food and research (and then build) basic buildings, such as the log, the stonemason, and the tent. These come unassembled in crates, which you then carry to a nearby cave to unpack. Some buildings, like the log, have their own options for research and building. For example, at the stonemason, you can build boundary stones, clubs, sling stones, and traps. At the log, you can build ladders, farms, and a brewery. All these options require resources, like metal, wood, or stone. Wood is actually something of a misnomer, as the "lumber" in this game is mushroom stalks. Diggles need to catch food first and then cook it at the fireplace before they can eat it.

Because caves are too small to hold more than a few resources, you'll often have to send your Diggles far and wide to scrounge for the basic materials needed for your buildings and items. In Diggles, your town ends up being a sprawling subterranean town of tunnels and caverns.

The Little People

You can manage their skills, set work schedules, and even have the Diggles create families to pass on traits to their offspring.
You can manage their skills, set work schedules, and even have the Diggles create families to pass on traits to their offspring.

The aspect of Diggles that is most unusual is its dwarf management. Every one of your Diggles has a name, as well as a skill set that you create as you play the game. Initially, all Diggles start out the same, but as you set them to certain tasks, they acquire different skills. If you make your Diggle fight barefisted against Wuskers, he'll soon develop kung fu skills. Another Diggle whom you outfight with a sword will develop the swordfighting skill. A Diggle who works on stone mining gains the stone skill, and so forth. Books of knowledge that you find will also serve as bonuses to your Diggles' skills. And as your Diggles perform their designated tasks further, they'll improve in their skills. After a few short hours, your Diggles will have their own special strengths, lending themselves to certain tasks over others.

All Diggles are high maintenance in that they require a lot of micromanagement to get the best results out of them. Each Diggle has a rating for health, food, awareness, and mood. In addition, they all have a work schedule that must be watched and maintained. As time passes, all Diggles start to get hungry, and you always have to keep them well-fed with grilled mushrooms and hamsters--if you don't, they'll start to be sluggish and unproductive. In addition, if you overwork Diggles, they become sleepy and irritable, losing awareness and mood. To make sure your Diggles are always efficient, you need to set their work and leisure time. During leisure time, Diggles will retire to tents to sleep, mill about and play, or procreate (if you can get a male and female Diggle to rest at the same time). You can maintain a healthy balance between work and play or drive your Diggles into the ground. If you do the latter, though, you can always improve Diggle mood by giving them beer--created at the brewery--although at the cost of awareness. A fairly deep economic model for the game's various foods and items is at work here, and it is not unlike the one in the Settlers series, although by no means as complex.

You can build a variety of structures to better your Diggles' lives.
You can build a variety of structures to better your Diggles' lives.

The beta we played certainly didn't indicate that the game is nearly done. While it was feature-complete and crash-free, it wasn't optimized for speed. Frame rates were slow, and Diggles looked like they were missing frames of animation. Moreover, the textures seemed a little rough, even on high detail. The tutorial also omitted a lot of necessary information, such as how to mine metals, what the various buildings were for, and how to recruit and properly manage Diggles.

Diggles looks like it could be the kind of game that appeals to the gamer who is tired of the same old thing. It doesn't have the visual appeal of a Command & Conquer title, but it aims to be a very different kind of game. It has a distinct personality, erring on the goofy side, but also has quite a bit of depth in gameplay. In some ways, the tunneling and exploring aspect is reminiscent of Dungeon Keeper, and its gameplay is as leisurely paced and open-ended as that of Settlers. To some, being able to plot a course for your minions and then walk away for an hour is a plus. For others, it's a definite minus. Regardless, Diggles looks like it could appeal to the niche of gamers who like something different and unique.

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