Disciples II: Dark Prophecy Updated Preview
We go hands-on with an updated build of the upcoming turn-based strategy sequel.
Earlier this year Canadian publisher/developer Strategy First announced that it would delay the release of Disciples II: Dark Prophecy until 2002 in order to give it "more marketing attention." This seemed like a questionable decision, especially if you consider how few turn-based strategy games there have been this year, as well as the substantial amount of press coverage the game has already received. But the company did claim it would use the additional time to put extra polish into the sequel--something it already claimed to have been doing for months. To be fair, the latest build that the company sent us looks considerably better than earlier builds we've seen, though whether the finished game will prove to be worth these continual delays remains to be seen.
Disciples II follows the story of the original game fairly closely. The four warring factions of the original game--the humans of the Empire, the dwarves of the Mountain Clans, the undead, and the demonic Legions of the Damned--all return in the sequel to face new challenges. A mysterious child known as the Chosen One has been born into the medieval fantasy realm known as the Sacred Lands, though depending on which of the game's four factions you choose, the Chosen One will play a different role in the game's single-player campaign.
Disciples II will feature both the original game's campaign (or "saga") mode and a single-scenario quest mode, and in both you'll begin the game by choosing to play as one of the game's four factions. Once you've made that decision, you'll choose what sort of hero unit you want to play as. Disciples II features the exact same hero types as the previous game. You can play as the warrior hero, whose innate regeneration ability lets him and the units under his control regain 15 percent of any health lost in the previous turn. As in the original game, warrior heroes begin the game as pegasus knights--powerful frontline fighters with the ability to fly. You can also play as a mage lord, who, as was exactly the case in the previous game, begins with a pre-built magic tower in his town and may research the highest-level magic spells. A mage lord hero begins the game as an archmage, a hero that has poor defense against physical attacks but can attack every enemy at once with magic. Finally, Disciples II will also let you choose a guildmaster hero, who begins with a pre-built thieves' guild in his town and allows any thief units he hires to perform additional actions, like changing an enemy company's formation. A guildmaster begins the game as a ranger hero, a powerful archer with the ability to travel greater distances each turn than either of the other hero types.
As in the previous game, your heroes will need to do a lot of traveling to accomplish their missions. Disciples II's maps are generally larger and have more items and monsters on them than those in the previous game, and thanks to the game's higher native resolution of 800x600, as well as different choices by the game's artists, Disciples II's maps look more colorful than those in the previous game. In fact, it might be easier than ever to mistake Disciples II for Heroes of Might and Magic at a glance, especially since the two games will be released around the same time. But in previously released Heroes games, monsters never actively wandered the map, nor did they pursue your party--they'll do both in Disciples II. We've already seen some examples of monsters moving across the map to ambush parties or block their paths. Monsters won't be the only things that'll act on their own in Disciples II; the game will feature other random or scripted events that'll take place over the course of a scenario, such as certain dialogues or even the appearance of a free allied unit that will join your cause.
Fights Look Better Than Ever
All of the fights you'll have against monsters and other enemies in Disciples II will take place in the same sort of confined isometric-view battlefield as in the first game. However, Disciples II features a few subtle changes to its combat system, and considering how straightforward, even simple, the original game's turn-based combat was, these new changes can actually change the outcome of some fights considerably. For starters, Disciples II features the new "wait" command, which will let your units skip their turns until the end of a fight. This feature is especially important for units that may wish to hold off using their abilities until the end of a round. More importantly, waiting serves a much more important purpose when used with Disciples II's other new combat feature: the ability for hero units to use items, such as healing potions and resurrection scrolls, in combat. Hero units now have a "paper doll" inventory that will let them wield a maximum of two potions or scrolls--one in each hand--and only a few of the game's other items, like artifacts, banners, and the powerful new orb items (which feature spell-like abilities, like healing).
The most obvious improvement that Disciples II will have over the previous game is its graphics. While the first game was locked at 640x480 resolution, the sequel will run at 800x600. The improved resolution makes just about every part of the game look better--its overland maps, its interface screens, its battles, and especially its character portraits. Some of the most striking and memorable things about the original Disciples were its hand-painted character portraits by artist Patrick Lambert, and how poor the game's 3D rendered units looked by comparison. Fortunately, Disciples II's combat units look substantially better in the sequel, and several of the larger units, like the pegasus knight and the gargoyle, look suitably intimidating on the battlefield.
But just like in the original game, Disciples II's real strong suit will probably be its character portraits. Patrick Lambert's expertly drawn art has never looked better than in Disciples II, and, as we've seen from the earlier builds of the game we've received, Lambert has used the game's long development time to constantly reevaluate and refresh his character designs. Though the current build of the game in our possession features a number of old portraits that were recycled from the first game, many of the new ones are outstanding and really lend a great deal of personality and character to what would otherwise be a set of largely straightforward, and in some cases generic, units.
Will Disciples II be as good as, or even better than, the original game? It seems like a safe enough bet, considering that Disciples: Sacred Lands was a largely straightforward turn-based strategy game and that Strategy First has had more than enough time to improve upon the original game. Most of the elements of Disciples have been enhanced in a few minor ways but have otherwise been left unchanged, except for the game's graphics and art, which have been improved considerably. Will it stand up to the competition from upcoming turn-based fantasy strategy games like Heroes IV and Age of Wonders II when it's finally released next year? We'll have to wait and see.
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