There's something immediately unsettling whenever Bullfrog turns out sequels. Best known for its original game designs like Populous, Syndicate, and Theme Park, the mere thought of Bullfrog working with an already-existing concept instead of introducing an entirely new one makes sequels such as Dungeon Keeper 2 seem less ambitious than their innovative predecessors. All the same, the original Dungeon Keeper, a real-time strategy game in which you'd construct a subterranean labyrinth within whose corridors you'd kill the goodly heroes looking to rid their land of the likes of wretches such as yourself, was one of Bullfrog's best ideas in years. In hindsight, though, it wasn't as outstanding as it might have seemed at first, and suffered from being a little too formulaic and at times too chaotic. And so Dungeon Keeper 2 seems like the right way to make amends, to take a brilliant game design and perfect it. Which is why, in spite of this game's absolutely remarkable detail, it doesn't end up being all it might have been - under the surface, it's too much like its predecessor for its own good.
Although Dungeon Keeper 2 shares the original's half-silly, half-scary visual design, the graphics have undergone an incredible refinement since the first game, lending Dungeon Keeper 2 some of the best graphics you've ever seen. A dark, subterranean setting such as this one constantly runs the risk of looking colorless and too despondent, but Dungeon Keeper 2 succeeds in conveying its claustrophobic hallways beautifully, thanks to subtle but terribly effective light and shadow effects that bring your catacombs to life. The various dungeon components, from paper-strewn libraries and glittering treasuries to more sinister developments like cold graveyards and intricate torture chambers, are all readily distinguishable and beautiful to look at right down to the finest detail. And you can zoom in as close as you like from the default isometric view to appreciate that detail.
A wide variety of wicked denizens find themselves right at home within your underworld, and these are the real stars of Dungeon Keeper 2. Most every one of them looks outstanding in full 3D, from the wimpy, wiry goblins and skeletons on up to the gracefully wicked vampires and dark angels. These creatures' various affectations, the way they move about, what they like to do in their spare time, how they deal with their enemies, all make Dungeon Keeper 2 distinct and often very funny.
And while the graphics are vastly improved since the original, Dungeon Keeper 2 also sounds better than the first, which sounded fantastic in the first place. In fact, even in spite of its visual quality, it's Dungeon Keeper 2's sound effects that make this game as amusing as it is. Vampires cackle suspiciously to themselves, rogues sound like they're up to no good, and trolls talk even goofier than they look. Every room comes replete with its own ambient noises, which blend seamlessly as you scroll around, surveying your handiwork. A somewhat inappropriate though catchy enough techno soundtrack kicks in when your forces inevitably clash with the forces of good, and a perfectly evil-sounding narrator will alert you whenever something is amiss, just as he will introduce all your minions and facilities as they make themselves available. It's impossible to give Dungeon Keeper 2's sound design enough credit - certainly its graphics seem more impressive at first, but long after you're through gawking at the lighting effects, you'll still be cracking smiles listening to the game.
But even the excellent sound will start to wear thin eventually, because the gameplay hasn't changed much since the original Dungeon Keeper, which means there's more or less a right way to go about playing the game. Dungeon Keeper 2 isn't as flexible or open-ended as it may first appear: You simply etch out five-by-five zones for your rooms, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, and you lay down the rooms as you can afford to. There's a fairly specific order in which you'll want to build these, and it's more or less identical to how you built them in the first game. You'll quickly learn to slap your creatures around to make them work faster, and soon enough there will come a point where you realize there's very little left for you to see in the game. That's because the problem in Dungeon Keeper 2, much like in its predecessor, is that most of the fun lies in the setup. Almost all the missions, single- or multiplayer, build to an anticlimax where you just dump all your creatures onto the enemy and hope yours are stronger than his.
Granted, Dungeon Keeper 2 combat probably deserves more credit than all that. The designers tried to address the flaws of the rather mindless combat of the original game by making creatures fall down stunned whenever you drop them someplace, at which point they're very vulnerable. Likewise, some creatures are cowardly and will flee if they're outnumbered or outclassed. Others are fearless. Many have support roles and need to be defended. And possessing a creature and fighting from its first-person perspective imbues that creature with superior strength and stamina. You can also set up deadly and elaborate traps, many of which work well in combination and can be applied with a great deal of creativity.
Even so, combat still looks and feels so hectic, and so much happens so quickly, that most of the time you'll just watch the dust settle and hope a few of your minions will be standing tall at the end of it. Part of the chaos is on account of the game's interface, which while readily accessible and legible, just doesn't really offer you the kind of insight you'll wish you had on your units and the enemy's. At least the original game had an iconic representation of each battle, showing the participants involved; here you don't even get that much, and you won't be able to tell who's doing what to whom until it's all over. Combat in Dungeon Keeper 2 just isn't much fun compared with the rest of the game, and yet the entire game is merely a setup for that inevitable confrontation.
It's possible the designers were aware that building up dungeons is more fun than defending them. There's even a mode of play where you can take as long as you like and build up your dungeon without any threat of enemy incursion, unless you choose to trigger an enemy attack yourself. Dungeon Keeper 2 is also chock-full of all kinds of little secrets, which are very often worth looking for because they open up clever hidden levels or help power up your creatures. And between campaign missions, you get very funny short movies with the various characters in action, which alone are reason enough to keep playing. The campaign is quite long, the voice-over is always a treat, and the game has a fair amount of variety between missions under the general constraint that is the game's restrictive design. Beyond that you can play skirmish matches against a variety of computer opponents of assorted skill levels, or easily jump into a multiplayer game over the Internet.
When you add it all together, it's impossible that you won't find something to like about Dungeon Keeper 2. It's witty, it's fun to play and to watch, and its interface is easy to use, just as the game itself does a great job of incorporating tutorial information right into the scenarios. It's a high-quality game, the likes of which would give most any other developer every reason to be jealous. Yet all the same, it isn't terribly complicated and doesn't introduce too many new creatures or features that weren't already in the first one. At the same time, this is undoubtedly the technically superior game of the two, yet its attention to aesthetics makes its ultimately straightforward gameplay all the more disappointing.