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Review by: Jordan Thomas
Published: February 12, 1998
Encased in glittering armor and weathered skin, adventurers from all walks of life band together for wealth, fame, or honor. Legions of lawless creatures stalk the surrounding forests and caves, hoarding treasure and raiding the bustling towns and cities that sprinkle the Sword Coast. Tribes of orcs bearing grim human-severed standards of battle march through the cavernous mountain ranges. They heft wicked, serrated weapons and sport bleach-white skulls on their thick belts. Fair-featured elven magi and rocky, axe-slinging dwarves join forces to combat these perpetual threats. High above amongst the clouds, a glistening black dragon prepares to rain acid death on a city below.
These are the Forgotten Realms.
In the EGA days of yore, enthusiastic role players were privileged to boldly wander these hallowed lands in the Gold Box series, a brilliantly converted group of titles featuring wonderfully primitive icon-based graphics and pixelly line art. For their time, they were beautiful. With the advent of the Eye of the Beholder series, and later, many of the true AD&D enthusiasts have certainly come to tangible terms with their world in the genre of CRPGs.
It is only a natural progression then, to assume that the world of AD&D should now be translated into a fluid 3D engine. Interplay, which now owns the label, has put together a title designed to grapple both the discerning tastes of the RPG army and the trillion action-lovin’ 3D junkies which have sprung up so forcibly of late. Hence, the concept behind Descent to Undermountain was born. Given flesh by a revamped version of the Descent engine, the title underwent a lengthy development process and was intended to satisfy all our RPG deprived longings. It was to break the ominous writs of history and become a successful, detailed first-person RPG.
It was but a brief dream.
First and foremost, we must establish the world into which this title enters. The most elegant example of recent role-playing game design is Fallout, also an Interplay release. The post-nuclear gem runs off of an incredible system architecture, features vastly entertaining gameplay, and a rich, original story. Then, in the fantasy-action mold, the most impressive (albeit simplistic) medieval world to explore thus far was served up by the silky-smooth accelerated code of Hexen 2. With that fundamental comparison as our template, it must be noted that Descent to Undermountain has been released long, long after its time.
Originally advertised as a true cooperative multiplayer adventure, DtU had the feature axed from it a few months before release. The RPG community, who had been anxiously awaiting an authentic networkable RPG, basically feels shafted. The game could have almost been fun if there was somebody else in it with you, and given the expanse of Descent’s ability to multi-play, the resulting removal of this option is baffling.
The graphics are, of course, completely bereft of any acceleration options. Enemies are crudely crafted polygonal characters with ugly, 8 bit texture art stretched haphazardly over their heads. The result is that nearly all of them look pained, as if they are mutations who once appeared semi-presentable. The monsters leap weirdly up and down, and while some of the animation could be passable if it weren’t so choppy, it still comes off as very cheap. The game runs on a pixel-bleeding antique version of the Descent code, and even on my P166 with 80 megs of ram, I had to turn the detail down to minimum to get an acceptable framerate in full-screen mode. By minimum, I don’t mean that the textures looked a little blockier and the viewable distance reduced a touch. No. This “feature” essentially turned everything more than three steps from me into flat shaded bounding boxes. Everyone knows that an RPG does not have to flaunt the latest in imaging technology to be a good game. But this simply isn’t up to par. ‘Tis thoroughly unacceptable by today’s standards, in the graphical department. Enough said about my aching eyes.
Furthermore, the program code itself appears old, cranky, and somewhat senile. I installed the patch before giving it the birth run, and it still performed like a decrepit, befuddled wizard who’s been sniffing the mandrake powder too heavily. The AI present here is lamentable. Enemies will lurch unsteadily toward you in a slippery manner, which betrays the complete lack of object-to-surface code. They spend their spare time smashing their foreheads against walls, and twitching nervously from one frame to the next. Collision detection was left out of these poor saps’ DNA. But they can surf in mid-air. They’re not walking on the ground, oh no. Not when their Descentian origins allow them to glide in style. “Hey, all the bogies in Descent floated, why can’t we?” They sort of mime the “running man” slowly at you, if they bother to approach at all. You will be able to utilize the brilliant tactic of stepping forward, whacking them across the misshapen nose, and then stepping backward to defeat just about anything in the game. Patience willing, that is.
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