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Or, you could blast them with a spell…but I don’t recommend it. My imagination conjures streaking, twisting bands of electricity, arcing directly for my opponents in a deliberate dance of death. Well, in DtU, the spells don’t really appear to be moving away from the character at all. I’m not even sure they are mapped as 3D objects. The missile weapons and spell effects will flip haphazardly off into the cosmos, rendering your attack about as deadly as a sky-borne firework. When you do manage to bring the monstrous miscreants to blessed rest, where they are no longer doomed to navigate their limited environment, they slump heavily down and lay prostrate before you. Even still, they are not allowed to touch the floor. I walked around the corpse of a skeleton who I’d just summarily maced to shards, only to find that the poor thing was still straining itself in secondary death, levitating about an inch from the floor.
On another occasion, I opened a secret door (which, incidentally, has the same repeated texture as all the other secret doors) to find a piggish orc with the top half of his head lodged firmly in the ceiling. I can recall laughing out loud, but this kind of comic relief is not what an RPG typically aims to generate. Mumbling something vile about code bereaved of optimization or testing, I hacked him down from his dangling prison, and even let him get a hit on me out of sympathy. Sigh.
Eventually, I forced myself to ignore all these aesthetic and architecture-spawned blights, and focused on gameplay. I reduced my time-honored full-screen mode to the windowed version where all my statistical info took up 60 percent of the screen space. It ran decently when so limited, and I started over from the beginning, this time with my mind on how much enjoyment I could distill from the characters and storyline.
To its merit, the title sports a solid, accurate AD&D character generation system. Not only can you create all the typical classes and races, but the added ability to play a dark-elven Drow adventurer will have all the Drizzt Do’Urden fans clapping for joy. With only minor referrals to the game’s average manual, you will be able to create a pretty smooth in-game persona. One side note: the 2D character portraits are painted masterfully. For the first time in any RPG, I had a picture of my character that fit his opportunistic personality.
Once you’ve breathed life into your alter ego, you are given a bird’s-eye-view map of Waterdeep. Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun, archmage of the city, is the one who summoned you as his champion. Naturally, your first visit will be to his tower. His real-world voice actor wasn’t bad at all. Personally, I was quite happy to hear him speak to me, knowing that the rest of the title has absolutely no voice acting at all. Khelben explained that some dog-faced little kobolds had been raiding the surface lately, and he wanted me to put a stop to it. Okay, simple enough. He then directed me to the Yawning Portal, a local inn which also serves as the entrance to Undermountain. Once inside the tavern, I was able to take a moment to configure my controls.
Here is another reason why the game could have been great, either a year ago, or if scrapped and redone for 3D acceleration and re-design. The control system is quite customizable, and like Quake it features a mouse-based dynamic viewing interface called Immersive Mode. It’s very easy to use, and I enjoyed the customizability of the keyboard and mouse system on the whole. If the world had been fun to explore, this setup would have been perfect to manipulate it with.
I then took the opportunity to speak with a few of the local NPCs who hang out in the Portal. While visually uninspiring, each had a unique personality. I was pleasantly startled momentarily away from my impression that the title had no depth, when the bartender got angry with me. You see, I’d decided to test out my new broadsword on one of his chairs, and well… he demanded payment. I was elated to see that somebody was thinking. Much to my surprise, the oft-loathed Illithids and Drow were represented by a more trustworthy individual from each world. I treated them with courtesy given my own dark heritage within the Realms, and they reciprocated. There were a few more folks around, who served various training and healing purposes. None of them had a great deal to say. So without much ado, I headed for the iron cage that would lower me into the belly of the beast, so to speak.
The quests take the form of simple dungeon hacks, referring to the actual AD&D system of battle only with regards to armor class and spell memorization. You cut apart the sinister inhabitants of each area, and haul off their goodies. The few stationary NPCs you find will engage in basic conversations with you. Typically, if you give them aid, they will help you along your way. One of the distinct problems here is that when you speak to someone, the screen freezes into an ugly purplish-bluish gray, and the text appears over the top of it. The verbal interaction is achieved through clicking on responses to statements. Simple, but not impressive in the least. I’d have loved to actually hear those creatures, especially considering the time this title took to reach the markets.
The catacombs are laid out in sprawling sub-corridors, each spawning off a locked door that you can access from the central “hubs”. Khelben gives you something to access each of these when you complete the preceding quest for him, so the gameplay is linear, but entertaining in that simple sense. Most of these sub-dungeons have a theme, and the creatures you find within correspond with that flavor perfectly. Of course, the beasties get meaner and meaner (though not any smarter) as you go along. I think the mathematical difficulty was scaled correctly, but I cannot consider the title a challenge because of the myriad disturbing flaws in monstrous attitude.
In all, DtU would have been far better served in former days. If it had been released around the time that Descent II was, it would have hit the market at the prime. But it appears that the project was put aside for almost a full year, and then released in this damaged, dated format for Christmas. A strong character generation system and rudimentary, nominally enjoyable gameplay cannot begin to save the sinking ship; there are too many holes in the hull. Perhaps true 3D RPGs should be held back as a design idea until someone can put together one that can thrill our eyes, ears, hearts and minds simultaneously. It’s a tough genre to satisfy, but when a game can synthesize all those key components, it will become a legend.
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