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Graphics: Argh. First of all, the opening cutscene is perhaps the single most anticlimactic piece of 3D animation I’ve ever seen. We have, I kid you not, an armored fighter walking down a hall. That’s it. Nothing actually happens when he reaches the other end. The ominous voice-over by Khelben spins a tale of catastrophic conflict, and I felt myself anticipating the epic struggle between the striding warrior and whatever beast would burst open the door at the end. Nothing, in fact, does. I wanted to spill my drink with surprise! I wanted to bellow, “wow!” Instead, I mumbled, “what?” The subsequent TSR logo animation sports a killer red drake, though. Hmmm. And once you actually slip into the gameplay, things get much worse. A clunky, highly pixelated 3D engine is not the form into which one should force an RPG. The color spectrum and textures are so primitive that you cannot experience fear, awe, or excitement upon encountering anything in the Undermountain. Minor points are scored because of the neat 3D map, a few crisp 2D interface stills, and simply excellent character portrait art. But everything actually within the game is falling apart. If anything, the horribly emaciated character models only serve to sadden the player, in terms of the potential lost. Spell and weapon effects are dull and unexciting. Monsters are relatively convincing with regards to their polygonal structure, but the skins wrapped around their gaunt features could almost be considered amateur texture work. Furthermore, their motion sequences are choppy and erratic. Your enemies will flip around all over the place and pieces of them will appear through walls. Some will vibrate up and down uncontrollably, as if they’d swallowed a powerful cartoon alarm clock. The 3D engine is simply archaic, and appears visually to be simply a decaying ghast from years past.
Interface: Well, the control system is as slick as any of the action titles presently running amok in the game market, blasting passersby with rocket launchers. Each movement command is customizable with virtually any control device, and to its credit, DtU is a game which I felt I was able to perfect my own manipulative interface within. Aside from actual play commands, the rest of the setup is relatively straightforward, with a few minor glitches concerning information management. Many times I’d find myself wishing for the movable pop-up windows of Ultima Online, simply because one of the menus covered up some essential bit of data. The game is a DOS native program, and for that very reason it runs extremely poorly under Windows 95. We’re talking choppy, slow, and memory-hogging, even under very solid game systems. Okay, people! The 8 bit software must die! It does not belong in 1998. Revile it. Cast it out. No more DOS, okay? Like most of my DOS-weaned kin, I like the good ol’ command prompt for many functions, but in this day and age, developers should make use of native graphic acceleration found in the true-GUI operating systems. Installation was simple, and the game ran without conflict. However, a few random programming glitches would cause the program to irreversibly die on me. How would you like to be on the brink of wrenching an enchanted blade from a pile of lesser treasure, only to have your whole world crash and reboot? Well, don’t try to tell me you’d be satisfied. Switching between weapons and enchanted items was handled flawlessly, with a quick-slot system whereby you can customize what objects pop into your hands by hitting the number keys. Fighting is pretty weak, but it’s certainly easy to accomplish. You attack by hitting the attack button, and you can maneuver and dodge about in the process. Collectively, all this adds up to a good, playable interface with several intrinsic flaws.
Gameplay: I had a bit of fun playing Undermountain, and here’s why: it’s still a real RPG, not some diseased action hybrid. You can fight monsters, talk to NPCs, and develop your character while creeping along through a dungeon. A functional marketplace exists in the overworld, so you can accumulate a collective reward for all the gear you’re not using. Some nifty AD&D additions like thief abilities, flight spells, and infravision all add a measure of credibility to the gameplay, but a sparing one. You cannot play for long periods of time without cringing and giving up due to the pervasive lack of real quality to be found in any particular element of the plot or combat. The story itself is so generic I almost giggled. Lloth, (pronounced Lolth by some) the sinister Spider Queen deity of the Drow, is seeking to exploit the power of her Flamesword, an artifact she fashioned long ago. She lost the means to control it during the bloody wars between the Drow and the surface elves…and now she wants it back. You have to collect the [eight pieces] of the [magic statue] and fight the evil [spider queen deity] to protect the [universe]. You see how these blanks can be filled in by just about anything. [Nine pieces] of [enchanted cheese]? However, the old standby can still be enjoyable to tromp through, and I must admit I liked busting into the lair of the kobolds and laying waste to the place. Every mission is unique, and Khelben’s briefing on each adds a great deal to the atmosphere. But I can remember a few distinct times where I was left trying to fall on my own sword from frustration. A skeletal priest endeavored to gain my aid in releasing his soul from capture. I’d already slaughtered the Ghoulmaster of the area, and the bony old guy wouldn’t give me any more information. The result: poor Modus Operandi wandering around in the same level for about an hour. I actually started to fondly reminisce about the dead monsters on the floor…a lame fight is far better than nothing at all. The genetic code present in this game has some merit, but you’re going to have to be obsessed with finding it.
Sound FX: The voice acting for Khelben was just damn fine. There are a few errors in plurality present because the voice actor, like the gamers, didn’t know that multiplayer was going to be axed. But overall, he’s a meritorious narrator, and it is essentially his presence that makes you remember you’re in the Forgotten Realms at all. Most unfortunately, he represents just about the only real speech you’ll come upon in the title. The rest of the sound effects aren’t bad, I suppose. Monsters grunt with relative integrity, and pride in their work. When you cut them down, they’ll squeal or roar or rattle. A lot of the spell noises sound canned, as if they weren’t engineered with the specific incantation in mind. The key to sound mastery is ambient authenticity, and while DtU does not accomplish that, the effects in this game are good enough to complement gameplay.
Musical Score: I’m unsure of the format here, but the tunes were cool. From the moment I entered the Yawning Portal, I was impressed with the accurately placed musical score. A lively ballad jangled its jovial way throughout the tavern. Far above anything I saw with my eyes, I was convinced by the music that I was standing inside a fantasy inn. Then, while I stalked soundlessly through the corridors of Undermountain, a variety of eerie, albeit simple musical pieces marked each area. In fact, beyond any other elements of this game, the music was the most suited to what I always reference as a true RPG.
Intelligence & Difficulty: No, no, no. The AI is some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Most of the dungeon inhabitants are incapable of chasing you for more than a few feet without slamming idiotically into an obstacle and finding themselves unable to move. Throughout the time I spent in Undermountain, I wasn’t challenged in the least by fast-paced combat or new and interesting ways to duel with enemies. I simply attacked, jumped backwards, and then attacked again. The only discernible shred of climbing difficulty levels results from the simple numerical increase in the damage potential of your opponents. So the threat you’re under is that you might not dodge backwards in time, not that your assailant might actually do something dangerously unpredictable. The only quest difficulty I found in DtU resulted directly from glitches in the programming and bad organization, not challenging puzzles or crafty competitors. This is not a title that encourages role-playing against keen AI, nor did it draw me in due to engaging trials.
Overall: It just didn’t work. The magic and allure of the Forgotten Realms cannot be captured by a poor, dated Descent conversion. Role playing elements are minimal, and gameplay is linear and typical, even if mildly amusing. The entire visual engine should have been scrapped and rewritten, and the supporting design elements are not strong enough to hold this collapsing castle. Desperate fans of the AD&D world may be able to derive some minor, fleeting enjoyment from the character system and nifty sub-features. But when taken in context of time and technology, this is simply not what the RPG world wants.
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