Reviewed: November 29, 2003
Released: September 16, 2003
Two D&D games in the same month, nay the same day from the same publisher. What kind of twisted universe is this? A pretty darn good one if you are playing Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, the latest AD&D franchise game for the Xbox console. Mixing just the right amount of RPG with a heavy dose of action gameplay and enough authentic D&D licensing to keep it “real”, this could be the future of multiplayer party-based dungeon crawlers.
Anyone who has ever played any of the Gauntlet games will already have a good idea of what to expect. This is the game that I have always dreamed Gauntlet could be if the series were taken up a notch and Atari has gone and done just that.
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There is a nice story to backup the action. Without going into too much detail the four selectable Heroes joined together more than 150 years ago to defeat an evil wizard. That evil has been resurrected and so have our Heroes. It’s a classic and timeless tale of good versus evil, but the opening movie and ongoing story tells it so well you won’t even notice.
Much like any D&D game you start with creating a character. This process has been greatly simplified. Rather than choosing class and race the classes are now locked into a race so if you want to play the Dwarf you are going to be a Cleric. If you want to cast all those fantastic spells then you are stuck playing the Elf Wizard.
Since Heroes is more about action than character development these choices will dictate how you end up playing the game, especially if you are going in alone. The Fighter is the obvious choice for solo gamers. Heroes does not adjust the difficulty based on the number or players in the party. This creates some interesting opportunities since playing alone will allow you to increase in experience and levels rapidly. When you play the same section of the game with multiple characters you might have an easier time fighting through the monster hordes but you also have to share the experience and increasing in levels takes much longer.
One nice feature is that you can have a new player join the game at anytime using a base character or any previously saved character. This is a huge advantage as when I started this review I was playing by myself as the Fighter. Then when a second GCM reviewer joined in to play the Cleric I decided to start over with a fresh Wizard. By the time we had advanced to level 9 a third GCM reviewer wanted to join in. Rather than have him play “catch-up” he simply took over my earlier fighter character who slipped right into the party.
Heroes is a real-time action game, which could put off gamers who are used to turn-based RPG’s. Everyone is running around in real-time hacking and slashing and firing spells. Working as a team is crucial. Having played a big part of the game as a fighter I have a tendency to boldly take the lead – not a good idea when you are playing the wizard. Instead, you have to consciously be aware of your location and formations so the tougher characters can work the frontline while spellcasters sit in the background and lob fireballs and magic missiles.
Controls are joyously simple and quite clever. You have your standard melee attack but are free to customize the other three face buttons to hotkey other attacks, spells, or missile attacks like daggers or bombs, and special finishing moves. A quick pull of the left trigger slows down the game and you can use the D-pad to cycle through the options for each button. This is an awesome interface that lets you handle most of your character management without ever leaving the game screen. The only time you have to exit to the character sheet is when you want to sell, exchange, or equip armor or change primary weapons. Even repetitive tasks like healing and mana restoration are conveniently assigned to black and white instant action buttons.
Heroes borrows on the AD&D rulebook but doesn’t follow it close enough to bog down the game. You get all the basics like skill points you can spend to buy new abilities then upgrade those abilities as you earn more points. Every four levels you get to increase an attribute and get the appropriate modifiers that go along with it. You can also earn a variety of finishing moves that resemble a fighting game combo system. Execute a sequence of attacks then follow through with the finishing move and you can do massive damage to multiple opponents.
Each character also comes with their own special weapon that can never be lost or sold. You will upgrade this weapon over time as you earn Soul Shards and by the end of the game this should be the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. This is a great failsafe system in case you missed or lost some of the more powerful weapons you would normally find in the game.
Heroes is a great looking game. Played from a top-down perspective you have a surprising amount of zoom control that is dictated by the number of players and how far apart you are scattered at any given time. Of course you will always run into those situations where the Elf is lagging in the bottom corner of the screen and the Dwarf is struggling to get a potion in the opposite corner just out of reach.
The characters and monsters are all excellent but you seldom get to see them up close enough to appreciate the finer points of their design. This is perhaps the only advantage to playing alone in that you can play at a much closer zoom level and appreciate the graphics and detailed animations.
There are some very nice special effects including glowing weapon arcs, flames with real-time lighting and shadows, some excellent water with ripple effects when you wade through, and don’t get me started on the near infinite library of special effects that go along with your spellbook. Magic Missiles, Fireballs, the warm glow of the Clerics healing power, are all quite spectacular. The HDTV progressive scan support only adds to the visual goodness.
The music is superb and perfectly fits the fantasy theme of Heroes. It blends into the background during the gameplay and surges into the foreground for the movies. It’s all very professional and sounds great.
The audio effects are limited to the sounds of clashing weapons and a whole bunch of supernatural effects that fit the vast library of spells. There is the occasional grunting or cries of monsters and Heroes, and the voice acting during the cutscenes and NPC encounters is excellent. It’s all mixed together in a wonderful 5.1 surround package that envelopes you in sound creating appropriate echoes and other environmental effects.
Lone warriors can finish Dungeons & Dragons Heroes in 12-15 hours and if you don’t have any friends willing to join in you will probably want to replay it again as each of the other characters. The story doesn’t change but the gameplay is significantly different for each type of character and it’s quite entertaining to explore all the possible skills and combo attacks.
Of course the true staying power, much like Gauntlet, is the multiplayer aspect that will make Heroes one of the most popular party games in your library. The game is designed to promote cooperative play and the classes complement each other perfectly. I only wish the game offered Xbox Live support.
We’ve all played Gauntlet and newer games like Hunter the Reckoning and there is a definite niche for cooperative multiplayer games like these that don’t require you to split the screen. What better franchise to explore this genre with than Dungeons & Dragons, and Heroes is a great way to start. The open-ended design allows players to join and exit whenever they wish, trade freely with other characters, and you can even develop your characters outside of the main party adventure and bring them back later.
Dungeons & Dragons Heroes will hopefully spark a new franchise of multiplayer games and if we are lucky the next generation will support online play. Meanwhile, this is one of the best new multiplayer games and its exclusive to the Xbox, so you even get some system bragging rights to go along with your hack and slash adventures.