Four Heroes, one goal, limitless danger – back of the box.

It’s been a while since I last played a Hack and Slash title. Oddly enough, it’s been exactly the same length of time since I last played a Dungeons and Dragons Hack and Slash title.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the title in question is Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, for the PS2, Gamecube, and Xbox. Taking the D&D license, and tossing it into an action-packed title, proved very successful for Interplay, as it sold quite well from last I heard.

So, this time around, Atari decided to take the 3rd Edition license for D&D, and do basically the same exact thing, except this time they made it an Xbox exclusive. How did they do?

Let’s find out.

It’s time to be blunt. This looks nothing like an Xbox exclusive title. If this was a simple port of a PS2 title, with no graphical enhancements, then I could easily understand. But this is an exclusive. They simply don’t have that excuse.

For starters, the texture detail on the character models and backgrounds varies wildly as you play through the game. What starts out as decent (the heroes themselves), drops to the ugly (the first shopkeeper), raises to the fantastic (every boss you run across), then falls again (as you see textures on the levels themselves that don’t agree with each other). It’s such a hit-and-miss job it really sticks out.

On top of that, not only are some of the character models rather low detail, but the frame-rate skips for no reason whatsoever way too often. You could be doing something as simple as rotating the camera, or just walking around, and the game will drop from 30fps to 15fps for just an instant, then shoot back up again. It’s not loading anything in, nor is it doing really anything graphically intensive in the background, so why does it happen so often?

Other problems involve a lack of monster types inside the levels themselves. Let’s take the beginning area as an example. Inside you’ll find spiders, goblins, goblins with shields, goblins with bows, and goblins with spells. You’ll find this same group, along with a few undead (which follow the same progression as far as model types as well), and nothing more. They’re all exact clones of each other.

On the flip side, the stuff that looks good looks quite good. As stated before, the boss models are rather impressive, looking very real, covered with skin, bone, or scales where necessary. The CGI sequences that are shown before and after every boss fight are pleasing to the eye, looking like a team that knew what they were doing was behind them. Although there was one little scene that I could have done without.

The spell effects are over the top, but well done. Fireballs explode with a blinding flare, while the Magic Missiles spread outward, lighting up the area in a bluish glow, before turning and arcing towards their target. Burning Hands is the lightshow it should be, igniting everything in the area, and generally roasting whatever gets in its way.

All in all however, this looks like a game that could have easily been done on the PS2 or Gamecube. Other than the logo itself on the front of the box, there’s nothing inside that shows the gamer that this is an exclusive utilizing the power of the Xbox.

Thankfully this area is one place where the game does rather well. Using Dolby Digital Surround to it’s fullest, you’ll be able to hear things like monsters, spells, bows, and shattering items from all sides. This is a good thing, as once you start to delve deeper inside the game’s dungeons, being able to pinpoint your attacker off-screen is very useful.

The sound effects in general have a nice punch to them, audibly telling you the raw power of your magical attacks. Fireballs explode with a resounding boom, while the Burning Hands spell sounds as dangerous as it looks. Arrows thwack properly against your opponents (or into the nearest wall), and the clank of your weapon sliding off an enemy’s shield is clearly heard.

The music is your basic generic fair – nothing outstanding, nothing grating upon the ears. Short of the boss track, there isn’t anything memorable either. As usual this isn’t a bad thing, as it just fits with the hack-and-slash game that you’re playing.

I have only one complaint in this section however. The ‘you’ve moved your cursor in the menus’ dong is very loud compared to the rest of the game’s sound effects. It’s also a very low tone, so your ears will be assaulted by the noise every time you hear it. While you can lower the overall sound effects to compensate, you need that to be loud in order to hear your incoming opponents.

D&D: Heroes has a simple and effective control scheme, as would be expected. A attacks with your melee weapon of choice, X tosses items, A and Y use your skills (Fireball, your bow, power moves, etc), White and Black use your healing/magic potions, L blocks, R allows you to change your skills, the left Analog moves, and finally the right Analog controls the camera.

It works well, allowing you to quickly configure your method of killing the encroaching hostiles. Hitting the R button to change your skills works even in the middle of combat, dramatically slowing down time so you can easily assign a power that’ll work against the enemy you’re facing at that exact moment.

Only one complaint however. The X button tosses any throwable item you stumble across in your travels. As the two characters I chose with for the purpose of this review, the Sorceress and the Thief, I had absolutely no use whatsoever for any throwing items, as both of these characters are mainly long-range combatants. If I could have turned this button into another assignable skill, or even my ‘supermove’, I would have greatly appreciated it.

Finally, as one small bonus, you’re able to completely remap the buttons on the controller. This is always a nice feature to have, even though I didn’t use it.

150 years ago, four heroes challenged the ultimate evil in the land. In this evil’s dying breath, he killed the heroes, sending them to an early grave. Today, this evil has returned from the grave to terrorize the world once more. Instead of sending in the heroes of this generation, the powers-that-be decided to raise the long dead heroes, and use them to challenge the evil once again.

Yeah, so it isn’t much of a plot. Then again, for a near Gauntlet clone, what do you expect?

At the onset of the game, you’ll find that you have a choice of four characters to fight back the forces of evil: The Warrior, the Cleric, the Thief, and the Sorceress. The Warrior is the master of close combat, capable of taking down multiple opponents with a single swing. The Cleric is the master of healing, which you’ll see shortly is utterly worthless. The Thief is master is manaless long-range attacks, wielding a very fast and nasty bow. Finally, the Sorceress is master of long-range attacks in general, capable of dealing a ton of damage to oncoming opponents, limited by only her mana.

Your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to save the world. In doing so, you’ll travel through areas that every adventurer must visit in these kinds of games, including such wonderful areas as a fire level, an ice level, a swamp, and a mechanical area. Each one offers its own challenges, obstacles, and monsters.

To help you with this goal, your four heroes will have a rather large variety of skills, items, and powers at their disposal. While the Fighter and Cleric are limited to more mundane powers like enhanced swings and the occasional spell, the Rogue and Sorceress get the more entertaining powers available in the game – things like Vampiric arrows and Burning Hands, Traps and Fireballs. Sure, the Cleric gets a few fun ones like Flame Strike and Turn Undead, but the previous pair has most of the action.

In order to gain these powers, you’ll gain Skill Points every level. These points are based on your level, and oddly enough, your Charisma rating.

To make sure that the Fighter isn’t bored by the fanciful and colorful swashes of destruction the others get, he (and the rest of the heroes for that matter) have access to a number of throwable items in combat. Things like the mainstay Throwing Daggers and Flame Potions, Thunderstones and Holy Water, Mana Potions and Resurrection Amulets, all will be used in your quest to survive.

Wait… Mana Potions and Resurrection Amulets? Breaking out of the mold given to them by the 3rd Edition D&D License, the developers decided to make things easier on the player. Much easier. Unlike in Baldur’s Gate, Healing and Mana potions are rather lightweight, allowing the gamer to carry an absolute ton of them, especially considering how cheap they are. On top of that, you’ll be able to buy Resurrection Amulets, allowing you to rise from the dead (with full HP and Mana) as many times as you have this item. To say that this makes the game far easier is an understatement.

What other goodies can you stumble upon as you adventure? Weapons and armor. Lots of them. Unfortunately there isn’t much of a variety. Each hero is capable of learning up to 5 different weapons, each with different reach, range, and speed. Each of those weapons can have one of six or seven different ‘powers’ attached to them, like poisoning or extra undead damage. The armors have their own selection, but they’re a bit more limited.

In short, once you’ve gone through about 25% of the game, you’ve seen all that there is to see as far as magical weapons and armor goes. You basically won’t stumble upon anything more interesting, thus allowing you to stockpile those healing and mana potions that I brought up a bit ago. The only trick is to balancing your weight, so you can bring some of that loot home with you.

So, is this game far more fun in multiplayer? Somewhat. Sure, you can now cover each other’s back, and slaughter things that much faster, but the game compensates with far more baddies for you to hack-and-slash back to the stone age. The biggest problem here is suddenly the camera, as there simply isn’t a good angle for it to be at with multiple people on the screen. And since everybody can control the camera at the same time, expect confusion to rule the day.

And on that camera, let it be known that there simply isn’t a good place for you to put it. Sure, you can zoom it in and out, but since at the closest distance you can see about 5 feet around you, and at the farthest distance you can now only see twice that, you’re never able to get it far enough away from you so you can see what’s bearing down on you, forcing you to rely on listening for your oncoming opponents, instead of seeing them.

All in all it’s the same repetitive gameplay from something that we’d like to call your average dungeon crawl. It’s a fun game, but not only does it seem quite easy (at least until you crank that difficulty level anyway), but it starts to grow a tad boring after a few hours of play. You just wander in, kill hundreds of monsters, fight a boss, warp back to town, and continue until you’ve beaten the game.

With four greatly different characters to play as, four difficulty levels (three available at the start), and four player compatibility, there’s plenty of incentive to play through this game more than once, especially if you have multiple friends to play together with. Sure, the dungeon designs won’t change in the slightest between run-throughs, but if you’re looking for a good, mostly-mindless Gauntlet clone, this is a perfect purchase.