Touted as the "First D&D Real-Time Strategy Game", Dragonshard certainly brings some new fare to a genre that can often seem rote.
The "D&D" aspect of this game should be addressed before delving further. Based in the new D&D campaign world of Eberron, the graphics, storyline and overall feel of the game certainly captures the unique flavor of the campaign setting and gives a sense of the depth found in it.
Unfortunately, that is by and large where the "D&D" in the title ends. The game mechanics are not at all representative of Dungeons and Dragons and the reality is that it is D&D in name and flavor only. What little of D&D it parodies, outside of setting, it doesn't follow very closely and I suspect that most D&D fans who were hoping for something true to the game system itself will find themselves sorely disappointed on this count.
If you took away the Eberron setting I might half-jokingly suggest that it would border on the criminal to continue to call it a D&D game at all. Certainly those players familiar with D&D but not with Eberron will find this anything but a D&D title.
If you can get past that in the hope of finding a fun game underneath, and are willing to engage the necessity of learning an RTS in which knowledge of the D&D game system will fail to help you with in the least, you may find yourself both entertained and perhaps a bit addicted.
Graphically the game is well done and holds much in comparison to Warcraft III, but is more refined and detailed. The environments and units offer a lot in the way of eye-candy and the voice and sound that accompanies it are all very well done and convincing. In particular I found the Lizardfolk to be exceptional in this respect.
Beyond mere appearance, the actual game play is engaging and offers a plethora of strategy along the way. It doesn't really come into its own until you have become quite familiar with the varied troop types for each of the "civilizations" in the game. This is made more difficult due to the mechanics of the game as well as a lack of consistency between the traits of one unit to those in another civilization. Allow me to speak toward that a bit more in a moment.
As with most RTS games, a scissor-rock-paper model exists that require a player to form armies capable of countering the enemy while avoiding being countered at the same time. In Dragonshard the main means of holding to this model is through "resistances", of which four types can be found; magic, poison, fire and physical. Virtually all units in the game are resistant to three types of damage and are weak to one.
Some special units, such as Champions for which a player can generally only have one active at any time, do what is called "fierce" damage, essentially ignoring any resistances of their target.
This, by and large, works well enough though it requires a bit of memorization to be effective and is not entirely consistent from one civilization to the next. For example, Lizardfolk warriors deal melee damage and are weak to magic, their equivalent in the "Order", the dwarf barbarian, deals melee damage and is weak to melee damage, and yet the final variety of warrior, the Umbragen Wraith Knight, deals magic damage and is susceptible to fire.
With ten unit types available to each side, not including champions and juggernauts, this disparity between comparable unit damage types and resistances can cause a fair bit of mental juggling, particularly as you try to get accustomed to the rest of the game.
Along with these considerations, many if not most of the units have several special powers which become available as they increase in level. These powers range from healing and buff spells to direct and area of effect attacks, all par for the course. However, their use is frequently hampered by user interface issues that can leave you fumbling about the keyboard as a frantic battle ensues, all in the hopes of trying to utilize these unit powers to best effect against enemy units you have hopefully memorized the weaknesses of in the process.
If that sounds like it might be a bit tedious or difficult, you would be right. At least before you've become accustomed to these requirements of the game it can leave a person a little confounded.
Naturally, the best way to overcome this and gain familiarity with both the mechanics and user interface is to simply play the game a lot! Fortunately, even when lacking as a player the game hints at a gem underneath drawing you in further and further, and imbuing some familiarity along the way.
Perhaps this is because, for all the similarities with other RTS titles, Dragonshard breaks the mold a bit by combining attributes from the best of them while introducing a new layer that I don't think has yet found its way into the genre--dungeon adventuring.
On the surface world, the area where you engage army against army, defend your city and outposts, and generally manage the strategic aspects of the game, periodic rains of "dragonshard" fall from the sky providing a necessary resource to send your troops out to collect.
However, below the surface exist damp and dark evils into which you must send the captains of your above ground armies seeking out treasure and gold, the second primary resource needed to build and create your forces.
This below ground adventuring helps add a lot of interesting depth to the game, in both single and multiplayer games. It also, inevitably, divides your attention between the gathering of dragonshard above and gold below, even as your troops engage enemy civilizations and creeping monsters on both, earning experience to level up all the while.
This division of attention, of forming both armies and adventure groups to obtain resources and defend or attack with, adds a dimension of strategy to the genre that simply can't be found elsewhere. Kohan comes, perhaps, closest to the same offering and its influence in this game can readily be recognized in many aspects.
Truly, as you play it's likely you'll find hints of other games abounding. The above ground realm and the variety of troops immediately conjures up moments from Warcraft, Majesty and Kohan, while the below ground spelunking is reminiscent of Baulder's Gate/Icewind Dale and to an extent the more recent Dungeon Seige 2.
Amazingly they have incorporated the more unique features of many games, both inside and out of the RTS realm, in a largely seamless fashion resulting in a game of a different sort than you might otherwise expect.
Most importantly, despite its failure to live up to the D&D name (in terms of game play itself), it rapidly grows on a person with its fun and multi-layered demands for strategy and foresight.
Detracting from this fun game play stands only two fairly brief campaigns and a wholly lacking online multiplayer community, at least so far. It also begs the question as to why only two campaigns exist when there are three civilizations featured in the game.
The longevity of this game, in terms of replayability and any notable online community are at best questionable. Certainly the online aspect of this game is absent so far and there doesn't seem to be any indication this will change soon, perhaps condemning most players to the short single player campaigns before hanging the game on a shelf to be forgotten.
In the end, while I really do find the game enjoyable, I have difficulty recommending it while it teeters at the $50 range. It has a lot of potential left unfulfilled even as it introduces some aspects which hopefully won't be ignored by the next generation of RTS games. It certainly could be worse and can't be coined a total failure, by any stretch of the imagination.
Yet with only a moderate level of replayability, deficient online play and an almost complete failure to offer what was advertised outside of setting alone--a D&D RTS--I can only feel it appropriate to recommend waiting for this to hit the bargain bin before spending your hard earned dollars.
* Engaging and fun game play
* Pleasing graphics and sound/music
* Mold breaking strategic design, with above and below ground adventure
* For those inclined, the Eberron campaign setting
* Not really a D&D title, as per game mechanics
* User Interface design is lacking in some key parts
* Two short campaigns
* Virtually no online gaming available at the moment
* Undocumented (and perhaps broken) game editor
* Moderate to steep learning curve
* Some notable bugs reported for some even after a first patch