I might not be the right guy to review this, I think as I sit with my monitor glowing bluly before me. I didn’t play the first Disciples at all, nor have I played Heroes of Might & Magic IV. In fact, the most recent HoMM that I played was the third one, and that one I only played on a friend’s machine for about fifteen minutes while waiting for her to finish folding her laundry so we could go shoot some pool. If you want to find a TBS (as opposed to RTS) game that I played with any regularity, you’d have to go all the way back to HoMM2, which was roughly 43,000 years ago in computer time. It’s not that I don’t like TBS style games - at one time, though I am loath to admit it now, I was in chess club in high school, arguably playing the oldest TBS game in creation – it’s just that there always seems to be something else that I want to play more. But what the heck, I’m more or less a professional game reviewer, despite the absence of payment in any tangible form, and I’m just as capable of playing a game and writing what I think about it as the next man, three times as capable if the next man writes for CGW. My point is that I’m a little behind the curve on what makes up the state of the art as far as TBS games are concerned, and I might be easily impressed. Please read the review with that in mind, because I’ll tell you, Disciples 2: Dark Prophecy impressed me mightily.
As I play the game, with a reviewer’s eye, I find that classifying D2:DP beyond simply calling it a TBS is very difficult. You could kind of call it a fantasy-based, turn-based Command and Conquer, and that’s going to give you a certain idea about what it’s like. You could also call it a fantasy-based Civilization lite – tastes great, less micromanaging. And yet both of those analogies are missing the clear RPG elements that are mixed in. The amalgam, as I’ve already said, is a little difficult to describe, other than to say that it’s frigging addictive. The first time I played it, I was hooked for a little more than four hours; I can’t think of the last time I got sucked into a game like that.
It starts out innocently enough. There’s some back-story about a war, a dead prince, and a king in mourning; most of that is probably from the earlier game, I wouldn’t know. A decade after this Great War, the forces of evil are gathering to destroy the Empire, and you have the choice of either fighting with the despoilers or the side of the angels in the single player scenarios. You pick a race – human or dwarven (the good guys), undead or demon (evil incarnate) – and a leader class – warrior, mage, or guildmaster. I haven’t been through all the alternatives or scenarios, that would hold this review up until somewhere in August probably, but from the playing I have done the four races are all interesting and balanced. The warrior leaders perhaps have an edge early on in the game owing to their higher hit points, but later become weaker in comparison to mages who pick up some seriously womping magic, with the guildmasters residing somewhere in between. Whichever you choose, the single player scenario launches you into a map with an objective such as the usual wipe out that other guy, take over all the available territory, or find some special artifact hidden on the map.
On your turn, you can build a building in your capitol city allowing you to recruit units or gain new skills, research and cast spells (mana permitting), recruit heroes and units to build armies, or move any of the armies you have around on the map. In the game as a whole I found that I spent very little time messing with city construction. On any given turn, pick a building you want to build and it’s built, if you have enough gold. Resource collection (gold, and four mana types) is likewise blissfully simplistic. A city has a certain sphere of influence, the bigger the city the bigger the sphere, and all resources contained in that sphere are automatically collected at the start of each turn. The exception is that an enemy can plant a rod near a resource supply, such as a mine, transferring control of that resource from you to them until you destroy the rod. It’s very easy at a glance to tell who owns what piece of the map. The human areas are lush and green and leafy, the demon areas are scorched and covered in flowing lava, etc. If an enemy plants a rod on your resource (wow, does that sound Freudian) the area around that resource changes to match the enemy’s land.
The map is crowded with stuff, probably some would say too crowded. At the peak resolution (800x600 in 16-bit color) it looks great, utilizing the overhead isometric view familiar to Civilization gamers, but you can miss enemy units who seem sometimes to almost blend into the busy scenery. The minimap in the corner alleviates this problem somewhat, with enemies and their territories showing up as different colored shapes, but the minimap is so tiny to these pathetic thirty-five year old eyes that I spent a lot of time squinting. You can always right click on anything on the main map and get some information about it, though frequently the information you get is that you need to send a spy out to take a look at it to get any information.
And so the chess game begins. Advancing, securing resources in enemy territory, falling back to heal and reincarnate dead units, exploring, protecting your territory, conquering enemy cities, recruiting heroes and building parties. As units survive combat, they gain experience, and when they have enough to advance to the next level they also gain new skills. You get to choose what new skills your hero picks up at the moment that its level advances. Do you want more leadership ability, runecraft, pathfinding? There are lots to choose from. The units with your hero also gain levels based upon their own experience points, but the skill path they follow is chosen by the buildings that you construct in your capitol. For example, acolytes become priests with sufficient experience if you construct a monastery, but become clerics if you construct a church. Priests and clerics have slightly different skills, which are further enhanced as they gain further levels. You can’t choose both paths – you can only construct one building or the other. These choices become a significant part of how you play the game, how you operate your units in combat.
And combat is where you’ll spend probably 75% of your game time. When two enemy groups meet, the game opens a combat screen, which is just a space showing the units involved in the combat and how they are arranged. Depending on the leadership skills of the heroes involved, there can be up to twelve units in combat at one time, six on each side, though frequently, especially early on, the parties are smaller. Each party has three forward combat spots and three rearward. Units in the front lines are free to bash on each other at will, while units in the rear can only attack or be attacked with ranged weapons or spells until all the front line defenders are dead. Each unit in turn, depending on their individual initiative rating, makes a combat move – either attack, defend (parry attacks), or retreat from combat. You can let the computer run out the combat for you at the click of a button, but it’s not particularly bright about it, and except in the case of a total rout it would be ill-advised to do it that way. The hero is allowed to equip an item in each hand, such as a potion, to use in the combat. They can likewise (depending on their skills) equip other gear like orbs, artifacts, or tomes. Combat continues until one side has either fled combat or died, experience points are handed out, and the game returns to the overview map. Combat looks fantastic, with intricately animated creatures performing magic and physical attacks with multiple effects. The only shortcoming is the death animations, which consists of a puff of smoke and the creature disappearing into a skull and pile of bones – the exact same pile of bones regardless of whether you killed a knight on a horse, a horned demon, a giant ogre, or a lowly squire. I guess now that I think of it, I would have also liked to see units start to look a little beaten up as they took damage. A knight with a shining shield on an immaculately groomed steed with one hit point left is kind of an oxymoron.
The addictiveness of this game nailed me on two fronts. I had the Civilization kind of addiction: just let me play until I take that city, or secure that resource, or defeat that enemy. Then I also had addiction for the RPG elements: playing until that hero makes the next level, or that acolyte becomes a cleric, or until the sun comes up and I have to go to work. You’ll come to care a great deal about your more experienced heroes and units as you get to carry some of them from mission to mission. The AI, especially in the beginning of the game, is brutal. The computer seeks out and destroys your hero groups just as they start to advance and gain some skills, cleverly using a combination of spells, summonings, and combat to wear them to death without rest. You’ll want to reload saved games frequently, recovering that hero that you felt was key to your strategy, trying to use your own combination of spells and summonings and sacrificing less-advanced units in hopes of protecting that critical army. The game fortunately saves automatically at the end of every turn.
The greatest letdown of the game would have to be the sound effects. The music is good – moody, dire, adventurous, but the combat theme, which you end up hearing about three gazillion times, does get a little old. Ambient sounds – gurgling rivers and flowing lava, birds, peasants, all that stuff as you hover around the overhead map - are cool, but voice acting is quite lackluster, and the combat sounds of your hero hacking into a demon lord with a four foot sword are particularly so.
D2:DP offers a variety of multiplayer options: modem, LAN, TCP/IP. My personal view is that TBS games kind of suffer in the multiplayer realm because you have nothing to do while waiting for all the other players to make their moves. It reminds me of a Risk game that I played literally my entire junior year at college. It was set up in some guy’s room, and you would go in and check to see if it was your turn, indicated by the dice sitting inside your largest territory. If it was, you would make your move, if not, you would come back in a few days and check again. Lengthy. D2:DP also comes equipped with a full scenario editor, but I didn’t get a chance to play with that much so don’t really feel comfortable writing about it except to say that it exists. I’m sure if it works at all, the fan machine will shortly be churning out levels of their own, extending the lifetime of the game even farther.
And so in conclusion, no man may be made to testify against his wife. The end. No, what I meant to say was that I found the whole D2:DP experience different and refreshing, especially in light of the RTS and FPS that I’ve been reviewing steadily for like the past six months, and the system requirements are quite modest to boot. That’s not to say that it does anything dramatically different from any other TBS game out there. As I wrote at the beginning, my level of experience with TBS games is far too low to award accolades for breaking new ground; I’m unfamiliar with the old ground. But, hot damn, I liked it.