Atari advertises Dragonshard as “the first D&D real time strategy experience.” D&D stands for Dungeons & Dragons, a set of rules and definitions more commonly used in role-playing games, such as Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Now, I have no idea if Atari’s claim is true or not -- I’ve seen a couple debates on the matter, but the people involved always invoke games I’ve never heard of -- and so I’ll just comment on some of Atari’s other claims, like when they say Dragonshard is “innovative,” “thrilling,” and “groundbreaking.” Please. There isn’t any debate here. None of those words apply. Dragonshard is one of the least interesting games I’ve ever played.
If you’re like me, then what you know of D&D comes from computer games, and so you’re probably (overly) familiar with the Forgotten Realms setting, since that’s what just about every computer game uses. Dragonshard, on the other hand, uses a newer setting called Eberron. Now, Eberron isn’t completely alien territory, but there are certainly some differences. For example, of the three factions in the game, the Order of the Flame is likely to be the most familiar, with its “good guy” units like the dwarven berserker and the human paladin, but even it gets a strange robot-like creature called a warforged titan. And then there are the Lizardfolk, made up of a collection of amphibious units like the troglodyte surveyor and the spitting turtle, and the Umbragen, with dark, underground units like the wraith knight and the tainted priestess, which are likely to be entirely new.
Dragonshard’s campaigns tell the story of the Heart of Siberys, a large and powerful crystal that all three factions covet (dragonshards, if you’re curious, are lesser versions of the Heart). The Order of the Flame wants to exploit the Heart of Siberys, the Umbragen want to drain its power, and the Lizardfolk want to protect it. Oddly, only the Order of the Flame and the Lizardfolk get campaigns -- I guess we’ll have to wait for an expansion pack to see the Umbragen -- and, odder still, the two campaigns are short mirror images of each other rather than telling one long story. In fact, the campaigns are so short that none of the characters involved are really developed, and only the most basic of storylines is presented. The campaigns feel like the real-time strategy campaigns from when the genre first started out, rather than what you’d see from anything developed recently (and especially from a game touting its role-playing game heritage).
The game’s mechanics are also a little more basic than you might expect. Consider base management. Instead of placing buildings wherever you want, you’re given a “nexus” with some building plots already defined, and then you’ll just need to choose what goes where. There are some complications in that where you place buildings will affect how much you can upgrade your units, but the thing is, you’ll probably quickly decide on the nexus layout you like best, and then in every mission thereafter, base management will be exactly the same. Ho hum. Or consider the factions. They look different, but they have roughly the same units, and they play identically, and so you won’t need to change your tactics to switch from one to the other. Or how about the resources in the game? There are three, but one of them is experience, which you’ll accumulate just by playing, and the other two can be harvested by almost any unit, and so you won’t have to make any decisions about economy versus military might.
A game can get away with a pretty basic engine, but the developer has to figure out some way to hook the player into playing, and Liquid Entertainment, Dragonshard’s developer, didn’t do it. From what I can tell, they didn’t even try. Role-playing elements are almost totally lacking in the game. Each faction gets a champion, but the champion is fixed (it won’t gain experience or anything), and all you’ll get to do is carry along some equipment. And while the basic units in the game (called “captains”) can gain levels, the upgrade is handled as a research option rather than as a form of unit veterancy, and once you’ve made the upgrade, all current and future units will inherit it, and so you won’t need to do much to develop your fighting force, either.
The two campaigns are also uninspired. I played on the “normal” difficulty setting, which might have been a mistake, because enemies rarely put any pressure on me, and basically just waited for me to upgrade my units and then overwhelm them. Plus, the mission objectives all tend to be similar and boring, and the optional quests are lame and never have anything to do with the plot (“if you kill that beholder I’ll give you a prize”). Of the 14 campaign missions included with the game, I thought one of them was worth playing (the last Lizardfolk mission); the rest almost put me to sleep. The tutorial in particular is a yawner.
Sadly, while a real-time strategy game based on a Dungeons & Dragons universe sounds like a good idea, Dragonshard is anything but. Its mechanics are simple and its missions are boring, and so there’s just nothing to recommend about it. Maybe some fans of the game will use the included world editor to create something fun, but if that happens at all, it’ll be a while down the road, and so you should definitely stay away from Dragonshard until it hits the bargain bin, and probably even then.