I had my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) on Christmas morning when I was 11 years old. Hidden amongst the veritable treasure trove of gifts Santa had left me was the official D&D starter kit. While it certainly wasn't the most high-profile present of the year, it was the one that intrigued me the most.
Unfortunately, living in a rural area where I was the only boy around for a number of miles, meant my D&D career would go on permanent hiatus. I kept the starter kit, though (and still have it somewherenow in my parents' house in Florida), always hoping I'd one day find an opportunity to actually play.
In the intervening years, I've still never found a D&D group. I stumbled across a few during my college years, but they seemed far too "socially challenged" for me to get involved with them. Luckily, I've not missed out on the D&D phenomenon entirely—thanks to the fact they've been making videogames based on the Dungeons & Dragons license for quite a few years now. Granted, these games aren't quite the same as sitting in a room with a group of guys and a flesh-and-blood dungeon master, but as Jean Paul Sartre once pointed out, "Hell is other people"—and the videogame incarnations of D&D have certainly eliminated this particular brand of torture.
The latest D&D game to grace a console is Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, another hack-and-slash game in the same vein as last year's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and more a D&D game in name than actual execution. In other words, Heroes plays more like Diablo than Neverwinter Nights. Rather than having an involved combat interface that demands at least a modicum of strategy is employed in order to survive, Heroes simply asks the player to run into an area, hack the holy hell out of everything in sight, and move on. It may not be a "true" D&D experience, but it is at least somewhat cathartic—sending limbs flying about the room can certainly alleviate some of the pressures of a rough day at the office.
For those who don't mind that the game isn't a perfect recreation of the table-top D&D experience, Heroes offers up an interesting (if somewhat limited and repetitive) gaming experience.
In a move guaranteed to disappoint everyone, the game once again forces players to choose from one of four preset character avatars. The choices (with one exception) are painfully standard—the human warrior, the female wizard, the female rogueand in the one odd twist, the dwarven cleric. Why was the dwarf a cleric and not a warrior? I've no idea. That's just the way it played out apparently.
After selecting a character, players are treated to a brief explanation of the game's story—and it ain't Tolkien. Basically, four heroes fought an evil wizard 150 years ago. They were victorious, but in his last moment of life, the evil wizard unleashed a terrible spell that killed everyone around himmainly, the four heroes. Now, 150 years later, some group of clerics has attempted to raise the wizard in hopes of harnessing his power (when will they learn this never works?). To combat the evil wizard's return, another group has resurrected the four heroes of the past—although, for some odd reason, they don't possess any of their old skills. Players must take control of the four heroes and set out to thwart the evil wizardstop me if you've heard this before.
While the story isn't going to be winning any awards for narrative brilliance, the gameplay isn't a whole lot more inspiring. As mentioned earlier, this is a hack-and-slash affair, with a few minor tweaks thrown in to try and keep it interesting.
The major tweak (and the only one really worth talking about) is the inclusion of a "finishing move." Players string together combos, which in turn fill up a little gauge under the health and magic meters. As long as at least part of the gauge is lit, the player can use one of his finishing moves in the combo (these are mapped to a button on the Controller S). Depending on how full the meter is, the attack's power will vary. It's not much, but it does add a bit to the game's combat-heavy experience. To keep things even fresher, players can unlock several different finishing moves from the feats menu when they level up. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.
If variety is indeed the spice of life, then I'd hoped someone in the graphics department would have received the memo. Heroes does everything right in terms of the varied locales you'd expect to find in a D&D game (meaning there's an ice level, a fire level, a bunch of dungeon-esque caves, and so forth), but the enemy models are fairly repetitive. One can only slaughter so many trolls and giant flying things in a day, and Heroes often comes dangerously close to exceeding that quota.
The rest of the graphics can essentially be summed up as "poor man's Dark Alliance." While the water effects are generally as good as they are in that earlier game, the rest of the graphics seem to have been toned down a notch or two. Heroes isn't an ugly game, it's just not as striking as Dark Alliance, which is a bit of a downer since that game is both older and was originally designed for the less powerful PlayStation 2.
However, before everyone out there writes off Heroes as a simple retread of Dark Alliance, allow me to regale you with the one feature wherein this game is actually better than its inspiration: multiplayer mode.
Dark Alliance had an entertaining multiplayer mode that allowed for two players to tackle the main plot's story together. Heroes ups the ante by featuring a four player mode—easily the best way to experience the game. Getting three friends together to help in the quest to crush the evil wizard adds an extra dimension to the experience, one missing from the single player campaign. The four player mode works well, evoking memories of games like Gauntlet as everyone makes a mad dash for all of the money, healing items, and equipment that drops. It's in this mode that the game seems most like the table-top D&Dwhen several people are sitting around partaking in the adventure as a unit.
Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes may get flack from the hardcore D&D crowd for simply being a Diablo clone set in the D&D universe, but it's still hard to deny the simple joy in teaming up with three friends to kick the crap out a Beholder. Ultimately, the pen-and-paper game was designed to bring people together—and in this regard, Heroes is as true to the D&D experience as just about anything else out there.