Its been one hell of a week. JFK, Jr.s life is doused like a candle in the rain. Barry Sanders announces his retirement from the Game, in London, no less. CBS announces that theyre going to air a Ricky Martin special this November. Yes, theres something on the wind, and its not just all the hubbub about "The Blair Witch Project." No, its something much more insidious, something downright ... evil. Yeah, baby, evil with a capital "E."
Seemingly in the spirit of this hellish summer, Britains Bullfrog Productions, Ltd. has embraced the misfortunes of the season and unleashed Dungeon Keeper 2, the highly anticipated sequel to their 1997 hit Dungeon Keeper. The motto of this game is "Evil is good," and the game fulfills the prescription in spades. For a game with such a sinister theme, it is one of the best titles weve reviewed so far this year, namely because it builds upon the success of the original and incorporates stunning new innovations in graphics, sound and gameplay.
First, the similarities between DK and DK2: in both, players assume the role of a nefarious dungeon keeper; in both, players have at their disposal scores of evil minions who carry out their every malicious whim; in both, players attract these beastly species to their dungeons by building a variety of rooms and chambers; in both, players organize their creatures into armies to defeat the many foes who possess the coveted portal gems that ensure keeper dominance. One of the most noteworthy changes between the games, however, is the beautiful new 3D engine powering DK2. The original Dungeon Keeper was released just months before 3D acceleration was introduced in gaming. So even though it was a superior game conceptually, it suffered visually compared to less compelling games that supported 3D acceleration.
Fleshing out the new, rounder, richer look to the game are the dynamic camera controls that made the original a standout title. Adding to this fuller look is the improved articulation of the first-person point of view. In DK, players could possess creatures in order to "inhabit" the game, but the results were disappointing at best. The netherworld of DK was flat, pixilated and obscure. In DK2, on the other (clawed) hand, when players possess their minions, they are immersed in a dynamically rendered phantasmagoria; the dungeon caverns teem with energy and detail. These astonishing visual pyrotechnics, achieved through awesome lighting effects, make the games first-person point of view equal to the isometric perspective.
In addition to these decadently gratifying graphics, the sound in DK2 is just as sinfully delightful. Every henchbeast possesses its own distinctive sonic signaturemistresses moan, bile demons belch, warlocks mumble arcana. A symphony of effects distinguishes each room: hatcheries chafe with clucking chickens, workshops clang with machinery and hammer blows, and the casino, the chamber new to DK2, throbs with the strains of "Disco Inferno" when something wins the jackpot. Casting a grim, yet often humorous tone over this legion of noise are the admonitions and suggestions of the games narrator, a sort of Vincent Price-like commentator with a more deadpan delivery than his predecessor in DK. As players become acclimated to the brilliant graphics in DK2, they will continue to respond to both ambient sounds and the narrators comments with surprise and more than a few chuckles.
As if the improved aesthetics of DK2 werent enough, the game offers players a mindboggling array of options. The first and easily the best of the gaming modes is the single-player campaign which really begins as a tutorial that eases players into the look and feel of the game. While the mission of collecting portal gems remains the same in every level, the path players travel from start to finish is fraught with various obstacles, including marauding do-gooders, rival dungeon keepers, and at times, both in the same level. Dont be deceived by this deceptively simple formula, though. Successfully beating DK2 depends more on masterminding the most advantageous sequence of chambers and rooms to attract the right combination of minions to fulfill the varying directives at hand. Players cant just blow through this game unless they are content to maneuver through the My Pet Dungeon and Skirmish gaming modes. These modes offer players opportunities to develop strategies and skills that they can apply in campaign play. With this end in mind, both offer players special options not included in Campaign mode. My Pet Dungeon, for example, emphasizes dungeon building over combat. There are defined goals that players must accomplish. To make things more interesting, each level has one or more secondary objectives that give players bonus points. In addition, a "hero toolbox" is available in all levels, allowing players to pull single or multiple heroes and drop them into battle with their own creatures, or imprison and torture them, as keepers desire. Players can also trigger single or continuous waves of hero invasions to test dungeon defenses and design. Since all the rooms and traps are available, the possibilities are virtually endless. In the end, My Pet Dungeon provides a good testing ground where aspiring keepers learn how to build, manage and defend their dungeons, which is essential for completing the campaign.
Alternately, players can skirmish in either single- or multiplayer modes in order to get stuck into combat right away. Skirmish mode, however, emphasizes combat over dungeon building. Players hammer out their combat skills by mowing down opponents without having to build basic chambers such as lairs and hatcheries. Skirmish mode has the look and feel of the familiar deathmatch. While both modes are pretty fun, they seem better suited to prepare players for the thrills of sustained and lengthy Campaign play. Indeed, it is crucial to emphasize that Campaign play requires both combat and dungeon building skills; players limited to only one or the other will have trouble. In a world where size is everything, it is gratifying to note that DK2 delivers the goods. It is a hell of a long game, and replaying levels never seems tiresome due to the infinite possibilities in each.
In keeping with the competing foes theme that runs throughout the game, Bullfrog allows DK2 players to take their dungeoning skills online in multiplayer mode. Unfortunately,multiplay was a bit problematic. The game tended to crash about 2/3 of the time, so it was difficult to complete a full game. But once up, network play is extremely smooth, with few if any slowdowns and no lag. The multiplayer game is brutal, though, because once one player gets an upper hand, it is virtually impossible for the other players to defeat him. While multiplay is a nice addition, DK2s strength lies within in the single player experience. Its worth noting, though, that Bullfrog has made available for download from their website a new multiplayer map curiously dubbed "Olympia." Word is that a multiplayer patch is forthcoming as well.
Besides the disappointing multiplayer feature, DK2 tends to lag when enemy armies engage in epic-scale conflict. Weve noticed that twenty or more combatants on the screen at one time really burden the gameplay and hinder the usually fluid movement. Also, DK2 lacks the elegant creatures in battle counter utilized in DK. It was frustrating having to keep mental count of how many evil minions of each species inhabiting a dungeon were engaged in hand-to-hand. Finally, the counters in the creature panels do not always accurately reflect the number of rank stooges available to keepers. This feature is particularly maddening when players need to send in reinforcements only to discover that, say, of the seven warlocks accounted for in the panel, only two can be grabbed and dropped into combat.
In the end, though, these complaints amount to no more than imp gibberish. DK2s excellences far outstrip its considerably minor defects. In addition to the improvements in graphics, sound and gameplay enumerated above, DK2 supplements these major innovations with considerable and subtle enhancements. In particular, the ability to form a groups in first person adds a new dimension to gameplay. Bonus games, such as Duckshoot and Golf offer more typical arcade-type diversions to the more serious task of dungeon conquest. A compelling variation from DK gameplay is that creatures are stunned upon being dropped, delaying immediate combat readiness. Another variant feature from the original is that only ten creatures emerge from each portal which makes careful dungeon planning a necessitywho needs five fireflies, for example, when as many trolls can be had for a workshop. Speaking of workshops, traps can play a more integral strategic role in DK2 than they did in DK. They take much longer to construct in the trolls workshops, but are worth the investment in time, gold and mana. Seeming to refuse to skimp on the smallest details, Bullfrog even provides unique perspectives for each dungeon denizen. Upon possessing a dark elf, for instance, players will view their dungeon realms through a magenta tinged view complete with sniper-scope. The possession spell also provides the only way to toggle between spells and attacks.
When all is said and done, DK2 is a game that exhibits an exquisite balance between a terrifying themedevilish monsters and hellfireand an ironic sense of humornarration and characterization. Even though DK2 shares the same ESRB rating as Kingpin, it seems a real shame that a game as witty, sophisticated and beautiful as this should be restricted from as wide an audience as possible. Instead, we will leave the masses with sensationalized summer headlines and content ourselves with one of the most aesthetically and strategically satisfying games of the year.