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September 2003



- Offers fans of the action RPG the ability to play cooperatively with up to four characters
- Well designed mechanics -- including the ability to zoom the camera in and out, and a trigger that slows down the game's action while you select spells or special attacks



- The game is almost overly generous with improved weapons and armor scattered around the levels, and has such a smooth ramp of progress and leveling up that it generally requires less planning and strategy than other action RPGs
- Character classes have very similar powers at higher levels, sacrificing a little of the potential RPG feel of the game



Review: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox)

Review: Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Xbox)

Review: Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (Xbox)



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Dungeons & Dragons Heroes

Score: 7.2 / 10


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In Dungeons & Dragons Heroes, you play a fighter, wizard, rogue or cleric resurrected to do battle with an evil mage threatening to take over your peaceful kingdom and its surrounding planes of existence.

If you're a fan of action-based RPGs such as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Diablo, you'll probably enjoy D&D Heroes -- Atari's new title for the Xbox. It's got a solid plot with well designed levels, a good score and beautifully rendered cut-scenes, and it brings enough new features and tweaks to the table to avoid being labeled a copycat of those earlier games. Most notably, it allows up to four characters to play cooperatively, giving it an almost Gauntlet type feel with the




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bells, whistles and Bastard Swords +2 of an RPG.

The game also allows you to zoom the camera in and out of the action -- a cool feature, particularly since the weapons, armor and enemies are all well detailed. Unfortunately, the feature isn't very compatible with co-op mode, as players tend to spread out quickly, but with RPGs being one of the most girlfriend-unfriendly of the gaming


genres, I was only able to play in co-op mode for a single level early in the game. Although I'm not yet a subscriber to XBOX Live, I was a bit surprised that D&D Heroes didn't support the service, which would allow players to hook up with more like-minded gamers.

The game begins with your chosen character's resurrection -- he or she was once part of an elite group of heroes who vanquished an evil mage named Kaedin, but were themselves unfortunately vanquished in the process. Kaedin has since been resurrected by a group of evil clerics, so you rise again to the challenge of defeating him. The key lies in five gems, which unlock portals to different planes of existence, consisting of several woodsy levels, fiery levels, icy levels, cemetery levels and finally, a really cool evil castle level at the end. As you can probably tell by my description, I was partial to Kaedin's evil castle -- it's beautifully detailed and the action is much more frenetic. I was especially impressed by the mind flayers, which, when out of reach, attack you by telekinetically hurling treasure filled boxes and barrels at you -- it both looks cool and saves you what, by this point in any action RPG, has become the chore of smashing them yourself.

All that said, for me, one of the greatest joys of RPGs is that they open up new worlds where I can become mindlessly neurotic. When I played Morrowind last summer, I laundered millions in gold through that talking mudcrab and couldn’t rest until I had trained every stat up to 100 and placed absurdly powerful enchantments on every item of clothing and weaponry on my character.

The designers of D&D Heroes were faced with a formidable challenge in making a multiplayer action RPG -- it's not all that fun to stop the action every few minutes so that you or your buddies can flip through menu screens swapping weapons, readying potions and the like. Of course, those menus are still there along with another cool feature -- spells and special attacks are assigned to buttons using the right trigger, which slows down, but doesn't stop the action on the screen. But, the net result of favoring action over character building is that the game is balanced almost to a fault. You'll rarely feel an immediate need to swap out weapons or armor after a good find, because the levels are so evenly paced that almost none of the challenges seem insurmountable. Leveling up happens at a pace almost ideally suited to the challenges that lie immediately ahead. And, with "raise dead hero" amulets for sale or available as treasure throughout most of the levels, there's rarely any need to panic and run for the potions if your character gets caught in an old-fashioned yuan-ti brawl.


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Similarly, I played the game with every available character class (wizard, cleric, rogue and fighter), and they don't feel all that different. Each is very handy with their melee weapon from the outset, and many of the special powers that you gain through leveling up are similar for each class. Of course, the cleric's turn undead power can make some levels particularly easy, and the rogue's lockpick ability eliminates the need to worry about the door and treasure chest keys that are abundantly scattered throughout each level. Still, when I think wizard, I think of a character that must be gingerly handled until, suddenly, around level 10, the gates of whoopass swing wide.

Diablo, already the grandfather of the top-down perspective action RPG, was cool because it was, in many ways, a graphical version of NetHack -- the venerable ASCII title that allowed you, an @ sign, to explore randomly generated dungeons of lines and dashes, fighting off both lower and upper case letters. It required a lot of imagination, and took full advantage of my neurotic character building tendencies. But, since Diablo, action RPGs seem to have become more about the action and less about the RPG -- that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a forced compromise between depth and intensity.

Still, it's a fun title that gives the genre some notable tweaks, and it's certainly recommendable to anyone with an itch for a fast and furious dungeon crawl.

- M. Enis
(November 13, 2003)


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