Dark Sun: Shattered Lands
You can't help but feel sorry for ssi. They try hard, really they do. but no matter how advanced they seem to think they're getting with their graphics, sound or game engines, they just can't quite keep up with the improvements made to each of the Ultima range of rpgs. They seem to be forever cursed with the lore of the anoraks, the mark of the dice-rollers, the stigma of as Macca puts it. the yellow fingernailed brigade.
Dark Sun is supposed to represent a shift in style away from the old style Gold Box Dungeons 6 Dragons titles and into the new age of the role-playing game, with graphics worthy of the Tate, sound that would make Vangelis weep into his beer and gameplay that could rival anything Mr British and his cohorts could throw at you. It's a worthy aim and all power to ssi's collective elbow for trying, but how does it measure up to against the ever-improving competition?
First the obligatory plot explanation; justified in this case as the Dark Sun game is based on a brand new world for AD&D and has some new aspects to it. (If you're a player of the tabletop version - or you just want to know what the game is like and can't be bothered with all this scenario stuff -you'll most probably want to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.)
Dark Sun is set on the desert world of Athas and leans heavily on ancient gladiatorial themes. Eons before, mighty wizards played heavily on the world's inherent elemental forces and ultimately caused the planet's sun to heat up immensely. Athas' great seas were evaporated and all that was left was silt. The wizards now act as gods, ruling over enslaved cities, controlling the meagre water supplies and generally making life unpleasant for the populace. The only people who feel free of this rule are the scattered villages that lie across the dry land. Wherever there is a source of water, you're likely to find a small community.
Of course, the wizard-kings aren't happy to just let these villages be, they wouldn't be bad guys if they were. Fearing a united uprising of these outcasts (a force that could potentially destroy them) one wizard in particular, a certain Tectuktitlay (stop laughing at the back), has started to amass an army to wipe them off the face of the planet, one village at a time.
This is where your have-a-go heroes come in. Starting out as gladiators in Teccytuks... uh, Ticcy-tagliatelle's arena, you eventually escape confinement and set out to unite the tribes, finally taking them into battle with Taciatutti-frutti's forces. Along the way you'll run into a host of miniplots to guide you on your way and boost your experience levels.
The Ultima-te RPG?
Let's not beat around the bush here. There are just two questions that you want to ask and it's my job to answer them. First, is it as good as an Ultima? And second, is it better than the previous AD&D games? The answers are (in order): why are you even asking the first question and let's face it, it would be hard to be worse.
Dark Sun shares a big similarity with the Ultimas in that its ability to tell a story is its strongest aspect. The use of Dark Sun's sub-plots is much better than anything I have ever seen in ssi's previous works, and in most cases there is always plenty of story to keep the player moving from one part of the game to the next. Even the obligatory wandering monsters - a feature of rpgs that has always, without fail, managed to get so firmly up my nose that it takes a good dollop of Vicks Vaporub to get rid of it - are for the most part unobtrusive and manageable.
Have at ye!
Fantasy role playing games are a bit of a con when you think about it. The main selling point of an rpg is that it allows you freedom to deal with a situation however you see fit, not like an adventure game where you only get one solution to every puzzle. Of course you and I both know that 99 times out of 100. the only real way to deal with a problem in a fantasy rpg is to beat nine types of living crap out of it (a wonderful phrase I'm sure you'll agree). Thus, somewhat inevitably, the majority of rpgs live or die by their combat system.
Dark Sun is limited in this respect by its ties to the ADUD tabletop system. Not having any real scope for creativity, it can best hope to just hide as much of the number crunching as it can and rely on making the whole thing look as attractive as possible (or as attractive as severing someone's vital organs with a double-bladed axe can be). To be fair, they've done a pretty good job of it. It's resolved on a turns basis so you don't have to worry about controlling four different characters in realtime. you have full use of magic and ranged weapons and can even perform non-combative manoeuvres mid-fight (such as talking to your opponent or examining objects or searching corpses). The only minor niggle is the display of hit points when you hit something. When I smack something with a sword, I don't really want to see a flash of numbers. If anything I want to see the sword's razor-like edge biting deep into the soft flesh of the unfortunate target. The gush of blood as my bringer of death inflicts a multitude of damage to my opponent's internal workings. The squeal of agony as I release the full fury of my intentions upon my foe... ahem, sorry. I don't like hit points, they're unrealistic. Let's leave it at that.
Magic also works well. Certainly better than most fantasy games to date (with the exception of you know who). All the spells familiar to AD&D fans are here, along with some brand new ones, and almost all of them produce some pretty fancy graphical effects when cast. The system also shows you how 'area effect' spells will take shape before you cast them, a boon to anyone that's ever cast a Web-like spell in a game and inadvertently had their own party get stuck like the proverbial flies. It could have benefited from a more direct access feature (to get to the spells you normally have to go through at least two sub-menus - thank heaven for turn-based combat) but otherwise there's no faulting it. You even get an on-screen description for each spell before you cast it. Pretty soon the manual will be redundant.
All in the mind
There is also another side to Dark Sun's magic that, unless I'm vastly mistaken, hasn't been dealt with in a role-playing game before. Psionics: the power of the mind (cue Twilight Zone music and creepy voice-over). It seems that every intelligent creature on Athas has Psionic talent, therefore everyone is. to a certain extent, a spell-caster (of course only those characters that become magicians or clerics or devote their time to studying psychic matters can really get proficient with them). These aren't the most visible of spells, instead taking the form of attacking the psychic forces of others rendering them more vulnerable to physical attacks.
There is the odd exception though. Psychic spells such as Disintegrate, if successful, will basically disintegrate an enemy on the spot. Unfortunately, in my mind, the fact that everyone can cast spells tends to reduce the whole magic ethos to little more than just another sword hanging from the adventurer's belt. I've always felt that magic in rpgs should be a wondrous thing, a true power of great mystery and force and not just a list of weapon substitutes. There isn't much Dark Sun can do about this, tied as it is to the AD&D rules but still, a thought for the future perhaps. Hmm. went a bit anoraky for a moment there. I do apologise.
You did say It wasn't very good?
Actually I may have been misleading you earlier. It's not that Dark Sun is a bad game; far from it. It just isn't as good as Ultima. Take Origin's child protege out of the picture and you'd be lucky to find a top-down rpg that was better than Dark Sun (not that there's a great deal of competition around at the moment). There is an overall problem with it though - technology.
To be more precise it's ssi's programming. Dark Sun accesses the disk a lot. Far more than is necessary. The technical supplement recommends using disk caching software and increasing the files and buffers commands in your startup files to amounts that I've never actually witnessed before. Even doing this with a ninja pc. the game was still pretty slow at accessing. This plus a fair amount of technical glitches on screen at times made me wonder whether I'd been sent a beta-test version of the game by mistake (one where minor glitches like this are found and corrected before release). But no. I had a shrink-wrapped copy with proper commercial disks. It seems that Dark Sun just isn't the most polished of games.
I see a tall dark stranger
1 hate to sound like an Ultima groupie but it is the best rpc series around so the comparisons have to be made. No. Dark Sun isn't as good as Ultima Underworld 7, Serpent Isle etc. and I have to say, between you and me. (quick glance from side to side) I've seen what's waiting in Ultima VIII and unless ssi radically change everything for the second Dark Sun release then it's not even going to warrant a first look, let alone a second.
Still, that's yet to come. Dark Sun I is a good solid role-playing game that could have benefited from better technology (that's odd, the entire game explained in one sentence yet it's taken me four pages to get to it). The message is simple: polish the programming and you've got yourself one hell of a game. At the moment you've just got a nice game -and we all know how much people hate to be called nice, don't we?
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands Screenshots
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