Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Dominions 3: The Awakening Review

Dominions 3: The Awakening, developed by Illwinter Game Design and published by Shrapnel Games.
The Good: Insane amount of depth that allows for a cornucopia of different strategies, random maps, multiplayer for 21 nations, hefty reference manual, playable on multiple operating systems, easily modified, there's always something to do, tons of nations, spells, units, and magic items
The Not So Good: Daunting to new players, unit icons are too small, large empires require lots of micromanagement
What say you? If you can tolerate the micromanagement, extremely high replay value makes this a must-have strategy title: 8/8

MY POORLY WRITTEN INTRODUCTION
There have been a fair number of quality fantasy strategy games published throughout the history of computer gaming, including my favorite game ever Kohan II: Kings of War. It’s nice to take a break from the hundreds of World War II strategy games and delve into a world of wizards and archers; most role playing games have fully embraced fantasy elements. This setting allows for more freedom of expression and more interesting game components that aren’t tied to realistic limitations. Dominions 3: The Awakening is the third (surprise!) installment in Illwinter’s take on turn-based strategy in a fantasy setting. The game brings a whole lot of content to the table (support for 21 players, 50 nations, 600 spells, 1500 units), but will all of these options prove to be overkill, or will Dominions 3 grant the amount of variety that strategy gamers crave?

GRAPHICS AND SOUND
For a game that was essentially developed by a two-man crew, Dominions 3 looks decent, but it obviously cannot compete with heavily-funded cutting-edge strategy or role-playing games. The main game takes place on a 2-D map that has a hand-drawn feel to it; while it looks outdated, it works just as well as a full 3-D map. The user interface is pretty well done, making most of the important game elements available at the press of a button. My only real complaint is that recruiting units is way too time consuming: you must click on each of your provinces and queue up units, instead of allowing for recruit orders from the empire information screen or some other centralized location. The unit icons are also too small, making it difficult to see whether a particular unit is wielding a bow or a sword in some cases. The battles in the game take place on a 3-D battlefield (which looks good enough), although all of the units are still 2-D sprites. It looks a lot like Shogun: Total War, which of course was published six years ago. The spell effects are generally well done during the battles, and some of them look quite impressive. While the graphics might be behind the times, the fact that the game supports such a large diversity of units and spells makes the limitations in the graphics more palatable. The sound effects are pretty limited (and mostly take place during battles only), but I do enjoy the medieval and Scandinavian folk background music; it fits the mood of the game well, and it doesn’t become too repetitive or annoying. Both the sound and the graphics of Dominions 3 is good enough for the style of the game, and anyone who is too concerned about graphics probably won’t enjoy this game anyway: go play some childish console shoot-em-up instead.

ET AL.
Nietzsche was right: God is dead! And as one of many competing pretender gods, you must influence the world into believing that you are his/her/its proper successor. Upon entering the game, you’ll be confronted by the first part of Dominions 3’s extensive library of stuff. Creating a new game involves choosing an age (early age has more magic, while late age is more conventional), number of participants (up to 21!), map (which can be randomized, resulting in a lot of replay value), and general settings (like resources levels and victory conditions). You can play a game against the AI, by e-mail, or over the Internet, although games take such a long time that play by e-mail is the suggested multiplayer format. Dominions 3 has a good tutorial that teaches most (but not all) of the game’s concepts, although you must read what to do in the manual. Dominions 3 is slightly more expensive than most current PC games because it includes a well-written and almost required 300 page spiral-bound manual; the manual is well worth the added price, as it contains essential information on all of the game’s 600 spells, in addition to addressing all of the game concepts. You should at the very least skim over the manual before attempting to play your first game; Dominions 3 does not have a pick-up-and-play mentality. The game includes a good number of nations to control (around 20 per era), each with their own strategies, units, strengths, and weaknesses; the game can play very differently when controlling the various nations. The game is also very easy to modify; simply by changing or adding some straightforward text files, you can create new (or alter existing) nations, spells, weapons, and more. Since the game's graphics in Dominions 3 are relatively basic, you can import simple .tga files to serve as in-game representations of your new units. Add in map and 3-D battleground editors, and you can tweak the game to your liking. A little bit of effort goes a long way, and you can imagine how mods will extend the life of this wide-ranging game even further.

After you choose a nation to lead (real men choose “random”), you’ll need to design your pretender. You are allotted a certain number of points, which are applied to your pretender’s physical form (which controls their starting stats), magic knowledge, dominion strength, scales, and when they enter the game. The scales are a series of opposing effects (such as growth versus death) than can grant bonuses or penalties for areas under your influence. There is a lot of freedom in designing your pretender, which supports a number of different strategies you can implement during the game. New players might be overwhelmed by all of the options available to them even before a game starts, but the more you play the game, the more adept you become at figuring out good combinations.

The world of Dominions 3 is divided into a number of provinces, each of which provides the primary resources of the game: gold and resources. Gold is collected from your populous as taxes, and it’s used to construct buildings and recruit troops. Gold can carry over from turn to turn, while the resources do not. Resources are collected only from a single province and can only be used in that province; constructing a fortress can collect resources from surrounding provinces. Resources are also used to recruit troops, so use them or lose them! As I mentioned two sentences ago (remember?), fortresses are used to collect resources from surrounding provinces and also allow for recruiting the national troops of your empire; normally you can only recruit the “native” independent troops of a province. You can also construct temples that aid in the spread of dominion (influence) and laboratories to assist in the research of spells. You can also invest in province defense, which requires a one-time investment in gold to automatically attempt to repel invading forces. Province defense is not really intended to fend off an organized attack, but it prevents a small enemy army from coming in and taking over a province, something that’s a problem in most other strategy games. Dominions 3 really streamlines the number of buildings available to the player; this takes the focus away from boring base construction and lets the player concentrate more on overall strategy.

Dominions 3 allows for the recruitment of some really huge forces, and each of the units in the game are rated in several different areas. It seems that no two units are exactly alike, although the general class (say, infantry) behave similarly. However, most national troops have a special ability or two tied to them which makes the unit variety more than just a name and an icon. In general, units are either melee infantry, ranged archers, fast cavalry, or ranged magic users, although some variations exist (using elephants to trample enemy troops is extremely fun). Every unit must be commanded by a commander, which can be a military leader or a magic user. In fact, you can’t even more troops around unless they are directly tied to a leader. This actually works to the benefit of the game, and it allows for some huge battles. Each of your units can be issued a number of different orders: pillaging, storming a castle, patrolling for unrest, or searching for magic sites are some examples. Once two enemy troops enter the same province, combat occurs. You do not have direct control over your troops in the game, and I actually like it this way: it eliminates the use of exploits, rewards overall strategic planning over reflexes, and allows for play-by-e-mail games. Although you don’t have direct control over your troops in the game, Dominions 3 gives you lots of options for overall tactical strategies. You can issue the initial positions of each of your troops on the battlefield and give them orders (such as firing on specific troops or delaying an attack). You can also instruct your magical units to use certain spells for the first three turns of the match; the rest of the battle is up to the AI. I would like to have more freedom in telling my units which spells to use, as the AI tends to use the same spells over and over once they gain control. But overall, the number of options available to the player before battle more than makes up for the lack of direct control during a conflict.

Speaking of spells, Dominions 3 features 600 spells scattered over eight paths in seven schools. Each of your units is skilled in certain spell paths, and once you research the school requirements in your laboratories, your units are free to use the spell. As an example, Wind of Death requires a caster to have level 4 Death and level 1 Astral powers; once you research Evocation level 7, the spell is unlocked and ready to go. I’m glad that the spells are ordered somewhat, as having access to 600 spells from the beginning can be a little intimidating. As it stands, you can be pretty lost at which spells to use and which schools to research since there is so much variety. I guess part of the fun of the game is discovering new and cool spells, and after a while you’ll figure out which spells are useful and which are less so. There are some pretty cool spells in the game, and although most of them involve some sort of enemy unit damage or friendly unit protection, the specific counters to each spell makes them unique. There are some powerful spells that can affect the entire game world as well, so spells are not just limited to battlefield usage. The summoning spells (because everyone needs to summon a Jaguar Toad) require the use of magic gems, which are collected in provinces that contain magic sites. Magic gems can be transferred to commanders through your laboratories, and magic gems can also be used to unlock better path ratings, although this is extremely expensive. Much like a role-playing game, you can construct magical items that impose a bonus on the wearer; pretenders decked out with a lot of magical bling can be an imposing force on the battlefield. There are some physical limitations to forged magical items: since they must be worn, your beneficiary must have the correct appendage in order to use a forged item (a pretender with no head can't wear a helmet).

It seems as though I have gotten this far through the review without really saying how you win the game. Using the standard rules, you win by influencing all of the provinces on the map (the entire world believes that you are the real God); this is represented through your dominion (it’s in the title, people!). Contrary to most strategy games, you don’t win by conquering the most territory, but by having the most believers. This means you don’t have to take down the huge opposing army, just make their citizens believe in your pretender more. Dominion is spread by your pretender, your capital, temples, and a prophet (designed by you). Priests can also slowly raise dominion. Victory in Dominions 3 is more akin to an influence victory in Galactic Civlizations II, although controlling more territory gives you more money for a bigger army so you can take over more provinces and spread your influence, so military conquest and dominion are closely but not direcly related. Games are very long (typically for turn-based strategy games), and the game can suffer from back-and-forth switching of border provinces, although province defense eliminates this somewhat. There are other victory conditions available in the game other than wiping all of the other pretenders off the map: holding victory locations, reaching a set amount of dominion, gaining a number of provinces, or accumulating research. These can be used to greatly reduce the amount of time required to complete the game. The AI in the game is a good competitor, even at easy difficulty, and should prove to be a worthy adversary if you don’t have the time for an involved multiplayer match. Of course, human competition is the best competition, and with the amount of freedom Dominions 3 grants you, a multiplayer game will see the greatest variety of different strategies.

IN CLOSING
For gamers who enjoy deep, strategic gameplay, Dominions 3 is really sweet. Sheer complexity does not always translate into a good game, but all of the spells, units, and other options definitely works towards Dominions 3’s benefit. And if all the default content isn't enough, the game includes extensive support for mods as well. This game is great because, unlike most strategy games, it supports alsmot an infinite number of viable strategies for victory. The inclusion of 20 distinct nations in each of the game's three eras exemplifies this, and you can play the same nation more than once and use a completely different approach each time. There are no “build orders” in this game, no set strategy for success. This means that you won’t grow tired of the game for quite a while, as you’re likely to discover new spells and new strategies each time you play. Almost everything has an appropriate counter as well, so there are few (if any) exploits in the game. Despite the number of options, the game is actually quite easy to play; complexity really just results from all of the different spells and units available. There's always something to do each turn as well: between casting global spells, crafting magical items, patrolling for rebels, preaching, conducting research, pillaging provinces, performing sacrifices, and capturing slaves, you're never just sitting around in Dominions 3. Plus, Dominions 3 rewards overall strategy instead of being able to issue specific commands during battles and quickly activate special skills; we’ll leave that juvenile reflex stuff for the mindless console games. Complaints about the game are very minor: recruiting units could be easier, as having to click on each individual province to issue build orders gets tiresome near the end of the game. Nevertheless, there are so many things great about this game that any self-respecting strategy gamer should not hesitate in picking this title up, especially since it’s available on Linux and Mac in addition to Windows. There might be some side effects due to extended play sessions, but Dominions 3 is well worth the increased alienation from society. Who needs friends when you have a pretender god at your disposal?