Descent to the Undermountain review by Al Giovetti
By Al Giovetti
Descent to the Undermountain
Title: Interplay's Colossal Mistake by Dave Wilson firstname.lastname@example.org
Let me start right off by saying how much I was looking forward to this game. All throughout the year (the past TWO years, as a matter of fact), I consoled myself about the lack of good Computer Role-Playing Games with the knowledge that Descent to Undermountain (DTUM) was just around the corner. After all, they already had the engine built, right? All they had to do was add Gravity and apply a pre-existing game system (AD&D) to it. How long could that possibly take? How could anybody foul that up?
Apparently, Interplay found a way. This game is SO bad on so many levels. I mention them here in the hopes that enough people will read this review and either return the game or stay away in droves that Interplay will have to issue a Megapatch that addresses the majority of these issues. I number them here for ease of reference:
AD&D offers the option of multi-classed characters with up to THREE classes, not just two. A Half-elf should be able to be a Fighter/Magic-User/Cleric. An Elf should be able to be a Fighter/Magic-User/Thief. Without Multiplayer, your one character simply is not up to every task as they should be. If you want to be able to cast all the spells in the game, you can only play a Magic-User/Cleric, and then you miss out on all of the unique fighting and weapon/armor opportunities that playing a fighter has to offer. Regardless of this, you would still not be able to have any thieving abilities, to open locks, find and remove traps, or climb walls. Multiplayer would have allowed you to have a friend come along and play a cleric or thief to round out your party.
In addition to the anemic Multi-class support, there is no visible support for Humans to be dual-class characters. One of the only benefits of playing a Human character in AD&D is their unique ability to stop being one class (Fighter, Cleric, etc.) and start over as another class, while eventually retaining the abilities they had earned in the first class. This is supposed to level out the fact that only non-humans are allowed to be Multi-classed, which is when you practice two professions at one time. Without this, Humans are useless in this game.
WANDERING MONSTERS! This one is a game killer all by itself. If there is one thing I HATE about some RPGs, it is that once you kill all the monsters in an area, they stay dead, and you HAVE to move on to the next area if you want to get any more experience points or treasure. AD&D allows for this with Wandering Monster tables. You should every now and then run into random encounters, depending on the area you are in. Much of the fun of RPGs is the character improvement, and if our character is not ready to move on to a more difficult area, we should be able to hang back and work on building them up if we so desire.
Editor: This points out the problem with picking one design over another. As a game player, I prefer to have monsters that you can clear from an area and move onto the next. Many of the better computer role playing games (CRPGs) have optional random monsters that allows you to clear monsters from a level or have infinite monsers if you desire it. In Westwood's Lands of Lore, you can close gratings, tombs, and other items in the world to stem the tide of random monsters. This makes random monsters optional, which in my opinion satisfies the most game players, by letting game players play the game the way they want to.
This one takes a bit of math. AD&D pre-calculates your chance of hitting an opponent and calls that number your THAC0: To Hit Armor Class 0. Armor class starts out at 10 if you are clumsy and unarmored, and goes all the way to -10 with the help of magical protection. A character with a THAC0 of 15 needs to roll a 15 or better out of 20 to hit an armor class of 0, which might be a fighter wearing magical plate armor. That same character would need to roll a 17 to hit an AC of -2, etc. A natural 20 out of 20 always hits, and a natural 1 always misses.
Back to Descent to Undermountain. My character had an AC of -2. I was fighting a Kobold (a small dog-faced goblin creature), who was standing square in front of me (so he didn't get any bonuses for attacking me from behind). Kobolds are very weak creatures, so they have (according to AD&D's Monstrous Compendium) a 20 THAC0. This means that in order to hit me AT ALL, the Kobold must roll a natural 20 out of 20 each time.
Now for the problem. This Kobold hit me four times in the span of about 2 seconds. According to statistics, that equates to only a 1 in 160,000 chance of his being able to hit me four times in a row. I am not impressed. AS I progressed into the game I was still being hit far too often. Even with a -7 AC, two +2 rings of protection Bracers of AC 4, +1 shield, Gauntlets, and 18 Dex, I should not be hit this often. An average creature must be of at least 8 hit dice or fighter levels in order to have a more than 1 in 20 chance of hitting me. During the course of a fight, I get hit 5, 6 times in a row by every type of creature, even giant bats and rats. How realistic is this? The game certainly does not adhere to the AD&D rules, which for a true fan is very frustrating.
If you DO decide to play a character that is at least part Magic User, you do not start with any Magic-User spells that I saw. First the guy is too weak to fight, then you don't start him off with any spells? What kind of thinking is this?
In AD&D, Magic-Users have a spell called Identify that they can use to tell the properties of a magical item. Not in this game. Here you have to trek back up to town if you want to find something out about the mysterious magical treasure you found in the dungeon. The Magic-User/Cleric character did not start with any Magic-User spells. AD&D rules specify that a Magic-User/Cleric character should start with 1d4 1st level spells, and have to find or earn the rest from there. The game should have started the character with at least one spell.
The experience point tables in the included manual list experience progression through like 12th level, but then only lists spells for character levels through 8th. Game players should not have to buy the Player's handbook to look them up in, they should be listed in the Interplay manual.
Hold Person, the 2nd level Cleric spell, is useless. I cast it about 8 times on Human shadow thieves, and it never once worked, which is very odd because according to the PHB (Player's Handbook), even if they were 8th level (about twice my level at the time), their Saving Throw against spell would be a 13, which means that they would have to roll a 13 or higher on a 20-sided die EVERY time I cast it in order to avoid the effects of the spell. Add to this the fact that the game fails to take into account that the cleric can choose to cast the spell at up to 4 people at one time; if only two are held, their saving throw is at -1, and if only one is cast at, its saving throw is at a -2, which means that they would have to roll a 15 out of 20 every time in order to avoid being affected by the spell.
The Clerics vs. Undead turning ability in the game is off. I am a 4th level cleric right now. According to the AD&D Player's Handbook, I AUTOMATICALLY turn skeletons when I make the attempt, and I have a 15 in 20 chance of turning Zombies when I so try. However, I have tried many times lately to turn regular old skeletons, to no avail. Useless.
Editor: The biggest disappointment here is that Interplay has replaced SSI in producing these AD&D games, but Interplay seems less equipped to deal with the issues of pure AD&D rules than SSI. In the Gold Box games, such as Pool of Radiance and in the later Eye of the Beholder series, which culminated with the Ravenloft and Menzoberranzin games, SSI displayed an intimate knowledge of AD&D rules and executed the mathematical damage and combat tables with complete faithfulness. Interplay does not seem willing or able to recreate the AD&D experience in a computer game, which adheres to the true AD&D mathematical calculations.
Mouse support is shoddy at best: not only is the mouse speed (even at its highest setting) HORRIBLY slow, sometimes pressing the buttons can create unwanted effects. For example, sometimes if I press my middle button, it thinks I have pressed my left button which causes me to waste one of the only three spells I can cast each day. I use the center mouse button to toggle between freelook and cursor mode. If I select a Spell, let's say Cure Light Wounds, cast it, then use the freelook button twice, it casts the spell again. When I press 'R' at a rest spot, no matter how fast I let go of it, it thinks I pressed it multiple times. This could be a problem at a rest spot that only allowed you to use it three times.
It is FAR too easy to get stuck behind something and not be able to move. This is most troubling with NPCs, as the only way to get past them when you are stuck is to kill them. I find this to be inexcusable. Did the programmers actually sit down and PLAY this game? It is so hard to move around all of the obstacles in an EMPTY HALL, it becomes even less fun then before.
The plot of DTUM seems to show some thought on the part of the designers, unlike other parts of the game. You are handed missions by Khelban "Blackstaff" Arunsun, who for those of you out there who are not familiar with the Forgotten Realms world is one of the lords of Waterdeep (the city above Undermountain) and a mighty Wizard. As you finish the missions, which for the most part are doled out to you in linear fashion, you report back to him in town and he gives you another task.
One thing I would personally have preferred would be if the later areas of the dungeon were accessible at any time, and that the only thing keeping you from adventuring there was the difficulty of the monsters guarding the areas. Instead, the game uses a series of locked doors which open to you from four hub rooms, with more opening after every mission you successfully complete.
There is also a marketplace in town, the contents of which change only when you either sell them something new or sometimes after completing a mission. Again, somewhat unrealistic. If the character is not going to have enough money to buy the nicer magical goodies, why not put them on sale anyway? At least it would give us something to dream about and save for.
There are four separate hubs, with doors. The plot is linear. As you complete one hub, Khelban opens the next one to you and so on. Access is given through the use of teleporters.
Some doors off the hub(s) represent missions along the main story line, like the Shadow Thieves and the Kobold Infestation. Others, like the Mulhorandi tomb, are kind of side quests that offer extra experience points and treasure. The story line is somewhat hard to follow, so sometimes the only way to know is when you have finished an area and report back to Khelban, only to find that he ignores the recent toil and suffering you thought you were undergoing on his behalf.
So far, dredging from my memory, Khelban has asked me to eliminate the kobold menace, stop the Shadow Thieves from infiltrating the town, and find out further information concerning Dark Elves. Since the game does not keep track of anything that is said in your presence, and I am notorious for not keeping copious notes, that is about all that I can remember.
When my character is now a 4th level Mage/5th level Cleric Half Elf, he would still fail most of the time at turning Skeletons and Zombies, although they should be an automatic turn for me. Perhaps the game engine does not realize that I am trying to turn them, because it does not give me any message at all when I try, unlike when I tried to turn the two Mummies I just ran into, where it told me I am unsuccessful at turning them.
At the end of level one there was one "level Boss", as it were: the leader of the shadow thieves. The king of the Goblin tribe shouldn't count, as a couple of swipes with my mace put him down for the count and I really don't think I was supposed to kill him, anyway. All he wanted me to do was rescue some captured goblins that the thieves were torturing, but when I entered the goblin caves they all attacked me anyway, so in defending myself the king got smushed like a bug. The Thief leader was just about as powerful as the rest of his gang, which is saying a lot, as they took an average of 70 hit points to kill, which would make them like 10th level in the real game. I smushed them too.
Khelban's purpose? Somewhat contrived, although I can't think of an easier way for the designers to keep you from turning it into a simple bug and treasure hunt. He simply keeps saying "I have a new mission for you", and you go do it. In between, he offers you homilies such as "look for secret doors and hidden passageways". Now, maybe if he would let me borrow his Staff of the Magi for a little while. I promise to give it back when the red menace is foiled...
The motivations of the forces of evil? Same as always: conquest, domination, and the worship of their dark gods. In each group, so far there have been a few who have seen the error of their ways, which is communicated by NPC conversation, usually leading into a sub-quest. Editor: You are saving the universe from the earthly incarnation of the ultimate evil... "Don't touch it, its evil"...Time Bandits.
Let's start with the most glaring problem: the graphics engine. Interplay/Parallax took the Descent engine which ran at > 30 fps on my Pentium 200 MMX and turned it into some pixellated monstrosity which looks like it is running at < 20 fps. On top of that, in Full Screen mode, I appear to be getting less than 10 fps. That is unforgivable. The game just plain looks BAD.
The majority of today's gamers have computers that support 3D acceleration of some kind or another. The Descent II engine (now about 1 1/2 years old) offered support for 3D acceleration, to improve visual quality and to increase frame rate. This game offers NO 3D support.
AnimationThe physics engine is painful to behold. I climbed down a ladder, and was perched on the last rung, about 6 inches from the ground. When I moved away from the ladder, not seemingly falling at all, I was told that I had fallen 13 feet and that I had sustained 7 points of damage! Not only that, but if I walk down an incline too fast, even one in a well-lit area which I have traversed many times, quite often it will tell me I have fallen when I reached the bottom, even though I have a 17 dexterity! In AD&D rules, a person who falls more than 10 feet sustains 1-6 points of damage for every 10 feet they fell. Not here.
One strength of most non-console RPGs lies in its Plot, which is communicated to the gamer through interaction with NPC's (Non-Player Characters controlled by the computer), ancient scrolls discovered in musty dungeons, cut scenes, etc. DTUM does have its share of NPC's, but what I do not understand is why they did not spend the extra time to record voice acting for the vast majority of them? In my experience with the game, only Khelban Arunsun, your "patron", as it were, has a voice. Everyone else, in town and in the dungeon, is communicated with by a series of text menus, similar to Fallout.
Different from Fallout, however, is the fact that you rarely get a chance to say more than one or two things to a NPC before they decide that they are finished talking with you, even if your charisma is above average. You can go back and initiate conversation with them once more, and they have more things to say, even if it is immediately after they broke off conversation with you.
Music ScoreThe music score actually seemed to be interesting enough that I left it playing, as opposed to turning it off right away as I do with many games. I thought it was is handled by Redbook Audio, which normally provides CD-Quality sound on even non-Soundblaster soundcards, and which many companies are moving to instead of MIDI. Upon further investigation, I found out that the music is apparently WAV files, not CD Redbook Audio, although it is high enough quality that it fooled me.
Sound EffectsAs for sound effects, though, I was sadly disappointed to find out that the game offered NO support for Soundblaster and Soundblaster Pro cards, and those clones which emulate them. The only option listed in the setup program regarding Soundblaster was for the SB 16 or AWE series. Interplay has since then offered a patch which fixes this problem, but it only leads me to ask once more "what were they thinking?"
If you do get the sound working on your computer, they seemed fine, albeit unremarkable. Thumps, clangs, sloshing, all there. I didn't really ever notice that I could hear monsters making sounds around the corner to warn me that they were there, but perhaps that was reserved for Thieves who can Detect Noise.
UtilitiesIf you are waiting for a Dungeon Editor, I would not hold my breath. Those of you who are looking forward to Interplay releasing their editor that they used to create the dungeon, they do not have a sterling track record when it comes to doing so. If the game were to catch on as popularly as Descent, you MIGHT be able to expect a third-party level editor, but I can't imagine anybody liking this game enough to PLAY it, let alone sit down and code a level editor for it.
Multi-player FeaturesOne of the great promises of this game was the inclusion of Multiplayer support. Interplay told us all along that we would have the ability to join with our friends and adventure in the dungeons together. It is BLATANTLY obvious that Interplay saw that they could reap the windfall of the Christmas 1997 buying season by rushing the game to store shelves with only those parts of it they had working at the time.
Unfortunately, the lack of multi-class characters for demi-humans almost makes multiplayer necessary.
As of a couple of days ago, Interplay released a patch which does not claim to address any of the above problems/concerns. Before the holidays, I wrote an open letter to Brian Fargo, the President of Interplay (who claims to be a gamer himself), listing all of these problems and imploring him for some reassurance that the matters will be resolved. As of today, New Year's Eve, I have not yet heard from Interplay on the matter.
What can WE do about this? Don't buy it. If you have already bought it, contact your retailer about the possibility of either returning it or exchanging it for something better. It is the only way we can send a message to Interplay, letting them know that we are not willing to support them in selling this sewage. It looks like we will have to wait for Baldur's Gate if we want a good RPG (which, coincidentally is being marketed by Interplay as well, although they had nothing to do with the programming of this fine-looking software).
If Interplay were to release a Direct 3D port, introduce Wandering Monsters, rework the character classes to allow for true AD&D three-class Multiclass and Humans' Dual-Class, speed up the mouse, and add the Multiplayer support that they PROMISED for two years, I would have no problems recommending this game. Until then, buying this game is sending a message to Interplay that we are too dumb to notice when someone hands us crap and calls it cashmere.
OK, I know I know that my review is more of a gripe session than a true review, but this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I would like to know if I was considering the purchase of a game. I don't just want to know general ideas of what the reviewer thought of the game: I want concrete details of what kind of CRAP I am going to have to put up with if I buy it. Plus, since Interplay apparently is not reading their customer service mail, this may be the only way that they will ever know that their game blows monkey nuts.
Editor: In all true fairness to Brian Fargo, who has produced some of the greatest computer role playing games of all time, including and starting with the Bard's Tale series of games, and culminating most recently with the excellent Fallout produtc, yes Brian is a gamer and Interplay has consistently shown their willingness and ability to produce games on the cutting edge of gaming. Brian and Interplay's aparent inability to produce a good AD&D game in their first foray is disappointing at best. Since we know that Interplay is capable of producing a good game and of fixing the problems with this one, we hope that their next effort is more typical of the quality we have come to expect from an Interplay product.
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