Impressions from EA's New 'Dungeon Keeper'

Posted Tue Jan 28, 2014 at 08:30 PM PST by
Dungeon Keeper

'Dungeon Keeper' is expected to release sometime before the summer.

Back in September, Electronics Arts announced that the long dormant 'Dungeon Keeper,' a 1990's PC RTS variant, would return, not to the PC but rebuilt from scratch as a mobile title. After a short delay that bumped the game from 2013 into 2014, the game is on track for release for phones and tablets that sport iOS and Android operating systems. Developed by Mythic, of 'Warhammer Online' fame, 'Dungeon Keeper' promises to let players build an underground dungeon full of minions (some even slapable) with both PVP and PVE options. The game has also been developed as a freemium title, though there is no premium content, as the game's currency is all about time.

After playing several hours of the game, it's hard not to be intrigued. I've played 'Mafia Wars,' 'Crime City,' 'CityVille,' 'Age of Wonder,' and even 'The Simpsons: Tapped Out.' Compared with those games, 'Dungeon Keeper' is much more palpable. Even when compared to something like 'Civilization Revolution,' 'Dungeon Keeper' appears to offer much more gameplay wise.

In the old 'Dungeon Keeper,' the player built their dungeon out from the crucial dungeon heart room, adding new rooms of specific kinds that granted new units similar to building buildings in most any RTS. The general goal was always either to defeat a rival Keeper (destroy their dungeon heart) or defeat the heroes. The game had some special constraints and options that bespoke its PC game heritage. For one, various minions all needed to be kept feed through the hatcheries' chickens and would tend to wander around. If left untended, various minions types would kill each other. It was up to the player to keep everything in check, which could be done in part by slapping minions, and by careful dungeon design. Another big feature involved possession. The player could possess and control any minion, which would change the view point from overhead to first person. A cool feature, but rarely useful.

So far, this new game does a couple things really well. For one, having Horny be voiced once again by Richard Riding immediately gives the game a dry edge. Nostalgia or no, Riding punctuates the tutorial, menus, and game events with something worth keeping the audio on for, which is more than many iOS games.

Though I've been playing the game on a iPhone 4s, the game navigates a lot like the original. Using the pinch zoom and grid-based map, I can direct my imps to dig out any square. Rooms have preset dimensions (which is a change), but the imps still need to dig out the right shape. I have accidentally sent them out to dig out a single square a dozen times, and in typically iOS fashion, I can have those squares refilled for free, and even move entire rooms instantaneously.

Unlike the RTS, "I'm sharing a map with my enemies" nature of the original games, this new game is more like tower defense. There is a resting build phase, and an active battle phase. The game's campaign alternates between attacking an AI dungeon or defending my own. This change suits the portable nature of the game, since I'm not worried that each time I get a phone call or text message, the computer will rush me.

I'm also much more encouraged to use traps as well as the new room-specific defenses, than in the vintage 'Dungeon Keeper.' Being able to rearrange my dungeon freely has meant being able to deploy traps like the four direction shooting cannon to their best effect. (Dig out a few more grid spots, shift the room over and deploy the trap for the perfect corner angle.)

To this point, the game's currency, gems, has not bothered me anywhere near as much as I would have thought. Anything production based is on a timer. New traps, rooms, and minions cost either gold or rock, but then take time to produce. This time can be bypassed using gems; likewise, more gold or rock can be had using gems. I'm up to a level 10 dungeon heart, and only once have I really felt the need to dip into the starting gems (I needed rocks), though a few other times I've bypassing the building time for a few gems.

I started with a lot gems, gems can be found occasionally with digging, and whenever I get an achievement, there is a small gem reward. So much so, players should be able to play for days without dolling out cash for gems. Long timers continue to run while away from the game, so if you're waiting for a 10 minute new room to finish, you can either leave and come back or pay the rush price with gems.

The frustrating part of timers though, is that they prevents me from queuing up several commands for my imps. I have two imps, so a 9x9 area must be dug two at a time. Worse, when my imps are idle, and I decide to assign them a long task like digging out a 24 hr long piece of rock, they are fully occupied. If they dig for an hour and I reassign them for 5 seconds, that 24 hr timer on hard rock will reset. Hopefully, this will change before the game is released.

By going into the Imp menu I can smack/slap the imps, which boosts their efficiency. Other than the imps, I have skeletons, trolls, warlocks, and bile demons at my disposal. Any time they are deployed in battle, units must be repurchased for the next round, even if you win and they survive. This is an odd mechanic, which certainly has prevented me from using hordes of bile demons, which cost 30 times as much gold as the cheap skeletons and take five time as much supply from my hatcheries.

It's during battle that the game feels the most like a game and not a collection of casual game timers. If defending, I can drop any of my units (aside from imps, they disappear during battle) anywhere within my dungeon to defend against the oncoming waves, and victory yields serious gold and rock rewards, which is one reason why I haven't felt the need for gems. When attacking, you must drop minions at entry points (portals) like the enemy's mines, which are far from their dungeon heart. If I destroy a room within the dungeon, I gain a closer portal to spawn my minions. The warlock library, with its Tesla coil-like defense, has been the roughest opposition hands down, but already I feel more comfortable defending than attacking.

In some ways, the combat reminds of the excellent PSP 'Why Did I Do to Deserve This My Lord?' games, though the lack of heroes (like in classic 'Dungeon Keeper') is odd. There is something called 'The Immortals,' but I haven't encountered it/them yet.

There's also a social component from a building called the Guild Lair, which I've unlocked, but haven't yet built. Unlike 'The Simpsons: Tapped Out,' the game has not yet asked for my Origin ID. My guess and hope is that the social component will be non-essential.

The game works on the iPhone 4s, but a tablet-size screen and not having to be interrupted by texts and phone calls could be a big plus. The campaign mode and the timed challenge mode are plenty fun, though a flat fee to kill the timers outright would be an attractive option. For now, just playing against AI and not real people has been enough to keep me from trying to find a human opponent. I'm impressed so far- hopefully I won't walk straight into some freemium wall before reaching a verdict on the new 'Dungeon Keeper.'

Author: Brian Hoss

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Tags: Mythic, Electronic Arts (17 posts), Dungeon Keeper (all tags)