When EA revealed BioWare Austin’s new RPG Shadow Realms at Gamescom this week, Vin Diesel was not there. He may have been shooting a movie; he may have been petitioning Marvel about a different movie; he may have been posting pictures of himself on Facebook. Those are, after all, three of the four things he is known for. But his ears must have pricked up at the announcement due to the fourth thing, his love for Dungeons and Dragons, because Shadow Realms is designed as a tabletop RPG come to life.
BioWare has always borrowed from old-school role-playing systems to one degree or another, but Shadow Realms aims to be a game truly for Vin Diesel - just over the internet as opposed to over the table. They’re certainly talking the talk. All signs point to an episodic take on the decision-driven storytelling BioWare is known for; the four-on-one asymmetry of a tabletop game or the upcoming Evolve; and lore and art that blend mythic fantasy with modern technology. But it’s the multi-pronged tactics introduced by the dungeon-master “Shadowlord,” that excite me the most. I haven't played it, but unlike me, the lucky bastards at PC Gamer were able to get to Cologne to play a pre-alpha combat stage at Gamescom.
The Shadowlord graduated from an irritation to a real menace as we progressed through the three-stage dungeon. Like the heroes he's controlled from a close third-person perspective, and his abilities are restricted by cooldowns. He summons bombs and spike traps to scatter the party—dodge if you hear the metallic clink cue. If you see a monster surrounded by a dark aura then it's under the Shadowlord's direct control, which means it's stronger, tougher and (hopefully) smarter than its kin. The Shadowlord can pop out of a possessed form at will to cause mischief elsewhere.
There's plenty of room to use these abilities creatively. Drop a trap on a wizard after a few consecutive dodges, and he's unlikely to have the mana to escape. Our team rushed to rescue a downed enemy at the end of a fight, only to flee in the face of a sudden firebomb. In the disarray the Shadow Lord used its scariest ability, and inhabited a summoned doppelgänger of Ms. Sickles to try and slash us up. We quickly took the clone down, but it provided a surprising impromptu mini-boss fight at the end of an encounter we thought we'd ended.
A closed alpha will be commencing soon (sign up here), which should afford a better glimpse at the gameplay to you, me, and Vin. Coverage from jet-setting games journalists who I assume spent the whole of last week chugging champagne and playing games on the Rhine suggests it has the approximate look and feel of a Dragon Age, but with an online-mandated emphasis on real-time combat. The lack of turn-based combat is mildly disappointing, but understandable. This is 2014, after all. Nobody has time to take turns. But Shadow Realms could still represent a positive, new-ish direction for BioWare, and another chip off the wall between my stubbornness and actually liking online games.
Coincidentally, the reveal happened to take place while I was wrapping up a campaign of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, a game I will now tell you about. Descent is one of many board games that streamline D&D into something simpler and more approachable - much like Shadow Realms is shooting for online. It’s not quite as blunt an instrument as, say, HeroQuest, but it’s clean, tactical fun, with hero players competing against an overlord player through story-driven maps and combat scenarios. Also like Shadow Realms (I assume - I'm not made of plane tickets), Descent is a pain in the ass when you have an dickhead Overlord. Indeed, ours dealt my character a horrible fiery death even after I rolled the literal highest possible attack in the game. Poor Avric's humiliation will not be soon forgotten. But neither will his sacrifice, for it enabled his buddies to win the campaign against odds so steep that the subsequent celebration saw grown men literally jumping out of their seats with joy.
I hope Shadow Realms can make me jump out of my seat with joy. I hope it can make Vin Diesel jump out of his. He certainly makes me jump out of mine. Will you play Shadow Realms with me, Vin?