Dominions 3 - The TCancer Review
Review - posted by Jason on Mon 23 April 2007, 06:42:10
Dominions 3 Review
game version 3.06
After having heard so many times how good the Dominions series is, I finally decided to have a look at at the latest incarnation, Dominions 3, and was in for quite a surprise. A pleasant one, I should add.
Unfortunately, not knowing anything about the game, the first impression is of something really ugly and way too complicated. It literally takes hours of patience of playing the tutorial to understand the basic concepts if you've never played Dominions. The graphics and user interface are on par with the first Civilization when it was released way back when. And then it takes several more hours to become good enough to not make any glaring mistakes. Once that barrier is broken though, the game begins to really shine with its strategic depth and richness. In today's terms having such a steep learning curve explains why this game is only for the few who are willing to put more time into *learning* a game than others are willing into *playing* a game - what with those recent shooters which take only 10 hours to play through? It'll take you 10 hours to really get into this game and then at least 200 hours to have played enough of it!
The gameplay is based on a simple hand-drawn map, which is divided up into provinces (similar to Shogun: Total War). As a nice touch, you can easily draw your own map and import it into the game to have your very own role-playing experience (more on that later). Each player is represented by provinces that belong to him and his dominion (number of provinces where people believe in your god). If you either loose all provinces or all dominions, you loose. Having provinces correlates with having dominion as it's easier to spread dominion in your own provinces, and vice versa. Each player may have a physical representative and an unlimited amount of units.
Contrary to other similar games, the possibilities to influence the provinces are extremely limited: You can build only three buildings and certain actions may reduce the amount of population in that province. Unfortunately, the game represents only two out of the three buildings on the map visually, so you always have to remember where you've built your labs already. The effects of your dominion may have further long-term influence on your provinces, as your dominion has certain attributes which slowly apply to provinces with your dominion. Other than that, you may recruit normal troops in each province or order your mages to cast some spells (and thus raise magical troops, for example). There are two types of troops: commanders and other troops (normal, undead, or magical). Commanders have a name and usually come with special abilities, such as being mages, spies, or assassins.
Leaving out a few other less important concepts, this basically describes the core game-play of Dominions: You acquire troops, take over provinces, and spread your dominion. However, this can be done in very different ways, which additionally depend a lot on which god and which race you are playing.
And this is also the most interesting part about the game. There is an extremely large selection of various races and all of them play very differently. The death masters Ermor do not care for the well-being of their provinces, they only care to make as many as possible corpses in order to raise them as undead. Hence, eventually their provinces end up having no population at all, which doesn't matter, because they'll continue fighting with magically summoned units. Contrary, other races depend quite a lot on the well-being of their population, be it as sources for blood slaves, as sources of income or as sources for normal troops.
In addition to that, there is an extremely huge amount of various spells and it is only at the beginning that they all seem alike. Once a single mage attacked my well-defended province containing some 500 troops. Enough to say that ever since then I know that some spells matter quite a lot, because that one mage won the battle and I had no survivors.
Generally, this game is most about your own imagination and your strategic thinking. After a while you stop noticing the ugly graphical representation (just as you did when playing Civilization I) and it all plays in your head. After a while even when not playing you begin to think about whether your newly summoned fiends will hold back that Jotunheim invasion. And the strategic part in you will constantly plan new strategies, think about whether playing that race is better than playing this race or whether you should concentrate on summons or on mighty mages. All that sums up to a much more intense role-playing experience than what you get from recent so-called rpg games such as Oblivion. The skills of your pretender god really influence your way of winning (or losing) and vice versa during time you influence the skills of your god. Having stats for every single unit in the game and them having a significant influence on the outcomes of battles certainly helps.
By the way, there is also a nice touch of humour added into the game. For example, one of my provinces became independent with a text message saying that a group of local heroes took it up to free the province from my reign. And it's role-playing when I left that province independent and even took care that no AI bothered them.
In such a game, AI is very important and it does not fail to deliver. Actually, I have yet to win a game against 8 AIs set on 'impossible' difficulty, but that is most certainly due to my limited experience with this game (even though having played quite a lot recently) and I'm also not sure how much resource cheating is involved.
However, it will correctly defend core provinces, it will plan very effective invasions and it makes full use of all kinds of scary magical spells, if it has researched them and possesses the necessary magic gems. It will also craft tons of useful magic items which then results in those single mage superunits. Very much like what I as the player do as well.
How does combat work? What I never really understood from the descriptions of the game or from reviews is how combat actually works. Combat actually only plays by itself in a deterministic way such that you can watch the replay afterwards. You have a very limited influence on what happens by predetermining the positions of your squads (which you can define beforehand), but that's about all of it. The combat is also where all those funny 3D screenshots you'll see in re- and previews come from, but they really have only eyecandy function. At first this all disappointed me quite a lot, as I enjoy the explicit combat in the Total War series, for example.
By now, however, I see that the strength of this game lies in the grand strategy (something the Total War series unfortunately lacks in). I also think that the 3D presentation of the battles is quite redundant, as out of 20 battles I might only look at one (to find out why they've won when I thought I should win) and then I'd rather like it to be more spartan and thus more informative.
Inevitably, despite all the praise there are a few technical downsides as well. The messages one gets at the begin of each turn about what happened are weak. Some have a goto link, others don't and some let me go to the commander, but not to the goal of the spell that was cast (casting Akashic Records on a distant province, for example). All random event messages only tell that a random event happened and thus force me to click to get the detail. But a short description would often suffice (such as "plague in province X"). This leads to the player not always clicking on every message and thus missing some important ones. As mentioned, the graphics are more or less horrible and often misleading.
The game tries to show which province has which units, but sometimes the more important units get culled away. Especially if it's an important enemy army, this might cost you a lot. Then, all provinces have some effects going on in them, but in order to find out, you'd have to click on each, which means you'll never do it. And thus you might miss important information again. All of this missing out on information (in other places as well) often leads to a certain disconnectedness of the player from the game towards the end of any round. And this again resulted in me never actually playing till the successful or bitter end.
Nevertheless, at that point I already usually have a plan for what race and god to play next, so it doesn't matter as much as it might sound (though fixing this would be most welcome).
In the end, this is one of those few games you'll somehow always keep on your hard drive. Dominions 3 is a game opposite of the mainstream extreme: Whereas most recent games put 99% effort into graphics and add gameplay as an afterthought at best, this game is utterly finished with respect to gameplay but lacks graphics. In fact, I think that as much as chess or Civilization cannot be improved much anymore without making an entirely new game, Dominions 3 cannot be improved much anymore. Only the presentation can improve. But then again, this might be my lack of imagination and I'm really curious as to what Illwinter Game Design is up to next.
If you're still considering whether to buy it, then also consider that it comes with a thick manual and that you will really need this manual.