Dungeon Keeper II
Dungeon Keeper II (DK2) is a hybrid title, combining elements from the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, the first-person shooter (FPS) genre and even the "god game" genre to a degree. As such, it's a bit difficult to classify. Peter Molyneaux and the rest of the crew at Bullfrog really took a risk in making the game, but it's a risk that paid off in a big way. DK2 is easily one of my all-time favorite games because it's just such devilishly good fun. I know some will claim that its content is inappropriate for youngsters and so forth, and that's arguably true for certain youngsters, but it is overall an awful lot of cheeky good fun for reasons I'll explain shortly.
The visuals in DK2 never cease to amaze me. Ok, some of the models are a bit blocky at times, and maybe some of the textures aren't the best that I've ever seen, but the consistency of its artistic vision and the degree to which so very many lovely little touches are so well done make it visually stunning. This is demonstrated even more clearly, I think, when one possesses one's minions and wanders around the dungeon, seeing it through their eyes. All of the visual factors come together in a very special way for DK2, which makes it as much fun to look at as it is to play. The movies are utterly hilarious, the spell effects are very satisfying and watching Horny himself go ripping through the enemy like butter alone is worth the price of the game.
The audio in DK2 is similarly well done. The music, though perhaps a bit repetitive sometimes, ranges from a sort of solemn monk-ish singing, which really brings home the "evil" enormity of it all, to pulse-pounding techno rock during battle and other sequences. The addition of disco inferno when a creature hits the jackpot in the casino is also too good to be missed, as is all of the dancing. Too many games lack a sense of humor, but DK2 has humor and style in spades. The ambient sounds are perfect, the sound effects are similarly so. Everything from the electric crackling of some poor slob being tortured to the pleasant tinkling of gold hitting the floor when dropped is well-done. My only complaint against the audio, in fact, is that there just isn't enough of it. Some greater variation on the background music would have helped stave off some of the monotony that eventually sets in while listening to the music loop again and again.
A lot of people have faulted DK2 for its overly busy interface, and I'm of mixed thoughts about this. On the one hand, I agree that its interface deserves the description "icon hell". Yet on the other hand, I don't really know how the designers might have made it much simpler and still retained the endearing complexity of managing one's creatures and realm. Aside from this I can think of only two complaints to lodge against DK2's interface.
First, the graphics behind the game menus are just too... slow. While the game runs just wonderfully on my system, the menu screens run like a pig. I assume this is because they're rendered without making use of the 3D acceleration capabilities of my hardware, but they just don't add enough to the game to be worth it in my estimation. I would much rather have had a static but snappy menu system than the one that ships with DK2. Still, that's a pretty small complaint as the majority of the action occurs during the missions, not in the menus.
Second, the multi-player interface (or rather the lack thereof) is really annoying. I tried on any number of occasions to get good multi-player games started, but I had serious difficulty finding opponents and keeping the game going when I found them. It would have been nice if a bit more time and effort had been devoted to making it easier to hook up for multi-player games, along the lines that the folks at GameSpy have provided in their products. I have no doubt that an improved multi-player interface would have resulted in more on-line play, which would have meant greater longevity for the game as a whole.
DK2 features some truly brilliant touches in the game mechanics department, first and foremost among which is the if-you-build-it-they-will-come twist on the acquiring of units. Almost every other RTS game requires the player to build various structures, research various technologies and so forth in order to build units, and these units typically have some kind of resource cost and take some amount of time to build. In contrast, in DK2 one has to think about how to build one's subterranean lair in such a way that it will attract the right kind of creatures. You want a warlock? Build a library. You want a mistress? Build a torture chamber. Since there is rarely enough room to build everything one desires—and security is a constant concern, after all, as those awful do-gooders on the surface cannot seem to keep to themselves—this can often become a tricky balancing act.
The second most outstanding feature in my estimation is the ability to possess a particular unit, which is utterly wonderful. In combat, it allows one to accomplish more than one might otherwise accomplish. The rest of the time, it's just fun! I've possessed creatures just to wander about viewing my creation from close up. I've utterly cracked up while spectating fights in the combat pit, watching goody-two-shoes knights languishing in prison, prisoners being tortured, etc. The game is just so chock-full of style that it's a lot of fun just wandering the halls. It adds a surprising amount of depth as well that various types of creatures have different visual and aural acuity.
The story of DK2, while interesting, is insufficiently developed. The opening movie makes it tolerably clear that Horny is after a certain set of gems. But it remains quite obscure from whence these came, why they're so important and so forth. In short, one can't help but think that there is either a fair amount of back-story that remains unseen, or the game designers just didn't feel like coming to work that day. I think DK2 falls down in this department, though the rest of the game is so much fun it's relatively easy to overlook.
DK2 really shines in the variety of traps, creatures, rooms, spells, missions and so forth that it provides. Throughout the single-player game, there is always something fun to do and so many lovely little touches to which to attend. Each mission becomes a progressively more difficult quest to balance one's dungeon layout, train one's creatures, keep the walls safe and secure, keep one's minions happy, research all the right spells, explore all the right places and perform effectively in combat—all while trying to keep the current mission goals firmly in hand. It makes for a truly engrossing experience.
It bears special mention that the entire "evil" bent to the game is half the fun. Everything is rendered in so absurd and cartoonish a fashion that it's simply impossible to take the game's "evil" as genuine evil. As such, I have no ethical concerns about the game. It's just jolly fun to slap one's imps around to improve their performance, sacrifice the occasional miscreant creature on the altar for more mana, drop enemies in the torture chamber for their conversion at the hands (or perhaps heels?) of the whip-wielding mistress or just shove enemies in a jail and let them wither until dead. Skeletons are just plain useful after all. In short, there is a positively twisted sense of humor at work behind the game, and it makes the content only that much more compelling with its unique brand of dark comedy.
My lone and somewhat serious complaint with the game is that it has been under-supported since its release. DK2 is a wonderful and very special game with a relatively strong fan-base it seems, but the game was shipped in a very buggy state, the developer and publisher have been largely non-responsive to requests for support, and worse still they've welched on non-trivial promises. An official editor was promised again and again, for example, but at this point it's clear that such a thing will never see the light of day. Even worse as far as I'm concerned is that DK2 won't run on Windows NT at all, and gamers report only mixed results on Windows 2000.
Since this review was written, DK2 has proven itself flaky enough enough to earn the distinction of being the only game I simply cannot get to work on Windows XP. This is very saddening, as it's one of my all-time favorite games, and I miss it greatly. The fan community is only of so much help; when the game doesn't work, you're essentially out of luck, and that stinks. I offer a big, nasty onion to the developer and publisher for their utter lack of support for DK2 and for their essentially killing any prospects for a sequel. I'm sorry, but they're idiots for letting such a good thing go.
To be sure, the patches and bonus packs have added features to the game and addressed almost all of the bugs. Some people still report crashing, but I can generally get the game to run without such problems. The elite creatures are a particularly welcome feature of the latest patch, and they add considerably to the game. Suffice it to say that the developer has done a rotten job, in my estimation, of dealing with the fan base. If you buy DK2, be sure to apply all the add-on packs as well as the latest (v1.70) patch. You should also be prepared for the possibility that it will run only on Windows 98.
I wish I could say good things about the multi-player portion of DK2, but I just didn't buy it soon enough, I suspect, and as I indicated in the interface section of the review, I didn't get to enjoy multi-player DK2 very often. When I was able to get a game going, it was usually a great deal of fun. The drive to dominate the portals, dig out the gold, keep your dungeon secure and nail the other guy when he isn't looking is compelling indeed. There is little more satisfying than a successful raid, in which several enemy creatures are stolen, only to be converted or allowed to die for their skeletal service. It's fiendishly good fun when you can find it, but I'm afraid that's just not often enough for my liking.
I guess I have to draw a mixed conclusion for DK2. On the one hand, if you're a gamer still running Windows 95 or Windows 98, the odds are very good that the game will work for you. If you're trying to move on to Windows NT or Windows 2000, well, your odds are pretty slim that it will work. In my case, I'm sticking with Windows 98 for the foreseeable future, so it's not an issue, but I'm not going to upgrade again until Microsoft finally puts out an operating system that works—that could take a while.
If you can deal with running Windows 98, however, and if you're a gamer looking for a fresh take on the RTS genre, then DK2 is a great choice. In addition to its strictly technical merits, DK2 manages to score big with a kind of fun factor that simply eludes other games. Even when I lose a mission, I still have a great time playing it, and I don't really mind playing it over precisely because it's so much fun. The "god game" aspect leads me to love watching my creation unfold, the RTS aspects make conquest and discovery a great deal of fun and the ability to possess creatures and interact with it all directly is simply not to be missed if you can get the game to work.
Reviewed by Phileosophos