AD&D Dark Sun Shattered Lands
SSI made Advanced Dungeons and Dragons RPGs for many years, most in the legendary Gold Box AD&D format. Unlimited Adventures allows you to design your own adventures by providing the drivers game system used in the Gold Box games and combining this with editors to custom design events, monsters, treasure piles, dungeons, cities, and entire worlds. With enough time, it is even possible to duplicate one of the existing Gold Box games. Unlimited Adventures is easily the best adventure construction kit of its kind. This game designer was extremely popular because it allowed fans of the SSI series to design their own games, from start to finish, without any programming required. Even today you can find tons of adventures on the Web that were made using Unlimited Adventures. I spent many months writing my own epic sagas and still have them ten years later. It makes the game personal, and much more fun.
The process of designing a full adventure is challenging, as you might expect, but exceptionally rewarding when its all done. It is simple enough to construct a single dungeon with monsters and treasure, but construction of a full-fledged adventure with an actual plot requires planning. Fortunately, the kit requires no special devotion to use it to play adventures created by other amateur designers.
Each adventure can include up to four wilderness modules and up to 36 dungeon modules. However, depending upon how one links the dungeons together, two or more dungeon modules can be combined to form a single larger dungeon, or one dungeon module can be used for two or more smaller dungeons. M Dark Sun was not revolutionary among computer role-playing games generally, but it was revolutionary for SSI's Dungeons & Dragons games -- it had up-to-date graphics, sound and interface, and even a real plot. Like the "Gold Box" series before it, it's still pretty combat-intensive, but the addition of quality design and plot make this one a lot of fun.
The premise: the world of Dark Sun has been ravaged by magic that drained the very life force from the environment, resulting in the crimson sun and a desert landscape spotted with the cities of tyrannical sorcerer-kings. In this world, you, the player, lead a party of four slave gladiators condemned to fight until death in the arena. Your goal is first to escape the slave pits, and then to rally the escapee villages against an army from the city coming to put an end to all hopes of independence.
You generate your party according to standard Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, plus the special options for Dark Sun characters. Your characters can be humans, dwarves, muls (human-dwarf crossbreeds), elves, half- elves, half-giants, halflings, or insectoid thri-keen; they can adopt professions as fighters, gladiators, clerics, druids, perservers (environmentally conscious magicians), thieves, rangers, or psionicists (mind-over-matter types), each with different fighting and spellcasting abilities. In addition, all Dark Sun characters have some limited psionic abilities automatically. You can have the game randomly generate your characters' characteristic scores or you can edit them to taste.
Once you've generated your party, you stride forth almost immediately into combat in the gladiatorial arena. Movement is real-time until you encounter an enemy, at which point you switch into combat mode. Combat is turn-based, and shows off the point-and-click interface to good advantage: right-click to choose what kind of action that party member should perform (move/melee attack, look, ranged attack, etc.), left-click to have him or her do it. When casting an area-effect spell, a string of dots shows you graphically the target area -- no more accidentally torching your friends! There is also an option for computer control of one or more of your party members that works reasonably well. Both in and out of combat, the interface works very smoothly -- in particular, the visual display of spell effects makes it possible to employ some real "combined arms" tactics by strategic spell casting.
The graphics and sound are likewise slick for the time. All the monsters are drawn in very garish colors for a suitably grotesque appearance, and the animation of stomping feet or flapping wings is reasonably good. Moreover, the sound effects of screaming or whimpering enemies are wonderful. The world is equally pleasant to look at in the overhead view used by this game. The viewing mode is reminiscent of Ultima VII, although there aren't nearly as many manipulable objects on screen and the tile- based setup is apparent. The game is divided up into rectangular map regions; within each region, you can call up an overhead map or scroll your view to see what's in the area. (No mapping problems in this game!) SSI isn't breaking new ground in the industry with Dark Sun, but it's certainly up to par and it's light-years beyond their old Gold Box AD&D games.
While most of the challenge in the game comes from combat, the plot is actually quite substantial and well-executed. You'll do a lot of conversation with people -- choosing from a choice of menu items to ask them about -- and get lots of information about whatever area you're in, what's going on, who you need to kill or rescue or enchant and why. So while breaking out of the slave pits or unifying the villages still primarily amounts to lots-o-combat, it feels much less pointless than in the Gold Box games, because you have a much better idea of why you're fighting a particular group of monsters.
Moreover, there are a number of nice twists on the main plot. There are several side quests, none of which are superficial in the way optional tasks too often are ("Avatar, could you get my cat out of that tree?"). The climactic battle includes a very surprising and enjoyable twist, and you can continue to play out the optional quests after the main task is over. The more I think about it, particularly considering how terrible the Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder plots were, the more I have to congratulate SSI on doing such a good job in executing the plot.
But overall, while Dark Sun: Shattered Lands is still a combat-based CRPG, as combat-based CRPGs go it is excellent. It's far more lighthearted in content than the Ultimas of the time, for example, but if you don't mind hack 'n' slashing your way from one plot element to the next it's a great romp.