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Hands-On With BioWare’s New Dungeon Crawler – Shadow Realms

by Daniel Tack on Aug 13, 2014 at 12:00 AM

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BioWare is known for its deep story-driven RPGs, and while Shadow Realms may have story and episodic components, the focus here seems to be on fast-paced modern fantasy action. BioWare Austin, known for its work on The Old Republic, is serving up something new.
This PC take on the world of dungeon crawling is an online, player-vs-player, four versus one modern fantasy that pits wizards in office garb and gun-toting clerics against the machinations of a spectral shadow lord in fast-paced sessions. Driven by third-person action and loot, players explore a wide variety of settings via matchmaking where the shadow lord sets traps, possesses monsters, and uses special abilities to try and stop them from completing the mission. At the end of each session, both players and shadow lord receive experience points.

Shadow Realms will feature episodic content, with a new realm to explore each week that will push the overarching and personal stories forward as players form relationships with NPCs. These weeks will form seasons, which are planned to be one-year blocks of content that will include a hefty-dose of story into the action-packed skeleton-smashing and treasure looting. While there will be many different missions to explore on launch, as players catch up with the episodic content a good deal of time will likely be spent repeating various missions - though they will be different each time due to varying classes, minions, and shadow lords.
Each class has a basic attack bound to the left mouse button (this attack can be repeated and chained for extra damage), with a dodge ability on the right button. The wizard I played during my demo session had a fairly powerful ranged attack and a strong evasion blink ability, allowing me to get in and out of battle quickly. In addition, each class has “loadout” slots that can be customized and tailored to a player’s needs to create various profiles to complement dungeon-crawling teams.
The wizard I demoed came with a shocking pulse bomb that would attach itself to a target making it more vulnerable to attacks and eventually explode, a potent fire wall that deals punishing damage to approaching foes, and a powerful point-blank area-of-effect damage and knockback spell, perfect for blasting enemies back after my blink options were exhausted or foes made it past my fire wall. The “ultimate” ability (Charged up via combat and “adrenaline”) summoned powerful mirror images and was extremely handy during frenetic battles with banewolves and bosses. In addition to those hot slots, players also need to keep an eye on their supply of potions and resurrection kits as they move through a dungeon, as the shadow lord is largely playing a game of attrition with the party.
The shadow lord plays completely different than any of the four hero characters. During the early parts of a mission, the shadow lord’s powers are weak, but they continually grow over the course of a dungeon crawl. While the shadow lord can only initially place minor bombs and spike traps, eventually they can possess strong creatures like the hard-hitting banewolves or conjure up deadly dopplegangers that copy one of the players. The villain must try to force the players to use all their potions and resurrection packs as early as possible so that they will ultimately run out of resources and fail in one of the harder dungeon rooms or the final boss. One could eliminate a group of players early with some skillful trapping and possessing, but many groups probably won’t be taxed until the middle or end of a map.
The matches appear to take around 15 to 20 minutes for a successful run, with each room providing progressively more difficult encounters with enemies and amped up shadow lord powers. While this feature wasn’t in the build we played, shadow lords can pick many elements of the dungeons before the players explore, down to which minions will appear in each room, allowing this player to create more varied (and difficult) environments.
Matchmaking should find relatively even matches between wizards, warriors, and shadows as games get played over time.