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Developer:
Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters
Platform: PC
Release Date: Autumn 2004

by Wendy Gasperazzo




The second half of 2004 should see many MMORPG's competing for our hearts and monies. Dealing from fantasy to sci-fi to superheroes and taking us from well-trodden paths to brand new worlds waiting for brave explorers, we will be spoiled for choice. Dragon Empires, developed and published by Codemasters, will be one of those games. With beta 0.5 (a server stress test) just starting, and a bigger beta 1 phase announced for March, now is a good time to review the available information on the game.


Based on an original back-story by Piers Anthony (author of the Xanth novels), Dragon Empires takes place in the world of Fortitude.


When asked what differentiates their game from the others out there, the developers mention the following features:

  • A beautiful game world.
  • Great tactical choices in combat.
  • A unique combination of city politics and economics into a single whole.
  • The focus on clan-based conflict as a core design concept. PvE is not the core focus of Dragon Empires.


Without further ado, let's embark on a journey through Fortitude, to learn more about those features and how the game will cater to the different types of players. Please do not feed the dragons.


“Live dragons?”, I hear you say? Fortitude is divided amongst five empires spread amongst a mosaic of islands. And each of those empires does indeed live under the protective and watchful rule of a dragon. And while the dragons currently have an alliance with the humans who arrived later and settled in the empires, they remain the undisputed masters of Fortitude and will intervene when the stability of their empire is threatened.


Those Humans are generally magically inclined people. They don't really have any strong distinctive features, looking instead like you would expect humans to. They are not the only playable inhabitants of Fortitude though.


Second to appear, the tattooed and ash color skinned Shadow are adepts of the roguish arts. They live in a world of illusion, concealment and dirty tricks. The Shadow also believe armor is too heavy and noisy and prefer the protective magical tattoos with which they adorn their bodies.


Finally, the Dragonblood are a fierce race that excel in melee combat and claim to have been rewarded for battle deeds with the infusion of blood from their dragon. Whether that is true or not is best not discussed in front of them! They are green skinned and generally larger than Humans.


So what about character progression? There are 5 classes per race, totaling 15 playable classes. This system is not as restrictive as it first sounds though. It is really a mix of class and skill based progression. Each class has primary and secondary skill sets (3 of each). The players decide which skills to take the furthest and how to allocate points between them as they progress. So we end up with many more than 15 combinations.


But this doesn't stop there. Meet the Unbound. The Unbound is a class available only to experienced players, as they need to complete an important quest to unlock it. Once the quest is complete the player can then create Unbound class characters on any empty character slot (4 characters allowed per server) on any server. The Unbound are essentially a classless class, able to choose any combination of 3 primary and 3 secondary skills.


Our next feature on Dragon Empires will study in more detail the different classes and progression choices available to the players.


Players will belong to one of the Empires and enjoy a certain status within it. Their status can also be different in each empire; bounty hunter in one, outlaw in another and civilian in a third, for instance. This means that your behavior will have to adapt itself to your status in each empire, switching from being a hunter to a prey when crossing a border, for instance.


Outlaws are those who attacked a venerated beast. Each empire has its own venerated beast. And while killing those beasts rewards you with very important resources, it also makes you fair game to that empire's dragon and bounty hunters alike. You will, however, return to civilian status after a period of time without any more of those attacks, or once killed.


The concept of outlaws brings us naturally to one of the defining design elements in Dragon Empires: its focus on player vs. player (PVP) and clan-based combat. Codemasters agrees that it's fair to say that Dragon Empires is primarily, although not exclusively, a player vs. player game. A lot of the end game will be about clans fighting for the control of the cities and the management and enhancement of those they capture.


The battle for control will take place at a pre-announced date and will involve 2 clans. Within those clans, a limited number of players will be allowed to take part in the fighting. Taking a city will involve a flag bearer having to reach several strategic locations in the city and taking control of them. The other attackers are there to escort that flag bearer, while the defenders will be trying to bring him down. Those rules, combined with the limited number of allowed attackers/defenders, will introduce a strong strategic element to the fighting, much more than if a large guild could simply use overwhelming force to take any city without a contest. As an added benefit, the limitations will help keep lag down during such events.


Codemasters is also making sure that clans will have an incentive to recruit new members and to let them take part in city attacks. There will be cities in Dragon Empires that are restricted so that only those under a certain level will be able to fight for them. This doesn't mean that a clan of high-level people can't own the city; it just means that only low-level players will be able to fight for it. We'll go more in detail on cities and their features below.


Another PvP feature will be the blood circus. The blood circus will be the ideal way to organize an immediate PvP session between anywhere from 2 single players to 6 groups of players. Those formal battles will offer players a variety of set of rules and be the ideal grounds to host a duel or tournament, to train and rehearse PvP tactics or simply will be a risk free way to have fun. They will also be the perfect opportunity for players unsure about PvP to dip a toe in it and decide whether they enjoy it. Participants will be able, but not required to put money or items at stake for such a battle. Winner takes all!


The blood circus will allow contest rules such as:

  • Last man standing where the last surviving player will be declared victorious.
  • Kill the enemy leader, where teams will be trying to kill the enemy leader while protecting their own.
  • King of the Hill, where the points scored will depend on how long a player or team can hold a central position.
  • Capture the flag, a classic rule set for team-based confrontations.


There is currently no formal clan war system, although it's something that might happen in the future. Clans can still take out their aggression through formal battles, city battles and fighting each other in the wilderness though.


Of course, all this could lead to the question of what the game will have to offer to players who prefer to fight only AI-controlled monsters (PvE). Codemasters wants to stress that Dragon Empires has great PvP combat but it will not force players into PvP combat. It will take a conscious decision by the players to make themselves vulnerable to a PvP death. Players who choose not to take part in PvP will reportedly still have many things to look forward to: dungeons to explore, quests to complete, monsters to fight, objects to craft and the ability to play the markets. Players who are not taking part in PvP will be known as civilians.


Codemasters is still keeping a tight lid on the subject of dungeons, both graphically and gameplay wise. It is true that PvE dungeons will not be the main focus of the game at launch, but they will be there and there are already plans to expand on them afterwards. So far, the developers have announced dungeons and caves with bubbling lava, crystal, ice, bugs, bats and so on. Wait and see...


The number of 500 quests at release has been quoted. There will be both crafting and fighting quests and it seems like Codemasters would like the notion of moral choices to be important, at least for some of the quests.


Players can also look forward to important tactical choices, both in PvE and PvP combat. Dragon Empires doesn't want to be a game where you press the attack key and go get a cup of tea or where you simply spam the best special ability until you win. The weapon choice will be a crucial one when facing an opponent. Different weapons will cause different types of damage and give the players access to different abilities. But weapons also drain various amounts of the players' energy, weakening them sensibly if they run out of it. Players will be able to switch weapons mid-combat with just a key press, allowing them to manage those important aspects. Combat is going to be a thinking man's game of skill as much as level.


As far as magic in Fortitude is concerned, Dragon Empires introduces an interesting concept. Basic spells are customized by being tied to specific objects (staff, wand, …) that will affect their effects. For instance, attaching a fire bolt type of spell to a wand or to a staff might make it a solo target spell in one case and an area of effect spell in the other. A limited number of spells (5 has been mentioned) can be attached to the same object simultaneously. This will add variety and allow players to customize their spells to the situation at hand.


Once the dust of the battle settles, adventurers will no doubt be visiting one of the 50 cities (10 per empire) in Fortitude. Cities are centers of trade and production that buy resources from players to make items that are then sold to players. Those cities will be of varying sizes.


Clans in charge wield control over their city or cities, if they are not afraid of spreading themselves too thin, through the levy of taxes and the ability to manage their growth as well as the facilities available within them. Taxes will give the clans more resources that they can (and probably should, if they want their city to prosper) reallocate into the growth of the city. This will involve the drawing up of building plans. Those plans will allow the clan leaders to use the Placement Point System to decide where new buildings should go. The city will then automatically evolve to assimilate those new buildings. For instance, bridges might appear to link the new structures to the existing town.


City planners will be able to add many different elements to the cities, from decorative elements like banners and statues to defense structures or crafting structures to increase productivity. It's up to them to make the city attractive to crafters and players alike and to make the city thrive while taking care of its defense. The level of taxation will also obviously play a role in making the city attractive or unattractive to players.


Dragon Empires will go a long way towards intertwining clan based combat, economics and city politics. Taking a city by force but failing to make it attractive for the crafters could result in their departure en masse for a more friendly place. The clan in charge would then be left with an unpopular, unprofitable city that no one will want to visit, since the best gear won't be available there anymore. Sooner or later, with their tax income and ranking slipping, the clan will have to defend that city from other players or even see it taken away from them by the local Dragon, as it decides that such poor management is not in the best interest of its empire. That will open the way for new leaders to start courting the crafters anew and try to restore the city to its former popularity.


So what about those crafters who will be so important to the economy? In Dragon Empires, NPC's will only sell basic equipment. The rest is up to the players. They can make just about everything using their automated factories, called Aurachromes. Aurachromes will be able to function fairly autonomously, even when the player is not connected. They can buy resources and sell their finished products on the market at prices preset by their owner.


Those manufactured goods can be personalized to give them new abilities or change their statistics. When they are placed for sale on the market, crafters will set a minimum sell price and wait to see if the goods are sold. Adventurers looking to buy will use the market to find the cheapest price for the goods they want. If they wish to sell anything, it will sell goods to the player offering the most for them. Note that gold will generally not drop from monsters (where would they keep it anyway?); instead, it is generated from selling goods via the market to players. The developers have also announced that final products will be removed from the economy via wear and tear.


At launch, manufactured items will include armor, weapons, magical artifacts, clothing, potions and resources. The exact number of items is expected to be in the many hundreds.


Social interaction is important to Codemasters and they have promised a fully featured chat system to support it. The way cities behave as individual political and economic units, giving everyone a stake in their homes' success will also help players feel like they belong and contribute to the game world.


Role-playing and look customization will also be welcome, supported on a visual level by dyes and the ability for players to earn points to develop their character's look - perhaps bigger horns for a Dragonblood or interesting skin markings for a Shadow or just a bunch of scars. Although there probably won't be a role-playing server at launch, Codemasters is keen to add one if there is a demand for it.


I'll end this preview by mentioning the graphics. While the quality of the in-game graphics will not change your opinion on fundamental elements of the game design, they will either help to immerse you more convincingly in the game world or detract from your experience. The developers clearly believe that the visuals in Dragon Empires belong to the former category. And based on the screenshots accompanying this preview (amongst which 5 exclusive ones that Satine kindly sent us), as well as on Eric's (our PC Gaming Editor) former previews of the game, one is tempted to agree.


Graphically, Codemasters has opted to use the RSSTech engine. It is being developed by Rock Solid Studios in Sweden, and is a complete environment engine that manages the landscape, water, vegetation, dynamic weather system, flying creatures, environmental sounds, etc.


The sun dynamically lights the world, all 580 square miles of it, with shadows developing and changing as it moves overhead. The players will be able to enjoy changes in the quality of the light depending on the time of day and great effects while, for instance, standing in a valley in the shadow of a mountain and seeing the sun come over the top. The vegetation around the players will also be very detailed.


And this concludes this journey in Fortitude. If you want more information, stay tuned for our upcoming feature on races and classes, as well as a Q&A session with one of the designers on that topic.


System Requirements (subject to change)

Minimum configuration:

  • PIII - 800Mhz
  • Geforce 2
  • 56k modem or better


Recommended configuration:

  • 1 Ghz
  • Geforce3 or better
  • 56k modem or better




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