Shadow Realms: hands-on with Bioware's multiplayer RPG experiment

Tom Senior at

Bioware's pitch for Shadow Realms sounds like a Telltale series on turbo. Romance, moral decisions and regular cliffhangers are in; quick-time action scenes are out. Instead, episodes are built around dungeon runs that pit a four-player squad of modern wizards, rogues and warriors against a D&D-esque game master figure called The Shadowlord. This invisible agitator flies around casting spells, placing traps, summoning creatures in an effort to troll the team to death. I played a pre-alpha combat section at Gamescom, and it's already fun.

The wizard is a chiseled office worker with a wand tucked into his belt. This Hogwarts alumnus turned male model can teleport around the battlefield with his right-click dodge and toss spells with the number keys. His lingering wall of fire makes short work of slow-moving undead warriors (though could use a template, or some indication of where the spell will appear). Tap the "3" key and the wizard thrusts his palm to the ground, summoning a glowing white glyph that erupts and scatters enemies caught in its radius. Teleport in, smash, teleport out, drop a fire wall to cover your back and harass with wand-zaps at range. It's good wizarding.

I spent a lot of time escaping melee encounters to let our close combat specialists take the damage. A woman wielding hand-scythes seemed particularly adept at taking out the huge wolf creatures that the Shadowlord summoned. Our tank equivalent was a leather-jacketed punk with a baseball bat and a buckler. The blend of modern fashion and old-school D&D creature encounters is novel. This is a really good chance for Bioware to do something with the ideas that The Secret World squandered.

The Shadowlord graduated from an irritation to a real menace as we progressed through the three-stage dungeon. Like the heroes he's controlled from a close third-person perspective, and his abilities are restricted by cooldowns. He summons bombs and spike traps to scatter the party—dodge if you hear the metallic clink cue. If you see a monster surrounded by a dark aura then it's under the Shadowlord's direct control, which means it's stronger, tougher and (hopefully) smarter than its kin. The Shadowlord can pop out of a possessed form at will to cause mischief elsewhere.

There's plenty of room to use these abilities creatively. Drop a trap on a wizard after a few consecutive dodges, and he's unlikely to have the mana to escape. Our team rushed to rescue a downed enemy at the end of a fight, only to flee in the face of a sudden firebomb. In the disarray the Shadow Lord used its scariest ability, and inhabited a summoned doppelgänger of Ms. Sickles to try and slash us up. We quickly took the clone down, but it provided a surprising impromptu mini-boss fight at the end of an encounter we thought we'd ended.

The torch-lit tomb we explored looked a little plain in its pre-alpha form, but culminated in a challenging boss fight on a rocky arena hovering inside a swirling maelstrom. There we fought a Bat-winged ogre boss, and eventually fell to hordes of undead summoned by the beast and the Shadowlord. We didn't have a dedicated healing class, so we relied on our limited supply of medpacks, shared by the entire party. These replenish at checkpoint monuments that need to be activated by all part members simultaneously. Bioware fans will enjoy the "gather your party before venturing forth" prompt you get for hitting a checkpoint ahead of your allies.

Early testing is set to start next month. If you get in you'll find an interesting proof-of-concept. Bioware promises plenty of character customisation and ability progression that'll span Shadow Realms' episodes, but specifics regarding the story, and the Shadowlord's narrative role within it, aren't settled. It's an interesting attempt to port tabletop D&D encounter design into fast-paced online scenarios, but the pleasure of GMing a campaign stems as much from narrative control as combat design, and there's an important philosophical difference between the motivations of a GM who plays to entertain the party, and those of a Shadow Lord incentivised to destroy them.

Nonetheless, I love seeing developers experiment with this stuff, whether in Jason Rohrer's Sleep Is Death or, more recently, Arma 3's excellent Zeus mode. There are a few sticking points: what if your group gets lumped with a bad Shadowlord? For RPG fans used to roleplaying a single hero, will there be incentives to pick up the Shadowlord role from time to time? As a victim of the Shadowlord's machinations, I hope his abilities evolve over the course of the campaign, and that he constantly gets fresh level-specific ways to mess with the team. The unpredictable doppelgänger summon was the best moment of the demo.

For an account of what it's like to play the Shadow Lord and break a squad of humans, check out Dave's thoughts over on GamesRadar.