Dungeons 2 hands-on: An ambitious Dungeon Keeper substitute

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Dungeons 2 has a pretty straightforward sales pitch: If you're a fan of Dungeon Keeper, it can't be much worse than the free-to-play atrocity EA put out on mobile earlier this year.

Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar, and Dungeons 2 is mostly just trying to the same notes. To it's credit, it doesn't stop there.

If you haven't played Dungeon Keeper or the first Dungeons, it's basically a management sim in the vein of Sim City or, more accurately, Sim Tower (my personal sim obsession), but you're tasked with managing an underground dungeon instead of an ideal city. Instead of optimizing the flow of traffic and building factories that provide jobs, you're carving out earth underground on a square-based grid and building breweries to keep your goblins and orcs drunk and happy.

They want something to drink, someone to fight, and other needs you can check by clicking on them. If they get too bored, they'll start killing each other. You pay for improvements with gold you find in the rock while expanding your dungeons, which you'll eventually have to store in treasure rooms.

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I got to play Dungeons 2 for a short time, and I immediately fell into that satisfying busy work I love about management sims. I made sure to carve out new rooms to best take advantage of the space, designated the purpose of the room by laying down different tilesets, then built the devices that allow me to grow and optimize further: A brewery for more beer, which allows me to recruit more units, or in the workshop tileset, a machine that allows me to build traps.

The traps are meant for the invading goody two-shoes Alliance heroes, which will make their way from the entrance of your dungeon to your throne. If they manage to destroy it, you'll lose.

Putting down explosives chests and spike traps feels a lot like a very limited tower defense game, but the fact that placement is rather simplistic didn't bother me because the real, entertaining challenge was in building the economy that funds the traps. It plays almost as if the management elements of Sim City had a combat-oriented endgame, a balance I thought Black and White 2 struck well, and haven't seen much of since.

Another thing we don't see as much of anymore is real-time strategy games, and Dungeons 2 tries to tackle that genre as well in a second, overworld layer. Once you've recruited some orcs, you can send them out of the dungeon to start wreaking havoc. A nice touch to illustrate your evil influence is that as you defeat certain strongholds, the saccharine sweet, lush Alliance territory transforms into a scorched, hellish landscape.

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Evil is good

I'm also intrigued by the relationship between the overworld layer and the dungeon layer. Sometimes, you'll have to venture out, fight your way through alliance defenses to recruit a new unit types, or enter another dungeon and gain an item to upgrade your own. In the level I saw, the player had to reach a different dungeon in order to gain a mana crystal, which can then be installed in your dungeon, opening a whole new branch of magic-based units and abilities.

However, while the dungeon layer seems like a competent tribute to Dungeon Keeper, the overworld, RTS gameplay felt underdeveloped. All I could do is tell my units where to go, who to swing their weapons at, and watch which life bar dwindled faster. Some of the AI pathing also seemed finicky, but this was still an early build. Either way, Dungeons 2 will have to introduce way more unit types and strategies, or, alternatively, limit the overworld exploration to short bursts before it becomes boring.

Even if it does, at the moment, it still creates some idiosyncrasies. Inside the dungeon layer, as is traditional in management sims, you don't have direct control over units. The units have needs, and you can mark what section you want carved out, where to place tiles sets and items, etc, but you can't order a specific orc move to a specific location. Counter-intuitively, your evil hand cursor could pick an orc up by the shirt collar and drop him in a certain location (which, with ragdoll physics, is good for a dumb laugh) but once he's there he'll just go about his business.

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This is annoying because, at least in the demo I played, the orcs weren't smart enough to attack Alliance intruders. I had to manually pick up one up and put him next to the enemy, which seems like an unnecessary hassle. It's doubly annoying because you do have direct RTS-type unit control in the overworld, where orcs are also smart enough to automatically attack nearby enemies. For some reason, they don't in the dungeon.

That being said, I think part of the reason players were so incensed by that free-to-play, mobile Dungeon Keeper is that we're so ready for another one of those. I know I am. Dungeons 2 feels like that type of game, and it gets a lot of things right. It looks great, like an even goofier Warcraft 3 made with 2014 technology. The basic worker units, Snotlings, look about as stupid and silly as you'd expect, and you can slap them around to make them work faster. And while I didn't get to see how the management aspect will hold up over the long term, what little I played of it made me want to play more.