Our topic today is dungeons, and the keeping thereof, from creature management to the ongoing nuisance of “heroic” dungeoneers. Evil is good — we learned that in 1997, with Bullfrog’s seminal Dungeon Keeper; again in 1999 with Dungeon Keeper 2. Recreating that wicked goofballery has proven an elusive brass ring. Subterranean Games is grasping for it with War for the Overworld, which promised to be Dungeon Keeper 3 in all but name. Did they succeed? Or is evil thwarted again? Gregg and Steerpike cackle their way to the answers you need.
Steerpike: I am a Dungeon Keeper 2 man. I’d go so far as to say I disliked the original Dungeon Keeper, while DK2 is one of my desert-island games.
Gregg: You disliked the original? But– but– it’s bloody Dungeon Keeper! It’s where all this deliciously evil goodness came from!
Okay, so I’m a DK1 man. It was my big childhood addiction; the game I lusted after more than any other. Don’t get me wrong, I loved DK2 as well but it was more colourful, visually and tonally. It wasn’t quite as bleak as the original and I missed that. I mean, look at it:
I didn’t like the 3D models either compared to the detailed but pixelated pre-rendered sprites of DK1. Luckily for you however, War for the Overworld takes most of its cues from the sequel.
Steerpike: The chief reason I disliked DK1 was its failure to communicate clear cause and effect. Attracting creatures to work in your dungeon, for example. They’re supposed to arrive based on the amenities you offer (Warlocks want a library, Trolls and Bile Demons a workshop, etc.) but I’d have acres of those rooms and no monsters. I never knew why. DK2 communicated its mechanics better across the board. I fell in love with it very quickly.
Gregg: I remember reading the manual a lot as a kid and knew that the creatures were drawn or attracted from a shared pool so if an enemy keeper got certain rooms before you, and perhaps bigger ones too, then they’d bag more of certain types of creatures. That’s where the scavenger room came in!
Steerpike: DK1 is on GOG, isn’t it? It deserves a chance to shine. I’ll try it again.
Gregg: Yeah I got it on GOG for free last year and mentioned my reunion with it On Tap #2.
Steerpike: Here with War for the Overworld, we’ve got the long-desired
Dungeon Keeper 3 spiritual successor to that franchise. This was a project that used Kickstarter as I think it was meant to be used — Subterranean Games is mostly industry noobs. They had no real experience in the business, and it did take them longer than expected. WFTO was well into development at the 2013 Eurogamer Expo. We walked past its booth four times a day, though I didn’t actually play it there.
Gregg: Yeah, I played the Bedrock Beta at Rezzed back in March last year and was very impressed with how it was shaping up.
I’m frankly amazed that this is their first proper game though. As a new team they understandably had development issues and that cost them dearly, ultimately resulting in a rocky launch at the beginning of April, but since then they’ve pushed out over 21 patches.
They pushed out over 21 patches in the first two weeks.
Steerpike: We decided to do this as a back-and-forth because you texted me with a remark along the lines of “why are people being so hard on this game?” It had a rocky Steam release, but no worse than Grand Theft Auto V’s. So why the complaints? It has plenty of detritus in it, sure. Placeholder notes and other stuff that should’ve been removed; overuse of sound samples, a very clumsy mouse cursor. But as you note… 21 patches in two weeks. On one hand that’s probably the sign of a game that needed more time, but on the other, it’s the sign of a dedicated dev team that deserves more slack than it’s gotten.
Gregg: Exactly. This is a team of fans remaking and expanding upon two seminal and much loved, no, crazy-loved classics that are unmatched– perhaps until now. And it’s their first game. What a gargantuan undertaking. I don’t know what Subterranean have been imbibing to follow through with this insanity but I think we could all do with some.
Somehow though, unlike all the other efforts we’ve seen over the years to hit that rich Dungeon Keeper vein, they seem to have struck gold here. War for the Overworld feels like Dungeon Keeper 3. It isn’t of course, but it feels like it, which is crucially what matters. It looks and sounds the part and they’ve even got Richard Ridings, the original voice of DK, back at the reins of evil.
Steerpike: “Your dungeon has been recarpeted.” Whatever they paid Ridings, it was a brilliant investment. And using him is the kind of thing they could do to make it clear their game is Dungeon Keeper 3 without antagonizing EA, which owns the actual IP. You wouldn’t have the same game without him.
Gregg: “Your minions are under attack!” It’s like Zyzyx from Sacrifice all over again.
Steerpike: The most significant criterion by which War for the Overworld will/should be judged is how well it succeeds as a Dungeon Keeper game. And overall it’s just what I wanted. It’s delightful. But mostly, it’s Dungeon Keeper.
Off the top of my head I can think of four games — Evil Genius, Dungeons, Impire, and A Game of Dwarves — all from experienced developers, all of which tried to be the DK successor and all of which failed because they also tried to exceed it. I don’t think fans wanted it exceeded. They wanted it not to die in the first place. In keeping to that formula, Subterranean did what all the others didn’t do.
Gregg: I had my doubts that Subterranean would be able to match the humour and personality in Dungeon Keeper because Bullfrog got so much of that right, from obvious things like the dialogue, cutscenes and level intros/outros, to the more obscure stuff like creature behaviour and their animations (Bile Demons, for instance, slacking off to the hatchery for a cheeky bite to eat while working, or Hellhounds pissing on corpses in the graveyard to make them rot faster. I used to love going into first-person and watching idle imps lean on their pickaxes and have a smoke too). While I didn’t expect War for the Overworld to compete with DK’s wit and attention to detail, it’s still managed to make me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. The dwarves and Ridings’ lines in particular constantly crack me up.
And, y’know, going back to what you were saying about not antagonising EA: they’ve done a remarkably good job of not treading on the IP’s feet here while eliciting all the right feelings. So for example, Bile Demon equivalents are called ‘Chunders’. Isn’t that lovely? Warlocks are Cultists. Dark Mistresses are Succubi. Goblins are called ‘Gnarlings’. The treasury is called a vault. The library is the archive. The workshop is the foundry. And my favourite: the hatchery is a ‘micropiglet’ slaughterpen. Nowhere does the game mention the word ‘Keeper’– it’s Underlord this and Underlord that. I also love the way Richard Ridings wryly ‘welcomes you back’, Underlord, in the opening cutscene. If that was in person he’d probably wink at you too. I just find all these variations incredibly charming and full of flavour and, I’ll be honest, I’ll take a tavern in my dungeon over a ‘casino’. What’s a casino doing in a dungeon? That’s just silly; that’s just DK2 in a nutshell for me.
Steerpike: The casino room was a little odd, but it always made me laugh whenever the fireworks went off and Disco Inferno started to play, so I could overlook a non sequitur or two. It also appealed to me, how mundane dungeon life was most of the time – the creatures wanted a game room, and more food, and easier access to payroll, and in the end these drooling, red-eyed fiends were big babies, no better than Sims. That’s also something WFTO carries over very well. Both games give themselves over to the silliness.
You make a very important point about how War for the Overworld expands the ideas without stepping on any of the Dungeon Keeper fundamentals. This is why it works, adding many clever new room types and several altogether fresh ideas such as potions and contraptions, along with desirable stuff like the ability to tag areas you don’t want your
imps workers to claim. These are things we’d have expected to see in a third Dungeon Keeper, and I appreciate how clearly the team at Subterranean love their charge and have taken ownership of it.
If I had to single out a major disappointment with War for the Overworld, it’d be the game’s evident emphasis on multiplayer. This isn’t a feature that interests me in management sims of this type, and it feels like the single-player campaign has gotten the short end of the stick because of it. Have you tried the multiplayer? I haven’t, so I can’t really comment beyond saying I wish the resources that went into it had gone into another ten single player missions.
Gregg: My best memories with DK2 were playing against my brother across our LAN as kids. It was deliciously territorial fighting over space, securing gold seams and gem blocks, establishing outposts and engineering (and usurping) chokepoints. There was also this wonderful tension over what each of you were going to focus on building and thus attracting to your dungeon and training. If I remember rightly space was as much a currency as gold and dictated how much you could afford to feasibly do as well. Unfortunately, it was prone to crashing a lot so the excitement was often snuffed out. I don’t think we ever managed to finish a full game but that promise is what got me excited about War for the Overworld when I heard it was going to feature multiplayer. It was a huge selling point for me.
I’ve plenty of issues with the game which I’ll come to in a bit, but in what way is there an evident emphasis on multiplayer? I’ve got to call you on this because I’ve heard a number of people crying foul without sufficiently explaining why! Am I missing something? I am a bit dim. Yes, the campaign is shorter than Dungeon Keeper’s which in turn was shorter than Dungeon Keeper 2‘s but that could easily be attributable to the game being such a complex first project– as I said earlier: it’s a gargantuan undertaking. Dungeon Keeper had over twenty bloody levels and as enjoyable as most of them were (screw you Tickle and Nevergrim), I did tire of it before I reached the end which suggests that it was too long. Deeper Dungeons? Deeper sleep. (I jest, I jest!)
The thing is, War for the Overworld currently has a campaign, skirmish, survival and sandbox mode, all of which are single-player. There are plans to expand the campaign mode and a level editor is in the works too. The current multiplayer mode has three maps. The emphasis there seems pretty clear to me. Now if we’re talking about the mechanics of the game being geared towards multiplayer (competitive or otherwise) then in what way is that necessarily a bad thing? I have some ideas about this but I want to hear your take first.
Steerpike: In fairness, the bulk of the game is definitely single-player right now, though the haters — of which I am not one — would likely say that’s a sign of a game released without promised features. Looking at your breakdown it’s clearly got a single player focus right now, but all the interviews I’ve read have Subterranean talking about what X or Y will mean for multiplayer. This may be a kneejerk reaction on my part, as I’m just less a multi playing person, so maybe I get protective of the single player stuff.
I’m glad to hear you mention Tickle from DK1. That was the mission that finally ended the game for me. I spent hours in stalemate with the rival Keeper. Neither of us had more than three creatures. Nothing would move into the dungeon. Over hours I managed to summon up a Horned Reaper by slowly dropping things into the temple pool, and used it to defeat the other Keeper. But it wasn’t a sense of discovery. It was a sense of disorganized frustration.
Gregg: It’s hard to forget Tickle because of its name and how much it kicks your arse. It’s a good job you never reached Nevergrim. Criticise War for the Overworld‘s pace as much as you like– nothing I’ve played so far compares to the frantic lunacy of Nevergrim.
Steerpike: I should play WFTO in multi at least once. I’m particularly bad at multiplayer strategy — something you might have observed in our semi-regular Civilization V game, where my mud people are still in a sad mud village and everyone else has tanks. But nonetheless I shouldn’t condemn it without trying it.
Gregg: The only ‘multiplayer fingerprints’ I see on the game is in some of the more ‘eh?’ constructs, spells and rituals like Obey, Besiege and Outpost which all seem extremely specific and situational, like they were born out of very particular circumstances in high-level play. Then you’ve got things like the ‘Underminer’, a bomb which destroys fortified and ‘Augrum’ walls. It certainly undermines because it’s super cheap and worryingly effective at cracking open dungeons. Traps also lack the lethality I so fondly remember (no boulder, gas or lightning traps!), presumably because they were a nightmare to deal with against turtle players, I’m not sure.
Steerpike: It’s important also to note that I usually only complain about a game’s length when I’m afraid it’s about to end. So in a way it’s a compliment.
Gregg: It is indeed! The campaign took me about 20 hours to complete and was enjoyable for the most part. There were some glitches, performance issues and a crash or two, and the ending was very intriguing if poorly executed, but overall I enjoyed it, and it certainly wasn’t too long.
Steerpike: Mine froze once, I think on the day of release before the gazillion patches, and I’m a little behind you so we can’t compare notes on stability quite yet.
Gregg: From my experience I’d say most of Dungeon Keeper‘s levels had better flow. They unfolded carefully which gave you a much better lay of the land and time to explore and experiment with everything the game introduced. War for the Overworld by contrast, just kind of bursts open somewhat messily and moves on at a fair old pace once you’re past the basics. Welcome back indeed, Underlord. The upside of this is that there’s a constant stream of new rooms, creatures, traps, spells, potions, rituals etc. to discover and toy around with. It’s damn exciting. The downside is that it can be overwhelming and some players may feel like they’re being rushed even though there’s rarely a time imperative.
Steerpike: The campaign feels “campaign-like,” too, by which I mean there’s a little bit of story holding it together, but like the other Dungeon Keepers, you get to make up most of the fiction yourself. Each level progresses on the last, from your “return” and slow reclamation of your old powers up to what I assume will be dominance of the Overworld. Each mission I finish leaves me excited to play the next, and I hesitate to click on it because I also know that each one down is one less ahead.
Gregg: Yeah, me too. I found myself just having a quick peek at the next level only to get hooked again. The story certainly helped here, but I will say: when you’re getting screwed from all angles mid-level it’s hard work trying to follow it. Like Dungeon Keeper, things can get extremely hectic.
Steerpike: Dungeon Keeper 2 had a set of ten missions called “My Pet Dungeon” that acted as a lengthy tutorial. By chance I played through them before getting into the campaign proper, and found them delightful, like an educational sandbox that grew as I did. While WFTO doesn’t have this feature, the first four or five missions are similar in style. They give you a lot of new things to learn and try, and a lot of time, rather than hurrying you through. Thus the tutorials seem very much like part of the game, part of the story.
Gregg: I thought My Pet Dungeon was just some straight-forward sandbox mode! Oops.
One of my favourite levels so far in War for the Overworld has been one where you have to prevent a dwarven army crossing a pass. Gold is super tight. So tight in fact, that I was wondering how the hell I was supposed to mount a defence. Then I spotted Blood Money, a spell that had been gathering dust on my UI which turns prisoners into golden statues that you can mine or slap to break down into gold. Of course, dwarves were constantly flooding into the pass, and eventually into my prison. Bingo: cash flow. A great scenario that expertly shows the utility of a particular spell. More of this please!
Steerpike: I think that’s the mission I’m on right now! I love it because it’s a completely different challenge than the others I’ve faced up to this point. And it lets you explore some of the great original ideas (like that Blood Money spell) that Subterranean built into its game.
Gregg: Another recent level gave me no clues on where to dig out so I had to start using the ‘Prophecy’ spell (basically the Sight of Evil) to get a bead on some nearby gold and portals. Unlike Dungeon Keeper, maps are completely blank when you begin so you’ve no idea what you’re in for, and secrets are just that: secret. Which I really dig.
Steerpike: I see what you did there. “dig.”
Again this highlights Subterranean’s great design work, something we hoped for but couldn’t necessarily expect from a newcomer studio. They plan to release a level editor, which suggests that their tools are pretty easy to use. With luck this also means they’ll be able to release single-player DLC campaigns pretty easily.
Using that Dwarf army mission as a starting off point, let’s talk about flaws this largely excellent game does have. There are a few; one that’s really troubling me is the
Hand of Evil mouse pointer. On more than one occasion I’ve accidentally freed a prisoner when I meant to drop them onto a machine in the torture room, because it’s not easy to point exactly where you want, and the highlights don’t always match up with the pointer itself. That’s something they desperately need to fix.
Gregg: Yeah I’ve had that a handful of times (heh!) but the repercussions aren’t too severe because they’re usually half-dead and deep within my dungeon. Still, it needs addressing.
Possession is a mess. The screen effects are garish, actions and movement are sloppy and unresponsive, the clipping with the character model is nasty, there are odd visual glitches here and there– it’s clearly not where it needs to be. Dungeon Keeper‘s cranium internum was one of my favourite features in the game — and in any game for that matter — because each creature saw the world in a different way, moved at a different speed and height, had a particular head-bob and gait and appropriate sound effects to match, as well as different abilities. It was incredible because it gave you a totally different perspective of your dungeon and the surrounding passage ways and caverns; it became a place you could physically wander around, watching your minions going about their business. War for the Overworld deserves better, not least because the assets are remarkably detailed when you zoom right in.
My other big gripe is the combat and creature abilities need clearer visual/aural cues or vocabulary so they’re more distinct and easier to parse. Even after finishing the game I’ve no idea what most of my creatures’ abilities really do and who exactly is doing them. In Dungeon Keeper you knew when a Dark Mistress was firing off lightning, or a Bile Demon dropping a big one in a tight corridor, or an Imp using speed, or Dragon breathing fire. In War for the Overworld combat’s a jumble of different sounds, colours and effects so it’s difficult to make sense of and formulate strategies from. I wish there were more tooltips and explanations though. So much is a mystery, which is good up to a point.
And does slapping actually do anything? I’ve not really noticed any performance gains from thrashing my minions. The post-level ‘Slaps Administered’ stat doesn’t seem to register them all either…
Steerpike: I haven’t seen slapping speed anything up, and I notice that
Imps workers don’t appear to level right now. That’s a major issue too, since DK2 Imps were badasses once they hit tenth level.
Gregg: Workers aren’t supposed to level up.
Steerpike: LIES. Workers will level and they’ll like it.
Gregg: You need Spirit Workers. They’re badasses. Short-lived badasses, but badasses.
Steerpike: You mention Possession, which is essentially broken and probably should have been left out of the release at this point. I mean, technically it works, but roaming your dungeon in first person mode is really the candy coating of the Possession spell, not its true purpose. Right now you can’t use a possessed creature’s attack, so you’re a helpless observer during combat. I suspect this is the kind of thing that has some people saying the game is “unfinished.” Because… stuff like this is.
On the other hand, Subterranean have included many things that never worked adequately in Dungeon Keeper games. Rival
Keepers Underlords seem very aggressive when using magic against invading enemies, for example. I was overjoyed when I saw an enemy throwing lightning bolts at my monsters.
Gregg: Yes! I noticed my workers and wandering minions getting zapped repeatedly by enemy lightning (and it looks great too). This made invading a rival Underlord’s dungeon even more dangerous. Worker ‘impasse’ flags come in super handy here because they tell them to stay away from certain areas. (Also: impasse. Imp.) Your minions however, unlike your workers, are a law unto themselves so doors or portcullises are what you need to keep them in/out.
Something we haven’t spoken about is the Veins of Evil, the game’s research tree. The campaign doesn’t do a particularly good job of introducing you to this or getting you into the habit of using it properly which is unfortunate because it’s one of the more exciting and notable differences between War for the Overworld and Dungeon Keeper. Instead of research being linear or sequential, you acquire ‘sins’ which you can spend to unlock new technologies under three paths: Wrath, Greed and… Sloth? Each correspond to different types of rooms, spells, constructs, rituals etc. In the campaign, the Veins of Evil are gated depending on your progress, and what’s there is mostly unlocked anyway so you never really explore it from scratch as you would in the other modes. A missed opportunity.
Steerpike: Particularly because the Veins of Evil show how much variety and uniqueness is possible in the world of dungeon keepery. There are plenty of clever, interesting new spells, rooms, and approaches to play. Coming up with stuff to populate a research tree can be hard, just because of the need to balance everything (and invent cool ideas in the first place) but I’d love War for the Overworld to have had a really immense, Galactic Civilizations-sized tree, one that’s actually flat-out impossible to complete in one go. It would usher in more strategies and play types, plus increase the replayability of an already fairly replayable game.
Gregg: My worry, and this goes back to my falling out with Dungeon Keeper, is how much or how little strategy there is in combat, which obviously forms a key part of the experience. Subterranean have introduced warbands and separate rally flags, and held creatures lock mana (but curiously aren’t stunned when dropped), and your minions can’t be plucked from enemy territory to save their bacon, so efforts have clearly been made to give the combat some sort of backbone, but I’ve found (in single-player at least) that simply using your global rally flag and steamrolling anything in your path is extremely effective and extremely easy too.
I will say however, on the last level — and this may have just been by chance rather than scripted — I rolled my entire dungeon populace into the enemy’s stronghold only to spot on the mini-map some sort of counter-attack heading straight for my core. My horde was too far away to help and I thought I was done for. Thankfully a few disobedient stragglers pottering around my dungeon were there to slow the invaders while my spells chipped away at the rest of them but this situation in the twilight hours of the game made me realise what potential there may be in multiplayer against human foes who are far more likely to pull these sorts of manoeuvres.
I feel like the game has all these great possibilities that the campaign doesn’t really capitalise on or truly show off though. The campaign needs more levels like the dwarven pass one I mentioned above. Give me a level that shows me how useful Outpost is. Give me a level that forces me to use warbands to succeed. Give me a level that shows the importance of defences vs all my other tools. Give me a level that requires clever use of alchemy. Give me a level that explores rituals. Give me a level that shows me what spirit chambers and Spirits do. Give me a level which shows why I wouldn’t want to use underminer (hah!). Just give me levels that highlight, focus on, and restrict different elements of the game, challenging me to do more with less; to think outside the box and learn why all these things are the way they are, and how I should and could be using them.
Steerpike: This is the game that Dungeon Keeper fans have been waiting for and looking for, while still demonstrating pretty heartily that there’s still room for more — more improvement, more variety, more game. I love most of what Subterranean did, and they should be proud of how well they’ve acted as custodians of backer money. They took my contribution and all the others and shepherded it through a process that’s fraught with challenge, one they had no real experience with. I’d love to be able to say they deserve a rest, or at least some time off to bask in the accomplishment, but time doesn’t wait for any underlord. There’s room to fine-tune and optimize what they gave us in War for the Overworld, and there’s obviously room to carry all their ideas further if they choose to continue the franchise.
War for the Overworld is a big accomplishment. Yeah, we’re both being rather permissive about certain things — the game is not “done,” at least not in the sense that a game can be called “done” when it still has object references in the tooltips and says flat-out that some things aren’t working yet. It has certain design idiosyncrasies and it’s less stable than it could be. But it’s also a new studio’s first release, made for a fraction of what it’d cost in the AAA world. And that studio has been outlandishly zealous in pursuing and fixing issues with a blizzard of patches and updates that hasn’t slowed since we started writing this article.
I finished Dungeon Keeper 2 and immediately scoured what passed for the internet looking for news on the planned sequel. Dungeon Keeper 3 was always meant to happen; unfortunately real life happened first, and I can’t honestly fault anyone involved for shutting Bullfrog down. But it was a tangible loss, and I never played DK2 again without a sense of regret that it’d be all we got. Now Subterranean has proved me wrong on that score. War for the Overworld is the Dungeon Keeper sequel that we wanted, and the one we deserved.
It’s also a strong argument in favor of crowdfunding. Kickstarter isn’t a magic bullet; the last year has shown that. But bullets don’t need to be magic. Wanting magic ones is dumb. Just get some bullets, then shoot at your target and don’t miss.
WFTO is Subterranean’s first game, and it’s a damned good one, but for many of the staff, this is also their first job. Which is a lot more impressive, really. On one hand, only total noobs would be so unaccustomed to failure that they’d undertake a project as sky-pie hubristic as this one; after all, half a dozen actual, experienced industry veterans have tried (with multi-million dollar budgets) and failed. But the rosy optimism was also the thing that carried them through. Well, that and some really good business acumen, first job or no.
Gregg: I think you’re right. What’s here is great, a remarkable achievement and a worthy spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Thankfully, that looks like it will come based on Subterranean’s tenacious post-release support and plans for future content. It needs more time then, but in its current state I’d heartily recommend it, at the very least it’s a game to keep your Sight of Evil on.
Now, about that multiplayer… fancy a game?