With only a couple of weeks left before launch, I recently got another invite into the frozen wastes of Icewind Dale in D&D: Dark Alliance, this time to see how it plays with a full party of four stalwart heroes.
You can get a more in-depth breakdown of its basic gameplay and structure in my initial hands-on impressions, but here’s a quick refresher for anyone who may not be up to speed: Dark Alliance – not to be confused with the recent re-release of the 2001 PS2-era classic Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance – is an co-op action game with RPG-style progression based on characters and events from the D&D novels of the 80s and 90s . You play as one of the four Companions of the Hall – famous in-world adventurers – as you stab, smash, slash, or shoot your way through a nonlinear series of levels full of famous fantasy monsters to amass a horde of kickass loot – and, I guess, save the realm from untold devastation, if that’s your thing.
It was good to finally see what the Dark Alliance experience looks like with a full four-player party… and it was about as chaotic as I’d expected. I’d often finish off an enemy with a plan on who to attack next, only to turn around and find the field already cleared – or in complete chaos. I’m sure that’s somewhat due to the fact that we aren’t yet experts on its mechanics, and some connection issues during our remote play session definitely didn’t help either. I’m looking forward to having the time to actually get familiar with the combat system, though, as after skimming the upgrade trees there appears to be a considerable amount of context-specific moves that you can unlock to create some really interesting combos.
Networking issues aside, our demo wasn’t without its technical hiccups. Elements of the UI would occasionally disappear, animations sometimes stuttered or lagged – there were even some enemies who would refuse to fall over once they hit 0HP, but the devs said they were aware of that one going in, so hopefully it will have been dealt with in the weeks before launch. I also had some input delay issues with traversal during what were admittedly supposed to be fairly simple platforming/exploration sections, though hopefully that can be attributed to the fact that I had to play through a game-streaming service. Regardless, I definitely owe my teammates an apology for my dwarf’s inability to land jumps across lava pits – even if it might’ve worked in-character – but I’m glad to say that, on the whole, I’d still call the session more fun than it was frustrating.
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Despite what was a comically difficult time spent exploring around the level we were demoing – seriously, we got stuck in those spike traps forever – we were able to pretty efficiently roll over every combat encounter on the CR1 difficulty. Not to boast, but we managed to take down the mission’s final boss in literally 20 seconds. We decided to give the mission another run on the next-highest difficulty level, and it was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves getting our asses kicked pretty much every step of the way. Even taking every short rest we were offered to recharge our health and potion supply, we barely made it past the halfway point before we had to call it quits.
Seeing as this was just the second difficulty level out of six, I’m curious to see what changes occur at higher levels beyond just “the enemies have more HP and do more damage” – though I’m sure that would be challenging enough in its own right. Our developer guides said that the issue will largely come down to how good your equipped gearset is, though they made sure to emphasize that it wasn’t just about loot, and that with a full roster and enough skill even a poorly outfitted party should be able to take on higher difficulty levels.
We got a closer look at some of the progression specifics beyond getting pointier swords, as well. Our characters were all at fifth level (out of 20) and had already unlocked a full set of attack moves and combos, plus a few feats – basically the D&D equivalent of Perks in other systems. These can range from helpful buffs like extra gold drops or elemental resistance, to offensive bonuses like extra damage against elite enemies, or more specific boons, like being rezzed with full health rather than just a fraction. Some of them had level requirements, though the highest I saw was level 10, so perhaps there are additional unlocks that appear once you cross that threshold.
The team was also eager to talk about their post-launch plans, which currently include two free DLC packs that introduce new levels and difficulty ranks, as well as a paid story expansion that will introduce a new playable Mage character – though we don’t know which, if any, of the tabletop caster classes they’ll be modeled after. The star inclusion for me, though, is the couch co-op update coming alongside those first two DLCs. I had a good time smacking goblins around with four online teammates, but I get the feeling that the real joy of Dark Alliance is going to be with a buddy on the couch. Hopefully, these final weeks before launch give the team time enough to get some of those technical issues resolved so I can say with 100% certainty that getting Faerun’s most famous adventurer killed was nobody’s fault but mine. Or the controller. In fact, it’s probably that.
For more on Dark Alliance, check out the latest gameplay explainer featuring Jemaine Clement, or a full mission’s worth of gameplay. And for everything else in the world of RPGs, stick with IGN.
JR is a Senior Producer at IGN, and really looking forward to seeing how much of the Monster Manual shows up in Dark Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter for more digital and analog RPG nerddom.