Dragon's Dogma is, ostensibly, a very familiar concept. An open-world role-playing game, your goal is to head out into the world and make your mark on it, while helping (or hurting) others and having numerous adventures.
Playing it, on the other hand, results in something... new. Within about ten minutes, the game grips you and it doesn't ever let go - proof perfect of which is that I simply don't want to give it back. Given the build I got to spend a weekend with is a special, unfinished preview version of the game, I have no choice in that. But I am very much looking forward to the full version, which comes out next month; let me tell you why...
First up, there's the character creation system. There are loads of options on offer, with the really detailed stuff nicely gated behind a much simpler editor, allowing players who are less interested in the nuances of their character's appearance to jump right in.
You have three basic roles to choose from, allowing for a variety of gameplay styles without forcing you to choose between things that are otherwise very similar (i.e. just choose "Mage", rather than having to try to figure out the difference between "Mage" and "Warlock"). Once you get underway, you can - of course - further customise the way your character plays by choices you make as you level up.
Once you're in the game proper (fear not, there are no real spoilers in this preview), you get to experience combat almost straight away. This is a great (and clever) way to hook you on the experience, because combat here really is quite unlike anything you've ever played before.
Once my party was attacked - by a Chimera, no less - one of the bold new features in Dragon's Dogma soon became evident. In addition to the more traditional combination of RPG and action-game mechanics, where you wander around, swinging a sword or firing magic bolts, you can also climb on board the larger enemies and take a crack at them while you attempt to hang on for dear life.
It's very innovative, and very cool for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's new - this is not an experience you've had before. Secondly, it's intense; this boss isn't standing around like in some lame quick-time event; in the Chimera encounter, for example, the lion / goat / snake thing was charging around attacking my party while I hung on for dear life and attempted to stab the life out of it with my trusty sword.
A demanding experience
That intensity and sense of place permeates every pixel of Dragon's Dogma. It's present in the wind that rustles the trees, grass, and canvas of tents nearby; it's evident in every rocky outcrop or human construction, which each seem to exist as if the game is a simulation of some outrageous reality. The entire experience is, well, tangible. Like this place actually is. All of which is backed up by outstanding sound design, that really hammers your location (whether it be the depths of a wet cave or the windy side of a massive hill) home.
Even your magical attacks are integrated into the experience, with spells blocked by bits of scenery or generating striking visuals that seem to grow from the ground itself - rather than the tired, simplistic effects you might see in other games.
Non-player characters are also embedded in the world, impacting it (breaking or avoiding things, for example) or being impacted by it. They catch fire when you hurl balls of flame at them, they become bloody when you stab at their hides with blades, and they visible tire and become frantic as your repeated attacks wear them down.
None of the major enemies feel like scripted or "typical" RPG encounters. They feel like you need to think on your feet to survive, that you need to leverage your knowledge of your skills, your environment, the enemy, and your party in order to succeed.
Your party is another interesting aspect of Dragon's Dogma, and one that makes a significant impact in the way the title plays. While the game is strictly singleplayer, you will constantly be in a group. Your team, which you can pick and choose to suit each situation, is made up of you and a few AI-controlled "pawns".
One of these pawns (and it makes sense in a story context) is completely custom-made by you, and will be your constant companion throughout the game. It makes sense, then, to craft a pal that will complement your main character's skill set; for example, I made a tank-like heroic warrior type, so he can wade in a draw the attention of the enemies while my spellcaster sits at the back, nuking and healing.
The other pawns come from the "rift", an ethereal "other" place that is packed full of helpful mercenaries that will come to the aid of people of your... type (again, no spoilers!). Through this mechanic, Capcom are enabling a level of interactivity with other players; your pawn can go off and have adventures with other human players (and vice versa), returning with knowledge, experience, and items picked up on his (or her) travels. We can't play around with that part of the pawn feature in this preview build, but you can get an idea as to how it works by watching this video.
While it did impress me and catch me by surprise, the build wasn't perfect. It's definitely possible that a number of the quirks I experienced (awkward AI movement, objects popping in quite close to the camera - etc) will be fixed up before release, however, so I'll hold off on covering that stuff in detail until the final game. It was far from buggy, though, just not quite finished.
XB360 or PS3? Gear up. PC? You'll need to ask for it...
In summary, then, Dragon's Dogma is something all action RPG gamers should be very excited about. It's new, detailed, loaded with character, and utterly grounded in its own reality. It's rare to be caught off guard by something these days but, even having seen all of the pre-release material (including hands-on previews with other media outlets like Official Xbox Magazine), I wasn't prepared for just how quickly (and how much) Dragon's Dogma would grab me. The screens and videos really don't do the game justice.
If you're interested in playing Dragon's Dogma for yourself, it comes out in New Zealand on May 25th for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Capcom have also announced that there will be a demo for the title, in which you can create your own character and "main" pawn that you can then use in the full game. You'll also be able to try out two classes (class selection and character creation are separate) in two different encounters, one of which will be the famous Griffin battle. The demo is headed to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from Wednesday next week.
There's no PC version planned, yet, however Capcom are on record as stating that it's possible - if the PC community are vocal enough in their requests for it.