Dungeon Runners Hands-On

Posted by: Randy at 6/25/2007 3:35 AM
The free-to-play business model is gaining speed and relevance in the massively multiplayer online market.  "Speed," as the free-to-play's current crown holder is of course Guild Wars, while other subscription-free MMOs -- by design or through slack member counts -- are falling in step:  Adventure Quest, America's Army, Anarchy Online, Aranock, ArchLord, and Azurah Online are a solid handful (and that's only looking at the A's).  "Relevance," as the options are wildly diverse and standing in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds all waving their arms, vying for your attention.  All the while, it appears as though World of Warcraft (neither free purchase nor free to play) has carved out the first pinnacle and (temporary) plateau for sheer subscriber numbers available, and the average 9 to 5, or weekly allowance, only garners you just so many greenbacks to digitally crank out each month...

Amidst all this malarchy it's still rather surprising, then, that a free-to-play (and free to purchase) title earns such warm regards from the critical media and likewise gains a solid handhold on a player base.  NCsoft, purveyors of the aforementioned Guild Wars along with Lineage and City of Heroes, introduces Dungeon Runners, which costs nothing to download, nothing to subscribe to, and is nothing if not enjoyable.

Dungeon Runners, which is an unabashed disciple from the Diablo School of Smash n' Grab gameplay, ain't got nothin' to prove, and proves that such an unfettered approach allows the development team to really get in touch with their inner parody.  The often bewildered and bewildering NPCs parade their speech with the amateur flair of a weeklong LARP seminar, and their greatest pleasure is doling out pedestrian fantasy tropes with camp-tastic enthusiasm.  That's a convoluted way of saying: You'll get a few chuckles out of it.  There are even stabs at 'highbrow' literary comedy, as one dungeon (named Algernon) is filled with Whiskers (rat people).  If you don't know what classic they're referencing, then don't worry about it -- that story sucks anyway.

For those of you raised to believeYou Get What You Pay For, there is the option for you to shell out a five-dollar bill each month to access the premium pieces of equipment -- and a game like Dungeon Runners is certainly all about the equipment.  After level 5 or so, the difficulty curve begins a precarious ascent, and several dissenters on the forums claim that the game is nigh impossible at the higher levels without the premium $4.99 membership equipment.  Regardless, grouping is an obvious and viable option if the randomly-generated dungeons are getting too hot to handle.  Membership also grants you access to a bank of extra slots for stashing more equipment, which delays the hard-edged questions of whether you should drop your "Vengeful Rusty Full Plate of the Liger" or your "Contagious Designer Beads of the Launching Lama."  Tough decisions, indeed.  Also, health and mana potions won't stack in your inventory unless you're a member; the bottles and bottles of potions required for dungeon delving will eat up plenty of inventory space otherwise.  And, let's be honest, NCsoft made sure that the coolest-looking arms and armor are reserved for those willing to part with their Lincolns each month.  You never look like a street urchin if you play for free, but you'll know you're outclassed the moment you rub elbows with a paying Dungeon Runner.

The classless character progression sweetens the non-commitment deal, as you can freely shift your play style between the fighter, ranger, and mage classes at will,  as you're able to respec your ability points at any time (for the low in-game price of 199 gold pieces).

You've nothing to lose by giving Dungeon Runners a fair shake -- nothing, that is, except a lunch break or two, and any other spare minutes you have for a quick kick-in-the-door, wave-in-the-broadsword session.  It ain't deep, it sure ain't epic, and it ain't gonna estrange you from your family for days on end … all of which is exactly what Dungeon Runners sets out to accomplish from the very beginning.