Blizzard sweats the details of its games, and action RPGs served up Diablo-style are the house special. These spicy dishes are carefully made, but the truth is the recipe for a good Diablo clone is more fast food than fine dining. There are a few basic elements: satisfying click-based combat mechanics, a varied leveling and loot system, a bit of crafting and a dose of personality, but the formula isn't hard to follow. The few games (Torchlight, Titan Quest, etc) that made a credible attempt were successful, but the number of good spinoffs has remained bafflingly low. Bigpoint.com adds its new MMO RPG, Drakensang Online, to that select lineup and provides two unique distinctions to set it apart from its brethren: It's browser based, and it's free to play. No money or installation required.
Drakensang Online is part of a extended family of videogames derived from the classic German pen and paper RPG Das Schwarze Auge, which include the classic Realms of Arkania series from the 1990s and the more recent Dark Eye series, which started in 2008. With a screen bracketed by the familiar twin globes of health and energy, Drakensang Online's third-person interface layout is designed to make Diablo veterans feel right at home. You click the left or right mouse button to swing weapons, cast spells, use special attacks or interact with NPCs. Hotkeys allow immediate access to inventory items and tabbing performs quick swaps so multiple weapon load-outs can be prepared in advance for specialty opponents. It should all seem quite familiar, and that's no mistake.
Those used to browser-based free games looking like remedial Flash programming homework assignments will be blown away by what Bigpoint has accomplished with Drakensang Online. The engine is lush and fully 3D, with beautifully rendered environments and imaginative character designs for both players and opponents. Weather effects blow leaves through the air, mist clings to trees and flickering flames cause shadows to dance with an artistic style that evokes oil paintings come to life. What's more, the system requirements are quite modest. No multi-core CPUs or DX 11 videocards are required for the visual dividends delivered here.
Technical problems are limited to occasional screen flashes during initial area loads and the play balance and rebalance issues that always plague action RPGS. The latter have been relatively minor in Drakensang, but include enough changes to mana recovery, talents, hit point distribution and other areas for hardcore players to take note. Users reporting problems starting Drakensang from browsers are urged to try the small standalone client which seems free of these issues. I tested both browser and client versions without incident.
Many free-to-play MMOs aren't much fun without shelling out cash to ease the difficulty and soften learning curves, but Drakensang does a fine job of shielding new players from this. Creatures don't immediately overwhelm, loot drops are generous and provisions are made for a free initial re-spec to your character's talent tree should you decide your previous picks aren't cutting it. In fact, player progression is rapid enough that the FAQ advises against sinking money into improvements until around level 20-30, as anything you purchase is likely to be quickly replaced by better items you find for free away from town. Also, for many players, a 30th level character represents the entire lifespan of a game, especially if you're not fond of the PVP servers where most of the wallet-opening high-level competitive play occurs. Many casual RPG fans will find themselves satisfied without spending a dime. In fact, with Diablo 3 right around the corner, Drakensang may all the game you need to bide your time until Blizzard delivers.