The moment I started to think about how to begin this review, the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” popped into my head. At first it seemed like some kind of subconscious, knee-jerk word association between that oft-used phrase and the fact that I was thinking about Dungeon Keeper being a free-to-play game.
But when I thought about it some more, I realized what my brain was up to. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it stands to reason that there’s also no such thing as a free game. Both are there for the taking, but both have an ulterior motive. Yet while lunch can be an edible Trojan horse for many things, in the case of a game there’s but one – to liberate a steady stream of shekels from your back pocket: the more, the merrier.
The crux of the matter is, of course, just how overt and obstructive the game’s effort is to persuade you to part with your cash versus the level of entertainment it offers. I’ve played many games that have given me hours of enjoyment gratis. And I’ve played quite a few that I’ve been more than happily to sink tens of dollars into, because they were absolutely worth it. Then there are the games I’ve played that have been so clumsy and cumbersome in the way that they demand money that they’ve sucked any enjoyment out of playing them. Dungeon Keeper is one such game, and it sucks the fun out of playing it like the vacuum of space sucks oxygen out of an open airlock.
Which is a bitter, bitter disappointment. I was shown Dungeon Keeper a few months ago, and was excited about the prospect of playing, or should that be re-playing the beloved classic from ye olden days of late last century. During the extremely short 20 minutes I was allowed to spend with the game, it looked like it was going in the right direction. The graphics looked great. The original game’s voiceover was back. The gameplay seemed to be following the formula that made Peter Molyneux’ original so brilliant.
But no. Nope. No siree bob. ‘Tis not to be. My first impressions were indeed right, but play it for a little more than the 20 minutes I was originally shown, and it becomes apparent that what initially looks like Dungeon Keeper and plays like Dungeon Keeper is not Dungeon Keeper. It’s a sad, knock-off of a wannabe, faux-Dungeon Keeper, whose engagingly cartoon-like façade is wrapped around a pay-to-play business model whose tin-cup-rattling rots it to its core.
Dungeon Keeper is a classic, and it absolutely deserves a modern-day makeover. But the problem is, Dungeon Keeper was simply never designed to accommodate a modern day, free-to-play business model, and hammering one as intrusive and gameplay-crippling as the one that has been inserted into this updated version has wrecked it.
Things start out fine, but very quickly you realize everything you do requires resources, and once you quickly run out of resources, it becomes a game of waiting… and waiting… and waiting – unless, of course, you open your wallet and start inserting coins to continue. I’ve played many of games that have successfully used money as means to essentially buy time or speed up progress. Their gameplay has been engaging enough, and their wait time not so intrusive to keep me coming back – and when I really want to play right now, I don’t mind spending a bit of cash, because they're worth the investment. Dungeon Keeper gets it all wrong. So much so, I’m sure it’ll become the poster child for anyone waiting to point out the ills of the free-to-play model.
Mining out your dungeon is slow, and improving, acquiring and moving things around is painful. Everything that was great about the original has been turned into a grind. Even what should be the most entertaining part of the game – its PvP – has somehow had the fun extracted from it. You can attack other players, and other players can attack you – but it’s a pointless exercise with little consequence or feeling of involvement.
Ultimately, Dungeon Keeper isn’t the definitive example of how free-to-play can suck – though it does make a great case for itself. It’s the perfect example of why some games just need an old-fashioned thing called a single payment cost. Bereft of its paywall BS, I’d happily pay $5 or even $10 for a proper Dungeon Keeper that plays like the original. But I can't, and that's the end of it.
The tragedy of Dungeon Keeper is that every so often, it shows glimpses of what makes it great. You can see the classic game is in there somewhere: its genius, and what it could have been. But then the gates slam shut, as though the Dungeon Keeper himself is kept in a larger meta-dungeon, whose bean-counting overlord tells you to come back later, or maybe even tomorrow. Or pay up.