Jeremy Harnage & Robert Steinman
E3 2015: Sword Coast Legends Hands-On Preview
You got your pen & paper RPG in my console!
06.17.15 - 8:39 PM

Sword Coast Legends is trying to fill some pretty big shoes. Developer N-Space talked about trying to harken back to the days of Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age: Origins, with strong roleplaying combat in an isometric space. With a world steeped in Forgotten Realms lore and running on the fifth edition rules set, the game wears its Dungeons and Dragons heritage boldly and proudly. But SCL goes a step further by recreating the best parts of table-top gaming, as players will get the opportunity to make life a living hell for their friends by playing as a tyrannical Dungeon Master. Thankfully, editors Jeremy Harnage and Rob Steinman got to play on both sides of the DM screen, and they came away with very different experiences based on their time as a heroic necromancer and bizarrely spider-crazed DM, respectively.

Hands-On Preview (Player Mode):

Upon being thrust into the world of Sword Coast Legends, some things were immediately familiar. After briefly surveying the screen in front of me, I was immediately comfortable with the layout and setup presented. A mini-map and a slew of abilities were already available, and anyone familiar with Dragon Age: Origins should feel right at home with the controls. In fact, things are so similar that players can even stop time to formulate battle strategies on the fly. This should come as no surprise, since several members of the Sword Coast team worked on Dragon Age: Origins.

However, while I would love to continue making comparisons between the two games, this is where the similarities stop. My journey began with the assignment of my character. I was given command of Hammet, "the necromancer with a heart of gold!" Alongside me, 3 other players were assigned to Jarhild Stoneforge, Larethar Gulgrin, and Illydia Maethellyn.

We set off in our randomly-generated dungeon hoping for the best. We were able to immediately activate abilities and make spot checks, even in the beginning area. I personally tossed on a melee damage buff, then began slowly following our tank into the dungeon. However, once we happened upon an actual enemy, everything broke down. Several spiders attacked, and each of us struggled to actually target and control the fight. There's definitely something to be said for thrusting people unfamiliar with a setup into a fight, and a tutorial may alleviate some of the issues, but so far, the actual combat isn't intuitive at all. Simply right-clicking an enemy didn't cause me to engage, and each ability required me to manually target the enemy or choose a spot for an AoE attack. While this may not sound like a huge deal, having to do so for every single fight quickly became cumbersome and annoying. Movement was also quite the ordeal, and every time I was targeted by an enemy, getting away and surviving was almost impossible. I wasn't able to quickly turn and run, and many times was forced to sit and watch as I was quickly dismantled by the multitude of spiders.

But, we trudged on. Halfway through, we were presented with a mid-boss, placed there by our ever-present Dungeon Master. The mid-boss itself was immediately discernible, but didn't stand out as anything more than an evil wizard. We made our way past him in short order, stopping to discover and disarm several traps along the way. Our rogue discovered the traps, making spot checks accordingly. A few rooms later, we happened upon our first truly impressive game model. An enormous spider descended from the ceiling, immediately flooding the room with a sense of intimidation and danger. The sheer size of the monster was amazing, and taking it down with a shower of meteors was even more satisfying.

This final encounter was just enough to give me hope. Sword Coast Legends is trying to do many things, and the title is nothing if not ambitious. While things may not seem amazing combat-wise, Iím still excited to see where things will go.

Hands-On Preview (Dungeon Master Mode):

Truth be told, I was always a terrible DM in my Dungeons and Dragons group back in high school. I often grew bored with worrying about armor ratings, damage modifiers and general creativity for encounters, but the idea of pushing the party just far enough to the brink and seeing if they could fight back was a purely intoxicating experience that kept me coming back for more. Sword Coast Legends could possibly satiate my growing thirst while I spend time deciding if a freezing spike trap surrounded by giant death spiders will force the party to run away from the powerful treasure in the next room.

What struck me most about this mode was how intuitive it was to a first time player. Menus clearly designate and parse all of the different functions one would want in dungeon and quest creation. You can place dead bodies (and nasty bloodstains, too!) to create a sense of dread, or add booby trapped chests to entice would-be adventurers to venture off the beaten path. My villainous tendencies were slightly restricted by a resource that must be used in order to place hazards and enemies in the world, and it only refills when the party accomplishes tasks or overcomes adversity. Greater dangers understandably cost more, preventing overzealous DMs from littering the world with level twenty dragons.

DMs also control the ebb and flow of combat both indirectly and directly. You can promote or demote enemies, making them more dangerous or perhaps giving a slight respite if things get too tough. I was reminded of the glorious AI director in Left 4 Dead, though now I'm the one making the decisions instead of math calculations. All of the dungeons are randomly generated, but one could argue this keeps the focus on the encounters instead of level design. The developers told me I would have the opportunity to directly control the giant spider at the end of the dungeon, but the party killed the poor harmless creature too fast for me to fully comprehend everything I was capable of.

The developers talked a great deal about balancing the DM side of things as I placed a near endless supply of spider eggs and traps in a room, and this seems to be the make or break part of SCL for me. At this current stage, it seemed way too easy for me to completely overwhelm the party and end their pathetic existence (though a "cheat" kept at least one party member alive at all times for purposes of the demo build). I could directly target party members to make sure the healer stayed on the ground at all times, continue to swarm them with more and more enemies and traps, and even spawn some hard-hitting beasties directly behind them so long as they were out of a fairly small threat range. It was all good fun on my end, but I can imagine this being an utter nightmare for the heroes.

Sword Coast Legends seems to be working towards a pretty fun goal. Recreating all of those endless nights in my buddy's basement is quite noble, though I don't know if Iím prepared for the responsibility of making fun for both me and the party on the other side of things. With the ability to create quests and stories in addition to death traps, SCL will certainly create some interesting stories for those dedicated to use all of its systems and mechanics to the fullest.