Atari/Liquid Entertainment
Rated T

When you think Dungeons and Dragons, the letters “RTS” aren’t exactly the first thing that jumps to mind. And no, I’m not talking about bespectacled geeks clutching 20-sided die in the dark corners of the Stern Center. I’m talking about those other letters — RPG. You know, role-playing game.

In some ways, it’s astounding that nobody has thought to graft the rich D&D universe onto the real-time strategy genre before now. Leave that to the genre-blendin’ fools at Liquid Entertainment, who’ve tacked several RPG mechanics onto the traditional gather-attack hamster wheel on which so many RTS games find themselves a’spinning.

Half of the action in Dragonshard takes place above ground, where you’ll be managing your armies of dwarves, humans, and halflings in RTS-style battles. The other half occurs in dark underground caverns, where you’ll lead part of your forces on a bash-and-loot adventure that plays like a traditional RPG. (Armies of Exigo tried a bi-leveled approach last year with less success.)

You’re strictly limited, not just in where you can build but how much — there are only two resources, and most missions only allow for a maximum of 16 creature-crankers. But your units get sizable bonuses when you place similar buildings next to one another, and they also level up, RPG style, during the game’s underground missions. So while you might be tempted to recruit a diversified army — arrow-chucking rangers, blast-happy artificers, and healing clerics — you’ll end up with more powerful units if you don’t play jack-of-all-trades. The need to strategize your unit choices adds a surprising level of depth.

Multiplayer mode finds the formula working best, as you’re left wrangling big-ass battles aboveground while your adventurers are getting pummeled by beholders and mindflayers below. Dragonshard‘s too-short single-player campaign finds you controlling a series of heroes racing against two other factions to score a magical shard from an ancient crystal dragon.

Give the guys at Liquid major experience points for thinking outside the genre box — and give ’em a sequel, too, so they can hone this fine formula a little further.

Aaron R. Conklin’s best real-time strategy is to role-play an overcaffeinated slacker. Conklin writes about games regularly for the City Paper.