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Dwarf Fortress (PC) artwork

Dwarf Fortress (PC) review


"Recently, there’s been a big fad in PC Gaming of so-called “independent” developers releasing games that had potential, but ultimately were garbage or not totally fleshed out. Then came Dwarf Fortress. Programmed entirely by one man under the auspices of his company, Bay 12 Games, Dwarf Fortress is what happens when an independent developer has an idea and fleshes it out properly. On paper, Dwarf Fortress sounds like the single worst idea ever – an RTS done entirely in ASCII graphics, Nethack st..."



Recently, there’s been a big fad in PC Gaming of so-called “independent” developers releasing games that had potential, but ultimately were garbage or not totally fleshed out. Then came Dwarf Fortress. Programmed entirely by one man under the auspices of his company, Bay 12 Games, Dwarf Fortress is what happens when an independent developer has an idea and fleshes it out properly. On paper, Dwarf Fortress sounds like the single worst idea ever – an RTS done entirely in ASCII graphics, Nethack style. What makes the game good is not the graphics, but the massively complex RTS underneath it.

Dwarf Fortress starts by creating a world. First, the game designs the geography and climate. Then it creates civilizations, and runs the world through several thousand years of history, generating hundreds of thousands of historical figures – everything from dwarven peasants and goblin raiders to legendary heroes and kings. Each world supports three different game modes. First is Fortress mode, the focus of the game. Under that are Adventurer mode and Legends mode, where you take control of an adventurer or historical figure and explore the world, including the fortresses you make. While Adventurer and Legends are fine game modes, they’re not totally fleshed out yet and are not the focus of the game.

The next step in Fortress mode is to find a site for your new Dwarven civilization to embark on. You could go the easy route and find a nice mountain made entirely of soft, loamy soil with a nice temperate environment and let your dwarves live the easy life. On the other hand, you could make them live in the middle of an active volcano or inside a settlement full of goblins, the sworn enemies of the dwarves. Each area has distinct advantages and disadvantages. For instance, building on a volcano is great if you want to make traps and forges using magma, but finding water and trees for wood early on will be impossible. However, volcanoes can contain rare metals, including the Dwarven holy grail, adamantine.

Once you’ve picked a site to embark on, you are given control over what your dwarves will bring with them to their new home. This can be as easy as letting the game give you a balanced starting team and balanced starting equipment, or as hard as micromanaging the skill sets of each of your dwarves and exactly how much of each item you are bringing. The best part about this is that success is possible either way.

Then the game shifts to an RTS, and you begin making your dwarves their new home. There’s a lot of work to be done: digging out the fortress, finding a source of water and wood, making stockpiles to protect your food from spoiling or being eaten by vermin – and those are the simple ones. There’s still things like setting traps and making an army, engraving all the stone in your fortress to boost its value to attract nobles and immigrants, and getting your fortress ready to trade with visiting caravans from nearby human and elven settlements. The first few years will be spent getting your fortress ready, and then the entire game changes. The goblins start launching attacks on your fort that get more and more frequent. At first, it’s just a few babysnatchers out to steal your dwarf children. Then they start bringing archers and foot soldiers. Then they bring in trolls – the goblin equivalent of dwarven siege engines.

One other thing that Dwarf Fortress has is a huge depth to each individual unit. Even the simplest peasant has thoughts and desires. Your ultimate objective is to keep morale high, which prevents your dwarves from throwing tantrums. Tantrums are politically-correct speak for going postal and killing anything in sight, and are also extremely dangerous. Say, for instance, that your Champion Hammerlord gets pushed into lava and dies. His wife will tantrum. His wife’s good friends, upon seeing the wife in tantrums, will proceed to tantrum themselves. This will eventually cause a chain reaction which ends up with most of your dwarves dead and the remaining ones passed out on the ground just waiting for the goblins to kill them. Dwarves can also get “strange moods” which cause them to rush to a workshop and try to make an artifact. Get them the materials they want, and they’ll make an extremely valuable item and have one skill raised to maximum. Fail, and your dwarf will have one of several reactions, anywhere from starving themselves to death to flipping out and killing people.

The one thing that is honestly not good about Dwarf Fortress is the total lack of any kind of graphics. ASCII is fine for something like Nethack, where there are only so many different symbols. However, for a game like Dwarf Fortress, which uses practically every character in ASCII to represent something, this is bluntly unacceptable. Fortunately, there are user-created tilesets that are very easy to use and eliminate most of the guesswork as to what you are looking at, though honestly I wonder why the developer never included one with the game. Once you get past the graphics, though, Dwarf Fortress is amazing.

The other problem with Dwarf Fortress is that the game has a massive amount of slowdown when there are many units present on screen at once, due to the volumes of information on every unit. While the game allows for a full two hundred dwarf fortress by default, increasing that number at all will result in massive game slowdown and crashes. Also, selecting a starting area that’s much bigger than the standard one will result in massive slowdown. However, this really isn’t a problem until your fortress has been around for many years, and the game is still in active development.

There’s really far too much to go into with Dwarf Fortress. The game is so deep that even the most experienced players have not discovered everything. Dwarf Fortress is a free download from Bay 12’s website, as is the tileset to go with it. To truly understand Dwarf Fortress, you have to play it.

Dwarf Fortress gets an 8 from me. If you’re not a fan of Nethack or other text-based series, you may or may not agree. The game is still in active development, and could easily achieve a 9 once the code is optimized and the rest of the features are added in.

Rating: 8/10

timrod's avatar
Community review by timrod (June 23, 2008)

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