Since I'm a long time player of the Heroes of Might and Magic series, I felt right at home with another fantasy turn-based strategy game. The general formula is always the same: build an army, gather resources, explore the world, and kick ass. How a game goes about implementing that is what sets it apart from others. Disciples II presented me with an immersive environment; it has a very "hands on" feel to it. The game's best feature is its simplicity. It was very easy to dive right in and start playing without memorizing a bunch of complex rules first. If you strip the game down to its core elements, you'll find that there really isn't that much to it. And yet that's what makes it fun. You can do a lot with just a few basic concepts.
My favorite gameplay aspect was that you cannot win with firepower alone. I've found that the best party is the one that's most diverse. Units that aid the party are invaluable despite the fact that they usually have no offensive attack. There's also no concept of "stacks" of creatures like in the HoMM games. Your parties are instead made up of individuals. This was a big change for me and in many respects it was a change for the better. It meant that I could now level up each of my units rather than just the leader. A player now feels closer to the units he commands as he is more intimately involved with their development. The Leadership skill, therefore, should be prized for allowing you command a wider variety of troops rather than simply more troops.
Combat in Disciples II is up close and personal
The one thing that bugged me was that I was never concerned about my units dying. Death in this game is far from final. A dead unit's experience points are so valuable that it's more than worth it to pay to revive it than replace it with a level 1 unit. As long as you have enough gold and a nearby town at which to heal, your army can continute to fight indefinitely (unless it is completely defeated of course). On the plus side, non-permanent death presents an interesting strategic element. You will always need a steady income to heal your units. Because the four factions are so well balanced, it's virtually impossible to emerge from a fight unscathed. No creature deals an insignificant amount of damage, so it's almost a requirement to enter every battle at full health. Since you're constantly paying to heal your units, you never reach a point of effectively infinite money. During the endgame period of most TBS games, you often have more money than you could possibly hope to spend. This is not true in Disciples II.
The graphics in Disciples II are gorgeous. The creature models are stunning and the adventure map is a sight to behold. The color palette used is rather dark, adding to the atmosphere. Just by scrolling around the map a bit, the player can "feel" that something evil is amiss. There is one nagging problem though. If you're playing the Legions of the Damned or the Undead Hordes, you CAN'T SEE ANYTHING without banners turned on. Their native terrain colors, and thus the colors of adventure objects near your capitol, cause neutral parties to blend into the background. This display artifact is so severe that often your only clue to their presence is a red flag on the pathfinder. "So turn on the banners," you say? The trouble there is that the banners are far from discreet. They tend to cover up a lot of space and take away quite a bit from the ambiance. In short, playing with banners on makes the game less immersive. The best solution I've found so far is to toggle the banners on and off just to make sure I haven't missed anything.
"The graphics in Disciples II are gorgeous."
The capitol screens are pretty too, but don't seem to serve any actual purpose. The different structures flash into view for a couple of seconds after they're built, but they blend in so well that I'll forget where they are shortly after leaving the capitol. I really can't tell whether or not a specific building is there without looking at the build tree. That means my attention is focused on the right sidebar rather than the town graphic. Clicking on a particular structure in the town graphic takes you directly to its build tree, but that requires you to find it first. As a new player, I need stuff like this to stick out in order to notice it. Perhaps a seasoned veteran would know where the buildings are, but if I'm not looking for them now, I don't see myself finding them in the future.
Disciples II definitely has the "just one more turn" thing going for it. I've completely lost track of time on more than one occasion while playing. What struck me as odd was that there was no concept of score. You can spend as long as you want on a quest with no negative effects. In this light, the standalone quests are rather unrewarding. It's just, "Congratulations, you won." Kind of anticlimactic, don't you think? You're allowed to export your leader for use in custom sagas, but not everyone likes to create their own scenarios. It looks like the main sagas are where all the fun is. The standalone quests will probably serve as some "last-minute" entertainment before the game goes back on the shelf for a while.
"You're allowed to export your leader for use in custom sagas..."
The sagas can be played from any side, so that means you have effectively four campaigns in one. The four factions are quite unique so each side of a saga is a new experience. Because there is no score, however, a player has no incentive to do better once he's completed the game. Die hard fans will want the bigger challenge that comes from upping the difficulty level, but casual gamers will probably only play each quest once. One could conceiveably use the higher difficulty settings as preparation for multiplayer, but I think that's a waste of time. The School of Hard Knocks (i.e., getting trounced a few times by a human opponent) is a far better teacher than even the best AI. Unless I'm feeling particularly masochistic (or get really good), I don't see myself ever going above the Average setting in single player.
On the whole, I would give Disciples II about a B. For those of you not familiar with the grading system from American schools, grades range from an A to an F, with A being the best. C is about average, so that means I gave this game an above average grade. It has some quirks that bugged me a bit, but overall Disciples II is a solid game. I will definitely get many hours of play time out of it.