Remember when games were hard? I don't mean "woot see my l337 gear - I had to grind for, like, 17 hours to get this" hard. I mean when you had to think about what you were doing or you'd die. When the shortcuts were few and far between and the moments of just sheer wonder at an experience popped up in the most wonderful and random ways. Remember when games made you wide eyed and amazed?
I'm guessing that we all have our MMO moments of awe. For some it's grouping up and manning a turret gun in SWG, strafing a star destroyer and trying your level best to target those tiny yellow brackets. Or maybe it's the moment in LOTRO when you first see the shattered bridge of Khazad-dûm - or that instant in Anarchy Online when you're standing for the first time in front of the implant vendors and realize that there are thousands of combinations and that the game is so wonderfully complicated it's beyond any one player to master it all.
Prompted by a blog here on MMORPG.com - yes, I do read the blogs here :-) - I downloaded Istaria. I am not a Hello Kitty funland type of player and so over the years I avoided following up on anything Istaria-like that I stumbled across, mainly because the thought of folks playing dragons reeked of pastel colored kiddy cartoons and legions of "click here to level my pet" prompts. But I popped over to the site, noticed that the dragoons looked more powerful than pastel, closed my eyes, held my breath, and hit the download button. Download went smoothly - the patcher was a bit glitchy but I got through it.
This is an older game. Characterization is limited, graphics are secure but based on much older tech. I made my human (the only option available for trial subs) and headed into the game, thinking all the while that I was dealing with the free version of EQ again and that I'd be logging in 20 minutes or so. Bear in mind at the time I was downloading and logging in for the first time I was the subject of endless ridicule by a friend who found out about my Istaria plans. It would have taken next to nothing to get me to back away from dragonville.
The first hmmmm moment came when I got to choose my profession. There are several starter classes, which then branch out into more advanced roles once you level a bit. I like this idea a lot. Remember, my first MMO was Star Wars Galaxies, where in the beginning you had to develop your skills as you grew and if you wanted to be a Jedi you had to work your butt off for it. Being able to develop the skills and abilities of my character over time was a refreshing change from say Aion where once I hit the cleric choice button I was stuck for life with the specific skills assigned to every cleric as they leveled and that was it.
I chose a profession, got a minimal amount of free gear and was sent off to kill little pig things. I don't know about you but every single MMO I've ever played has little pig things in it. And spiders of some sort ... we won't go into that. I traipsed down the road (funny and cool road buff in the game where if you're on the road you run faster than if you're off - I'm slow... I'm fast! I'm slow... I'm fast!) and found the piggy beings without much trouble. I saw a level 2 piggy and thought, "Well, I'm level 1 but how hard can it be" and started wailing away. I died. Fast. Time for my second hmmmmm.
I retreated, headed back to the oinkers and was a bit more careful this time. None of the other pigs around had aggro'd during the first fight - I had simply been killed by a mob one level above me. I slowed down, looked closely, and found a level 1 piggy. That one went down fairly well. So let's take a look at this. If i'm level 1, I can't kill a level 2 mob. For most players that might be a horrible thing, but for me it's great. I don't want to mindlessly kill mobs as I file my nails and know that I can gank anything 3 levels above me as long as I stick to autocombat with a macro running to heal and buff me. I want to actually fight, which is why I still hop over to AoC now and again just to get that awake and aware feeling during combat. If you don't use your skills in Istaria when you're fighting you die. If you don't pick your targets wisely, you die. It's not an effortless game, it's a challenging but reasonable environment.
No automatic map arrows to your quest or target blinking on your screen. No place names on the map so you really have to explore to find out what is going on. NPC map dots are named but only in your immediate area. The quests are clear but leave enough mystery so that you don't feel spoon fed or yanked around like you have a hook in your mouth. Plenty of chances to do whatever you want to profession and crafting wise and xp is generous. Levels are earned, moment by moment, and mobs are actually enemies instead of notches on your kill X number tally sheet.
There's not enough room to go into the crafting (incredibly diverse), economy (sane!), and community (again... sane but in a delightfully nutty kind of way), and just overall really intricate but fun details of playing Istaria. I will say this however. I got out of the tiny beginner area and went to my first village. I wandered here and there, saw a few NPC's, got some training and quests, and wandered up a little incline with my map open looking for a particular NPC. I saw the named dot, got to it and closed my map. I was in first person view. All I saw was blue and white and scales, and I looked up to see my first dragon. Shock and awe baby. Shock and awe.