Creating expansions for MMORPGs has become an art form, it would seem. As the genre begins to settle somewhat, and starts to take on standards learned from aging veterans like Ultima Online and EverQuest, it becomes at once easier to craft an expansion, and tougher to craft a great expansion. A great expansion can keep current players happy for another year, or even bring in new players; a bad expansion can ruin the experience for veterans, and possibly scare off recruits. Mythic, the creators of Dark Age of Camelot, offered up Shrouded Isles in late 2002, a year after the original game's release. At the time, it seemed like a very thorough expansion, and kept me playing for another year. In hindsight, it seems more like a very safe expansion. It would take another year for the next expansion, Trials of Atlantis, to make a bolder step, but in retrospect Trials was more of a stumble, and I'm happier with what Shrouded Isles offered beyond the original Dark Age of Camelot.
The original Dark Age of Camelot was an evolution on EverQuest, centered on an ongoing war between three separate realms: Albion, based on Arthurian legend; Hibernia, of Celtic origins; and Midgard, a decidedly Nordic realm. Each realm, on all but the cooperative servers, was completely insulated from the other two realms, except for the RvR (Realm versus Realm) areas. It was in these areas that all three realms clashed over possession of various relics kept in keeps. Dark Age of Camelot offered a nominally engaging treadmill not unlike that of EverQuest, but topped it off with some brilliant PvP options in the form of RvR combat.
When I first fired up Shrouded Isles, the most immediately obvious change to the original Dark Age of Camelot was in the graphics department. Many of the textures had been updated, and of particular note were the updated shadow and water graphics. The shadows were much more realistic than the original "blob" shadow, and water rippled and reflected. Strangely enough, the changes improved the frame rate for raiding and such, meaning that when forty Hibernians ran through your side of Darkness Falls, the frame-per-second didn't drop to an abysmal .03 for twenty seconds as they passed. The frame rate improvement was a nice change from the upwardly-mobile system requirements found in most MMORPG expansions. Subsequent expansions, Trials of Atlantis and Catacombs, also continued to improve on the aging Dark Age of Camelot engine, and although the franchise isn't as colorful and artistic as World of Warcraft, or as technologically amazing as EverQuest II, it can still hold its own almost four years after Mythic released the original.
Shrouded Isles added a total of three new races, one per realm, to the original game. The Inconnu, a dark underground race, were new to Albion; Hibernia received the Sylvan race, a druidic people resembling humanoid trees; and Midgard picked up the hunched Valkyn, a race of tribal cats. Overall, each race offered slight tweaks to the stats found on the other existing races, but were still different enough visually, and in the context of the game, to warrant a try. Besides, the Inconnu were just too cute to ignore.
On top of this, Mythic also added six new classes, two to each realm:
The Reaver and Necromancer classes were new to Albion. Reavers are a hybrid of sorts offering a melee character with some interesting spell choices, relying mainly on debuffs, lifetaps and the new flexible weapons, and are limited to chain. The Necromancer class, on the other hand, is a pet class which relies solely on his or her pet to survive. While the pet is alive, the Necromancer is an ethereal shade, but if the pet is destroyed, the Necromancer becomes visible with a bare minimum of hit points, and is easily destroyed.
The Valewalker and Animist classes were new to Hibernia. The Animist is a unique pet class in that he or she can summon various types of plants, from "turrets" to "bombers," instead of typical pets. The Valewalker, on the other hand, is a hybrid tank limited to cloth, but capable of casting powerful self-buffing spells making the cloth much more powerful. Valewalkers also specialize in the large Scythe as a main weapon.
Lastly, Midgard picked up the Bonedancer and the Savage classes. The Bonedancer is another pet class, but he or she can create an army of pets, depending on the Bonedancer's level. The player only controls the commander of the army, the size of which is limited to three pets at the highest levels. The other pets follow and assist the commander. Conversely, the Savage is a furious hand-to-hand fighter who exchanges hit points for buffs of every sort, from evades attacking speed, and makes for a high-DPS light tank.
Mythic also added a new continent to each realm--Albion acquired Avalon, Hibernia received Hybrasil, and Aegir came to Midgard. The new areas took advantage of the updated Shrouded Isles graphics engine, and looked substantially better than even the improved original areas. Mythic supported each island with its own history and plot, as well as quests, encounters and dungeons. The epic dungeons are worth noting for anyone needing to grind those last few levels. I had many good times in Avalon City, but it was also hell to grind those last few levels, and I am not sure I could do it again.
Gone were the days of quiet strolls across the countryside. Shrouded Isles added new ambient music, which helped to set the mood for outlying areas. Although it can become tiresome after some time, even now it is still a welcome change from the utter silence pierced only by the scratching of cricket legs in the original Dark Age of Camelot. Nothing beats spinning a good System of a Down disc for ambiance, or whatever your musical preference may be.
Overall, even today, Shrouded Isles is a very solid expansion pack. Mythic hedged their bets and apparently went with the motto, "content, content, content!" The new races, classes and areas--coupled with slight interface changes, new music and graphics--were certainly welcome additions to anyone already addicted to Dark Age of Camelot. Unfortunately, other than new takes on the same experience through the various new classes, there was nothing in the expansion pack that fundamentally altered the game experience. New players were not given additional tutorials to assuage the frustrating time spent trying to figure out what in the world--I mean, err, Albion...or Hibernia...or Midgard--was going on. The lack of a tutorial was very frustrating when I started. Since Shrouded Isles, however, Mythic has added a brief tutorial catering to fresh players, and has also added lines of quests and tasks early on which explain much more than the few quests in the original game, which were woefully inadequate.
Shrouded Isles, ultimately, provided a broader platform from which to launch subsequent free and retail expansions, carrying players through another year as Mythic worked on Trials of Atlantis and adding free housing. Looking back, I loved the expansion, and I played voraciously for another year after it was released. It didn't break the game, nor did it fundamentally alter or improve the original, but after only a year since the release original release of Dark Age of Camelot, more of the same was apparently enough for me.