EDITOR'S NOTE: This review is from the perspective of a player in 2005 who went back to the Trials after the many changes made since their launch. The scores do not reflect the original state of the expansion. Also, there are currently more changes in testing for the Trials, which you can read about here and were not considered at the time this review was written.
Confessions of an Addict
Dark Age of Camelot is the online role-playing game that really introduced me to MMORPGs. Sure, I had played EverQuest, but only for a couple of hours on a friend's computer. I subsequently borrowed it and played the offline tutorial a couple of times--I believe I was addicted to the online crack even then, I just wasn't aware of it--but at the time I figured I never pursued it. However, in late 2001, my local cable provider was generous enough to provide cable internet service in my neck of the woods--bless them!--and I figured it was time to try out this online RPG craze that was just beginning to pick up.
I read a few reviews for the circa-2001 MMORPGs, checked out scores of screenshots, and in November decided that Dark Age of Camelot was for me. I snagged a friend, insisted that he buy a copy of his own, and it was all downhill from there. I played for endless hours, like any good addict, learning the online lingo, words like "ding" and "mobs" and "agg." It was a tough learning curve, to be sure, but surmounting the initial confusion and learning the game and the interface made Dark Age of Camelot that much more...mine...if that makes any sense. There was a sense of belonging to the community, to the game, that I had never really gotten from any other game. I was addicted for over two years straight, enjoying the new content offered by Shrouded Isles when it landed, and really looking forward to the new features promised in the second expansion, Trials of Atlantis.
Unfortunately, Trials of Atlantis was a mixed bag for many, including myself, when it hit the shelves in November of 2003. It's hard to say, in just an introduction, what was so right--and so wrong--with Trials of Atlantis. It was the expansion that seemed to hail the end of my addiction--not the single cause in and of itself, but soon after housing hit in the summer of the following year, my friend and I had moved on to other games, in an MMORPG limbo of sorts, waiting for our next great addiction. I think by that point we were also a bit tired of the realm versus realm combat, other than the battlegrounds (this was before the Frontiers revamp), and also tired of farming the massive shared dungeon called Darkness Falls. Because of this, we were ready for some new high end content other than Caer Sidi or bashing that silly dragon.
The Trials Proper
Trials of Atlantis was not to be another Shrouded Isles. The latter offered more content, classes and races, but didn't really add any new wrinkles to the gameplay itself. It was great, for what it was, but it was still more of the same. Trials of Atlantis aspired to be much more than just thirty bucks of standard content.
Instead of raising the level cap above 50, Trials of Atlantis offered players abilities attained by gaining master levels. To break it down, there are eight different paths available: banelord, battlemaster, convoker, perfecter, sojourner, spymaster, stormlord and warlord. Each path consists of ten different ranks. Each rank grants the character one new ability. However, there are only two paths available to any given class, and the paths available are different from class to class (see here for the list of paths available to each class). For example, my 50 Paladin was able to choose between Warlord or Battlemaster. Battlemaster seemed like more of a mano-a-mano warrior ability than Warlord, which offered many point-blank area-of-effect abilities and buffs, so I chose the latter.
However, attaining master levels and opening the new ranks and abilities isn't a simple matter. Players have to travel to the far oceanic lands of the sunken city of Atlantis in order to unlock master levels. The Atlanteans, long ago, saw that their civilization would one day fall. In order to protect the power and secrets of Atlantis after its demise, the Atlanteans devised a devious, taxing series of Trials in order to protect their magical ruins. It is these Trials that players must overcome in order to attain the ten different master level ranks.
I was very interested in the Trials themselves, when Trials of Atlantis was first released. Unlike the more quest-heavy MMORPGs that have appeared in the last couple of years, Dark Age of Camelot was originally very thin on questing. What questing there was in the game typically called for lots of deliveries and time spent AFK on horses following automatic routes from point A to B, B to C, etc. Trials of Atlantis seemed to offer a new land filled to the brim with mystery, quests and encounters, and overall it did just that--but it also shipped with quite a few problems and bugs.
To begin with, the Trials themselves were far too ambiguous, and many tasks were downright unclear from the brief text available. Of course, I'm sure this was intended to lend to the mystery of the dozen new Atlantean zones, but the ambiguity seemed to make much of the content damned near impermeable until the player base had figured much of it out, posted the various results online, and then began adventuring together in order to unlock the levels in a more structured manner. Nowadays, however, the various Trial descriptions seem to be less ambiguous, and players don't have to do each step in order, which was a pain when the expansion was first released, and there are often raids centered around gaining a single master level.
The biggest obstacle, for many--including myself--was that a large percentage of the steps were turned toward battlegroups, meaning groups consisting of more than just a single eight-man group. As such, it took a large, dedicated, raid-sized group of players quite a while to finish up just one of the many encounters, by and large. A knowledgeable player could run a larger group from step to step, but it still took quite a while, and it was often hard to muster enough people to take on the trials, particularly the latter trials. The high-level Trials of Atlantis content was just too hardcore for many, and put off many a more casual player, including myself.
Fortunately, many of the Trials of Atlantis problems have been fixed through various patches. It is currently much easier to earn master level experience, which is needed for some of the master level ranks; many of the encounters require fewer players to accomplish; and a ton of Trials bugs were quashed. There is still a section of the Camelot player base which dislikes, even loathes, the Trials. Recently, Mythic themselves created two new servers running on "classic" rules, meaning that the Atlantis zones and the master levels have been removed from the servers.
Aside from the Trials and the master levels, which comprise the core of the Trials of Atlantis expansion, Mythic also upgraded the graphics engine. The terrain has gotten the majority of the attention. Mythic is able to add different layers to the textures, creating a much more detailed appearance, be it snow or grass, road or swamp. On top of this, a new technology called SpeedTree also enabled more detailed, lush trees without a demand on performance. Reflective water has also been added, which adds quite a bit to any water area, but really shines in the new Atlantean areas, which are quite beautiful.
Look, Ma, I'm a Fish!
Another addition to the game, implemented for obvious reasons, is the ability to swim underwater. Breathing underwater for extended periods of time is troublesome for the best of adventurers. Knowing this, the vendors in Camelot have concocted different potions that allow players to breathe underwater. These potions come in various quantities, and differ in how long players can breathe underwater and in the speed increases granted as well. The very best potions are, of course, player made, and can be a bit more expensive, but they are well worth it.
Underwater exploration can certainly be disorienting, and mouselook is a must, but the underwater environs are surprisingly interesting and fun to explore, although I certainly suggest looking up a crafter for the best potions in order to do so at more than a snail's pace.
Although Trials of Atlantis does not add new character classes to the mix, it does bring a new race to each realm. We of the Avalon realm have received the half ogre, a massive brute of an...ogre...who at first glance would appear to be a simple meatshield, but is also attuned to the magics of the realms due to his Avalonian heritage. New to Midgard are the Frostalf peoples, a bluish/gray race hailing from the coldest areas of Midgard. Also, the Shar, an evil race distrusted by the Elves, have also joined the fight with Hibernia.
In addition to the many items added to the game in Trials of Atlantis, Mythic also introduced the artifact. When first discovered, artifacts are dead items. Players activate and power up artifacts by farming various items and melding them with the artifact, thus unlocking the latent magic housed within. Early on, artifact drops were tough to farm, and it took forever to activate an artifact. Then players watched in sad dismay as all of their toils became naught as the artifact decayed... Fortunately, artifact drops are easier to obtain now, and artifacts don't decay, making them some of the most interesting objects in the game.
Looking back over the last two years, it's tough for me to review Trials of Atlantis. It was one of the reasons I quit playing two years ago. Of course, I've dropped in from time to time to chat with friends, piddle with low level toons, but Dark Age of Camelot quit being my main squeeze in early 2004. Coming back to it recently has been very interesting. It has been a breath of fresh air to see what has changed, where the game has headed, how the community has evolved, and what has been fixed. I have become excited, once again, about the master levels in the game. Although I tend to ignore my Avalon toons nowadays, and play my new Bonedancer, I do intend on discovering a few more Atlantean secrets...