For some reason I am convinced that somewhere out there is an MMORPG perfect for me in every way possible, I just haven’t found it yet. Throughout the course of 2011 I have thrown money at new titles, some good, some not so, and have discovered that actually I might be wrong, and my quest futile.
But those of us who follow this hobby termed “massively multiplayer” will know that admitting defeat and simply giving up on a virtual oblivion of goblins and pointy swords is easier said than done. Like many, instead of laying down my mouse and keyboard in defeat, I have started to look back, explore avenues thought long since wild and obscured, and decided to try my hand at finding entertainment in what could be termed as the “MMOILFs” of the genre. This is where Asheron’s Call comes into the picture.
Asheron, ever tried /shout?
In an arena dominated by shapely and beautifully crafted online games, the now decade old Asheron’s Call can’t help but cut a wrinkled, and yes, incontinence tinged figure. Whether or not you are open about your preference for stunning HD visuals or not, a lot of the appeal of videogaming comes from the idea of pushing the boundaries of technology. While I am sure that many of you will nod curtly at your copy of Dwarf Fortress at such a statement, it is simply fact that the whole lot of us are nothing more salivating hounds, the equivalent of gaming whores the moment any developer jiggles a bit of anisotropic filtering here, and an EXTREME quality setting there. Asheron’s Call graphical capabilities have dated past yelps of “it looks charmingly retro” and in reality looks as crude as its age may suggest.
But we have started off far too negative haven’t we? Sure, I could tell you how bad this game looks, and boy does it look bad, but there is definitely something more to this old timer that will make you stay beyond the initial horror of its graphical misgivings.
I started my journey in the lands of Asheron’s Call by sculpting an avatar to perfection; perhaps through years of increasingly simple character creation tools, or my general slumped, half-conscious modus operandi of approaching gaming these days, but the extensive choices in Asheron’s Call are enough to make anyone stand to attention. Gone are the usual “do you want to be a big angry looking thing with a shiny shiny or a small gentile looking think with a spark sparky?” but actual choices in how you want to approach the game. From an extensive selection of races to the application of attribute points in to certain areas, Turbine’s original MMO harks back to that old tradition of you know, thinking about what kind of experience you wish to have from the game. It is kind of refreshing in a way.
So after several minutes of gawking at the screen and clicking about I finally settle on a blue skinned warrior type with a predilection for Axe warfare and a talent for “jumping”. Clicking to the furthest echelons of the character creation screens, I am hit by an unfamiliar and yet long sought after sight – the “select a starting location” screen. At what point did developers show this little nuance the door and throw its clothes out of the windows like a scorned lover? The multiple starting locations that Turbine gives the player are like a shot nostalgia mainlined into your system through the eyeball; regardless of age, beauty, or even entertainment, this element alone will have many crashing around in pursuit of their debit cards.
Picking the most northern starting point I can find, I find myself hurtling through a wormhole and appearing in the game’s tutorial. Looking around the visuals are a mixture of archaic textures and stilted animations, but there is a slight charm to be had from the indoor locations. The newbie section in Asheron's Call is a deliciously "old school" attempt at guiding new players through the various concepts of the MMORPG genre. Rather than the now traditional "!" appearing above NPCs’ heads, players have to actually blindly double-click anything resembling a human to find out scraps of information, and even after this you must wait for the text to appear in the chat channel rather than a pop-up menu detailing your next moves.
In a way the untouched and almost dusty feel of Asheron's Call will add to the atmosphere for anyone wishing for that truly "traditional" MMORPG feel. Nothing is particularly spoon -fed, and for the most part the player is expected to have an idea of how to actually play a role-playing game, and how to wield both mouse and keyboard. For anyone coming from years upon years of new-comer tedium, Asheron's Call will feel like a perfect fit.
Going beyond the tutorial section with my blue-skinned, and now crown wearing warrior, and things do start to unravel ever so slightly. After passing through a pinkish portal, players will find themselves within reach of a small settlement, and with advice to talk to a certain NPC for what could be loosely termed as a beginner quest. The landscape and scenery paints a vivid picture of the tired nature of the game: the floor is nothing but grey repeated textures; the only break in open blandness are a few scattered trees and plants. Everything looks dated and ugly, and while the game is of an age, it feels as though it has passed the point of playability.
Roleplaying a stiff upper lip for my character, I trudge north in pursuit of the caves that I was told to seek out, and after I while I come upon a small gathering of patrolling enemies. Laying down my 2005 questing sensibilities, I resume the skills that the original EverQuest taught me: mindless grind. Equipping an axe and entering into the games "angry" mode so attack options are available, I launch into a bloody pursuit of experience. Small rodents fall beneath my boot, furry goblins too, and for good measure a reptilian also. After some time of wandering around mindlessly slaughtering the wildlife, I notice that I have wandered away from any discernable path, and am truly lost. Slightly panicked I head east for a short while, then second guessing myself, head south. Now I am truly lost. I stumble up inclines and head along shore paths, thumbing at the map key hoping for a glimpse of settlement.
After a short while of shouting out into the chat channels for help, I come upon what looks like a small settlers’ camp, perhaps purpose-built for merchants and the like. Hoping for a place of reference with which to entice would-be rescuers, I make a beeline. I approach wide-eyed and eager, and instead of friendly sellers and filler NPCs, I find a group of angry looking bandit types running towards me. Cowardice now kicks in, I turn heel and run for the trees. I watch my health bar as it takes a blow and slides to the half way point. I still run. Another blow, and now I have but 4 hit points. I force myself forward, "W" key strained under my fearful finger. The inevitable happens and I die. Respawning in the wild, I look around again for any glimpse of settlement. Oh nuts to this, I am re-rolling.
Asheron's Call is about one simple thing: grind. Whether this is through combat or crafting, the game harks back to that most central of themes, and does not coat the issue in fetch quests or collect X of Y objectives. In many ways this simple and honest approach is refreshing almost a decade into the facade of mission based MMOs, and yet at the same time, a startling revelation of how we got where we are with the genre now.
At its core, grinding enemies for the goal of levelling is fundamentally boring. We know this. We knew this in the late nineties, and the guys at Blizzard knew it when they added a questing system. While many complain that the genre has gone a little too far in making the experience more linear than was ever meant, the overall tools for progression Asheron's Call show that the genre has developed and refined ultimately for the better. Killing monsters within Turbine's game will give you skill points to spend on a palette of wide and varied skills, but after a while you will begin to question the point of it all. While simple missions can be tedious, they do give a certain reason for doing so and as such give a layer of immersion and purpose, and sadly this is where Asheron's Call now fails.
While the game still has a number of servers, the player base feels relatively thin. Aside from the occasional shout in the trade channel, the population of the game seems to be thinly spread about the world, and a lower level community is all but non-existence. The remaining community is that familiar selection of entrenched veterans and helpful players, resulting in any shouts of help to be answered by both offers of gold and insults of WoW pampering.
Throughout my time in the game I couldn't help but feel that the genre has simply progressed too far. While Asheron's Call will feel beautifully nostalgic and traditional for its veterans, for anyone coming to these lands anew it will simply feel outdated. In almost every way Turbine's original MMO has been outshined by newer titles, and while I can see its varied charms, I cannot truly recommend anyone seek it out as replacement game. Time is a cruel mistress, and while Asheron's Call has out lived its offspring by several years, I can't see many more years for it. These are truly the twilight years for a father of the genre. MMORPG.com salutes it, but it doesn't encourage you to try it. Leave memories where they are, and leave old legends shrouded in mystery.