Many MMOs that get released tend to follow a pretty standard formula. They appeal to the masses and tend to follow whatever the top game on the market happens to do. That title used to belong to EverQuest, and now it belongs to World of WarCraft. Some games, however, tend to target niche audiences with the hopes of winning over people that are not as interested in the more mainstream titles. In some cases, this has proven to be a very successful strategy, as shown by the ever-increasing subscriber-base of EVE Online. In some cases, however, this tends to fall short, such as what happened to ShadowBane.
Darkfall is a game much like the two mentioned above. It focuses on an open-PvP environment, player-controlled territory, sieges, and guild/alliance wars, with harsh penalties abound. It does not follow the mainstream design for most MMOs, even if it does take place in a fantasy setting. If anything, I would say that it is closest to ShadowBane in design, but with plenty of departures. The question is, does this niche game actually stack up to have a chance at surviving?
Reviewing Darkfall is not easy. I'll be completely honest: at one time, I fit this target demographic and would have loved every concept put forward by this game - and still do like the sound of it quite a bit. However, time (and necessity) can change taste and Darkfall is an unforgiving game that requires a lot of dedicated time if you expect to do anything. If you are a casual gamer, like solo play at all, or aren't keen on losing all of your equipment on death in a completely open-PvP environment... Well, don't touch this game. Period.
For the rest of you? I had a chance to play on the European server both before and after the last major patch to get a feel for this game, so feel free to read on.
Graphics and World
When I first logged into Darkfall with my Human character, I was pretty surprised. Other than the screens that popped up for what was passing as a tutorial - which wasn't much, but it did tell me how to play the game - I was oddly immersed into the world. This was probably in part because the game starts you out in a first person view and you are also locked into this view unless you draw a weapon.
The other reason for the immersion, I think, is the way the world is built. In all honesty, every time I saw a screenshot of Darkfall while it was in development, I was always very underwhelmed. In fact, both the character models and the animations are, at least in my opinion, anywhere from 'below average' to 'poor'. The world, however, was a different story. It isn't graphically or technically impressive or anything, but it looked nice in spite of that. A lot of the world simply seemed natural. From the way that towns were set up, to the way the wilderness was constructed. I had the very distinct impression that the world builders really put some love into their creation, and it showed through. On a side-note, every tree, every rock, every bush I saw was harvestable for crafting, I swear. That was awesome.
Of course, if you are a new player hoping to start out with some PvE content before hopping into PvP, the construction of the world may not make you entirely happy. One of the reasons I think the world seemed so believable is that there simply are not a lot of mobs littered around. Realistically, when you walk through woods, you probably are not going to see a lot of life outside of plants, and that is true for Darkfall as well. Mobs can be spaced pretty far apart, so expect to do some exploration to find good hunting grounds.
Controls and Interface
After you found some mobs though, you might start to notice that Darkfall doesn't necessarily play like a normal MMO. There is no auto-attack, for one. You click to attack like you would in an actual action game, and you have to aim your attacks at the target manually. You don't just click on something and start spamming off special abilities like you do in most games. This is also true for all types of attacks. You click to swing your sword, and you manually aim your arrows and spells before firing. In a way, it really does almost play like an 'Oblivion Online'.
Regretfully, the controls aren't set up as well as they could be. For the most part, everything seems pretty normal. Left click to attack, WASD to move, etc... However, there are a few puzzling choices to me. I really have no idea why they chose 'v' for parrying and blocking, and had to quickly remap that. While I really had few issues with the keyboard controls, I wouldn't be surprised if some people found some of the choices awkward.
The interface over all is strange and doesn't stick to conventions. First off, since you are always in a mouse-view, you need to open up your main interface to fiddle with the things you might do in a GUI on an MMO. When doing any of these things, you lose the ability to control your character, but it frees up your mouse. You can then check any UI window, and with another quick button press everything vanishes and you are in control of your character again. It almost sounds elegant, and it almost is elegant. However, in what I found to be a trend when it came to Darkfall, it falls short. Essentially speaking, the interface itself is horribly ugly and extremely clunky. I honestly can't think of an MMO with a GUI that I've disliked more, and I've played some with nasty ones (I'm looking at you, DDO!).
How you interact with the environment also feels very strange and will turn off a large number of people, but I do admit that I understand some of their choices. The best example of this is looting. When you kill something, it drops a grave that holds the items the character or mob possessed, and anyone can loot it. To loot it though, you have to put your weapons away, and then click on the grave. You then have to drag each item over into your own inventory window one by one. That alone would be enough to irritate an awful lot of people, but this is a niche game after all. I understand why the developers decided to do that: it means that looting a corpse is something that has to be approached tactically, or else you're likely going to take a sword to the back of the head from another player.
What did bother me was the inventory screen. It isn't a list of items. It isn't even a grid where you have to fit things into some bag. Instead, it is just a window that holds sprites of inventory items that features no way of sorting through them at all. Items also just appear where ever you drop them, even over other items. This was just irritating, and as someone who insists on a neatly organized bag, I spent way more time than I care to think about sorting through inventory.