The 2011 Re-Review
Throughout the past couple of months I have been chased, beaten, robbed, murdered and taunted. A simple task such as travelling a dozen metres into the woods has left me emotionally scarred as a result of the numerous online-brigands constantly pursuing me. In reality I have become a quivering wreck: a short journey to the local shops is spent with panicking eyes, a twitchy mood, and equipped with a small blunt weapon just in case someone takes fancy of my jeans or indeed, my trainers - If someone so much as eyes my jacket, there will be panic swings.
Developed by Aventurine over the course of many years, Darkfall is of that ever illusive breed of MMORPG which isn't afraid to wear its decade-old influences upon its sleeves. Within this title we find a brutal, paranoia-inducing, thrilling ride that takes the essence of the sandbox game and lets it run rampant within a world of open PvP. If you're a fan of Ultima Online, Planetside and Dark Age of Camelot -I think you might just consider reading on with fervent excitement.
Kicking it Old School
Beginning your life within Darkfall is no different than other MMORPGs. Finding your way to the character selection screen, players can choose from six races typical of the genre; the choices being Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Orks, Mahirim (Wolf-Men) and Alfar (Dark Elves). What is interesting with these initial choices is the inbuilt alignment and alliance system that comes with each class. While it is not essential to stick to the certain race groups: Humans, Dwarves, and Elves can find common allies - while Orks and Mahirim are known for their furry friendship; the Alfar being the lone operative of the game. The result of all these genetic shenanigans is that players have enemies baying for blood from day one.
Aside from declaring war via hereditary status, the character creation tool that is on offer is standard fair. There are a number of sliders and options to distinguish your character and essentially there is nothing more than choosing a rather exciting looking beard and possibly chiselling yourself a strong jaw. Once the player is ready to continue, a starting location is picked and it's time to start the adventure.
Beginning life in that most hallowed fashion of the MMORPG, players are dropped into life outside of a town border equipped with nothing but underwear and a blunt sword. The excitement of EverQuest players is already rising to fever pitch. Aventurine in a wise move has taken one or two influences from newer games so that newbie experience is intuitive and inviting. Rather than throwing a player into the big, bad world without so much as a nod of encouragement - players are offered tutorial pages within the game; there are even starter quests which, as well as offering rewards, slowly and subtly teach the mechanics of the game without ever blatantly holding the players hand. The opening experience, while by no means perfect, strikes that balance of old and new and offers something fairly refreshing and the apparent lack of 'Kill x of y' is an invigorating change.
Warrior, Rogue or Mage?
So after completing a dozen or so tasks and gaining a few pieces of armor, it is at this point that the player will start to consider paths and objectives within the game. Like many sandbox titles, Darkfall offers a class-system which is free from the traditional boundaries - and where this game differs again, is that the choices a player makes are limitless from any sort skill point cap. What this means is that a player can become both Wizard and Warrior while also becoming a master lumberjack with a side interest in alchemy. The choice to be anything really encapsulate that sandbox feeling that a lot of games lack by, albeit sensibly, restricting how many points a player can earn and devote to a certain role.
With this however come the negatives as well as the positives. Aventurine have done a good job in actually making their MMO fairly difficult and time consuming so that players will not max every area within a matter of days - while this fixes some of the problems, it doesn't address that fact that certain builds in reality become the predefined classes that they originally sought to get away from. There are only a small number of powerful builds that most people head for and while this is still player determined, it is an issue that makes the game even more narrow and unbalanced than the traditional system.
Of course the plus side to all this is that, as the game offers a single character slot, nothing else is really needed. Except from trying out a different race and perspective, your single avatar can become anything and be of use to anyone given enough time and progression. There will never be a moment in which a player realises that his time spent in 'Cooking' was a waste and now has to start again. It is refreshing to play a game that dabbles in older influences but actually seeks to progress them rather than wallow in nostalgia blindly.
The approach to actually gaining skills is mildly exciting too and holds much immersion. While a lot of progression is based around grind (more on this later) and purchasing from vendors, certain skills are progressed by actually engaging in activities. For instance running speed and Stamina can be increased by jogging and sprinting throughout the lands of Agon; while sneaking is modified by crouch walking around the place. Other skills are also influenced by engaging in an activity that is relevant, so rather than hitting a certain amount of experience and hearing the 'ding' sound, skilling-up appeals to the more immersive player and just for someone who wants to try something different.
While Darkfall's approach is inventive the game, unfortunately for some, is based around that age old sticky-issue of grind. Combat is progressed by swinging whatever bladed or spiked object into whatever NPCs skull, and craft too is only further by the constant forging of items or objects. While some people feel this is a massive turn-off, I cannot see why Aventurine's approach should be met with hostility and an apologetic tone from its followers.
The fact is, many people of this genre enjoy grinding - Myself being one of them. If the game is charming and engrossing enough, grinding becomes something that is just inherent to the experience and akin to the bubble-wrap of online gaming. At times, the grind can be a little too much and the developer in future should look for alternative ways to advance skills (and I'm not talking about questing) but as it stands, if you like grinding, then this game is fine - if you don't, well that is your preference.
Take me to Strawberry Fields
So of course we need a world for all of this gameplay goodness to inhabit and, again, taking heed from older games, Darkfall offers an expanse of land that would put most medium sized countries to shame. The world of Agon features a single massive continent and several decent-sized islands littered about. The greatest achievement in sculpting this landscape is that the developer have somehow made something beautiful, and yet, distinctively ugly.
Take for instance the human lands which a large portion of the gaming populace will find themselves in, at one point or another. We have winding paths, rivers and settlements - we too have grass plains, woodland and even little farmsteads. The place looks quaint and tranquil; its patchwork look even transports you to a better and nicer place. But alternatively, the place is awash with horrible texturized browns and lurid greens that offend the eye and scream for better system requirements always. While there is something endearing in the actual design of Agon, the graphical engine leaves the player cold and gives proceedings an intrinsically 'cheap' feel that only indie games contain.
The character models too transport players back almost five years to something that would offend in a PlayStation 2 game. We are in the altogether futuristic sounding 2011 now, and Darkfall would not look amiss almost a decade previous. The animations are stiff and unnatural; when swinging a sword the body moves unlike it should do: the waist and legs remain still while only the shoulders exert any effort. Combat rather than being fluid and dynamic, looks like two badly operated puppets throwing their arms up while going through some sort of embalming procedure.
When games graphical abilities are its major downfall, this is a fairly assuring thing. The game itself is endearing and charismatic enough to keep your attention and Aventurine are supposedly looking to fix these gripes with motion-capture animation. When this comes to fruition then Darkfall will be a serious contender, until that point it can't help put wear the badge of 'indie developed'.