In this article, we are going to take a deeper look into one of the core game mechanics of Darkfall Online, the skill system. Having a skill system in and of itself is a vast departure from the more mainstream mmorpgs such as World of Warcraft or Everquest. In Darkfall you are simply a sum of your various skills. You have no level, no class, and when you die...you will have no gear. Pretty much the only thing you can take with you are your skills. There are many skills in Darkfall ranging from melee skills, magic skills, crafting skills, and general skills (like running and swimming). To increase a skill, simply use it. For instance if I put an axe in my hand, and begin whacking away on a monsters (or player!) my axe skill will begin to increase. If I switch to a sword, my sword skill will begin to increase. Now magic has an extra skill set, the spells themselves. All magic spells are grouped into different magic "schools". You begin with Lesser Magic, and after you reach a skill level of 50, you can buy the Greater Magic skill. Once you reach 50 in Greater Magic you have a good many more magic schools that become available for purchase. So when I cast Mana Missile for instance (one of the two spells your start the game with), both my Lesser Magic skill as well as the spell itself will increase. This is a great mechanic and really drives home the fact that if you neglect a skill or a spell, it won't get better regardless of how skilled your character becomes in other facets.
One of the common criticisms you will hear about Darkfall is that skill levels mean nothing, or you only get benefits at certain points in your progression (25 skill, 50 skill, etc). The truth is that the skill system remains the most misunderstood facet in Darkfall. This is primarily for two reasons. One, the lack of manual and any concrete evidence by the developers leaves the player completely on their own to figure things out for themselves. Secondly, the few skill based games that you may have played in the past (Ultima Online, Asheron's Call) had skill systems that differed from Darkfall. So most newcomers assume skills work the same way. In fact it's very logical to think that the more skill I have in swords, the more damage I will do. This is actually not the case. In terms of melee combat, your skill does two things:
- It causes you to use less stamina per swing
- It causes higher "rank" weapons to deteriorate slower
Let's look at these two items in greater detail. First, stamina management is a huge part of combat, especially in PVP. With no stamina you cannot swing your weapon, fire your bow, parry attacks, or run away (well you could actually run away, but you can't "sprint" away). So the longer your stamina holds out the longer you are in the fight. There are ways to regenerate your stamina faster such as food, potions, and the resting skill. Typically however, once you are out of stamina your are dead meat. Item deterioration is also a huge facet of Darkfall. Darkfall tries extremely hard to put most of the skill involved in PvP out of the die rolls, and into the hands of the player. That's right, in-game skills are no match for player skills in the world of Darkfall. This is even more apparent when you realize that any player can equip 95% of all armor and weapons in the game from day one, the only restriction being racial requirements on epic gear which I do not believe anyone has seen at this point. This may sound like "twinking" to some, but I can assure you it's anything but. Better items in this game obviously cost more. Costs get exponentially higher the better the "ranks" of loot become. Also, items degrade with use and cannot be repaired. That's right... no one in Darkfall should get married to their gear. If you aren't killed and have your gear looted, it will eventually break and vanish forever. So when you spend your hard earned gold on some new equipment, it gives the same benefit to you as it would the newbie logging into Darkfall for the first time. The difference being that it will last far longer in your hands than in the hands of the unskilled. In fact, at extremes, the high ranking items can decay over five times faster if you don't have the appropriate skills to use them. It becomes an extremely interesting mix of allowing freedom, but making it cost you more to do so if you try and "jump the gun" so to speak.
Some skills do offer benefits when you hit certain invisible markers. For instance, in many cases reaching a skill level in one particular skill, opens up other skills for purchase. In other cases it physically makes a spell noticeably better. For instance the self heal spell that you start the game with works as a HoT (Heal Over Time). It ticks a few times adding health with each "tick". When you reach 33.3 in the skill it gains an additional tick, and again at 66.6. Your skill in between (33.4 - 66.5) increases your overall health earned per tick.
Not everything is so cut and dry however. Skills like "run" (not to be confused with "sprint"), which claims to make you run faster, don't seem to do anything. I have raced several people in the game with my maxed run skill and regardless of the other player's skill, we seem to run the exact same speed. These instances only seem to amplify the confusion. The misnomers and confusion grows even larger when you throw attributes into the mix. It's widely believed that your attributes can greatly benefit your skills. For instance, higher Intelligence will add to your spell results. Since your intelligence slowly goes up as your cast magic, it's very hard to tell where the added bonuses are actually coming from. I am sure all of this will become clearer over time as more crafty players run tests and reach higher levels in both skill and attributes. But it sure would be nice to have a more basic understanding of what everything does, especially because the skill system works so differently than other skill based mmorpgs out there. There really is no excuse for not being clear and concise about exactly what various skills and abilities do, without necessarily giving us the math behind it.
Last but not least I want to touch on actual player skill. Darkfall did something that I have not seen in years. They brought player skill back mmorpgs in a big way. Many mmorpgs suffer from the cloning effect. At a certain point in my character development I am essentially a carbon copy of anyone else at the same point in their career. The same spells, same damage, etc. Darkfall throws all of that completely out the window by allowing the skill of the actual player to play a huge role in the outcome of nearly everything you do. This is primarily because you have what I call "active combat", similar to Dungeons and Dragons Online. This means that you can choose to block with your shield or weapon whenever you want. It's not a button on a hotbar you push, you can map it to any key on the keyboard and try and physically block attacks at will. Combat does not have a "die roll style" hit or miss system either. Hits and misses are entirely up to you, much like a first person shooter. If you aim your bow or spell at an enemy and you are off, the attack simply misses the intended target. If you are dead on you hit, without exception. This is a blessing for any gamer who felt it ridiculous to stand point blank in the face of an enemy and somehow miss with your attack. The same holds true for melee attacks. If your crosshair is on your enemy at the time your weapon comes around, you hit. It's that simple. Regardless of how you feel about the game, it's great to see a developer put so much emphasis on the skill of the person sitting behind the keyboard, instead of how much time they have physically spent in the world itself.