Thursday, February 19, 2009

Darkfall Preview

So the Darkfall NDA dropped, which allows me to tell you that I've been playing in the beta. No wonder some people think a game is vaporware when the NDA explicitely states that you aren't allowed to mention that you are in the beta! This is my preview, as not to call it a review this early on. Anyway, the first big news is that Darkfall is not vaporware, and I expect it to actually be released on February 25th. The second big news is that from a technical point of view, Darkfall is in a very good state, less buggy than other games on release. And the third point is not news at all: Darkfall is a very hardcore game which is probably not enjoyable for a majority of players of other MMORPGs.

But let's start with general aspects, and speak about game design philosophy later. Here Darkfall surprised me in a positive way. Looking just at technical aspects, my beta experience was great. I didn't play all that much, but the hours I spent in the game happened without any lag, and with no bugs that affected gameplay. There were some graphical clipping errors, but hey, even WoW still has those after 4 years. The beta servers were not always up, and I experienced one server crash, but it is generally very difficult to extrapolate server issues from beta to release. The release version of Darkfall might be perfectly stable, or the servers might crash every 5 minutes, we simply can't say yet.

Graphically Darkfall also was better than I had expected. Yes, the game has been in development for 7 years, and probably didn't have the budget for the latest photo-realistic graphics engine. But Darkfall is using cell-shading graphics that look quite nice. Maybe the polygon count isn't as high as some other games, but in return your framerate doesn't go to pieces when there are more than a few players on your screen. I once stumbled upon a battle between two guilds in the middle of a town with over a dozen people fighting around me, and I didn't notice any lag at all. Can't say how large a battle in Darkfall has to be before it lags, but at least for typical skirmishes the graphics engine holds up nice enough. The world is generally quite beautiful, but it is a bit empty, with monsters being few and far between. Probably by design, because it makes players fight for mob spawns against each other.

So now I'll come to the part where I'll talk about gameplay. Remember that gameplay discussion is always subjective, and I'm not a friend of PvP, nor am I very hardcore. Thus it won't come to anyone's surprise that I didn't like the gameplay of Darkfall, and don't plan on buying the game. Nevertheless I'll try to give an as objective as possible description of gameplay, and let you judge for yourself whether Darkfall might be the game for you. Your preferences might be very different from mine.

The game starts with you creating a character, choosing a race and sex, and modifying your avatar's look. You'll notice that you don't choose a character class, because there aren't any character classes in Darkfall. There also aren't any experience points, or levels, in this game. Instead you have a wide range of skills, active and passive, and whenever you do anything, there is a chance that you are increasing those skills. Especially early in the game that leads to numerous "you skill in running/sprinting/swimming has improved" and similar messages. But more importantly whenever you fight, lets say with a sword, your skill in swords goes up, and your defensive armor skills go up. Thus while there is no "level" displayed anywhere, your character will get better with time, and will be able to tackle harder monsters. The downside of that is that these skills are completely invisible, except to yourself. You don't see how hard another player or even a monster is. The goblins you'll kill close to your starting point are easy enough, but a little further you'll find identical looking goblins having identical names, which are more skilled and thus more dangerous. And the only way to find that out is to attack them.

In consequence one of the main activities you'll do in Darkfall is running. Either running away from harder monsters or players, or running after weaker monsters or players who are trying to escape you. At which point I should probably mention that the artificial intelligence of monsters in Darkfall is high. Don't expect to stand toe to toe with a mob and exchange blows until one of you drops dead. The monster will strafe or run around you, making use of the fact that you can only hit them when they are in front of you. Monsters will also quite often try to run away if they obviously can't win, and they don't run just in a random direction: I never got far with the harder goblins I mentioned, because they kept running back into their fort and coming back with a bunch of their friends. They also often aggroed and attacked from quite far away with ranged weapons. If you are used to the artificially stupid mobs of classical MMORPGs, you might be in for a surprise when fighting the monsters of Darkfall.

You can't "tag" a monster in Darkfall, if you need to kill a mob for a quest, you have to be the player landing the last blow that kills it. There is no protection at all against kill-stealing. There is no protection either against ninja-looting: When a monster drops dead, the corpse is transformed into a gravestone, and anyone can come and loot that gravestone, completely independant of who fought the monster. At first you'll curse and complain about how hard it is to loot a corpse: You need to sheathe your weapon, target the gravestone with your cursor, press the "use" button on your keyboard, open your inventory, and drag and drop the items from the corpse one by one into your inventory. Takes bloody forever, and you are relatively helpless during that time, as you'll need to unsheathe your weapon again before being able to fight. After a while you realize that this is done on purpose. Yes, somebody can try to loot the goblin you just killed. But he'll have to put his weapon away to do so, which gives you the opportunity to attack him, kill him, and potentially loot both him and the goblin afterwards.

Yes, if a player is killed he can be looted. Completely. Every piece of gear he is wearing, every piece of gold he has, and every item in his inventory, all can be looted. Unless you die to a mob without anyone noticing, you're chance of getting back to your gravestone and getting your stuff back are pretty close to zero. After every death you'll be naked, except for a starter weapon. You can spend gold for more slots for starter weapons, if you want to have the choice between different types. But everything else is probably lost. Even quest items are lost, you'll have to start the quest over. Usually a player doesn't die immediately when his health goes down to zero. He first lies helplessly on the ground for 60 seconds. Every player has two abilities, "revive" and "gank", which do exactly what you think they do; you can either revive a helpless player to help him, or kill him to loot him faster. Thus we are back to our main activity: Running. After every fight with a goblin you will want to move away and rest back to full health. Even if you could take another goblin with less than full health, you'd just risk being killed by another player and robbed of all your stuff if you run around with low health. If you happen to find anything interesting from looting, you'll want to run back to town and put the loot into your bank, so it can't be stolen. You basically should never run around in gear you can't afford to lose, often you'll have several sets of reserve armor in your bank. Darkfall is less a game about gathering gear than a game about not losing it. Attacking another player turns you "rogue", which means you can't visit a friendly city for a while. Unfortunately the combat system has no targets. Thus if you are fighting a goblin and another player wants to kill you and rob you, he'll just run between you and the goblin, making you accidentally hit him, and turning *you* into the rogue, not him. Then he can kill you without penalty. Not a good system, I think.

Besides getting gear from dead monsters or players, you can also craft it. But the crafting system is about as hardcore as the rest of the game. You have only some basic gathering and crafting skills at the start, for anything actually useful to craft gear you first will need to buy the skill, which for a beginner takes many hours of farming goblins. When in the beta I finally had the tailoring skill plus the leather and iron ingots needed to craft some leather armor, it turned out my chance of success was 0%. I probably would first have needed to find or buy lots of cloth and skill up doing cloth armor, but by that time my patience had already run out. Anyway, don't count on a career as a crafter, unless you want to craft for some powerful guild. There is no auction house, nor any other safe system of trading. You need to meet another player in the game to trade with him. And there is always the danger that the player you meet to trade with will attack and kill you, getting the goods you wanted to trade for free instead.

I think you got the picture by now. Darkfall is UO pre-Trammel. It is EVE without empire space. It is a dog eat dog virtual world in which you are never safe. Darkfall makes WAR look like a complete carebear game. And this is exactly what some people have been asking for. Presumably those who still complain about Trammel having "ruined" UO, or those who spend all their time in 0.0 space in EVE, might very well enjoy Darkfall. I'm sure the Goons will play it, and Keen seems very excited too. But here is a lot of evidence that this sort of game is only enjoyable to a small percentage of MMORPG players, and incredibly frustrating to the majority. Syncaine's WoW tourists, players who just try other games because they are for the moment bored with WoW, will probably find Darkfall too hard, too grindy, too backstabbing, and too frustrating.

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