Dark Age of Camelot Review

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Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Developer: Mythic Entertainment

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 450 MHz, 256 MB RAM, 32 MB 3D video card

The legendary King Arthur is dead, and his kingdom has fallen into pieces. A land once unified has splintered into three distinct – and warring – realms. The realm of Hibernia has a Celtic feel, and players may take on the role of Elves, Celts, giant Firbolg or tiny Lurikeen. Hibernia is a land of magic, and nearly all the Hibernian character classes use magic in some form or another. Midgard is a cold, Nordic realm, populated by strong melee fighters (and a few powerful spellcasters, to boot). The player inhabitants of Midgard include Norsemen, Dwarves, rock-skinned Trolls and small, blue Kobolds. Albion is the remnant of Arthur's realm and has the look and feel of Britain. All the player inhabitants of Albion are human but are subdivided into Highlanders, Saracens, Britons and Avalonians, the realm's premier spellcasters. All told, a player may choose from among 12 character races and 33 character classes, each with its own unique abilities and skills to train.

In Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you choose a realm in which to play, then build your character by fighting monsters inside your realm. When sufficiently powerful, you may wage war against the other two realms. Unlike many other MMOGs, DAoC eschews player vs. player combat in favor of realm vs. realm (RvR) combat. You may not attack players in your own realm. By contrast, you may attack any member of another realm you happen to meet. You are not permitted to communicate with members of other realms, so you'll have no trouble deciding who to attack – if he isn't one of You, he's one of Them. Realm combat goes still further. In addition to simply hacking away at your opponents, you may create siege weapons to attack and occupy enemy keeps. Each realm also contains powerful relics. If you steal another realm's relics, everyone in your realm gets a bonus. And, with risk come other rewards. Fighting for your realm earns your character realm points and prizes unavailable to those who choose to stay out of the fray.

Realm combat is, however, largely a voluntary matter. In order to get to other realms, you must travel to special portals at the edges of your realm, then fight your way through frontier zones stocked with powerful monsters before you even approach the enemy realm proper. This means that you may avoid realm combat by staying deeper inside your own territory (a good idea until you hit a high level). Should you so choose, you could spend your entire career questing and treasure hunting in a way familiar to all who have played roleplaying games before. You may adventure with up to 8 players in a single group but are also free to play solo, though not all character classes are equally well-suited to the solo life. But never fear, as friends are always close at hand, and DAoC permits players to create their own in-game player associations (guilds), complete with a name of the players' choosing and unique guild insignias. Never had a posse? Welcome to Camelot – you've got one now.

Note: For more background information and screenshots, be sure to take a peek at our Preview of Dark Age of Camelot.

Rob de los Reyes

If for no other reason (and, in truth, there are many), DAoC will be remembered for its silky-smooth launch (back in October), in a year in which other MMORPGs launched like the Titanic. It is only fitting that this should be so, since, in many ways, DAoC is less about reinventing the MMORPG than it is about perfecting it. Mythic may not have created the MMORPG to end all MMORPGs, but its thoroughly engaging game has cleared away much of the rubble that has been obscuring the path to the success of this genre.

There Can Be Only One

One of the first questions RPGers tend to ask about a game is "How customizable are the characters?" The question does tend to mean, at a basic level, "Does everyone look the same?", but it also means more than that. The heart of the roleplaying experience is creating, through gameplay, the story of your character. Every battle, every item found is another chapter in what the player hopes will become a great saga. The more a player is able to customize his character – be it in appearance, skills, items, quests and so forth – the more likely the player is to feel that he is creating his story and not just unwrapping the same prepackaged gift everyone else is getting. In this area, DAoC succeeds admirably. On the surface level, players will find a great deal of physical variety in the characters. There are 12 player races to choose from, and each character model may be made short, average or tall within a spectrum suitable to the race. The player models also include a variety of faces and hair colors from which to choose. Once in the game, further customization of appearance may be had through the variety of weapons and armor available (although more on this below), nearly all of which may be colored by dyes available for purchase from a town's merchants. A final bit of variety in appearance is the ability of player guilds to design their emblems (from among certain specified choices) which may then be displayed on the cloaks and shields of the guild members.

DAoC succeeds slightly less well in other areas of customization, although in some cases it is not a matter of design failure, but a matter of design choice. One of the principle areas in which DAoC is a bit disappointing is in the lack of treasure to be found. Many, if not most, of the dungeons have not been itemized. Higher level outdoor areas are similarly unitemized. This translates into a lack of variety since, as matters stand, there tends to be only one weapon or armor type in existence that is "best" for use at a given level of character advancement. One of the great joys of Diablo II was the agony of trying to determine whether the weapon you just found was better than the one you were currently using. That delightful torture is rather conspicuously absent from DAoC at this point, although, to its credit, Mythic seems to be following through on its promise not to scale back its project team after the October release. And although the progress made since October has been palpable, completing the task of adding treasure to the hunt still seems several months away.

A final note on customization concerns the character creation process. I offer this note not as a criticism but as an observation for those interested in the wherefores of design choices. Each character race starts with different base-level stats. Midgard Trolls, for example, start with a high strength and constitution but low dexterity and quickness. Hibernian Lurikeen are just the opposite. Not every race can choose to be any class in the realm. Lurikeen may not, for example, choose to become Heroes (the basic fighter class of Hibernia). In addition, while you are able at character creation to add 30 points as you see fit among your various stats, you cannot lower any of them below the base, and the more points you put into any one stat, the lower the return in benefit you get for each additional point. The result of this ruleset is a relatively homogenized starting position within each character class. To give yet another example, nearly all of the mage-types in Albion are of the Avalonian race because no other race can start with the Intelligence statistic (the source of a mage's power) as high as an Avalonian, no matter how you allocate your "free" stat points. Technically, a Saracen can also become a mage, but there is no gameplay reason whatsoever – other than just to be weird – to choose a Saracen mage. Choosing a Saracen mage is far from a devastating choice, but it also clearly isn't a choice rewarded by the game rules. Unlike the treasure issue, however, this state of affairs appears to represent a conscious design choice not to let players cripple themselves down the line by choosing the wrong race or misallocating their stats at the very beginning of the game. Given the amount of time required to play DAoC to even a medium level of advancement, this seems like a sensible compromise to make, even if it frustrates odd ducks (like myself) who might be willing to endure certain hardships just to play a Lurikeen Hero using a Celtic Spear three times his height.

Of PvM, PvP and RvR (just keep it on the QT)

DAoC is, in some sense, two games in one. In the early stages of the game (or perpetually if the player so desires), a player will spend his time performing quests and killing monsters (referred to as PvM, player vs. monster/mob), either by himself or grouped with up to 7 other players. After a certain level of advancement, however, a player may venture out of the secure portions of his realm and into his own "frontier zone" or the frontier zones of the two enemy realms. The frontier zones contain high level monsters, but perhaps more importantly, contain enemy keeps and enemy players. Since you cannot attack your realmmates (e.g. Albion players cannot attack other Albion players), the frontier zones are the must-see destination for anyone interested in player vs. player (PvP) combat. But the frontiers are much more than an empty alley in which to beat on each other. The frontiers also contain keeps guarded by NPC guards and, sometimes, enemy players. The keeps can be attacked, captured and held by an invading force (realm vs. realm or RvR combat) so that each game server has a real, changing border and history of war. Some keeps also contain relics, items special to each realm whose capture by an enemy brings bonuses to the capturer's entire realm.

The PvP/RvR elements of DAoC are among the game's best selling points. In the first instance, by separating the PvM from the PvP areas, Mythic gives the game a choice of how and when to participate in these very different activities. There was little as frustrating in Diablo II as just wanting to hop into the game for a short while, kill a few monsters then be on your way, when, all of sudden along came someone of a much higher level who killed you just for the "sport" of it. DAoC's solution offers something for everyone in that regard. You can skip PvP altogether, do nothing but PvP, or, if you like the adrenaline rush, hunt monsters in a frontier zone and await a chance encounter with an enemy player. In addition, DAoC subtly changes the focus of PvP combat from the one-on-one mentality of mere player-killing to a team focus in support of a realm by denying players the opportunity to steal loot from their victims. The only rewards of PvP combat are the thrill of the fight and "realm points." The accumulation of realm points adds bonuses to your character's skill levels and will eventually add other goodies as well (or so Mythic promises).

In addition to providing this "carrot" to entice players into the frontiers, DAoC also takes away the "stick." When killed in straight-up PvP combat, the player does not suffer the usual penalties associated with dying in the game. You do not lose constitution points, and you do not lose accumulated experience points. What all of this adds up to is an almost grief-free PvP experience. Since players can't steal loot from other players, gain realm points by killing the same player repeatedly in a short span of time, or ruin another player's good time by forcing him to suffer a penalty for being killed, much of the player-killer mentality, so prevalent in online games, has been removed. In it's place is the splendor of tactical and strategic combat from the level of a single player, to the squad level, all the way up to the level of deciding how to move an entire army of players from one keep to the next as part of an overall realm combat strategy.

The one overriding difficulty with RvR play is that as the game has worn on and as players have achieved ever higher levels, the character level for RvR effectiveness has climbed as well. Although a character need only be level 15 in order to enter an enemy realm, a level 15 character is all but completely useless at this point. The low-level RvR experience now consists of standing fast for a heady 10 seconds as the enemy charges you and then kills you in a single stroke. If your side wins the battle, a compatriot will likely resurrect you, but if you side loses... well, you won't get that resurrection, and you'll be forced to return to your realm and wait up to 15 minutes in order to get teleported back into the enemy realm. It would be fantastic if there were a way to make RvR combat rewarding for a player under level 30 (and that number is bound to creep up soon), but such an undertaking, if it ever were to occur, is likely to fall by the wayside while Mythic addresses gameplay functions which simply don't work or aren't there.

The Dark Side of Time

There is one absolutely giant issue to discuss here, some elements of which, again, represent design failure and other parts of which reflect conscious design choices. Simply put, unless you have about 15 - 20 hours per week to play or are extremely patient, you may well find DAoC to be more frustrating than fun. The creation of an MMORPG offers a special challenge. Games in this genre are meant to run for as long as they can stay profitable. In order to keep player interest and subscription dollars flowing, the game cannot, therefore, be "defeatable" inside a mere month or two. The problem is that a month or two can mean very different amounts free time to spend with the game depending on the player. This is a problem of scalability and one that PC game developers must consider in light of the fact that the average age of PC gamers is now around 28 – i.e. into the age of having to work for a living. Mythic has clearly made a choice to keep game advancement at a pace that will provide a challenge for hard-core MMOGers, and it has certainly reached that goal. The pacing is achieved both by making each character level longer and harder to get than the one before it and also by introducing a penalty for dying that has some sort of sting. As matters stand, a single death, depending on character level, may wipe out 2 to 3 hours of experience earned. If you only have an hour or two per night to play, this state of affairs quickly overwhelms the joy of playing. To put it in terms that RPGers everywhere will understand, it just isn't fun to be level 18 for 2 weeks.

The other bugbear time issue is that of "downtime." Although DAoC has made a number of welcome advancements (such as reducing the downtime between combats in a camp) in this area, the game is still full of missed opportunities (or deliberate, and annoying, choices as part of the overall hard-core gamer focus). Questing is an exercise in tedium to be endured only if you really need the reward. A typical quest involves 10 or 15 seconds of fighting accompanied by 15 to 20 minutes of running to your target, waiting for it to spawn, then running back to the person who gave you the task. And that time frame assumes you know where to go to find your target; heaven help you if you don't. Normal hunting is much the same. The realms are large, and it is not always easy to know where to look for monsters appropriate to your level. The problem with looking around for the monsters is that – and I cannot overstate this – running takes an interminably long period of time. And running is boring. Mythic attempts to alleviate this problem by providing a sort of taxi/horse service to grant faster travel between certain towns in the realm. Inexplicably, however, you cannot get from any town to any other town. This means that most trips still involve... running. And since horses only go from town to town, trying to find a good place to hunt involves... running. Worse still, if you want to hunt with a group, you'll likely need a good stretch of time to get everyone together in one place, which means you sit around while the further afield groupmates – you guessed it – run to meet you. The effect is, in general, to put playing DAoC out of the reach of anyone with a mere hour of free to time to play in between real life obligations.

Hard-Core Gamers Rejoice

Still and all, it has been a treat to see the game I previewed follow through on its promise. What I wrote then remains true now. The servers are stable and accessible no matter what time of day you play. The character classes are pretty-well balanced, and all now seem to be at the very least viable, although one suspects that the balancing process is one that never truly ends. The realms are beautiful and offer distinct gameplay experiences. Mythic has come through with its promises both to maintain open and frequent communication with its players (small spats notwithstanding) and to remain focused on the continued development of the game world. Certain failings of the game, like the lack of itemization, are notable in their own right, but also as a sharp contrast to the polish that runs throughout the better part of the game. DAoC is off to a fast start and deservedly so. If you have the time to give it, you may well find that the near compulsion to play will help you grit your teeth while certain aspects, particularly the high-level ones, are taken to completion.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 22, 2001 6:15 PM.

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