Dark Age of Camelot: Shrouded Isles
Developer: Mythic Entertainment
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 1.4 GHz, 256 MB RAM, 32 MB 3D video card, internet connection, Dark Age of Camelot
Shrouded Isles is the first expansion for the fantasy MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. With this expansion come three large new areas to explore, three new playable races, six new character classes, a handful of graphics enhancements and more besides. In order to play Shrouded Isles, you must own the original Dark Age of Camelot.
Rob de los Reyes
Much has changed since I originally reviewed Dark Age of Camelot a little more than a year ago. Much of that change has come, as you might expect, from the introduction of the game's first expansion, Shrouded Isles. Yet almost as much has changed (maybe more) as part of the regular updates that are fed to the user at no extra cost. Class balancing, new crafting skills, new monsters, new dungeons – all have been introduced in regular updates. As for the expansion, most current Dark Age of Camelot players likely have made their purchases already. Some holdouts may be wondering whether the content of Shrouded Isles is all directed at upper level characters. Some who used to play, but quit some time ago may be wondering whether Shrouded Isles is enough reason to come back. And perhaps, a big perhaps, some who never played Dark Age of Camelot are wondering whether Shrouded Isles gives them a reason to start. In order, the answers are: no, go ahead and buy it; maybe; and maybe. Shrouded Isles, as most current Cameloters already know, is an excellent expansion pack. Gobs of new content for characters both high and low, genuine (if modest) graphical enhancements, new races and classes, and, concurrently with the release of the expansion, a new co-op server with a whole different ruleset. As an expansion, it's every bit as... well... expansive as you would hope.
But is it enough to bring you back from sabbatical or enough to prompt you to start up? That depends. As you may recall, unlike its then closest competitors, Dark Age of Camelot enjoyed a smooth launch. Sure, large battles were laggy, but that's true of any of these games. The main thing was, Dark Age of Camelot worked. Whenever you wanted to play it. Mythic, the game's creators, were rewarded with a level of success that probably even they had not anticipated. Here was a legitimate contender in the EverQuest universe, and here was a glimpse of what might have been had Anarchy Online or World War II Online been able to launch in working order. But a few stubborn complaints began to emerge.
The first was that, after character level 20 (out of a possible 50), there was very little content. Upper level quests were few and far between; upper level dungeons lacked treasure, and the centerpiece of upper level life, realm combat, wasn't as meaningful or compelling as had initially been hoped. In the year since our review, most of that has palpably changed for the better. Not only are all the original dungeons complete, but numerous new dungeons – including Darkness Falls, control of which must be earned in realm combat – have been introduced and populated. The expansion alone brought three new dungeons per realm. Quests and items now abound for all levels of characters. The new areas introduced in the expansion, the titular Shrouded Isles, each feature four regions, three of which contain monsters suitable for groups and higher level characters. Shrouded Isles also introduced three new character races, six new character classes and three new starting regions for lower level characters. These regions are now also littered with "unique" item drops, which makes starting a character from scratch rather easier than it used to be. The new character classes each offer a little something different than the old classes, with the necromancer and animist classes (for better and worse) standing out as particularly unusual experiences. The new Valkyn race, with its comical loping gait, is easily the most charming of the new races.
The "content" part of realm combat has also changed vastly since our last review. Realm combat was initially designed to be your opportunity to engage in a bit of PvP (player versus player) combat in a game where players were otherwise not permitted to fight each other. Realm combat is mostly voluntary since is it restricted to certain "frontier" areas that you're generally not required to go to (although a few essential quests do force you into the frontier). Realm combat was and is the apex of the upper-level game. But, at first, it too was as sparse as the rest of the game – a never-ending cycle of meaningless battles against maxed-out uber-characters.
That has all changed enormously since our last review. Once it became clear that realm combat was essentially untenable for lower level characters, three "battlegrounds" were introduced as areas of level-restricted combat. The battlegrounds, each level-restricted to a portion of the band between levels 20-35, are now widely regarded as one of the more entertaining portions of the game. They are a silly, fun free-for-all for people who can't dedicate a lifetime to taking a character to level 50. The upper-level, full RvR experience has become more content-rich, as well. It is now possible for player guilds to claim visible ownership of a frontier keep (at least until an enemy takes it back over), and guilds are rewarded with all sorts of game bonuses for doing so. Realm combat now also involves a whole secondary experience-type system of "realm points" that are earned for slaying enemy players (or resurrecting fallen comrades) and which may be spent to acquire extra abilities for your character. In brief, where once realm combat offered nothing more than the abstract prize of having "won" a fight, a whole new game has sprung up.
Yet the mainstay of the Dark Age of Camelot experience remains solo or group monster hunting for experience points and treasure. Demonstrating the law of unintended consequences, all these new map areas seem almost too much of an otherwise good thing. With people spread further and wider, finding a group has become even more difficult than it once was, and transport around the world has not been appreciably sped up. As a result, players have tacitly settled on a handful of areas (like, say, Avalon City) which are the only areas you can find a pick-up group rather than starting with a pre-assembled group (usually a guild group). Not coincidentally, those areas tend to be the ones closest to transport routes. Because of this, many of those wonderful dungeons and outdoors areas remain utterly untouched because they are too difficult or time consuming to reach and because you'll never find a group to play with even if you get there. This is a more than a piffling criticism since it means that players are apt to spend far more time playing in a single place, even to the point of boredom and frustration, rather than move around and keep the game fresh for themselves.
Treasure hunting in Dark Age of Camelot was the exercise most like that of the MMORPGs that had come before it. The best items in the game were monster drops, and soon the patterns were discovered. The result – camping. Sitting in place, in line behind someone else, waiting for a monster to spawn so that you can kill him and get the precious article of loot. To a certain extent, that remains the situation, but with vastly more options for hunting and fully itemized areas, much of the pressure is gone. More importantly, player item crafting has finally fulfilled its promise to create a detailed system that yields the best items in the game, bar none. The tradeskills Spellcraft and Alchemy, added as part of regular patching over the last year, are the icing on the crafting cake. Crafters of base weapons and armor may team up with spellcrafters and alchemists to drop special abilities on the items in made-to-order fashion. Of course, the best items aren't cheap to buy, and you'd have to dedicate an obscene number of hours to mindless button-pushing to raise your crafting skill in order to make such items for yourself. Most of you won't bother, but, fortunately, there are enough people on any given server who have done so that such items seem fairly widely available if you have the time to track a crafter down. Coincidentally, that too is harder than it used to be because the items necessary for crafting are now found most everywhere. That's convenient for the crafter, but inconvenient for anyone trying to figure out where a crafter might be at any particular moment.
A second reason people tended to leave Dark Age of Camelot, or stay away at the outset, was that it became apparent that, after level 20 or so, you had to play the game like a full-time job in order to feel like you were doing anything. It also became clear that this was no accident of design, but a conscious choice of game design. Each succeeding character level is meant to take longer to achieve than the one before it. That is, although tougher, higher level monsters yield more experience for being beaten, the amount of experience required to reach a new level ramps up even faster. By the time your character reaches the 40s, defeating an even-level monster (the kind you're supposed to fight when solo) results in literally imperceptible movement in your experience bar. It's dispiriting. Too often you'll find yourself doing the depressing math in your head, "Let's see, I need 7.8 bubbles to get my level... each kill is netting me about 1/40 of a bubble; so that means I need to kill... too many undead marshmen... I'm going to sleep." And heaven help you if your character dies with no one around to resurrect you. One death will wipe out hours of gameplay at a stroke by way of penalty. Some of that can be recovered by making your way back the spot of your death to pray at your tombstone, but watching the experience bar drop so much hideously faster than you were able to build it up is distressing enough that you'll sometimes log off sullen and angry rather than force yourself to undertake the empty travel time to get back to your tombstone.
Grouping up with guildmates or strangers partially alleviates the weight of that numbers game, since you can fight higher level monsters, but grouping comes with its own time sinks. First you have to gather a group of far flung players, then you have to find an appropriate hunting spot based on the resulting group, then you have to wait for "afk bio" (meaning, "I need a potty break") or "afk coffee" or, worse, "afk ganja", then you have to rest between fights, etc. It gets worse. Sooner rather than later, someone has to leave unexpectedly. Stripped of that person, your group can no longer handle the current hunting spot, so you go find a new area or try to find a new group member, and the cycle begins anew.
It's easy to make fun of that pattern (and rightly so), but a few things bear noting. The first is that there have been some real improvements in this area. The same portals that connect the Shrouded Isles to the old lands also provide a shortcut to the frontier keeps. That means that it is now much easier than it used to be to move between monster killing and realm vs. realm combat as your whim dictates. Also, bind stones have now been placed inside those keeps, so, once you get killed in realm combat, it's quicker to get back in the mix (although those wizards still take way too long between portings – 15 minutes for a port, 90 seconds for a fight). Also, the levels between 40-50 have been made easier to gain, and players now get a "mini ding" halfway through each of those levels that awards points to spend on skills. As previously mentioned, working on your crafting skills still requires a mind-bending imperviousness to tedium, but at least the materials you need are widely available, obviating the need to endure long travel to round up the necessary gear. Finally, the new starting areas that come with Shrouded Isles are superbly laid out for efficient and sensible progress from levels 1-20. As a result, those levels are faster than they used to be even if the actual experience point requirements are unchanged from the early days. Being a dabbler, someone who never bothers to advance a single character to the max level, is now significantly more viable. By level 20, you'll have the bulk of your abilities and you'll be able to hop into the low level battleground for RvR. Stick it out for four more levels, and you'll own (pwn?) that battleground.
Lastly – and here's where the rubber meets the road – some of these time sinks are desirable. It is in those resting periods that you learn that your group's cabalist has been playing so much lately because he's shortly going to have to quit for six months while on active military duty overseas. Here is where you find out that your wizard is Danish and that he's having so much fun that he still refuses to go to sleep although it's 4 a.m. his time. Without the down time, you wouldn't have the opportunity to chat with your group or guild and learn that your cleric is a mother living in Tennessee or that your infiltrator shows a patience and selflessness far beyond that which you'd expect his 14 years of existence to yield. To be fair, it's also where you learn that another groupmate is a bigoted ass or that some of your guildies are childish morons. But that has always been the chief promise and peril of online gaming. If you cannot take any pleasure from idle chatter and the experience of meeting new people, every minute of down time will seem like an hour. On the other hand, even if you enjoy the down time camaraderie, such enjoyment is meaningless if circumstances don't allow you to give the necessary time.
A third complaint goes to the heart of the Dark Age of Camelot ruleset. For some, your reviewer included, Dark Age of Camelot found a sweet spot between PvM (player vs. monster) and PvP (player vs. player) combat. Most of your experience is played in a single realm where no player may attack you. You may, of your own accord, however, head to the frontier zones where you may attack and be attacked by players from enemy realms (you still can't attack people from your own realm). There are few worries about the fights being rigged because members of enemy realms are unable to communicate with each through the in-game chat. When killed by a player, you suffer no experience or item loss, so the rewards are the satisfaction of taking on real skilled players rather than AI, and, nowadays, all those other goodies mentioned earlier that flow from realm combat. In other words, realm combat only helps you; it never hurts you. That's enough to tempt many of the reflex-impaired (like your reviewer) out for a fight. Along those lines, Mythic has added the ability to duel with your own realmmates. You suffer no losses in such a fight and you respawn right where you stood (rather than at a bindstone). You also gain no reward other than the thrill of the victory. While that's an insufficient reward for RvR in general, it's more than enough for what amounts to an entertaining mini-game, a time filler while you wait for a wizard to port you the real combat.
But not everyone agrees. Some people want a wilder, anything-goes experience. Mythic responded by creating two dedicated PvP servers in which, with very few limitations, a player is subject to attack by anyone (even a realmmate) at any time. A dedicated PvP server isn't new to MMORPGs, but it wasn't included in Dark Age of Camelot at the start. If there's no sport for you quite like a good ganking, here lies your path.
Concurrently with Shrouded Isles, Mythic leapt to the opposite end of the spectrum and introduced a "co-op" server. Here, other than dueling, there is no PvP whatsoever. Realm points and all the accoutrements are achieved partially just by leveling and partially through other non-PvP tasks. You can create characters from all three realms on the same server, and any character is free to roam around, pick up quests and purchase items from any area in the game, including the formerly forbidden enemy areas. You may chat with and form groups with characters from any realm. Those who have played Dark Age of Camelot for awhile will be taken aback by just how weird it really feels to have a Troll running around the halls of Camelot. Another virtue of the co-op server is that it means no compromises with your friends. Some people are just Midgard people and others Hibernians or Albions – it's like a preference for mustard or mayonnaise. If you and your friends have different preferences, the co-op server permits you to take your pick of characters safe in the knowledge that you don't have to abandon your friends. If you and your spouse want to play a male Lurikeen hero and a female Troll savage and walk around pretending they're married, Gaheris is yours to enjoy. Whether you want to play long term is another matter, but a quick trip to the Gaheris server is a fun little kick in the pants.
As an expansion pack, Shrouded Isles measures up well with your expectations. The new lands are particularly well thought-out and demonstrate what you probably knew all along – Mythic has been paying attention. If you're currently playing Dark Age of Camelot, there's no reason to hold back on a purchase and every reason to make it, regardless of whether you're interested in taking up one of the new races or classes and regardless of your current character level.
Those who might like to pick up Dark Age of Camelot for the very first time face a tougher quandary. This particular MMORPG is not unrecognizably different from other games in a genre you've come either to love or hate. It is a superior example in many ways of what the genre has to offer, but if leveling and picking up loot hold no thrill at all, you can safely move on. In addition, all those improvements over the last year added more secret game rules to an already largely undocumented game. What spells stack with other spells? Which ones actually cancel each other? What are bounty points for? What causes a weapon to "proc"? How do you operate a battering ram? These are not esoteric questions or even questions that go to the algorithmic underpinnings of the game that are meant to stay hidden. These are fundamental issues of gameplay, and such questions are legion. The printed manuals are beyond useless. Had they been written with half the attention paid to the new end-user license agreement, we'd have something worth reading. In-game help has evolved from the early total absence of such help, but it still feels like more than half the game is undocumented. Joining a guild helps since someone will usually know the answer, but, if not, you're stuck with the horror of public forum boards or Mythic's piecemeal "search" function at its own web site.
In addition, although the Shrouded Isles areas are quite well designed for the early game, it is still very difficult to start a character from scratch with no outside help from a guild or generous stranger. The problem is that, even with the new unique drops, equipment is still very expensive relative to the amount of treasure you can accumulate at early levels, especially if you play an equipment intensive class like a fighter. Still, neither this problem nor the lack of documentation is an insuperable barrier to starting up for the first time – particularly if you manage to join a decent guild – and some rewarding gaming awaits if you can find enough time to play.
That leaves only the deserters, myself among them, who played, enjoyed, then hit a wall and moved on. Whether it is time to come back depends on what drove you out in the first place. If you left because playing was too burdensome a time commitment, you'll find only marginal improvement unless you're willing just to dabble or unless you otherwise have a great deal of patience for slow advancement. On the other hand, you should know that if you do come back, you'll find your characters right where you left them when you cancelled your subscription. You may have some class changes to contend with (your reviewer's friar was almost unrecognizably – but happily – improved during the hiatus), but you'll have your characters all the same. That may be plenty of reason to come back for those who kept waiting for some content to arrive in the upper level game. It's here now. And so is a genuinely entertaining, if still mezzer-dominated, RvR experience.
Now, if only you could find a way to quit your real job and earn money by playing Dark Age of Camelot without violating Paragraph I(B)(7)(f)(ii)(III)(J)(4) et seq. of the new end-user license agreement...