Shadowbane Review

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Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Wolfpack Studios

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium III 700 MHz, 128 MB RAM (realistically, start thinking about that upgrade to 512 MB RAM), 32 MB Open GL 3D video card, 1.5 GB HD space, internet connection

Shadowbane marks the latest entry into the world of massively multiplayer, persistent world gaming. Sharing the medieval fantasy setting of most other games in the game, the hook here is a dog-eat-dog world of every player and every guild for itself. After a bit of newbie leveling, any player may attack any other player. To survive, you'll need to join a guild. Strong guilds may build cities, and other guilds may form alliances to create an elaborate network of nationhood. It's been a long time in the making, but the time has finally arrived to "play to crush."

It's still early in the history of Shadowbane – player cities are just now springing up, and widespread guild vs. guild combat awaits consolidation and strength-gathering. Although there are some maxed-out characters running around, those who have stopped to shower since launch are still in the middle ranks at most. I've been playing on the Deception fragment and have built several characters, the highest presently at level 25.

Rob de los Reyes

Most every new persistent world game enjoys a honeymoon period in which gamers are relatively forgiving of obstacles and confusion. Put another way, each new game has a store of capital to spend with gamers. The trick is to design and launch a game that lets players break through the fog before all that capital is spent. Shadowbane is capital-intensive in the early going, but the light has already begun to pierce the gloom.

In a phrase, Shadowbane is much better than you heard it was going to be. That's not to say it has been without birth pangs. The first two days of launch overwhelmed the registration mechanism, but that was quickly repaired. A crash to desktop occurs every couple of days. You reload. A sound bug creeps in but is remedied by a simple relog. The only show-stopper right now is a memory leak that, depending on your rig, will require you to reboot your machine every few hours.* It's troublesome and needs to be fixed but, as a practical matter, doesn't interrupt play overmuch. In brief, although the launch has been nowhere near as smooth as the launch of Dark Age of Camelot (a feat that grows in impressiveness with each new game on the scene), Shadowbane has been nowhere near the disaster of Anarchy Online or World War II Online. In a host of ways – right now – Shadowbane is downright appealing.

Aerynth... And Welcome to It

Your Shadowbane adventure actually begins at the point of purchase. Many retail outlets still have stocks of the pre-order disc lying around and will give them away free with the full game. If you can find a pre-order disc, pick it up – the code that comes with that disc gives you instant access to three special player races (Minotaur, Centaur and Aracoix) that otherwise emerge one-at-a-time with each month of your subscription or with the purchase of a full-year subscription.

Once in the game, your first challenge is character design. The options for character choice are expansive to the point of overwhelming. Although the thick game manual does a superb job explaining the physical mechanisms of playing, it is nigh useless for practical information on how different professions and disciplines function. Moreover, it's possible to "gimp" yourself (mess up your character design) early and often. Plunge in anyway. By far one of the most appealing aspects of Shadowbane right now is the speed of character leveling. If you think you gimped yourself, just start again. It's not hard to catch up, and a day's worth of hunting with a group will give you a sense of the character possibilities.

Once your character is created, you materialize in a town of your choosing and notice two things immediately. The first is that, with some noteworthy exceptions, Shadowbane is much less attractive than Asheron's Call 2 and even the slightly older Anarchy Online and Dark Age of Camelot. Shadowbane has been in development for several years now, and its age shows. But neither is it so ugly as to be unplayable. Enough genuinely pretty touches appear here and there (like spell effects and character animations) that you soon adjust to your surroundings. The second thing you'll notice is a mess of a default interface. The good news is that the interface is deeply customizable. It took two days of futzing around and listening to tips from guild- and groupmates, but once I understood the range of options, it became quite easy to design a unique interface suited to each different character. Past the initial confusion, the interface has begun to feel like a strength rather than a weakness.

Movement is controlled by mouse-click, not through the now standard WASD scheme. Mouse movement isn't problematic in the open areas that dominate the game, but is punch-your-monitor frustrating in city buildings. Interior objects load slowly, and doors swing wildly. It's easy to get stuck in either. Some rooms are so cramped you expect never to find a clear pixel to click on for movement. The scheme evokes Diablo but isn't nearly as effective without the isometric view.

Get to the Good Stuff

Where Shadowbane does approach Diablo-like success is in its pacing. Substantially every aspect of Shadowbane feels faster than other persistent world games. Leveling is faster. Combat is fast and active. Downtime is low to non-existent. Running out to hunting grounds (the bugbear of nearly every MMORPG) can be slow, but town-to-town teleport speeds up the process of getting a group together. The ability of a group leader to turn on an auto-follow marching formation also aids the pacing since you won't have to hunt for wayward group members as frequently as in other games. The hitch here is that different characters move at different speeds. That's a fine idea to add to the mix of player diversity, but, absent a "keep group together" button, half of the utility of formation movement is lost.

There are scores of other inconveniences that seem easily remediable once the larger technical issues are resolved, but they give the game a rough-and-ready feel for the time being. The sum total of those inconveniences makes Shadowbane a daunting prospect for the novice persistent world gamer, but has a been-there/no-biggie feel for MMORPG afficionados. The deeper questions of the Shadowbane project remain unanswered for now. Can non-consensual player vs. player combat ever have more than niche appeal? Ever be more than a gankfest? Are city-building and guild warring deep enough to support extended play in light of the rapid pace of character leveling? Will guild warring even work?

The early days have been interesting in this regard. There has been an unspoken truce amongst players for the most part, even in the free-for-all zones, though forum boards indicate some early guild battles have already been fought. The threat of random attacks has, in an odd way, inspired greater generosity amongst many players. But the gankers (random player-killers) and, most especially, the thieves and looters are starting to get their bearings. The truce is wearing thin, and your guildmates may soon be the only people you can trust. Shadowbane would change dramatically if you no longer felt secure in a pick-up group.

Also interesting in these early days is the land rush. There are pre-fabricated neutral cities, but at the heart of the game are the player-built cities. Guilds are scrambling to claim real estate, lending an entertaining tension to these early times if you happen to belong to a guild with city-building ambitions. More to the point, it's a phase of the game that, absent a nearly unthinkable server wipe or the opening of a new server, will never come again. Laying siege to towns and guild warring are meant to replace it, but it's unclear just how this will change day-to-day play. In any event, the rough edges and handful of moderately serious technical problems are off-putting, but the intrigue of this once-off land grab is paying real dividends for those who have taken the early plunge.

*The memory problem has been repaired since this review was written.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on March 31, 2003 10:52 PM.

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