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Dark Age of Camelot


Overview

Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) is the only massively multi-player on-line role playing game (MMORPG) that I've played seriously to date. I was somewhat interested in Everquest, and there have been a couple of other such games that have caught my eye (e.g., Anarchy Online, PlanetSide, and, most recently, Star Wars Galaxies), but DAoC is the only one I've played much. With as many other games as I play, perhaps the obvious question is why?

That is, why haven't I played more MMORPG games? The answer has two components, I think, the first being that I really hate having to pay a monthly fee to enjoy a game. Yes, I do realize that the companies that make such games pour a lot of resources into making them successful, and yes, I also realize that many MMORPGs are updated constantly after their initial launch—in fact, Mythic has been very good about doing this with DAoC.

But at bottom, it's still hard for me to want to cough up $120 (or more) each year just to play a game after I've already coughed up a good $40 - $50 to buy the initial version in the store. The yearly subscription money involved could buy me roughly four other non-MMORPG games at the prices I typically pay, so that's not chump change. I think it would be a much more appealing if MMORPGs either gave you a few free months with the game, rather than the typical one month, or didn't charge anything for the initial files. Either way, it would make MMORPGs a lot more accessible.

At any rate, I gave in to my curiosity after my second reason, namely, that none of my friends were playing, finally evaporated. When my clan, Steel Maelstrom, started a new company to support DAoC, I decided shortly thereafter that I would get into the game and give it a shot. After all, I knew I could count on having friends on-line from day one, and I knew that their camaraderie would be a big help to me. Unfortunately, neither the presence of friends, the neat content and updates, nor even the prospect of realm-versus-realm (RvR) combat could sustain my interest.

NB:

In all fairness, I should state from the outset that I never developed even one character all the way to level 50, which is where DAoC really comes to life according to many players. I'll try to explain below why I still think my overall judgment of the game is a good one despite this fact.

Analysis

Visuals

The visuals in DAoC are proof both that (1) many gamers are quite ignorant of how video games work, and (2) some people will complain about anything. To be sure, nobody is going to mistake DAoC for Unreal Tournament 2003 (UT2k3). Whereas UT2k3 defines the present state of the art in gaming visuals with its incredible array of eye candy, the textures, environments, characters, etc. in DAoC look a few generations old. It reminds me a bit of Thief II, not in its visual style, mind you, but in its overall visual quality (though its character animations are thankfully much better).

So why aren't I griping about the graphics if they look like those from a much older game? That's easy: because DAoC is doing so much more than any non-MMORPG game! Think about it, dear reader: how many characters does one typically find on the screen at once in any non-MMORPG game? One? Two? A half-dozen? Maybe a dozen at the very outside? In DAoC, I know I've had more than 100+ characters visible on my screen at once. That makes for a lot of polygons that all need to be drawn. It should also be mentioned that since DAoC lets the player look a very long distance, compared to the average non-MMORPG game, the landscape itself also contributes a huge number of polygons.

In my view, DAoC looks very good for what it's doing. Again, nobody is going to mistake it for UT2k3, but if one is so shallow as to require maximum eye candy for even minimum fun, then DAoC is clearly not for you. Still, I think its textures, characters, spell effects, and everything else look more than nice enough to get the job done. The jaggies can get a little annoying, but with high-end cards these days its possible to run it at 1280 x 1024 with full-scene anti-aliasing and still get decent frame rates. Suffice it to say that the game looks good enough despite its age.

Audio

The audio is a mixed bag. I write that a lot, and it's definitely true of DAoC. The music is great. I don't know who wrote the score, but I know I really enjoyed the bits of music that played for me at various spots in Hibernia. I never played in either Albion or Midgard, but I'm betting that their music is equally interesting. I think there's a soundtrack CD out for DAoC, and I'm thinking about buying it. I don't normally go in for stuff with a Celtic flavor, but the music in Hibernia is good enough that I might yet pick up that CD.

Unfortunately, I think the game stumbles when it comes to sound effects. I could be wrong, but it sounded to me like there were less than a handful of different sounds made during combat. Between the sword-hits-metal and sword-hits-nonmetal noises, I found the audio pretty boring. It also doesn't help that some of the spell effects are positively uninspired. Seriously, I was really interested at first in playing a character pursuing destructive "void" magic, but the lame sound effects alone were enough to turn me off. Honestly, Mythic, with as much pain and suffering as it takes to develop a character to the point where he's a serious threat, you should add some better sound effects for more powerful spells.

I guess the short version of the story, where the audio is concerned, is that some parts are very pleasing while others are not. I don't honestly think this is something that's going to bother most gamers, because I'm kind of fussy when it comes to audio. I mention it only for the similarly fussy folk out there.

Interface

I realize that DAoC is a nice step forward over previous MMORPG games in terms of its interface. Having said that, however, I think it has a default keymap that only a mother could love. Seriously, what were the developers thinking? I really tried to grow to like the default interface, but I found it wholly unusable in very short order.

Worse, the key-bindings can't be changed while you're connected to a server! Did I slip into some kind of time-warp-powered coma and emerge back in 1985 playing Quest at a local high-school, line-printer terminal? Yes, I realize you can issue commands at the console to remap keys, but this is such a basic game feature I expect some kind of GUI help. The console commands are hardly intuitive in my view, and, what's more, you cannot use them to map all of the keys.

Aside from those two complaints, the interface is pretty good. I think some shortcuts could probably have been provided to make life easier for the player—I really grew to want a sell-everything-on-this-inventory-page button in a big hurry—but it's pretty functional. The ability to bind macros to toolbar buttons is a powerful interface metaphor, and it became even better after the game was updated with cool graphics for each weapon, spell, etc.

Game Mechanics

This is where I think the game fails, though this is more an indictment of MMORPGs in general than of DAoC in specific. The game mechanics of DAoC can be summed up as follows: (1) find bad guy spawn location, (2) carefully "pull" bad guys from said location, (3) kill them, and (4) camp at a safe distance to recover health and energy. Where (1) is concerned, you'll find yourself spending a shocking amount of time just running around. I remember one gaming session in particular during which I spent my hours of free time that day doing nothing but running around. I made the mistake of hitching myself to a group that was looking for a bard, and we ran from hell to breakfast trying to get hooked up. After more than an hour of pointless jogging had elapsed, I gave it up and quit for the night.

Of the other two thirds of the game, (2) and (3) are where all the fun of DAoC is really found. When you're with a good group and everything is clicking, it makes for a great experience. The fact that the group will inevitably end up camping at a "safe" distance and "pulling" monsters to them makes it feel a bit like you're on one of those managed hunts (i.e., one such that the game animals are very carefully controlled so that the guide can take the "hunters" directly to them). But it is still a lot of fun when everyone is firing on all cylinders.

The problem is that this is how the player will spend 99% of his gaming for a very long time. By the time I had quit playing DAoC, I had put many full days of playing time into my main character without ever making it beyond level 23. That's less than halfway to level 50, which is where the game supposedly gets really interesting. Yes, there are some quests one can pursue for the non-player characters (NPCs), but they're simply not worth it. Of all the quests I accepted, not one of them ever gave me more than a mere pittance of a reward, either in terms of monetary compensation or experience.

I'm told that once the character hits level 50, he can then engage in the RvR combat that comprises the real raison d'être for DAoC. For the record, I think I'm a pretty patient guy. I had to put a solid twenty hours or more into Blade of Darkness, for example, before I really "got it". I had to put even more than that into Earth 2150—playing it on and off for over a year, I should add—before that game finally "clicked" with me. I put more than few full days of playing time into DAoC—far more playing time that some first-person shooters take to finish these days—and I was still less than halfway to the point at which the real fun was supposed to begin.

I suspect DAoC fans will reject my criticism on the basis that I was a dilettante, that I simply wasn't willing to stick with DAoC for the long haul. I realize, of course, that a large part of any role playing game is character growth, and that takes time. But if a game is designed so that its central focus can't be at least tasted in a relatively short period, then it's flawed, period. Ask anyone who played Jedi Knight II how much fun it was to slog through opening level after level after level just to get to the temple and finally acquire a light saber. Trust me, it was about as much fun as killing the hundredth water beetle in DAoC.

I think the bottom line, at present, is that MMORPGs don't feature enough variety to hold my interest for as long as is necessary to develop a serious, fun character. And, for better or worse, I'm sure I'm not alone. I have hope that some MMORPGs under development will deliver a more varied, engaging, and accessible experience. In my estimation, DAoC just isn't worth my subscription money for what it provides because of this fundamental flaw in its game mechanics.

Story

Story? DAoC has a story? "See Dick pull. See monsters aggro on Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!" Is that the story? Ok, that's not fair. There's actually quite a bit of background to the game, as one can discover from chatting with NPCs. The problem, as I've mentioned previously, is that it's hardly ever worth talking to NPCs. The rewards are so trivial that it's really not worth the time. I think that what I've read of the story is pretty neat, but it needs to be presented in a fashion that makes it worth my time as a player to investigate it.

Content

This is where DAoC really shines. It provides the player with the option of joining three different realms, each of which brings its own unique approach to the game. Each realm provides different classes, different monsters, different architecture, dungeons, quests, and so forth, which is really a stunning amount of content to begin with.

This is to say nothing of the variety of different ways the player may approach the game. I know many players find crafting boring, but I really enjoyed it. Frankly, if I could have sat around and just made stuff for other players, I would have done that. The economics of DAoC are such, however, that crafting gets very expensive in pretty short order. Unless you've got a very wealthy patron, you're going to have to put in a lot of time on the leveling grind just for crafting money if you plan to get very far at all. Beyond tailoring, weaponcrafting, armorcrafting, and so forth, there is also siegecrafting and spellcrafting. Though I never made it to a high enough level to get into these things, I understand that they provide the high-level player with even more interesting crafting options.

I should point out, by the way, that the economy of DAoC isn't bad at all. Quite the contrary, I think the game designers did a really good job in this respect. The game doesn't throw money and goodies around to the point where devaluation runs rampant—as is a common complaint against some other MMORPG games from what I understand. No, the economy of DAoC is far more frugal, which really does a better job of balancing player rewards and purchasing power. What I was trying to indicate above was that I think the system could be improved a bit if players who want simply to craft could somehow support themselves through their crafting, rather than being forced to take up the sword to fund their crafting habit.

As if the variety of realms, classes, monsters, locations, crafting, etc. wasn't enough, none of that is the central focus of DAoC. All of those goodies are the stuff one does while on the way to RvR combat. I'm told that the real fun doesn't begin until you've hit that magic level 50, so that you can partake in the ongoing war between the three realms. As I've tried to emphasize, in the interest of fairness, I never made it far enough to do that, so I can't say much of anything useful about it. It sure sounds like fun from what my friends tell me, but because of the boring, repetitive leveling grind I guess I'll never know.

Suffice it to say that there is no shortage of goodies in DAoC. It's jam-packed full of stuff. Heck, one of the free game downloads even lets players own and customize their own housing! That's pretty neat! In short, it's the fundamental game mechanic that's short on variety, not the world itself.

Multi-Player

Given that DAoC has no single-player aspect, I've really been talking about the multi-player aspect all along. Nevertheless, there do remain some important things to be said about the degree to which DAoC is well-designed to facilitate multi-player gaming.

First, I'd say that the facilities in DAoC for joining up with like-minded players are pretty good. They're not nearly as accessible as they could be, insofar as there is no GUI for using them; instead, the player has to use a series of console commands to search for and contact potential party members. Though they could be easier to use, they work nicely. It's generally possible to find a pretty decent group in relatively short order.

In fact, I never ended up using those facilities because of a second positive aspect to DAoC, namely, that it seems almost completely wanker-free. This is not Counterstrike, a game in which it seems sometimes as if there are 10 cheaters, 5 hackers, and 25 players permanently talking trash for every lone, serious gamer. Not at all. The fee-based aspect of MMORPGs seems to have made the world of DAoC a very pleasant place to play. I have to say that even though I hate paying the fee it's worth it. If I could pay a similar fee to guarantee llama-free sessions of Raven Shield or other games I enjoy, I would.

At any rate, what I mean to say is that DAoC is filled with all kinds of players with whom the player can group. Some prefer to go it alone, of course, but many prefer to group with other players. I rarely had trouble finding a group, and I'd have to say the groups were pretty good more often than not. On occasion I did get accosted by some rude low-level player who would simply hit me up for money, but such DAoC bums or panhandlers are pretty rare in my experience. Most folks are very polite and helpful, and that shouldn't be underestimated in light of the average lack of maturity in the larger gaming community.

Third and finally, the game is structured pretty nicely to encourage multi-player collaboration. There are some odd bits here and there—the way experience is awarded, based at least in part on relative level, sometimes makes it hard to get a balanced group together in which everyone gets a good benefit—but for the most part it works well. In Hibernia, Bards, Druids, Wardens, Heroes, et al. are all useful in a group, and that's a really hard balance to get right in my experience.

Conclusion

At this point two questions remain. First, why should you take my thoughts about the game seriously? After all, I never leveled up enough to get to the main attraction, right? My answer is that my thoughts are accurate where the player will be spending the bulk of his time for a long time to come. Further, once the player reaches the point at which he's eligible for RvR combat, it doesn't change the fact that he will then be engaging in another very repetitive sort of experience. Admittedly, there is much more variety to the RvR experience, and I imagine the fun factor is unavoidably higher just because of that. But I still think it's important for the gamer thinking about DAoC to realize that he isn't going to get to the good stuff for a long time.

Second, what's my final conclusion? If you're really curious about what it's like to play an MMORPG, then I think DAoC is a great place to get started. But be forewarned: this is a game that will require an enormous investment of your time, and money as well relative to other games, in order for you to make it to level 50 and savor its "sweetest meat". If you're the kind of gamer who tends to devote his free time to just one game, then DAoC might be right up your alley. If you're more like me, however, then I suggest avoiding it right from the outset. It's not that DAoC is a bad game; it's that I don't find the general game mechanics of the genre to be entertaining.

Reviewed by Phileosophos
http://www.geocities.com/phileosophos

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