REVIEWS -- Darkfall Online -- PC
Darkfall’s brave new world of Agon
by Ed Heyl
Fun factor: Fun
Worth to: Buy
Although it suffers from lower production value, Darkfall offers an innovative, exciting FPS PvP experience for a niche audience fed up with cookie cutter MMOs.
Darkfall is the first game from Greece-based indie developer Aventurine S.A., a project spanning 8 years in development and many cries of vaporware. It is an MMORPG in the tradition of Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, and Planetside, that features FPS and RTS elements. It brings innovation to the relatively stagnant MMORPG market, with no restrictions on PvP and a full loot mechanic. Although rough around the edges, Darkfall gives a dynamic, engaging and gratifying experience over its peers for people who prefer gameplay over perfect production.
Your character, leveling and skills
You begin play as one of six races of the typical fantasy mythos, including Humans, Dwarves, Orks, Mirdain (elves), Alfar (dark elves) and Mahirim (wolf men, the token new race). Racial alliances essentially exist between the Humans, Mirdain and Dwarves, as well as between the Orks and Mahirim -- the Alfar operate alone. Character customization is relatively limited, but in no way forces an inordinate number of doppelgangers into the world, featuring sliders for hair and skin color. There are around 20 hair and face styles per race/gender and beard/piercing/etc. options unique to each race.
Players choose one of three starter towns per race to enter the world in and must give their character a first and last name, a small boon to role-players. I was in no way disappointed with the customization options. Upon entering the world for the first time, you are given a short popup tutorial on basic use of the interface and combat. There are a series of quests given by the NPCs of the starter cities which thrust the player into different roles: fighting goblins, using magic, gathering, crafting, etc.
You are limited to a single character per server, but I don’t see this as a negative feature per se. There is a certain amount of accountability from the lack of anonymity when you are limited to a single avatar; community reputation becomes a factor, and the player is in no ways limited in the progression of their character.
Similar to Oblivion or Ultima Online, Darkfall features a skill-based system of character progression. There are no levels or classes, and a player is free to focus on whatever skills he or she chooses. Any skill ranges from 1 to 100 skill points and you gain skill points by doing the appropriate action. For instance, striking with a sword increases sword skill, getting hit by a fireball increases your reflex and rigor (defensive skills), and successfully harvesting lumber raises your logging skill. There are skills for gathering, crafting, melee weapons, archery, magic and general use (like jumping and swimming). The more skill points you have, the greater effect your skills have and you gain access to new skills and special attacks.
You can craft just about any item in the game, and gathering resources (including wood, metal, fish, herbs, and scavenged items from monsters) is an important part of being a crafter. At the moment the skill system is completely open-ended, allowing a character to eventually (although this takes an immense amount of time) have 100 in every skill. Many players enjoy this freedom, but I have to say it feels the game would benefit greatly from a skillcap or similar system with some sort of skill decay, so that characters are more diverse but are never stuck in a role forever. Truth be told, Aventurine has made steps toward more character diversity, starting with customizable buffs for spells (including distance, ability to jump and cast, etc. -- think metamagic feats from D&D).
Gaining skills takes a very long time, and many players have resorted to the simplest and fastest methods they can to “grind” up their skills. There are bloodwalls in most player cities, where players AFK naked and let others attack, heal or buff them to gain skills, while others AFK run against walls to improve their speed, instead of actually playing the game. This is a problem with both the game mechanic and player psychology: because there is no limit to overall skills, hardcore players are able to push themselves far ahead, and others feel that they need to follow suit to actually compete.
The difference in power between someone with many character skills versus one without is much less evident than in mainstream MMOs. Without a reasonable max level or endgame, many players are destroying their experience by assuming these ideas carry over to Darkfall. People who complain that the game is too much of a grind might just be looking at it from the wrong angle.
User interface and menus
The interface is somewhat counterintuitive at first, especially to someone used to typical MMOs, but it quickly becomes second nature. The usual viewpoint in Darkfall is first-person, and you can switch between the action mode and interface mode by right-clicking (this is rebindable) to fight/interact with the world/look around, and access menus/inventory/chat, respectively. In the interface mode, you can customize the placement, size, translucency and visibility of any window during action mode, allowing for great user customization without third party mods.
In action mode, when you aim your reticule on a creature, you get a small info box with its name and an HP bar; there are no floating names in Darkfall. Sadly the user-interface (UI) feels the greatest hit from low production value and simply doesn’t look as good as the game’s mainstream competitors.
There is a large map with zoom functions (reminiscent of Google Earth) and waypoints for quest targets. A hotbar runs down the left side of the screen and is the fastest way to queue up actions, including equipping/using items or casting spells.
Some in-game actions have annoying conditions that must be met, for instance you cannot interact with NPCs or loot tombstones when you are wielding a weapon. Looting, in turn, requires the player to drag the individual icons of items into their backpack. Mainstream MMOers might find this atrocious, but this makes looting a strategic activity; taking too long might net you a sword in your rump, so you will only take the best items if you’re feeling paranoid.
Major windows for your journal, clan info and help center are based in HTML and require a dismal amount of loading. From the journal you can access quest information, friend/ignore lists, write/view notes, your statistics (including a full list of kills in PvE and PvP), view the top three players in various fields (including combat, crafting, etc.) and other important information. The clan window is very complex, with information on and options for your clan’s holdings, history of conquests, your current allies and enemies.
The communication system is disappointing, although completely functional. There is essentially a single chat window with multiple tabs for different chatrooms. It can be very hard to notice when a person sends you a personal message. You will often find yourself replying to messages sent hours ago. You can link items in chat which is helpful for trade.
The world of Agon
The world of Darkfall is called Agon, a seamless and massive landscape with no instances and many places to explore. Four large subcontinents themed to particular biomes (arctic, jungle, desert, dry plains) circle the enormous center continent where the racial territories are ringed about, each flanking an enemy (Human, Afar, Mirdain, Mahirim, Dwarf, Ork). The landscapes are hand sculpted and look gorgeous, especially with higher video settings. The game also enjoys a relative lack of loading screens; except for entering the game, dying and the few rare forms of magical travel, there are no loading screens in Darkfall.
As you traverse the world, the game might seem to lag for a moment at the edge of a “zone” to load it, but on higher end machines I’ve heard this is unnoticeable. Also, the world is extremely traversable with no invisible walls, and only the most near vertical cliff cannot be ascended, so exploration is gratifying if a bit unrealistic.
At the moment, much of the world feels empty as monsters do not blanket the landscape but are more focused in and around small villages and forts, and only the most essential and friendly NPCs can be found in cities. This gives the wilderness an immersive quality. I found myself wanting to explore every nook and cranny along routes I would wander.
Other than the UI, Darkfall looks surprisingly good. The landscape and skies are gorgeous and the character and monster models are on par with mainstream MMOs. There is a shadow function which gives a dynamic source of light depending on the time of day in-game. Some little choices also give a greater sense of reality, including swaying trees (with swaying shadows) and reflective surfaces like metal armor which can be seen far away. Some parts of the graphics and animations don’t look quite up to snuff (I’m lookin’ at you spell effects), but they’re functional and don’t detract too much from the rest of the experience.
A major part of the game is centered on the control of player cities by clans. A guild can vie for ownership over a city, build their own, negotiate complex diplomacy with the other clans of Agon and participate in a dynamic world. Player cities are in no way instanced, and can be experienced by anyone. However, there are a limited number of pre-set locations you are allowed to build a city on, so the wilderness is never threatened and there is always a reason to go to war.
There are a few different types of towns to be captured: Cities, the largest and most decadent; Hamlets, smaller and less defendable; and Villages, which are made up of individual player housing and give gold to the guild that captures them. You can build individual buildings in cities and hamlets much like in an RTS, which have benefits, for instance a mine yields greater resource returns and a harbor allows the crafting of ships. Cities can have walls and closeable gates.
Combat mechanics and action
At its core, Darkfall is a real-time action FPS focused on player skill as well as the aforementioned skill progression. There is no auto-attacking or tab-targeting, so you must aim your attacks and blocks, dodging and using the environment to your benefit for combat as well as stealth (there is no pseudo magical stealth in Darkfall). Combat against other players in Darkfall is an adrenaline rush of an experience, as is sneaking or escaping from your enemies.
When you draw a melee weapon, your camera goes out to a restricted third person view, which makes melee much more intuitive than that of a true FPS. For magic and archery, you remain in first person. Arrows actually arc like real life, which is pretty cool. You can attack anyone at any time, including your allies, and there is collision detection, so formations and real life strategies are possible.
You do more damage from behind and can behead other players if you land the killing blow with one of these strikes. If you do not kill the player outright, they fall to the ground helpless, where you can choose to revive them (think Left 4 Dead) or use the “gank” skill and finish them off with a satisfying scream.
When a player dies, they drop every item on their person except for one or two crappy “starter weapons,” with which they respawn at their spawn location, or “bindstone.” Anybody nearby can loot the resulting gravestone dry. The world of Agon is extremely dangerous and exciting in this regard, because everyone has a reason to kill you, and you them. A player used to mainstream MMOs might be appalled to hear that you lose everything on death, but you get used to it and items are not too hard to acquire.
The game supports mounted, naval and siege combat, although ships are restrictively expensive and rare. Players can pull off powerful melee attacks from horseback and the mount has attacks of its own. Mounts and ships can be stolen and destroyed, for example: one day a pair of mounted Alfar were hunting for a fight in the Ork lands; they engaged a well armored Ork player near me and one dismounted, so I ran up, hopped on his draconic mount and rode away. Absolutely thrilling, that was. I have not experienced a siege yet, but from what I’ve heard, they are chaotic, fun and maybe need some refinement, although massive battles of hundreds of players are possible and quite a sight to behold.
An innovative AI makes PvE in Darkfall extremely engaging and pleasantly difficult. The first goblins you encounter don’t just sit in front of you and attack, they gather their allies and employ strategies including zigzag retreats and switching up ranged and melee combat. They are effective practice for actual PvP encounters because of their intelligence.
Flying monsters actually execute maneuvers instead of hovering in place and dragons will chase you from above for long distances. Monsters tend to drop what they are actually carrying or wielding; the realism of seeing items on monsters and looting them is refreshing after collecting Great Axes from the “stomachs” of boars in other MMOs.
Immersion and interaction in Darkfall
The lore of Darkfall takes a backseat to the action. There is little to no lore, except racial allegiance, that effects gameplay. Although the game is built around the stories to be forged by players themselves, I felt let down in this area of immersion. Quests are generic kill counts or collections with long descriptions you hardly read. There are now Title quests, which reward persistence with a small stat bonus attached to each Title, only one of which you can have active every 24 hours. It’s an interesting system. Role-playing is a moot point at the moment, especially with the flawed communication system and lack of comprehensive emotes.
With the latest expansion, players can obtain deeds to houses in chests that appear randomly around the world. When a house is claimed and built, there is a maintenance tax which must be paid to retain the building. Houses come in various sizes and can be outfitted with furnishings and function as a recall point for the owner. The owner of a house can also choose other players to live in it.
I do not advocate playing Darkfall solo. While it is completely possible to be successful or at least have a good time playing alone, it is extremely difficult. Playing with a clan gives you someone watching your back as well as access to some of the more expensive and exciting parts of the game.
There is an alignment system which encourages players to ally with their racial allies by implementing negative consequences if they choose to kill them instead, including limiting bind points and NPC access. There are no real consequences for allying or guilding with characters of opposing races, which doesn’t feel quite right.
The sounds are not my favorite part of Darkfall, although many really get you engaged in situations, like hearing the clash of a battle from over a hill or hearing footsteps coming towards your hiding spot. Chopping goblins with a sword sounds very satisfying. But some sounds are limited or not convincing and a few just get annoying, including the first spell you learn. And the sound options sometimes result in weird anomalies if you limit 3D sounds for instance.
There is a musical score which accompanies the launcher and specific songs for different times of day which aren’t terribly enthralling, but do a good enough job. The night song sounds rightfully creepy. One thing that is missing in Darkfall, which probably wouldn’t be a problem with other MMOs, is the lack of environmental sounds, such as waterfalls or wildlife.
I want to make it clear that Darkfall has a lot of potential. It has a huge number of innovations which set it apart from generic MMOs, but also a number of problems and rough edges which hold it back. If these problems were fixed, the game could be really great. Regular patches and a dedicated development team make me pretty sure that the game will only get better.
Darkfall is a niche game with an innovative, gratifying experience for gamers who prefer gameplay over polish. It combines elements of MMORPG, FPS, and RTS in a refreshing way where most of its peers follow a cookie cutter template. It is certainly rough around the edges and has its share of problems, but this doesn’t stop the game from being fun. If you don’t handle defeat or setbacks well, Darkfall might not be the right game for you, but I’d say it’s worth a try if you’re frustrated with mainstream MMOs.
Publisher: Aventurine S.A.
Release Date: July 13, 2009
Review Date: 09-08-2009
Numbers of Players: ---
Players Online: Massive Multiplayer
Notes: Monthly fee required, Min Req: Win XP/Vista, 2.5 GHz Processor, 1 GB RAM, 128 MB Video Card with Pixel Shader 2.0
Although some animations and spell effects look unpolished, the environments and creature models look great, maintaining a gritty, immersive feel without hurting gameplay.
Adrenaline rushing FPS PvP action, freedom of skill progression, intelligent AI, and massive battles make for a refreshing and exciting experience.
There is a huge lack of any real story in this game, punctuated by lackluster quests and unrealized role-playing opportunities. The menus may be very customizable, but they are also slow and ugly.
Mostly good, immersive and gritty, but some sounds become repetitive or downright annoying. The music isn’t enthralling, but sets the mood. There is a distinct lack of natural environment sounds.
An everchanging political landscape and a massive world to explore keep this game interesting far into play. The game is built for groups and guilds, so solo players might find it difficult to enjoy in the long term.