Dark Age, maybe, but a Renaissance is sure to come
Originally published in March 2002.
Historical note: I played DAoC for many years and made many, many friends.
Name: Dark Age of Camelot
Developer: Mythic Entertainment
Publisher: Mythic Entertainment
Recommended: Pentium III 450MHz or better, 128 MB RAM, 3D Accelerated Video, 500 MB hard drive space, 56k modem or broadband connection.
Retail Price: $39.99 plus $12.95/month
Street Price: $29.99 plus $12.95/month
The phenomena known as the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) has been frustrating for many gamers. The promise of persistent worlds where players from all over can get together, create unique characters, role-play, and explore is like a siren’s song for many. Players are, have been, and continue to be, drawn to the classic role-playing adventure. At each new launch, they return to the MMORPG, compelled by the desire to see at least one of these games reach its true potential. After several well-publicized disasters by other companies last year, game developer Mythic Entertainment has brought us Dark Age of Camelot. The question is, does DAOC finally reach Holy Grail status in this genre?
DAOC is by far and away the best of the MMORPGs available at the moment, but it still suffers from the same affliction plaguing all that have come before it. There is not enough role-playing and way too much hacking and slashing. There is not enough “game” in the game. So far, all of these massive online games have been weighed down by the leveling-treadmill that requires players to continually hack and slash their character to the next level. Until this redundant aspect of game play receives some innovation, the massive role-paying game will continue to be the nearly exclusive domain of hard core gamers.
In search of the Holy Grail
The backdrop for the world of Dark Age of Camelot is familiar to most of us. The game is set in the time period just after the death of the legendary King Arthur. In the geographical area which would eventually evolve into Western Europe you have three realms – Albion, Midgard, and Hibernia. Loosely, those realms translate into England, Norway, and Ireland. For the sake of this game universe, those three realms are in a constant state of war. And being in a constant state of war, those realms obviously need fighting bodies to carry out their aggressions and defend their borders. This is where your game character comes in.
Players can choose from a variety of character types, styles, and professions. Each character-set has unique features that make that character valuable to their chosen realm in some warring capacity. The strategy a player uses in designing and developing their character will determine that character’s ultimate profession. Of course, being a fantasy-type role-playing game, characters are not restricted to melee fighting only, magic plays a big part in each realm. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a Camelot legend without the mysterious Merlin casting spells everywhere.
Each character starts the game with very limited abilities and must earn new abilities by dispatching various creatures and training in disciplines peculiar to their race and chosen profession. This is the start of the leveling treadmill. Earning experience points generally involves killing roaming creatures like snakes, skeletons, reptiles, and bugs. After a player kills enough of what are called in game parlance Mobs (Mobile Non-Player Characters), they are ready to graduate to Player versus Player (PvP) combat.
DAOC employs an innovative twist on this part of the game by restricting PvP combat to what they call Realm versus Realm (RvR). This simply means that players can fight players in other realms, but not in their own realm. That is to say, Albion players can do battle with players from Midgard or Hibernia only. And vice versa. This restricts much of the arbitrary “newbie” killing that hampered the mainstream success of some predecessor massively multiplayer games. It is no fun to have your character harassed and killed by higher-level characters before he/she has had a chance to develop. The realm system means that there are safe areas where PvP combat is not possible, which gives players time to grow their characters and develop skills.
In terms of technical excellence, DAOC is really unsurpassed in terms of functional stability. Mythic Entertainment has done an excellent job of producing a nearly bug free MMORPG. While there are still balance issues to iron out between realms and professions, the game is generally well-rounded and players should have no trouble finding a realm, race, and profession that suits there role-playing aspirations. However, as you reach higher levels of around twenty-five, players will find some game regions are incomplete in that the creatures they dispatch stop providing much needed level-appropriate equipment. This is relatively minor problem that is being continually addressed with updates and program patches.
The game environments themselves are remarkably detailed and very picturesque. Trees look like trees, creature animations are on the mark and ambient sounds include bits of pizzazz like singing birds and chirping crickets. All three realms seem to be teeming with activity. Shop merchants and guards are friendly and are often able to help you gain much needed experience by offering tasks for you to complete. Players can solo their way through character levels if they wish, but the game is definitely designed around group play. To take full advantage of your opportunities, players will have to role-play group-friendly characters and join a player guild.
As I write this review, Mythic has just added three new “Epic” zones to the game for high level players. This has been one of DAOC’s saving graces so far, attention to customers. Unlike many previous MMORPGs, the people at Mythic seem generally concerned about how players feel about game play. They have employees with job descriptions that require them to interact with the players and address their concerns. Several tweaking changes have resulted from these interactions. Of course, one caveat to this is that sometimes the more vocal players are not necessarily the best players to listen to in terms of the big picture. In general though, the people at Mythic have done a good job of separating the good ideas from the bad ideas.
Dark Age of Camelot is the first of several MMORPGs that will be released before the end of the summer. Only time will tell if it will hold its position as the best example of the genre until then. As multiplayer online games go, DAOC is stable, nearly finished, relatively polished, and somewhat fun to play. Which is not exactly a ringing endorsement, nor a resounding condemnation. If you are addicted to MMORPGs then Dark Age will feed that addiction. If you enjoy multiplayer online games, you will not be disappointed. If you have always wanted to try a game of this type, DAOC is an excellent and accessible version. However, if you are weary of the genre and are looking for innovation, wait to see if one of the yet to be released titles has something new to offer.
In the end, it all boils down to expectations and choices. Dark Age of Camelot is a good game, but not a great game. No new ground is broken, but the old ground is plowed thoroughly and in near-perfect furrows. The question players have to answer: Is the $12.95 monthly fee required to reap the benefits of what has been sowed in those furrows worth it?