When Groundhog Day passed here in America, my friend Tommy G. snuffled out of the dungeons of Wizardry 8, couldn’t find his shadow, and instantly burrowed under again to wait for spring, only this time he took a copy of Dark Age of Camelot down with him. He loves the game with a passion that most people reserve for animate objects, and wanted to get the message of its greatitude out to you all, so he penned this review (with only minimal editorial bleeding on my part). Same rules apply to this as for the last one he wrote: I never played this game, if you have any questions or comments shoot them on to me, and I’ll blast them onto him (hmm, I must be in a 1st person shooter frame of mind). So, without further ado, put on your wizard’s hats, there is high fantasy afoot!
Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) is a self-described Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that debuted sometime last fall from Mythic. It has steadily gained in popularity since its release, and now has thousands of adventurers traversing its world of high fantasy as wizards, paladins, clerics, thieves, etc. The basic plot premise is that King Arthur had managed to unite his kingdom (Albion), the land of the Celts (Hibernia) and the land of the Norse (Midgard) under one rule. After Arthur’s recent death, the three realms have split apart and are engaged in a war for supremacy, and there had been a resurgence in the monster populations. You play a character in one of the realms (you can have multiple characters in multiple realms, but they are all independent of one another), starting off young and inexperienced and growing to wealth and power in the world. Once you hit level 15 (out of 50) you can venture outside of your realm to participate in the ongoing war with the other realms. This is player vs. player combat whereas within your realm you are working with other players fighting evil.
Each of the realms is quite different from the others, so different in fact that the game feels like many different games in one. The scenery, climate, races, classes, monsters, concerns, issues, outlooks and deities are all different, so switching from one realm to another can be quite a culture shock. By the same token, playing a different class in the same realm is a radical change in the game because the classes’ abilities, outlooks and roles change. I’ve played three primary classes: a fighter, a healer and a mage. As you would expect the fighter jumps into the heat of the battle and slugs it out with the monster of the moment, the healer is primarily concerned with trying to keep everybody in the group alive, and the mage likes tossing fireballs around until the monsters are crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. The different mind sets are so radical that it typically takes me at least 30 minutes to get back into one of these characters after playing a different one – this can be embarrassing as everybody in the party wonders why the mage is charging into the fray like a fighter. Even within a class, there is a range of possible specializations. For instance, though you can dabble in five different weapon types doing so will cripple the character to the point of uselessness. So everybody picks one (maybe two) and specializes. In addition to the weapon he can learn to use a shield, parry and dual wield. The different choices lead to very different characters from one who does a respectable amount of damage but can take phenomenal amounts of punishment to one who can do staggering damage and take a decent amount of punishment.
Beyond the battles, there are a wide variety of activities to pursue. Each realm map has a lot of territory to explore; a main town with many smaller settlements and five dungeons to explore. There are player guilds that you can join. The townspeople will trade with you and provide quests and tasks to accomplish. You can join one of the crafter guilds to make equipment to trade with other characters or for yourself. There are plentiful merchants and many different options for selecting equipment for outfitting. The equipment is all geared to your general level, so as you advance you will be able to (and need to) use better and better gear. Except for jewelry all equipment is visible on your character when you don it and can be dyed a range of colors (the more vibrant colors are more expensive), which also changes its appearance. I was a walking fashion felon for a while (blue chain boots, chain tunic, chain arms, chain gauntlet; red chain leggings and helmet; green hooded cape and purple shield). Since I could only see the cape (I prefer the view from behind), I didn’t care that I was offending my friends. They got so fed up that they chipped in and bought me some more eye soothing dye for the cape and enamel for the shield because they were sick of seeing the combination.
There is generally a great deal of social interaction between players in each realm. Since all the players in a realm are working towards a common general goal (defeating the other realms and purging the evil from their own realm) there is a lot of camaraderie and general assistance given to other players. For instance, my healer truly enjoys being able to resurrect other players. He sees it as doing his part to defeat evil. Similarly, high-level mages will cast enhancement spells on people he or she does not know to give them a temporary boost in their abilities. If you’re fighting a monster in a dungeon and get in over your head, yell for help and several people may come running. Higher level characters in guilds tend to hold on to their used, but still serviceable equipment and pass it on to lower level characters in the same guild to help them advance. I do this with my own old armor. As soon as I’m ready to upgrade, I wander through one of the starter areas, look for a suitable low-level character and just give him my old stuff. It is worthless to me, usually not even worth selling, but seems like a huge boon to him.
Advancing levels quickly becomes addictive. The first several levels go by very quickly. Then things slow down a little and you will typically start looking for groups to adventure with. You can ‘advertise’ your availability and contact existing groups looking for help. This lets you join or create a group in a few minutes. However, I found that I quickly built up a cadre of like-minded friends that I met in my travels. A particularly successful grouping will typically end with everybody adding everybody else to his or her ‘buddy’ list. The game keeps track of these people and makes it easy to contact them to team up in the future. As I advanced I found that I rarely advertised and instead could easily form a good group from the people on my buddy list. This made the game even more fun as I got to know the other people and became to count on them as I would a friend in real life (except that I do not find much opportunity to slay undead in real life).
You can choose to go solo or group as the whim moves you or time permits. One of the joys of grouping is trying to figure out how to make the group work. The normal group maximum is eight characters, and with so many classes, there are a huge number of viable groups. I’ve seen eight fighters, they kill lots of things very quickly, but need to stay away from spell casters and have longer rests between pitched battles. I’ve seen groups of mages, which is very hard to do as they usually fight things that can kill a caster in one or two blows. The ‘standard’ group is balanced, with a mix of fighters, healers and mages. We have put together some great groups and done amazing things. For example, I was in an unusual group with two healers and two mages. We really felt the lack of any fighters, but did well anyway. We had enough firepower to take down two higher-level monsters at once. If we accidentally got a third, it was much more of a challenge, but we were usually successful. (We lost one of the mages twice in about four hours.)
Mythic is continually and actively working to improve the game. They do about two updates a week. They’re currently on update #45 and that does not count some of the minor updates within a large one. Each time you start the game it checks for updates and automatically downloads and installs any it finds. The first time you start the game, it will download about 10M of updates, so be forewarned. The upside of the updates is that they are actively working on improving and expanding the game. They have probably done an entire expansion set’s worth of updates so far. The downside of the frequent updates is that the documentation has fallen well behind the updates. There are numerous commands that are documented in the update readmes but are not distilled anywhere. I’ve found lists on the web, but they are usually incomplete. I keep stumbling into commands/features that I didn’t know exist.
Before DAoC, I had always intentionally avoided online games for several reasons. I remember old MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games with a cheesy front end and dated graphics. Plus, I worried that my 56k modem and pokey ISP would make the game unplayable. DAoC successfully addresses all of these concerns. The graphics are state of the art, 3D renderings with textured bit maps. They make use of lighting, fogging and related visual effects that one expects in the latest computer games. I am truly amazed at the ease with which the game manages to coordinate many moving objects on the screen simultaneously, over my slow Internet connection. It is not unusual to have 30 to 60 different objects/actions going on at once and the game still remains smooth and responsive.
The special effects are very ascetically pleasing. The fighters have special moves that work in specific situations and during which you see them do something different (like twirl the weapon artfully before attacking). The rogues can back stab and sneak around in stealth mode (at which point they fade out and are hard for the onlooker to spot as well). The spells are all beautifully rendered and very colorful. You can watch as the magical energies are gathered in the mage's hands before he expels a fireball at his target. Or the healer waves his arms in a complicated pattern and a spiral of light descends over the intended target. Bards play songs and magical notes swirl about them. When a paladin casts a renewal of life spell a huge golden chalice appears above his head and pours golden magic over him. When a ‘pet’ user casts a spell, a little earth elemental appears and charges after the foe engaging it in mortal combat. All of this works to set the mood and tone of the battle so that you feel like you’re acting out a pitched battle right out of a fantasy novel.
I strongly recommend this game. It is the best, most enjoyable and most addictive game I have seen in 19 years. If you enjoy fantasy role playing games, then I urge you to check this game out. I’ve had some truly hysterical game moments of the kind that I usually only see in paper and pencil role-playing games. Please take the comment about addictiveness as fair warning, though. People may become concerned about your health. I was cutting sleep to play this game for the first two weeks I had it. I’ve backed off some, but my wife is still somewhat concerned. (She is also campaigning for a second phone line or a DSL connection, so there may be additional costs to the game beyond the obvious.)
: (40/40) - Simply the best I’ve seen in 19 years, barring none.
Role Playing: (20/20) - The game does a wonderful job of transporting you into the three mythic settings. The communal atmosphere fostered by the game really enhances the atmosphere.
Responsiveness: (10/10) - The game does a wonderful job at coordinating the activities of 1000 people at once and presenting a consistent view to each person.
Sound & Graphics: (9/10) - The graphics are modern, smooth and reliable. The spell effects are quite varied and very nicely done. The sounds are pretty good, you hear rain, footsteps, blows landing, monsters grunting, spells firing, etc. I turned the music off immediately, so I cannot comment on it.
Controls: (8/10) - The interface is completely configurable so you can rearrange things and add macros to your hearts content. However, it is poorly documented and I have been unable to find a complete listing of all the commands and am continually surprised by features I did not know existed.
Bugs: (9/10) - The biggest in-game problem is that the rendering engine occasionally goes out to lunch (probably about once per 8 hours of play). It decides that that tuft of grass at your feet is the size of a house, so until you get away from it you can’t see anything, which can be fatal in battle. Logging out of that character and back in again – something that takes about a minute – cures this, but it is still annoying. Outside the game, it causes WinME to crash on shutting down the computer about 80% of the time – something that appears to be a standard “feature” of the operating system with most games I run these days. (Lest somebody complain, I blame the game because the OS does not crash without it and I blame the OS because it lets a user application crash it.)