Before I get into the review itself, I want to just set straight why I’m writing this review, as judging from the pre-post there was some confusion. It should be very clear to anyone around here that I really enjoy DarkFall, so this is not going to be an EG repeat of how terrible the game (read: character creator screen) is. As requested I will try to point out some of its current flaws or shortcomings, but given that it’s been more or less the only major game I’ve played for a year now, expect more good than bad.
I wanted to write a one-year-later review because far too often, a new MMO will get reviewed at release, but anyone looking for a solid write-up after some patching goes in will be out of luck, and given how much an MMO should change year to year, I see this as an issue. Along with that, the well documented problem of “how much do you have to play before you can review an MMO” is always present, so a years-worth of experience will result in a different review than one done from the log-in screen and forum searching.
If I had to sum up my feeling about DarkFall in one sentence, it would be that it’s a game of daily progress and discovery punctuated by moments of pure greatness, moments that I believe are only attainable in an MMO like DarkFall. I don’t view the game as a PvP-exclusive MMO, but rather one driven by PvP, and to me that is a big distinction. I can go days without PvP, yet during those days I’m still progressing towards some inevitable confrontation, and the knowledge that at some point I will be locked in PvP pushes me to progress forward. Every action has a PvP-derived purpose, be it direct (raising my melee skills to hit harder), indirect (raising crafting to make better weapons, with which to hit harder), or just generally related (learning the layout of a new area, which can later be used as an advantage should a fight break out in that location).
The more I play the better I get, both because my actual character is getting stronger and because my understanding and comfort with the game is increasing. There is something very rewarding about getting into a familiar situation and getting a more favorable result because you simply played better, and DarkFall is full of such moments. And just like the time to ‘cap’ is very lengthy from a character skills perspective, the time it takes to refine your player skills is likewise extensive. You won’t be able to watch a youtube video or read a forum strategy guide and come out a PvP expert, and while you yourself are improving, so is everyone else, creating a truly competitive and ever-changing environment.
And as in any competitive environment, there are those who will do whatever it takes to get ahead. While cheating is present in just about every MMO (Google search your MMO + cheats to see what’s possible), in a game like DarkFall it has an effect on more than just the person doing the cheating. To me there are two distinct forms of cheating; one being unnaturally getting ahead, and the other is doing the impossible.
Unnaturally getting ahead, be it through macroing, buying/duping gold, exploiting mobs, or whatever else pops up, is to me the lesser of two evils. It’s still cheating, but all that player is really doing is something that anyone with unlimited time could achieve as well. Someone who buys/dupes 10,000 gold is in the same spot as someone who has all day to farm that 10,000. If you are someone who can only farm 1,000 gold, both players will be ahead of you. How extensive this form of cheating is in DarkFall is difficult to say, but it’s certainly present (though of course ForumFall would lead you to believe everyone but the initial poster is duping 24/7 and exploiting mobs WHILE duping). GMs, especially of late, have been very active in temp-banning players who are afk macroing or exploiting mobs, and plenty of well-known players have been perma-banned as well, so SOME action is being taken. While I wish DarkFall was 100% free of such cheating, I understand that is simply not the case, and all I can do is play my game and accept that sometimes I’ll simple be behind, be it due to lack of play time or lack of buying gold.
The other form of cheating, doing the impossible, truly ruins a game. When you can run unnaturally fast, stick to someone’s back, radar hack, or aim-bot, there is little to nothing someone can do to stop you. I’ve personally witnessed this behavior three times in-game, and of those three two have been confirmed as players looking to go out with a bang (basically asking to get banned because they are quitting, so blatantly using a hack to fly around in plain sight). The ban dropped quickly (minutes) of being reported, but that it’s possible is at least a little troubling. The third action happened on the EU server a few months after launch, where I was fighting (and winning) against a character who simply melted into the ground. He had a then-familiar hack-friendly name (long strings of I L I O 0 O 0), but since the name-change policy I have not spotted any such characters (though I never found out if that particular character was banned, though I suspect he was).
Hackusations (as they are so lovingly called on ForumFall) are common on the forums and in-game, and in many cases they are from people who got beat and just refuse to believe they got outplayed. One member of my own clan gets accused of aim-botting at times because of his accuracy with archery. We know that rather than running a hack, he is just that good at aiming, but the accusations still fly. Same goes for people who don’t fully understand all of the mechanics of the game. It’s not a speed hack that let me catch up to you mounted, it’s mount-jumping down a hill. It’s not radar that let me find you behind that rock, it’s having seen you sneak behind it when you thought I was not looking. That type of stuff happens all the time, and makes it more difficult to spot the real exploiters, or to judge just how rampant cheating really is in DarkFall. From personal experience, it’s not very common and I can honestly say I don’t think hacking has affected me personally in any major way, but some on the forums will swear everyone is doing it.
Somewhat related to cheating and getting ahead is the topic of how long it takes a new player to get up-to-speed in DarkFall and actually contribute. To me the biggest hurdle a new player has to cross is not the skills/stats growth, but the very concept and approach of DarkFall itself. The game is not a different version of EQ/WoW/LoTRO/WAR/etc. It does not play anything like any MMO you have likely played before, from the UI to the mobs to the mentality needed to succeed and have fun. It’s just a very different beast, and anyone going in needs to prepare themselves for a bit of MMO culture-shock.
The game does very little hand-holding to guide you from one fun spot to the next, and if you are not at least a little self-motivated, you will soon find yourself without ‘stuff’ to do. You also can’t solo-hero the game start to finish; you need to join a clan, get involved, and get mixed into everything going on around you, of which there is plenty. Great moments and rewards are out there, but Aventurine won’t place them in front of you wrapped in a pretty pink bow, and expecting as much will only lead to disappointment.
As far as becoming a member of the community, it of course varies. While not everyone is a 13yr old self-proclaimed badass in his mom’s basement, those players do play DarkFall, and since they tend to attention-whore more than most, you might notice them. But there are also plenty of mature players, both those intent on world domination or to simply organize an RP event. There are casual clans, hardcore PvP clans, and everyone in between (Yes even a few crafter clans). If you take a little bit of time to look around, you should be able to find a group that fits your playerstyle and maturity level, and having a great group around you really makes DarkFall shine. Even in some corners of ForumFall you can find intelligent discussion, but wading through those badass 13yr olds might be too much for most.
Moving on to the gameplay itself (hey it’s only taken two pages according to Word), I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: I believe DarkFall has, hands down, the best combat in any MMO. And when your game is so combat-driven, that’s kind-of-a-big-deal. While balance is never perfect, the current state of the game allows for all three styles (melee, archery, and magic) to thrive if played well, and each form requires a unique approach. A great archer might not be the best melee fighter (from a player-skill perspective), and someone who is devastating with magic might be a one trick pony. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details of combat because I believe the countless videos out do a good job of showing it off, and as always, what looks fun to watch is just that much more fun to actually play.
Since release Aventurine has made certain changes that allow a new player to get up-to-speed a bit faster than before, while still retaining much of the slower late-game progress. This means that if you focus on one area, you should be more than competent within a reasonable amount of time (this of course depends on your expectations, but you won’t wait months before being able to at least contribute in a group setting), and even the newest players can contribute in some areas (all players deal the same damage when shooting a cannon, for example). As there is no level or gear-gated content, what you experience and when is based more on you and your clan/alliance than on how many XP points you have or how high your item level is. A day-one player can group up with veterans and head into the toughest dungeon, swing away, and contribute. That same day-one player can head out with his clan and PvP with everyone else. Sure he will be a softer target dealing less damage and have few tools (mainly magic) available to him, but the game itself won’t keep you out.
Combat aside, DarkFall is no slouch in areas like crafting or exploring either. While crafting is not perfect (lower-tier items are undesirable to all but the newest of players, and the upper-tier items are currently very difficult to get for anyone outside of a major alliance due to rare ore availability), its still better than most themeparks, as its more than just a huge grind/money sink (it’s that too) with 1-2 worthwhile items at the end. Given that items will be lost in PvP or break from use, players are always looking to restock, and what you require may change based on your play style (mages perfect one type of armor, melee another). Mobs also have varying weaknesses which will influence what type of weapon you use against them. For instance, I currently farm a Veilron Golem, which is particularly weak to lighting-based weapons. As my weapon of choice is an axe, I went out and bought a player-crafted one-handed lighting axe, plus I had an enchanter put a golem-slayer enchant on it just to give it that extra kick, knowing I would only use it against that particular mob. When I move on from the Golem, I will likely require a different weapon/method to kill whatever is next.
Exploring is another area of DarkFall that has improved significantly since launch, but still has a ways to go. There are countless areas around Agon that are visually stunning, and exploring can yield new mobs to farm or a particularly good spot to harvest. With that said, it’s clear that many areas are still unfinished, be it a deep tunnel that ends in a closed door, a complex city with no real purpose, or dungeons that are little more than a few rooms and 1-2 mob spawns. It can be somewhat disappointing to search a particularly interesting cave/tunnel/ruin only to finally come to the conclusion that there really is nothing to find. As I’ve mentioned before, some of these areas are explained by the in-game quests and lore, but certainly not all of them and its clear Aventurine has left themselves plenty of areas to come back to and flesh out.
Over this last year Aventurine has done what I would consider an exceptional job in refining and improving DarkFall. From noticeable improvement in client stability and performance to expanding questing and PvE, the DarkFall of today is a much improved game from what was launched back in February of 2009, and Aventurine has set a very aggressive pace going forward (three free expansions per year is the goal). In addition to just the sheer size of the updates, very few of the changes could be considered side steps or outright mistakes. The balancing of magic, ships, armor, and PvE rewards have all been well received and genuinely made the game better. It’s this short but successful track record that leads me to believe that DarkFall in 2010 will further see some amazing additions.
As Aventurine has stated before, DarkFall is not for everyone. It can be brutal, frustrating, unfair, and at times make you wish you could reach across your monitor and strangle someone. It’s also been the game that this 13 year MMO veteran has had some of his most memorable moments in, be they epic PvP victories or silly things like playing mana-missile dodge ball with my clanmates. It’s has, without exaggeration, renewed my interest in the MMO genre that prior to this title, was one disappointing or uninspiring EQ clone after another. I’m excited to see not only what Aventurine will add to DarkFall in 2010, but what the players themselves will do as well. More than anything, DarkFall really is a virtual world rather than a string of short and flashy rides, and it’s a world I’m wholly enthralled in.
(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)