Well, my first week in Darkfall has come to a close and, at the risk of fanboying it up, holy cow was that fun! It's hard to believe this is the same game that I was unable to purchase on launch day (and unable to play for more than a few weeks at a time over the course of 2009 due to a lack of interested friends). Darkfall isn't so much a game as it is a lifestyle -- and as far as MMOs go, it's a really nifty time machine.
In six days and a little under 30 hours of play time, I've managed to move across the map from my racial homeland to my clan city and to assist in taking down two Gardorocs, a Dark Dragon, more deadly wraiths than I can count, and a couple of giant stone dudes whose name escapes me at the moment. I've also gotten a good start on skilling up my spell-casting, archery, and greatsword abilities, and I even did a bit of crafting and gathering. In true Darkfall tradition, the first mount I made was promptly shot out from under me by a gaggle of the game's frightening mobs. And in case you're wondering, yes, I also got ganked. Though it's only happened once (so far), it was a doozy.
Join me after the cut for a rundown of the week's mayhem and an earnest attempt at maintaining my objectivity.
Darkfall's character creation is pretty basic, and since you folks were so kind as to pick my racial choice ahead of time, I won't bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that my Mahirim was born in Silverspear and spent his first few hours running around helping me get re-acclimated to the game's user interface and grabbing all the newb quests I could find. Regarding the much-maligned UI, it's really pretty cool. Yes, I know; Aventurine is revamping it, and some of you have even cited it as one of the reasons you couldn't stick with Darkfall. I'm a bit baffled by this contention, to be honest, as the UI is clearly functional and different enough from conventional MMORPGs to be interesting.
Looting your kills is a prime example. In most MMOs, it's a trivial (and instantaneous) matter consisting of double-clicking your fallen foe and waiting for the loot tables to magically add a pile of random crud to your bag. In Darkfall, you're required to open up your bag, open up the corpse's bag, and manually drag items over one by one (items that the target was just using against you, in another nifty twist on genre cliches). Yes, it takes time, and that's the point. Like everything else in the world of Agon, rifling through your foe's pack is a potentially harrowing experience depending on your surroundings. Even when you're relatively safe, the mechanic adds quite a bit of flavor to the game's considerable immersion factor.
The other UI foible that might throw some folks off has to do with camera functionality. You'll spend the majority of the time viewing your avatar from the standard third-person angle (a first-person view is also available by pressing F12). Unlike controls in other games, though, moving your mouse turns your character, and you can't swing the view around to see your virtual self from the front. From a design perspective, the intent is to add to the trickiness (and dare I say it, realism) of combat-related situational awareness. You can sneak up on people in Darkfall precisely because they don't have the godlike ability to zoom out and rotate their field of view 360 degrees. For the virtual narcissists in the audience, this may initially be a little off-putting. The good news is that you can get a full frontal look at your toon while sitting on a mount.
Honestly I hope Aventurine doesn't completely destroy the current UI. Sure it could use a coat of polish (no font resizing and significant inventory lag? come on guys), and I'm not a fan of the slow-loading journal, clan, and statistics pages, but overall I have few complaints.
The Wayback Machine
After re-familiarizing myself with the controls, I spent the next day or so running around Silverspear, Red Moon, and the surrounding wilds. Regardless of your chosen race and starting location, you'll want to head to your racial capital city early in your Darkfall adventures and pick up the six title quests given out by various NPCs. Each of these tasks involves a fairly lengthy series of kill quests that reward you with stat increases, decent amounts of gold, and gear that is a step up from newbtastic. More importantly, title quests give you ample opportunity to pick up the game's combat system and get to work on your desired character build.
I elected to focus on raising both my two-handed weapon and spell-casting skills, and the poor goblins around Red Moon and its outlying villages paid the price. It was here that I started to realize just how much fun Darkfall is and how much it reminds me of an earlier (and better) era in MMO gaming. No, that's not rose-colored glasses or the dreaded nostalgia, forum warriors; I simply prefer worlds to games.
One of your first clues to Darkfall's old-school stylings is that the AI mobs actually present a challenge. These aren't your standard DIKU cannon fodder stationaries with giant "kill me" Post-Its stuck on their arses. No, these are semi-intelligent greenskins that bring their buddies, dodge your attacks, run for cover, and generally keep you on your toes until you've skilled (and geared) up quite a bit. Agon's mobs also lack giant brightly colored arrows hovering over their heads, and when combined with the game's beautiful terrain and dense vegetation, they're sometimes quite hard to see until you're right up on them. It's been a long time (maybe ever?) since I've had to make strategic use of terrain, pick my targets, and crouch in the bushes with a sliver of health remaining, listening to the game's realistic sound suite to determine whether my pursuers were coming from the left or the right (the limited view in action).
Add to this the possibility that the other Mahirim newb whacking goblins nearby could conceivably decide to turn his blade on you when he's finished and you can begin to see why Darkfall is a unique title. Alternatively, if the two of you team up, you'll likely be damaging each other as much as the target in close-quarters combat due to the game's friendly fire implementation. I learned, much later, that you can press "T" to swing up and down (as opposed to side-to-side), thereby saving the vast majority of your whoop-ass for the mob instead of your groupmates.
There's also some real strategy involved in Darkfall's PvE combat, not just in the timing and aiming of blows or spells, but in the choices you make regarding how to proceed, how to deal with equipment failure, and numerous other factors unique to sandbox games. For example, I neglected to pack an extra spell staff during one of my goblin-hunting expeditions and had a bona-fide "oh %^*t" moment when it broke in the midst of a spell duel with a goblin shaman (nasty little cusses, by the way; don't take them on in packs). Fortunately I had the presence of mind to rummage through my pack and equip my newbie leafblade in order to finish him off.
As luck would have it, though, he didn't drop another staff, so I decided to run back to Silverspear and grab a few backup weapons from my bank. I could have killed a few more using the leafblade, but there's no guarantee I would've found a usable weapon in a reasonable amount of time, nor does the newb weapon allow me to skill up. All of this (and a lot more that I'll cover over the next few weeks) equals a recipe for fun that exposes a lot of other genre offerings as the bland variations on whack-a-mole-with-a-chat-box that they are.
"All of this... equals a recipe for fun that exposes a lot of other genre offerings as the bland variations on whack-a-mole-with-a-chat-box that they are."
The longest journey
After an excursion in the sewers below Red Moon, I figured it was time to bend to the will of the people and join a clan. It's not that you can't play Darkfall solo. I was making good progress and having a blast, even when a random player stole the pants off my corpse before I could make it back to reclaim my items (I don't know if it was the legendary nopantscharlie, but if so, he's now the proud owner of a pair of blood-stained leather greaves with less than .19 durability remaining, and he should also be thinking about changing his name).
At any rate, I applied to the NEW clan via the in-game clan interface and joined it in Ventrilo for a brief chat with Supreme General Buadthan Ludhurst. After I was officially guilded, it was time to trek across the continent from Silverspear to the clan city of Hammerdale, located in the extreme southeast of Agon's main landmass. Instant travel is a rare commodity in Darkfall, and I figured it would be more enjoyable to attempt the journey on my own rather than bother my new clanmates with a handout request. I was rewarded with a fairly epic journey that spanned a good hour and a half. I traveled across a vast mountain range, through a murky swamp, past ruins, caves, tribal hunting grounds, and all manner of both NPC and player cities. In short, I got to explore a small slice of the huge and beautiful world that is Agon, and to be frank it's been quite awhile since I've had so much fun in an MMORPG.
Ironically, I suffered my first gank within sight of the Hammerdale gates at the very end of the momentous trek. I had planned for it and left what gold and gear I'd accumulated to that point in my bank, so the material losses were minimal. As this was my first foray over the hills and far away from Silverspear, though, I was naturally still bound to Silverspear, and consequently I resurrected way back in Agon's northwest corner where I had started my journey almost two hours before. Had I been a solo player, I can honestly say that a bit of nerd rage would probably have ensued. Thanks to the generosity of the guys in NEW and the Hammerdale regulars from other clans, my keyboard was spared. An affable Ork named Green Chili met me in the wolf-lands and delivered a single-use portal stone. He also stood guard as I activated it and went through the lengthy casting animation, after which I emerged in the stone fortress at Hammerdale and promptly bound myself to the city's clan stone.
This is the perfect lead-in to talk about Darkfall's underrated community, but unfortunately I'm running short on time and space, so we'll delve into that a bit in next week's Choose My Adventure recap. The rest of my initial week in Agon consisted of exploring the wild lands around Hammerdale, skilling up, and running for my life from the frequent PK raiders who invade the city looking to gank newbs, fight with NEW's skilled veterans, and generally stir the pot.
A guided tour
On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to ride along for a lengthy tour of Agon's middle latitudes. Spearheaded by Darkfall veteran and all-around nice guy Witch Killer (and featuring vets from clans including NEW, Zealot, and Shadow), the group was designed to show off a bit of Agon's high-level PvE content as well as various places of interest along a corridor stretching from Hammerdale to the dangerous nether regions at the center of the expansive map. The excursion lasted for hours but was over far too soon for my liking. We did everything from dragon-slaying, to PKing (inside the poor chap's house, by the way), to walking a massive chain-link tightrope up the side of Darkfall's answer to Mount Doom. I'm not sure which was scarier (or more fun): being surrounded on all sides by a deadly drop and vicious NPC mobs, or spying an unknown group of red players who were more intent on their own dire predicament than they were in turning to engage us.
All in all, it was quite a spectacular first week. If I had to sum up my initial Darkfall experience in two words, those words would be "more please." Check back next week for more Agon adventures including a look at the fearsome kraken and some PvP action. This is Swiftsnout, your man (er, Mahirim) in Agon, and I'll see you next time for Massively's Choose My Adventure.
Continue to next week.
Join Jef as he morphs from a ranty writer into a grindy action hero in a Choose My Adventure directed by you, the Massively readers! Add Jef in-game to play along, or simply follow the column every Wednesday for a recap of the week's mischief. When six weeks are up, we'll spin the wheel of fate and do it all again.