Because Darkfall Online has been released as some sort of covert operation. The game can be bought, through an incredibly complex process, from the games homepage. You have to be there at the right date and time to discover a "buy"-button that will disappear just as soon as it has appeared. In reality the game is only available to a small group of dedicated gamers willing to participate in this obscure minigame in order to buy it. Hardcore from the very start.
Because hardcore seems to be a title Aventurine seems proud to put on Darkfall Online. On the surface Darkfall seems to be just another fantasybased MMO where you build a character who can fight alongside or against other players in a huge virtual world. But while games like World of Warcraft do their best to help new players and gradually let them learn the ropes in Azeroth, Darkfall Online throws you head first into the world in your underwear ordering you to find stuff out for yourself. There is no tutorial here, no beginners area, just you, your underwear and a sword and a huge world to explore.
The game mechanics in Darkfall Online reminds me of the 90s. A colleague of mine was absolutely hooked on Ultima Online right after the game was released in the U.S. "It's so cool, you HAVE to try it" he went on every day at work, but his description of the gameplay left me more puzzled than intrigued.
- Last night I trained my sword skill for four hours.
- How do you do that?
- I click the mouse on a training dummy.
- For four hours?
- Yeah, it's great! My sword skill has vastly improved now.
This game mechanic has been adopted by Darkfall Online. Other MMOs are usually based around character levels, and giving new abilities and powers to characters when they reach certain levels. In Darkfall Online you train your abilities directly by doing them. If you run you get better at running and increase your stamina. If you rest you get better at resting. If you hit something with a sword you get better at swordplay.
On paper this is an excellent and logical game mechanic, one that is employed in several succesful singleplayer games. But in Darkfall Online it's more of a farce. The developer might have dreamt that player characters would get better at casting magic missiles by shooting at enemies and monsters, but in reality everyone seems to be training their magic skills by blasting away at houses, trees and rocks constantly. Because everytime you use an ability you improve your skill, wether you shoot at a dragon or a brick wall. And since Darkfall Online is all about personal power and player versus player-combat building skills quickly is a key issue, requiring you to do meaningless tasks like shooting thousands of arrows at rocks or blasting spells into bushes for hours to increase your skills. You can make macros, pre-saved commands that the makes your character perform these actions automatically so you don't manually have to sit there and do it. On one forum I was even adviced to go watch some movies while macros played the game for me and made my character more powerful.
Now, it may be me, but I play videogames to be entertainment, and that MMOs have a certain degree of grinding is nothing new, but the mechanics in Darkfall Online feels unnecessary cruel and oldfashioned. To mee it seems like the developers are great fans of the learn-by-action-skill system used in Ultima Online, and their goal has been to make a modern game with a similar system, something they have accomplished. But this sort of game mechanic has been rethought and reinvented since the 90s, and personally I can think of hundreds of things I'd rather be doing instead of spending six hours in front of a screen chopping woods and cutting stone to make a thousand arrows I'm gonna shoot at a rock just to see some number increase. Such a skill system can be implemented in a more elegant way, like the training system in Eve Online where your character trains even when you're logged off, instead of punishing me as a player and forcing me to spend my playing time doing totally pointless tasks to keep up with the rest of the gameworld.
As I mentioned, player versus player (PVP) combat is a main element of Darkfall Online. The world is open and dangerous, any one player can attack another player whenever they want. In most MMOs PVP takes place in dedicated areas in controlled forms, with little or no risk involved. Not in Darkfall Online. If you die you lose your equipment, and respawns back in your underwear at a resurrection point. If your killer hasn't looted your corpse you can make your way back to the place you where killed and get your equipment back, but more often than not you'll find that you're equipment is gone.
It's harsh and brutal, but it also gives a nerve and tension to the game that other MMOs sorely lack. You are constantly watching your surroundings, and whenever other player characters are nerby you keep an eye on them just in case someone should suddenly decide to plunge their sword into your throat. It's a paranoid atmosphere, and I like it.
There are of course drawback to such an open PVP-system. It's extremely frustrating when a powerful player decides to hang out in a beginners area and slaughters dozen of fresh players trying to get to grips with the game. For hours. Losing the few pieces of equipment and gold you have managed to obtain through a few starter mission to some powertripping veteran just killing for entertainment isn't fun. It's slightly traumatic. It is, to use that word again, hardcore.
Like the menu system. Moving in Darkfall is like a first person shooter, you control movement with WASD, and you can jump, crouch and activate objects in your crosshairs. Instead of mapping different actions, spells, attacks and so forth to different keystrokes, you have to select one action for your actionbutton, and push the left mouse button to perform it. If you are holding a sword in your hand and wants to cast a spell you have to sheathe your sword, replace your currently equipped sword with a staff, pick the spell you want to cast and make it your selected action and then push the action button to cast the spell. Yes, it's exactly as cumbersome as it sounds. As a game mechanic this forces you to plan your actions more carefully in the game, since most MMOs let's you cast spells or attack directly just by pushing a button. But still, it feels like I'm playing an old Amiga-game with a joystick where such game mechanics was necessary because the joystick only had one button, and not a conscious designdecision.
Another odd designdecision is the way you have to push the right mousebutton to bring up menus, look in you backpack, equip your character, check skills and quests, etc. The problem is that doing any of these actions requires your character to stand still. Pushing the right mouse buttons freezes your character while you browse through your backapck. If you are running away from something and wants to put on the helmet you have in your backpack you have to come to a complete stop before you can look at your inventory, find your helmet, and put it on your head. It might not sound like such a hassle, but going into this semi-pause-mode everytime you want to check out a quest or skill or item breaks up the flow of the game and takes my attention away from the game world I'm supposed to immerse myself in.
While we're on the subject, the inventory has also deliberately been made into a mess. Every item you pick up is thrown into a bag, and you physically have to sort through stuff to find what you need. Bags give you the option to sort things into several containers, but it's still a mess. Grabbing loot from defeated monsters or players requires you clicking on tiny objects and dragging them, one by one, from one window to another. I can understand the logic behind this, looting other players should take time, but it's just boring. Looting feels like a job, not like fun.
As mentioned PVP is a key issue in Darkfall Online, and if you're the sort of person who prefers playing against the environmet, i.e. doing missions and defeating monsters, then Darkfall is definitely not the game for you. Doing missions is rarely peaceful, as other players can attack you whenever they want, so you still have to stay alert and be careful. It doesn't help that the AI of mobs and monsters you encounter is very bad. The solo missions in Darkfall at best serve as an introduction to the combat system.
Because combat is another aspect of the game where Aventurine isn't afraid to be different. It's sort of like a first person shooter, you have to manually aim at an enemy and press the actionbutton to hit him with your weapon or spell, and then keep your enemy in your sights while in close combat. If you're using arrows you have to aim, and take distance and movement into your calculations. It's action combat, and it works surprisingly well. But it's also slightly schizophrenic. I feel that my aiming abilites as a player are much less important than my characters skills, and if I'm a great player with an unskilled character I have no chance of defeating a poor player with a skilled character. And that undermines the whole action part of the combat experience.
Graphically Darkfall won't impress anyone. It looks alright a lot of times, but character models are ugly, animations are awkward, and it just looks generally dated. The design of the menus are just pure ugly and reminiscent of Amiga games from the 90s. The sound is even less impressive, with mismatched soundeffects accompanying spells, and seemingly no attempt to make an atmospheric soundscape for the world.
Despite pointing out a lot of negatives about Darkfall Online in this review, the game does have qualities. Joining a guild with dedicated players is fun, but that's pretty much a fact in every onlinegame. Good social relations can make you endure even the most horrible onlinegames. Darkfall Online seems to be on par with, if not even better than, other MMO-games when it comes to politics, clans and guilds, mostly because of the incredibly dangerous world your character live in.
But the biggest problem I have with Darkfall Online is that the game has too many annoying elements that feel outdated and unnecessary cumbersome and ruin my enjoyment of the game. Maybe I'm not hardcore enough, maybe I'm just a simple "carebear" who demand a more refined and accessible gaming experience. There is no doubt that quite a few players will love the non-compromising gameplay and chaotic gameworld, but for me Darkfall Online is just a chill reminder of ancient and unwieldy gamemechanics and a game I really can't recommend.
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