Saturday, February 27, 2010

Darkfall (cue ominous music)

So, the infamous harder-core-than-thou PvP sandbox Darkfall has celebrated its first birthday by giving the curious their first opportunity at a, well.. almost free trial.

Years of slings and arrows and cries of "vapourware!" meant that I didn't expect much when Darkfall launched, but its resilience has surprised me, it has seemed to be a genuine quiet achiever, with the word being steady growth and improvement over its first year. And, I have to say, rarely have I seen anyone make any game sound as good as SynCaine over at "Hardcore Casual" makes Darkfall sound. So this was not something I was going to miss.

First of all: "almost" free? Yes, it costs a buck to activate an account for the 7-day trial. This is novel: we've seen games selling trial CDs in shops for a tiny fee before, but have we seen a fee like this for no physical media? Not that I know of. It's caused a bit of debate, with both supporters and detractors. My take on it? A buck is nothing. It's meaningless as a sum of money. It's clear that the purpose of the nominal fee is to give Aventurine the means to exert some control of any abuse of trial accounts that might occur.

Because, as many have pointed out: Darkfall is not a game where you can stick trial players off on their own island, and have it be any sort of trial of the game. It's not a game where you can impose significant restrictions on chat and trade and interaction (as most MMORPGs do with their free trials), and have it be any sort of trial of the game. You have to put them in it as if they were real players, and if that means taking a credit card number to enable the blacklisting of people who want to use trial accounts to spam, or test out hacks, so be it.
And so, one extremely fast 7 gig torrent download later, on with the game!
Zitron-meter™: 2 hours 10 minutes played
So, in my opening couple of hours of Darkfall, I have killed some goblins (as you do), been killed by goblins once, fled from goblins like a scared little girl several times, fled from goblins that I couldn't see but which were shooting me with bows from somewhere several times, done some mining, logging, herbing, caught some fish, cooked some fish, and killed a deer with a bow and arrows.

The recently introduced "New Player Protection" system is surely a blessing. It's true what everyone says about the interface and controls being rather different and feeling rather strange at first, for anyone who has played a bunch of other MMOs with their similar controls. I'm willing to brave PvP but if I got ravaged by another player when I was five minutes into the game and had just switched into UI mode again by instinctively right-clicking to try to turn my character, I'd be peeved.

But, I've got no argument with the explanations I've heard for the interface decisions: when they feel like they're getting in your way, I can see that there are solid gameplay reasons why. Can't freely spin your camera around? PvP decision - it's to make you actually turn around if you want to check if anyone's behind you. Can't autoloot, but rather have to sheathe your weapon and drag items one by one to your backpack? Looting is intended to expose you to vulnerability, not something that is a mere quick shift-right-click in the middle of a fight.

I have to say, I don't enjoy aim and click melee combat, though. I've never played a game where it was enjoyable. Trying to whack a goblin with a sword was a frustrating mess of spinning around as this tiny little thing scuttled around me, not helped by the fact that frankly I'm not getting a particularly great frame rate out my somewhat-elderly PC. I think I would definitely prefer to specialize in ranged combat or magic in Darkfall.

My few attempts at shooting at goblins with a bow, I never hit a damn thing. I did, as I said, kill a deer though - deer don't fight back, so you can creep up close to one, shoot it, watch it run around in a panic for a bit, and then when it settles down, creep up and shoot it again! I actually got a real zing of realism from this: shooting a moving target with a bow is hard. You need to practice on easy targets first. I'll do more of this.

Resource gathering reminded me very much of EVE Online. Park your ship (yourself) next to an asteroid (tree, boulder or shrub), turn on gathering, and relax while every 10 seconds or so, another unit of material appears in your inventory. Or in Darkfall's case, fails to do so, because I'm a noob with skill level 1 out of 100 in mining, logging and herbalism. But don't relax too much - this is an area where I can see that the "no spinning the camera" restriction is going to bite hard. You practically have to push your nose up against the node you're harvesting, leaving you in a very vulnerable state indeed. It's not like EVE where keeping an eye on your scanner will alert you the instant potential trouble arrives.

As for the use-it-to-skill-up skill-based character advancement: playing a game that worked like that really brought home how rarely you see that these days. There have been plenty of CRPGs that worked that way over the 25 years of so I've been gaming, but MMORPGs? So few and far between. They all followed the Dungeons & Dragons level-based model rather than the RuneQuest based skill model. I didn't play Ultima Online, so this might actually be the first time I've hit it in an MMO.

Obviously I'm way too new to say how well it works in Darkfall long-term, but there's no doubt that it brings a level of feedback-excitement over a level-based system. Rather than a regular rhythm of that bar filling up, ding!, and then filling up again, skill-ups are all over the place. As a total noob almost every fight was dinging something. Even just heading back to town was dinging my running skill. Dings all over the place! It would clearly give you a lot of choices in how to work on your character, too. Do I kill tough monsters with my sword, since that's what I'm good at? Or do I go and kill weak monsters with an axe, which I'm useless at, to build up my skills there.

My grand overall reaction on the game is still a bit unsure. My time so far has been spread over a couple of sessions, but then this afternoon I played some Atlantica rather than firing up Darkfall again, so it hasn't really grabbed me yet, as such. I'll see how it goes and post more (along with the updated Zitron-meter™!) as the week progresses.


  1. If you are getting low FPS, try turning "post processor effects" off, and if you are still low, shadows off (although DF without shadows looks kinda meh). Also in the options is a auto-adjuster that will kick in if you drop below a certain FPS level (that you can set), I don't use it but it might help you. Also in the options there is a way to turn a built-in FPS monitor, which will help you see what areas give you FPS trouble.

  2. For a buck I will give this game a try.