Darkfall Online has subsequently been re-reviewed. You can find that feature elsewhere on the site.
There are many games out there that I'd go ahead and call "special". Assassin's Creed was special, even if it wasn't great. Half-Life 2 was special, even though it very much was. Independently-run MMO Darkfall Online is certainly special - special in the way in which it so flagrantly ignores many of the rules of what makes a great, playable game. And no, this isn't a preamble to me saying that it's a rough gem, or made for the hardcore audience.
Sadly, every little thing Darkfall does is tragic, but without a personality that might make you feel sorry for its developers, Aventurine. From the grubby textures and grammatically incorrect quest text to the anarchic control system, any attempt to glean joy from this torrid husk of an entertainment product is met with disdain. It's almost as if Darkfall doesn't want you to play. But nevertheless, a job is a job, and play I must.
As with many MMOs, you walk around using the WASD keys. However, to 'do' anything - talk to an NPC, bind yourself to a location, loot a corpse, and so on - you have to click the right mouse button to toggle between interaction or movement mode. Unbelievably, to do anything that involves any interaction at all, you have to stop still - this includes any and all inventory management, looting, chatting - anything interactive. It isn't totally clear whether this was a decision or a design oversight, as many other elements of Darkfall don't quite work.
For example, inventory management is done through dragging items from the corpses of enemies. I mean this literally - you open your bag, and physically drag the items from one pouch to the other. There are no inventory 'blocks,' and thus your inventory quickly becomes a horrid mess of vague icons left on top of each other. This gets particularly thrilling when you descend into the wonderful world of harvesting, or try to loot something from a corpse in a particularly dangerous area, and find yourself massacred while farting about with a tree for four minutes. Worse still, the entire economy is player-driven - meaning that anybody wanting to get involved in crafting has literally hours of harvesting wood, or rock, or any of the other generic resources.
Adding further insult to injury is combat - usually the only saving grace of a bad MMO. Darkfall's system is totally twitch-based, in that you click your mouse and you swing a sword, or fire a bow, or shoot some magic. You have a crosshair, and your hits are dependent on whether or not this crosses the enemy at any given time - like an FPS, except with little to no reference point. Enemies' AI boils down to running in circles, which is actually surprisingly effective, considering how slow and floaty the controls tend to be. The difference in feedback between a sword hitting or missing is negligible, and thus much of your melee combat becomes a ridiculous ring-around-the-roses of chasing an enemy frantically clicking the left mouse button.
As much as this might sound like Diablo II, Darkfall's combat is rather more similar to a Quake mod circa 1997. The lack of hit detection saps the combat of any weight or skill, and makes it incredibly frustrating to fight enemies during PVE or PVP combat. Judging the distance that one needs to be at to fight a foe is largely guesswork, and, worse still, your combat skills affect how often you actually connect. It isn't even an issue of timing your clicks based on the connection with your sword - it's nigh-on random. Using spells or arrows is somewhat less exhausting, but usually ends messily when an enemy decides to run at you, leaving you with the choice of changing weapon (a ten-second operation - five if you're particularly nimble) or running backwards in the vain hope of not dying.
While playing for a few hours of reasonably solid combat only netted me a few increases in sword handling, a kindly fellow informed me that it would only take me "about six or eight hours to get good". On further questioning, this was revealed to mean "keep banging your head against the same goblins until you can reliably hit something bigger".
And so hit those bloody things I did, not enjoying one second of it.
You see, everything in Darkfall is based on attrition. You slowly but surely gain stats in everything as you do it, ranging from running to wood-chopping to sword-fighting to spell-casting. This sounds as if it would make for an incredibly individual and adaptable experience, but the lacklustre presentation of the game melds with the tortoise-slow skill-up speed to make the experience quintessentially painful. Not even old-school EverQuest - which was actually graphically superior- felt quite as stiflingly slow and ponderous in its levelling curve.
This may be attributed to the lack of rhyme or reason to the world, which verges on random placement of flora with little in the way of lore to tie it together. It may also be tied to the fact that there's very little to see. On many occasions I'd turn and wander in a particular direction, leaving the auto-run key on and navigating past things in the hope that I'd run into a town, or a dungeon, or possibly an angry pack of lions to save me from my torment. Not even the occasional flash of a badly-worded skill-up could serve to bring joy to my heart.
On one such jaunt, I walked for around six minutes through green pastures, found a dock, and began swimming, only to reach a gigantic ice cap - a dissonant, frigid mess in the middle of a bloody field. Exploring further, I was promptly murdered by hobgoblins and sent back to my bind point.
Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg of Darkfall's problems. The developers have taken the classic stance when faced with the echoing cries of "you barely have any content", and claim that the "core" of Darkfall is clan warfare. Players can build "camps" and "towns", and fight each other in "epic" wars. This is, as you can probably imagine from the screenshots, rather more underwhelming and frustrating than the hyperbole would have you believe.
You see, anyone can kill anyone. For the most part, your first ten or so hours in Darkfall are spent dying, repeatedly, at the hands of either the AI or a cyber-bully in a wolf-suit. In fact, past that mark, it feels impossible to avoid the clammy hands and bloodied sword of somebody who has specially allocated part of their day to griefing.
Even when you become semi-capable of operation without constant death, there's little to enjoy. The quests are repetitive kill-X-of-Y monstrosities written with a six-year-old's understanding of English. There are none of the intricacies of World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online, and there's none of the charm of old-world EverQuest. The world is bland in the extreme, with no definition in areas except those where you spawn as a newbie - and even they echo with a distinct lack of life. It doesn't even have the basic features that make up even the most lackluster and dull cookie-cutter MMOs, such as a simple experience system, or some form of tutorial.
Darkfall even lacks the basic lore that even the worst games have. There are wolf people, orks, humans, elves, and dark elves. There hasn't even been an attempt to construct a faux-story - you pick a character, and you're dropped in a drab town with a leaf-blade and 20 fewer Euros in your pocket.
Many avid fanboys defend Darkfall by saying that it's 'just not made for the average or casual player'. In reality, this is just an excuse for Aventurine's inability to create a balanced, playable game. When I swing a sword, I want to be able to hit something. When I start my first quest, I don't want a three-minute run to kill goblins, only to get killed by a six-foot wolf called BarBArIaX WooFKilLer. If you give me a sandbox, by God, give me something to play with in it.
I genuinely wish that this was a case of me not getting what Darkfall is trying to do. Sadly, it's all too obvious. Its skill system is like a twisted version of EVE Online's, without the intricacy or CCP's talent. Its mise-en-scène is somewhere between the grittiness of Conan and WAR's orcs and humans. Underneath the lack of originality, there's a hole where the game should be: a loose, incongruous mess of bad controls, horrible user interface, and broken combat system.
While other MMOs have relied on their players to fill in the content to an extent - Star Wars Galaxies being the most notable example - few have abused the sandbox mentality so readily as Aventurine. It's the emperor's new clothes of 2009: such a marvellous game that only an idiot wouldn't realise the beauty of the gaping holes in its content, its wonky control system, and its seemingly decade-old engine.
Even if you were so inclined to take part in this painful experience, it's rather difficult to actually buy it. The subscription page is buried within the forums, apparently hidden from public view in the hopes that internet loud-mouths would leave it well alone (the few Darkfall servers Adventurine is running have been mystifyingly over-subscribed). In fact, the only clear description I could find was from an external site that linked to the subscription page - which was not available through the official site. We'll spare you the link. Use your credit card at your peril.
2 / 10
Darkfall's developer has responded to the Eurogamer review, and we've posted a blog on the subject explaining our position.