My highest-rated skill in Darkfall is rest. That being the skill which constantly gets used when I'm waiting for my health to recover after a nasty confrontation with some uppity kobolds. I'm constantly training it, after all.
Let's follow that chain of logic through: when you first enter the world and excitedly run off to have your initial encounter, your recovery rate is the slowest that it'll ever be. You'll have your first confused fight, and with any luck actually leg it when a mass of goblins jump on you, and retreat to a safe distance. And then the recovery is as bad as it's ever going to be. At the least it's a natural break for me to go and make a cup of tea, or catch up on some leisurely masturbation.
Darkfall believes that MMOs are all about slow improvement, so any improvement in any area is a good improvement - and, as such, it's best to start in a situation you hate so you feel better when the artificial limitation is removed (like, say, the first X: Beyond The Frontier thinking it a good idea to start without the time-dilation function). It's a game which believes suffering is good for you, in all its forms. At its best, this lends the struggles of the game a real intensity. At its worst, it renders the game tedious or openly nonsensical due to the unforeseen implications of the rules.
Because, as always, MMO worlds are shaped by their mechanics as surely as the rules of physics and economics shape ours. A designer's intent matters nothing compared to the shuffling of thousands of players trying to work out the most efficient way to progress. In a more World of Warcraft-derived MMO, you see fun quests being abandoned in favour of grinding out the one with the optimum XP payout. Ironically, single-player games often have more believable worlds, because competition with your fellows don't force you into such nonsense.
To choose the most obvious example, when I started playing Darkfall, they hadn't fixed its experience system for ranged effects. So you improved your magical blast by firing it, not actually hitting something. As such, there was mass-macroing to boost abilities. Even I, as I was jogging across the countryside, found myself firing missiles randomly into the sky to pump those skills a little. Darkfall was a world where it was perfectly logical - in fact, inevitable - that wizards ran around firing blasts heavenwards.
That's fixed now - and wouldn't work with all spells, due to the increasing need for bits of the old eye-of-newt to cast fancier ones - but it's a more general attitude. The rules lead to openly silly places. Playing in the small clan I joined, I found myself defending against an interloper. Running back from my adventuring in armour, I glanced at my fellows and felt terribly over-dressed. Because - y'know - I was dressed. Everyone else had stripped down to their underpants.
It's logical enough. It's a relatively meaningless battle. As such, going into battle and risking someone dying and taking stuff you've carefully collected - or, even worse, actually crafted - would be foolish. Why risk taking a random shot, falling, the opponent nabbing it and legging off? Better not to risk anything other than your default, infinitely-respawnable weapons.
This is a world where, if you're expecting trouble, it's reasonable to strip down to your pants. This is stupid beyond all mortal belief.
This is what I mean by wishing the game was more deadly, because it'd encourage people to actually act like soldiers - as in, knowing that going into battle naked is going to get you killed - which would create a greater sense of reality. A blow in the back hurts more, but doesn't exactly hurt enough - especially in the buff. Characters run around, not caring about the occasional blow, more akin to a Counter-Strike knife-fight. Combat doesn't resemble combat. For all its challenges, it's not really deadly enough.
But other bits of the rules work brilliantly. The looting system itself is painful - the game deliberately forces you to drag each individual item from a pack across, a "realistic" system which makes it harder to just kill someone and run, but automatically adds an area of hilarity when someone's carrying dozens of scavenged weapons. And yet the game's attitude to loot is totally refreshing. Absolutely basic equipment can be found by simply killing basic monsters who are armed with it. Like, obviously. Where else would you get them from? Make equipment less important than the skills/statistics of the player and it changes the entire balance of the game. Player economy provides the best stuff. Useable stuff can be found. This all works great, with the obvious proviso that resource-collection is painstaking.
Even better is the actual player-versus-player combat. The first time I was hunted was absolutely thrilling. I'm fighting some goblins to work on that next 0.1 sword skills and a group of more experienced characters on some kind of crazy animal's back charge over the hill... Well, my heart is in my throat. I turn on the spot and run for my life. I assume they're going to kill me. Of course, I'm right, but I manage to actually prove such an annoying target that I escape them enough to get back in town. Knowing that if I stumbled the marauders would steal everything I'd spent the previous hour grinding for added an undeniable edge.
Most of all, when something goes wrong, it's often a case of you realising entirely you were pushing it too far. Losing a couple of hours' worth of random loot when I stop to wipe out some goblins on the final length home, letting my health deplete and then getting jumped by some opportunistic bastard... well, it's annoying. But it's also my fault. I'm annoyed with myself more than the game. Bad play. I was punished for it.
Yet part of you growls: This is unfair.
You growl back at it and call it a carebear. On a more profound level, it was totally fair.
Interlude 2: Things I Was Considering Doing In This Review But Decided Against
1) Engage with the debate around the review directly, and review it in two hours (what Aventurine said was played), 10 hours (roughly what the reviewer said he played) and again, with however many hours I ended up playing in the end. As in, how much can you actually say in such a short period? How valid is it? What changes? What doesn't?
Why I Didn't: Fundamentally not enough changed to make it worthwhile. My experience with the game didn't scale. What I liked and what I disliked about the game were there pretty much from the first moment in one form or another, and it was how they appeared which altered as I progressed. Perhaps the biggest irony about this whole mess: I suspect this is an MMO which you can tell whether you like or not in those first couple of hours.
2) Interview someone from the clan I played with about why they liked the game. Clearly, being a MMO with a dedicated audience, there's people who really genuinely do like Darkfall. Providing a forum to share the reasons why they play could be worthwhile. After all, even if the game's appeal is limited, it clearly has an appeal and is capable of provoking obvious passion. What's different? Why play this? What makes your heart go boom?
Why I Didn't: It was just a clear attempt to play to the ego of the Darkfall fanbase. The main appeals of the game are strikingly obvious. I don't need to take someone else's opinion to be fair to those. The question is whether those attributes outweigh the negatives, and getting someone else in muddies the issue in tokenism. Or, in Darkfall's language, it'll be carebareism.
3) When I'd finished playing the game, take my character and go to the highest point in the land and shout on an open channel: "Hi! I'm the reviewer for Eurogamer. I'm here. I'll take you all. One at a time or all at once, it makes no difference to me!" And then running as a swarm arrives to hack me to pieces. Run, Kieron, Run! Run for your life!
Why I didn't: Well, as much as it could have been funny and proved cathartic to the aggrieved Darkfall fanbase, it struck me as taking the piss a little too much. In my time in the game, the players I've met have been overwhelmingly pleasant - even when hacking me to death - and turning them from actual people into a mob didn't seem right.
4) Keep a stopwatch by my desk while playing, starting it whenever I played.
Why I Didn't: Couldn't find a stopwatch.