Of course, I haven't played it enough.
There is a history here, which would be foolish to pretend doesn't exist. When Darkfall was first reviewed on Eurogamer, it scored 2/10. The developer, Aventurine, was incensed. They'd checked their logs to discover the reviewer had a total logged-in time of a couple of hours. Eurogamer pressed their reviewer, who claimed their numbers must be wrong. He gave it at least nine hours. Eurogamer offered a re-review. Aventurine declined. Eurogamer bought an account anyway. And two months later, I'm here.
That's the short version. There's much more you can dig into, if you like. But from that brief precis, you know I could never have played it enough. The first review leaves a long shadow. I still haven't read it. Seemed beside the point.
Darkfall is a fantasy massively-multiplayer online role-playing game. Which seems an uncontroversial sentence, but conceals another slice of history. Darkfall has been in development forever. Since 2001. It's a game which has its own vision, one which manages to hark back and forward simultaneously. Rather than the class-based system which has dominated in contemporary times, where your abilities are linked to a choice of class and how you choose to progress it, it's a skill-based system. There's races, but their effect is relatively secondary. Like Ultima Online, it's a game where you primarily improve by doing whatever you want to do. Hit stuff to improve your sword-fighting. Chop wood to improve you chop-wooding. Sit down and have a nice rest to improve your sitting down and nice-resting.
Throw in full open player-versus-player combat (i.e. as many random assaults as a North London tube station at closing time) and full looting, and you've got a game which clearly believes something has been lost by mollycoddling players. If they could, you suspect they'd implement a way to give tiny electric shocks through your keyboard every time someone slides a blade into your back when you're fishing. It's good for you. It means everything means something.
I think they may be right, but I'll get back to that eventually.
Where Darkfall is more progressive is in its complete rejection of the usual timer-based combat, embracing an action implementation instead. When spell-casting or firing arrows - and remember that characters can excel in each of these areas as long as they practice in each - the game plays from a first-person perspective. If you use a melee weapon, it goes to third-person. Whatever you aim at, you hit.
The amount of damage you do is based upon your skills, but there's a direct use of player skill - even at the most basic level - which is almost absent in most MMOs. It's not a game where you stand toe-to-toe with a monster, trading blows, safe in the knowledge that your damage-per-second is slightly higher than his, so his health bar will exhaust before yours. Partially because of the aforementioned mechanics and partially because anyone passing and seeing you in such a vulnerable state is just going to leg it over, bash you on the head and take all your stuff. And call you a care bear. With constant friendly-fire on, you're just as likely to kill your friends as anyone else. It's brutal.
I wish the combat system was deadlier, but I'll get to that eventually too.
Okay. Bar the endgame - player-controlled cities and warring guilds and mass sieges, and enough to make this, no matter what the flaws, probably the closest there is to a terrestrial-set EVE Online in terms of player-politicking - that's the basics.
Let's take a detour.
Interlude 1: Aventurine vs Eurogamer. Why No-one Could Back Down
In short, for one side, there was all the proof in the world. For the other, there was nothing.
From Aventurine's perspective, they have logs showing that a reviewer who slaughtered their love-child had barely touched the game. They're happy to show them to Eurogamer. Hell, they're so confident they're happy enough to fly a tech guy over to show them the logs. It's clear the reviewer is lying about how much he's played. The review is an outrage and a fiasco.
From Eurogamer's perspective, they have a developer claiming that logs show something. Logs which are entirely within their control. I'd be surprised if Eurogamer has a tech guy in-house capable of ascertaining the meaning of the logs. More so, when changing logs is an absolutely trivial task, what the logs say when that tech examines it is ultimately meaningless. If Aventurine was dissembling, Eurogamer wouldn't be able to tell.
As long as the reviewer claimed reasonably that he'd played the game for longer, Tom [Bramwell, editor] had to back him because - really - it was his word against theirs. And if an editor takes the developers word over the staff...
- Every writer would look at him with contempt. I certainly would. If I'm putting my balls on the line, I'd like someone with a spine behind me.
- He would leave himself open to any developer trying the same thing. Whether Aventurine are telling the truth or not doesn't matter. The fact remains: logs can be edited effortlessly. If you set a precedent of believing other people's logs over your own employee's word, you can guarantee there are developers disreputable enough to do try and take advantage of it the next time a bad review is aimed in their direction.
Of course, it could just be an old technical error and the logs didn't get the times right. I'd like to think so. I don't think it's likely, but that it was no human malice here would be the best possible ending to a pretty horrible situation.
For the record: If I ever actually find out conclusively that someone was lying in this matter, I will do everything I can to destroy them.
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.
Darkfall's control system is, to be polite, a mess. It is, to be less polite, a bloody infuriating graceless mess.
It manages to be so on such a fundamental level that when I explain it it's going to sound as confusing as it actually is in play. Even simple tasks like swapping weapons manage to become potentially disastrous. As a Dwarf Fortress veteran, wrestling with oblique control systems isn't the problem - it's marrying these sorts of controls with a real-time action game that demands fluidity. If you're stuck trying to remember which exact combination of buttons are required to do the task in hand, it's not exactly conducive playing the bally thing.
The idea is that you can have a weapon sheathed or unsheathed. You select the weapon from the toolbar to move it into your "weapon to use" slot. You can then draw or sheathe it. If you've already got a weapon unsheathed, changing the weapon in the slot automatically unsheathes the new one, so you can go from wand-out to sword-out in a button press. That's as good as the system gets (i.e. what you'd want it to do). Except if you're in the melee-weapon third-person, where if you've got your bow or magical staff out, and aren't actually doing anything with it, it's not really visible. So you've no idea whether you've got a weapon equipped or not at a glance, forcing you remember what your last action was. What's the weapon in my slot? Is it the one I want? I think I've got something else, so I press the one I want. Except - oh no - it actually was the one I wanted, so now I've unequipped it. I only discover this when I try to unsheathe it and nothing happens.
Really, the problem is the control system married to a lack of feedback to the player. Any of these actions result in no feedback except tiny rows of letters in one of the windows - which, of course, you're not reading during combat. When "Do I have a magical staff in my hand?" becomes a matter of gnomic mystery, something has gone drastically wrong.
For magic, double all the confusion. You need to select the staff, unsheathe the staff, select the spell you want, and then cast it. There's no way I could find to have a default spell. I mean, I have the staff out. It's clear I want some manner of spell. Just having it do nothing seems bloody perverse. Oh - and the chances for confusion are increased constantly by the fact you have to unsheathe your weapons to examine corpses. Being forced to move between all these states, each demanding an exact response where any other response will move your character into an even worse setup is hilariously fiddly.
It's worth stressing, in light of the previous paragraph, that there may be a way of setting a default spell. I just couldn't find it. The game is incredibly bad about documenting itself. I understand entirely why there were apparently factual errors in the original review. It speaks primarily not of the character of the review, but the character of Darkfall.
This annoys all the more because this additional worry distracts you from the actual real kick to the game's difficulty. Putting aside player-versus-player combat, the action-based combat system entirely changes battles against even the most humble of creatures. Compared to the lethargic denizens of anywhere-Azeroth-like, Darkfall's are rabid psychopaths and/or cowards. Fight one, and anyone within a seeming half-mile comes running in to help out. Get one almost dead, and he'll run - of course, with his mates piling on your vulnerable back if you chase him. It's very easy to get out of your depth. Most combat ends with you running away, returning to loot the bodies after you've healed - if you can get near enough the body to collect the stuff at all. It's a game where even killing the common-or-garden orc can feel like a huge achievement. (Which is the main reason why the controls frustrate. You have other things on your mind. Dying due to a tactical error is worthwhile. Dying due to control system confusion is worthless.)
The game is an enormous grind - progress is slow, and requiring other grinding tasks besides the actual interesting combat (i.e. chopping wood to make arrows for real competitiveness in PvP) - but at the most basal level, it's more engaging than any of the games where you stand there pressing 1 then 2 then 3 then 1 again until a sprite falls over. In my time in Darkfall, when going player-versus-environment, I fought far fewer enemy types than I would in any other major recent MMO... but I didn't care. The variety in the conflict based around situational elements - luring people out with arrow-fire, using the terrain to separate members from the pack, whatever - kept it as entertaining.
Mostly. While good against MMOs, the problem is, compared to almost any action game, Darkfall is anemic. Its strengths show exactly how limited almost all the traditional MMO approaches have been in terms of actually offering meaningful gameplay of this sort. Of course, as a step in a worthwhile direction, I feel I have to applaud Darkfall. But by attracting a player who wants this type of game, its failings ring all the more loud. Chasing down an injured foe to only have the game reset his position to miles ago is rubbish on about every level conceivable.
Interlude 3: Reviewing Massively Multiplayer Games
I've been debating how best to review MMOs since Everquest launched in 1999 and I'm still no nearer a definitive answer. I suspect we're just screwed.
How much time should you realistically play an MMO before reviewing it? Well, as much as possible, obviously. In practice, how much is that? Clearly, reviewing an MMO from - say - five to 20 hours, while analogous to how long it takes to review almost any other game, is far less than the people who go native.
Problem: you hire a professional to do it, you have to pay them. Reviews are paid by the word-count. So spending 80 hours playing a game would bring in the same amount of money as burning through four-hour first-person shooter.
One solution would be to pay MMO reviewers proportionately to the time required. It wouldn't help. It'd become financially pointless to review all but the biggest MMOs due to the resources required to do so. Only the very biggest games would get the coverage. Games like Darkfall, let alone smaller games, simply would not get covered. Specialist (i.e. amateur and/or volunteer) MMO sites would do it. As such, the coverage would be grotesquely slanted - because no one plays an MMO for 60 hours unless they actually get something from it. In other words, there would be an increasingly self-selecting bias in MMO reviews. People who don't dig a game wouldn't review it.
(Alternatively, you get the bitter burnout cases who have a moment of revelation that it's been a total waste of time... which is just as useless to the consumer. If you weren't enjoying it for all those hours, why were you playing it so devotedly? They're the equivalent of someone bad-mouthing an ex after a bad split. There were good times. You just can't remember them now.)
I think a dual-review format is best. An MMO doesn't cost any more money than any other kind of game. A first review, almost always, will be based around the initial experience of a game across those 5-20 hours. As such, you're saying whether the game will reward you enough to actually try the thing out. Because if it's horrific in that time, you're never going to recommend it to anyone anyway. If someone pisses on my shoes all night at the pub, I don't care if I get crazed fellatio at closing time: I'm only going to recommend it to the glorious perverts who like the urine-feet thing. For games where reviewers continue to play of their own volition, we return later for a more serious critical taking apart in lieu of all that experience.
In other words, using a travel-journalism metaphor, a first review of an MMO is whether a destination is a place you'd recommend for a holiday. A second review is a recommendation of whether somewhere is a good place to go and live. I think this provides worthwhile buying advice - the first review says whether it's worth your money, which is the primary aim of a consumer review. I also think this is the best we're going to get.
If you haven't guessed, this is a first-review type review. I played Darkfall for somewhere between 10 and 20 hours. Towards the top end, I believe, but - as I said - I couldn't find the stopwatch. That's not a lot for the couple of months, you may think. And you'd be right. But the actual playtime was actually a month or so back, and I've been trying to work out exactly the right angle on it since...
The right angle.
I don't think Darkfall has one - with the exception of the ability of your character to walk pretty much directly up right-angle surfaces.
(The biggest single growl in the learning of Darkfall's foibles was realising you could actually run up almost all of the hills, even those vertiginous cliffs. Partially an enormous relief in terms of time-saving while traipsing across the map, partially annoyance that another part of the sprawling landscape's fantasy is lost. It's hard to imprint on a world that's so resolutely loony.)
There's no correct angle here because it's so much its own game that tearing it apart for its gaping flaws doesn't change the fact that people will still play something this cheerfully shabby, rather than something with the "correct" level of the polish but a soul that turns their stomach. I can kind of empathise. Partially because there's moments where it sings - for all its foibles, I'd much rather play it than, say, bloody Lineage 2 - and partially because I've spent the last two weeks adoring Blood Bowl whilst battling with its server-browser user interface, which is so arcanely, opaquely useless that it's almost innovative. Point being, if it's the game you want, you put up with the madness.
At the moment, I don't think there are many who will put up with Darkfall's madness. I certainly won't. I hope Darkfall grows and becomes a game which can take its charms and appeal to a wider audience (EVE wasn't EVE when it launched, for example - it began with fine ideas that appealed to a niche, and as they improved the game it sold its ideas to an ever-larger niche). Darkfall's just launched in the US and its expansion has gone live, after all. But as a game, it's just not there yet, its rewards too distant and the road there too barren to recommend to fellow travellers.
I just logged on to leave the clan I joined whilst playing, not wanting to connect them in any way to the terrible secret interloper from Eurogamer. I appeared, in my pants. An armoured orc ran up to me, two-handed sword in the air. I immediately backed off expecting trouble (I'm not a total newb, y'know?), but he waved. I waved back. We danced around a little.
"Let's go kill some Goblins," he cheerfully said.
I apologised in-game, while swearing in real life at Darkfall's sluggish browser-implemented clan-system windows.
"I'm sorry: just on to do something. I have to go."
He happily ran off to kill some goblins, and I logged off.
4 / 10