Last night, I travelled home angry. I nicked a seat on the tube, I bullied stumblebums out of my way; I was generally a bundle of passive-aggressive geekery. Why? Not because my day had been bad or because I'd messed up in the office. It was because the Chancellor (boss) of my Convergence (guild) had kicked me out, after I'd pressed the "mistrust" button on Dreamlords' rudimentary web interface.
Why had I pushed that button and doomed my place in the Convergence? Because I didn't know what it did (apparently it tells the chancellor you think he's composed entirely of poo and weasels and, as for some reason it's not anonymous, he entirely fairly boots you out). Why didn't I know? Because very little in Dreamlords is explained with communication skills exceeding those of an embarrassed six-year-old mumbler with a mouth full of pebbles. The 60 per cent of the game that is adequately explained comes from a confusing tutorial (the first question most newbies ask is "where's my dreamlord?" to which the answer is "he's the giant glowing thing just off-camera") and some badly organised FAQs, forum posts and half-written online manuals. Not the best way to ease newcomers into the game.
What is Dreamlords anyway? It's both a free MMO-strategy title, that mostly-insipid mongrel, and an update posing as a sequel to last year's Dreamlords. It matches Time of Defiance and Planetarion in that it posits a broken world consisting of floating islands sitting in the mind of a dreaming creator, which you fight across to improve your army and the state of your city (though you never see your city after an initial tutorial). It differs in that the most permanent part of this world you encounter is solely PVE, and the entirely-optional PVP takes place on another world.
As we've said, the game makes one massive mistake from the very beginning: not explaining a damn thing. You're given a choice of three races and there's the usual poorly written, slightly illiterate translation explaining their differences. Nowhere does it say that you can't change faction without starting a new account or waiting for the era to end (which happened yesterday, the 14th), so most people will only ever experience one race. There is one badly organised FAQ, a forum thread that explains half of the game mechanics and the rest is up for you to discover. Oh, and that mess of a tutorial. As you go through it, you learn about combat, get an inkling about building buildings... and are left with no clue whatsoever about crafting.
There is crafting in the game, but nowhere is it explained how you get to it. Having played the game for a month now I've asked in my Convergence forum, in the general forum, I've read the FAQ, the manual... I've got an inkling that you unlock it through PVP but that's it. I've found the right page in the management section and pressed all the right buttons, but I'm endlessly given error messages. Not that it matters because, as a non-premium player, I can't sell anything I make anyway.
So this bipolar game is split between an ugly 3D interface where you move across the land, battling PVE foes or take part in pretty meaningless battles against PVPers, and a more-fun web interface where you manage building your forces and buildings, trade and deal with the Convergences - loose alliances of players that are mandatory for PVP and crafting, but seem to have little social benefit; you simply have to belong to one to access those areas.
As you battle across the world, fighting progressively tougher enemies in a sub-Total War 3D engine, your PVP and PVE forces get tougher, your buildings upgrade through a fairly complex mechanic involving many resources, the most important of which are gnosis, which increases your population; soul shards, that are a form of currency; and tribute, a premium form of currency available almost totally through a micro-payment system. (Grind your egalitarian teeth here; you are going lose out a bit to people who are willing or able to shell out cash for better gear and upgraded Dreamlords. It seems the concept of a level playing field has gone the way of the school playing field.)