Dark Age of Camelot was released in the US in late 2001, boldly stepping up to the podium to try and take the MMORPG crown from EverQuest. Most people simply couldn't wait for the UK release in February 2002, so by the time it was released here there was already a well-established base of local folks on the US servers. Unfortunately, the UK and US versions were incompatible, meaning that if you wanted to experience the lag friendly Euro servers you had to start again from scratch. Not something you wanted to do if you had a cherished high-level character or guild to stick with.
As you would expect the European servers suffered in popularity, but to be quite frank we enjoyed our return to the lands of DAOC in a small way because of this. Something the original game doesn't lack is content, with there being just enough in the way of quests and interesting camp spots to keep you going. A year down the line and Mythic have released 'Shrouded Isles', the first official expansion pack, fleshing the DAOC world out even further. So, having dusted off our capes and tight leggings, we returned once again to Camelot.
Aside: it's important to note here that existing players shouldn't have to purchase Shrouded Isles. They just won't see the new features. Otherwise, it goes without saying you will need to have the original game to play the expansion, and it will not work with the US version of DAOC.
We must ride... to Camelot!
For those that are completely new to Dark Age of Camelot, or to MMORPGs in general, this paragraph is for you, but the rest of you can skip to the next! DAOC is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, where players choose a character race and class type, give their chosen 'avatar' a name and enter the DAOC world through one of three different realms. Characters gain experience through killing monsters and completing quests, and once experience reaches a certain peak, you will 'level up', or just plain 'level'. The game can be played solo, but this becomes much more difficult on the higher levels, and grouping with other players is greatly beneficial, especially in the many dungeons designed with groups in mind. Where DAOC differs to other examples of the MMORPG is that the ultimate goal is to get to a level sufficient enough to fight Realm Vs Realm. In other words, Player Vs Player. This will be either straight combat or you can get involved in the capture of opposing realms' relics.
As the name suggests, the Shrouded Isles are islands tacked onto the original realms of Albion, Midgard and Hibernia, one island per realm. Each island has a whole host of new quests to get stuck into, along with new monsters, armour, weapons etc, etc. Naturally to enjoy the new content to the full you are best off starting up a new character from scratch, and what better way of rolling fresh than with one of the three new races. Once again you get one new race per realm, not only this though, you have two extra character classes per realm to choose from also! One of the immediate benefits of the additional races is that it helps to give the overall game populace a more varied look, which freshens things up. Travel to and from the old lands of DAOC is accomplished via portals, which can be found close to your initial start location. You can also purchase scrolls to portal you directly to the RvR locations, an extremely handy inclusion by Mythic. Very thoughtful indeed.
The three new races are the Inconnu in Albion, Sylvan in Hibernia and Valkyn in Midgard, and the two classes for each realm follow very similar lines to each other. The Inconnu are pale humanoids, very short in size, with large, almost alien-like eyes, who are hell bent on retaking the Island of Avalon from the forces of Morgana. You can elect to be a Necromancer who attacks the enemy via a pet, or choose the Reaver class, which blends aspects of the Necromancer with the Fighter class from the original game. Reavers also have the added benefit of the new 'flexible' weapon type, which includes whips and chains. Kinky!
Sylvans are strange looking creatures, with a skin that resembles the bark of trees and hair the different colours of leafy autumn! As a Sylvan you can choose to be the spell-casting pet class Animist, whose pets can perform a variety of tasks. Or you can choose the Valewalker class, physically attacking your foe with the new Scythe weapon type. Finally, we have the Valkyns of Midgard, who are a pre-historic humanoid race, very muscular in build. Again you have a pet casting and a more fighter type class to choose from in the Bonedancer and Savage respectively. With all the races though, you can still opt to use the original game's selection of classes, if you really want to.
Scrubbing the chainmail
It isn't just new content that Shrouded Isles brings though. Mythic have taken the opportunity with the expansion to update the engine, and to great effect. Higher resolution textures are now possible, making some of the buildings and surrounding scenery look almost photo-realistic in places. Greater attention has been given to the rather bland expanses of fields that you would be used to in the game, with foliage now richly lavished upon the landscapes. The result is impressive, giving the whole place a much more natural look and feel, and add to this the superb water effects, which create the illusion of a flowing river with accurate reflections. Such is the level of the eye candy on show you can find yourself sitting down in the countryside, watching the sky roll on overhead and the gentle rippling of the water at your side. Everything is there except a picnic and a buxom blonde to feed you strawberries! [If we hadn't spent the last few days cooing at 3D Mark '03, we'd probably join you - Ed]
With new classes come new spell effects, and these are of excellent quality too, from the water dripping off the leaf effects seen with the Animist to the tormented head animation used for one of the Reaver spells. Thankfully the upgraded engine hasn't been too detrimental to overall video performance, with the only real noticeable struggle occurring when you stroll into towns. But to be honest, they were never exactly smooth running in the first place.
Elsewhere, sound remains pretty much unchanged except for the additional effects for the new creatures, which are all of a good standard. The new soundtrack gets a special mention though. This is probably the best music we've had our ears feast on in an MMORPG, and quite possibly the first that we haven't turned off! The music changes to suit the location you are currently in, and is never so intrusive as to irritate. The songs experienced playing as one of the new Albion classes are beautifully haunting, and really give the game a chilling edge we'd never witnessed before.
More is good!
With Shrouded Isles it is clear that Mythic has thought long and hard about what the fan base wants and deserves. It isn't all just about the new stuff though. For example, it would appear that monster drops have been significantly improved, providing you with a much easier way of upgrading your character and/or getting more money quickly. We could just be imagining that though. Mythic has even introduced Co-Operative (no player killing allowed, all realms open to everyone) and the Free-for-All (everyone can kill each other) servers, geared towards creating different gameplay dynamics for those bored of questing for RvR levels.
To truly appreciate the excellent work Mythic have done on the expansion, you really should try out the new classes in all the realms to see how comprehensive this expansion is. The only conundrum you will have to face is just which race and class you want to make as your main character? Decisions, decisions. Anyway, this is an absolute must have purchase for any Dark Age of Camelot fan. Camelot!
[It's only a model… -Ed]