Massively multiplayer RPGs are all the rage these days, with a veritable flood of them currently in development. Asheron's Call is the latest to arrive in this God-forsaken land (aka England), having proven to be a big success in the USA over the last few months.
Like so many games of this type, Asheron's Call is set in a mysterious fantasy world of swords and sorcery, in this case called Dereth. Basic gameplay consists of wandering around killing things and looting their corpses, gaining money and experience as you go.
And while there might not be any of the usual array of pointy-eared tree-huggers, most of the fantasy cliches are present and correct - magical swords, flowing robes, platemail armour, and a range of hostile humanoids that could easily be mistaken for orcs, trolls and goblins if you didn't know better...
Despite the high goblin factor though, the selection of monsters in the game is wide and generally very imaginative, making a refreshing change from the usual fantasy stables. Armoredillos are spiny creatures that roll along the ground at a frightening pace, acting like biological circular saws. Shreths are a nightmare cross between a rottweiler and a gorilla, and about as friendly.
And there are also some rather less lethal creatures inhabiting the world, including vast numbers of rabbits that make easy, if rather unrewarding, prey for newcomers to the game.
The Earth Is Burning
What really sets Asheron's Call apart from other online RPGs though is that the world you are inhabiting is highly dynamic.
At the end of the public beta test last year the entire world was destroyed in a hail of fire, and then in January Dereth was covered in snow. Spring saw the snow retreating back to the mountains, flowers covered the plains, and the rabbits started to breed like .. well, rabbits. A magical bridge appeared spanning a river in the north of Dereth, and giant spires rose out of the ground to hover eerily in mid-air near several towns, abducting passing adventurers to question them.
New events begin every month, meaning that there is always something new for even the most experienced players. Combine this with the truly vast scale of the game world and the variety of monsters, weapons, equipment, and spells, and the game rapidly becomes highly addictive, swallowing entire evenings as you try to raise your character by another level, reach a nearby town, or save up enough money to buy that platemail breastplate you've had your eye on all week.
The game is also frequently patched, fixing any remaining game balance issues and adding new features. Recently melee combat has been changed to make pursuing monsters easier, several monsters have been given a face-lift, and coloured lighting support has been added to make the dungeons in particular look far more atmospheric.
Of course, this does mean that you find yourself downloading megabytes of new data every month before you can enter the game, but the whole process is automated, and even on a modem it doesn't take too long.
Little Fluffy Clouds
Asheron's Call is powered by an impressive 3D graphics engine that allows for vast open areas filled with rolling hills, forests, snow-clad mountains and ancient ruins, and you can play the game from either an "in eyes" first person view, or a fully adjustable third person view which you can zoom and rotate around your character.
The skies are beautiful, with clouds drifting lazily overhead and the sun and moons shining down on you. The game sports a full day and night cycle, so you can sit on a hillside and watch the sun set over the ocean as the sky explodes into a spectacular twilight of reds and golds. If you're that way inclined.
Monsters look detailed even up close, although some of the game's older models can be a little blocky at times. Player models reflect the clothes and armour the character is wearing and the weapon they are carrying, giving you a quick visual indication of their likely power and career. And although the basic player model is the same, the range of skin and hair colours and facial features available helps prevent the game looking like two-for-the-price-of-one day at the local cloning center.
Towns are filled with shops and NPCs to trade with, and are often swarming with other players during peak hours. Even on a relatively modest computer the game remains playable during rush hour, though your frame rate can drop off if the crowds get too much.
When overcrowding becomes a real problem, the game triggers a "portal storm" to disperse the crowd, randomly teleporting people away from the area if they don't leave voluntarily after a while. This can be annoying if you're just trying to do the weekly shopping, but it does mean that the servers and your own computer don't get too overloaded.
Of course no game is perfect, and Asheron's Call is no exception. Although the outdoors scenery is truly stunning, dungeons tend to be a little blocky and derivative, although the recent coloured lighting patch has made them rather more atmospheric.
Combat is rather hit and miss, particularly in a chaotic melee, where selecting the right target can be difficult at times. Lag doesn't help either, and sometimes monsters seem to be attached to the end of a bungee rope, sliding towards and away from you as your computer tries to work out where they really are.
Unfortunately the servers are currently all based in Seattle on the west coast of America, and there are no plans as yet to set up new ones here in Europe. Hopefully if the game takes off over here Microsoft will relent, although the game is still perfectly playable even with a second or more of lag, largely thanks to the fairly basic combat system.
With a huge dynamic world to explore, a wide range of monsters to kill, a constantly evolving storyline, thousands of other players to interact with, and an impressive array of weapons, equipment, and spells to collect, Asheron's Call is definitely a winner.
The game is truly vast, and without taking up another five pages I can barely scratch the surface of it with this review. I haven't told you about the magic system that makes spells less powerful the more times you and your fellow players use them. Or the political system that allows you to pledge allegiance to other players and help build vast in-game clans, some of which now have literally hundreds of members.
Or the player killer server, perfect for the more bloodthirsty elements amongst us. Or the flexible skills system that allows you to create fully customisable characters instead of just sticking to the stereotypical preset classes. Or...
Asheron's Call is probably the best massively multiplayer RPG currently available, and if you have the time and money to put into it you won't be disappointed. Buy now!