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Darkfall Online

Dark days.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Darkfall Online has subsequently been re-reviewed. You can find that feature elsewhere on the site.

There are many games out there that I'd go ahead and call "special". Assassin's Creed was special, even if it wasn't great. Half-Life 2 was special, even though it very much was. Independently-run MMO Darkfall Online is certainly special - special in the way in which it so flagrantly ignores many of the rules of what makes a great, playable game. And no, this isn't a preamble to me saying that it's a rough gem, or made for the hardcore audience.

Sadly, every little thing Darkfall does is tragic, but without a personality that might make you feel sorry for its developers, Aventurine. From the grubby textures and grammatically incorrect quest text to the anarchic control system, any attempt to glean joy from this torrid husk of an entertainment product is met with disdain. It's almost as if Darkfall doesn't want you to play. But nevertheless, a job is a job, and play I must.

As with many MMOs, you walk around using the WASD keys. However, to 'do' anything - talk to an NPC, bind yourself to a location, loot a corpse, and so on - you have to click the right mouse button to toggle between interaction or movement mode. Unbelievably, to do anything that involves any interaction at all, you have to stop still - this includes any and all inventory management, looting, chatting - anything interactive. It isn't totally clear whether this was a decision or a design oversight, as many other elements of Darkfall don't quite work.

You can't turn off the UI - the game just occasionally forgets to load it.

For example, inventory management is done through dragging items from the corpses of enemies. I mean this literally - you open your bag, and physically drag the items from one pouch to the other. There are no inventory 'blocks,' and thus your inventory quickly becomes a horrid mess of vague icons left on top of each other. This gets particularly thrilling when you descend into the wonderful world of harvesting, or try to loot something from a corpse in a particularly dangerous area, and find yourself massacred while farting about with a tree for four minutes. Worse still, the entire economy is player-driven - meaning that anybody wanting to get involved in crafting has literally hours of harvesting wood, or rock, or any of the other generic resources.

Adding further insult to injury is combat - usually the only saving grace of a bad MMO. Darkfall's system is totally twitch-based, in that you click your mouse and you swing a sword, or fire a bow, or shoot some magic. You have a crosshair, and your hits are dependent on whether or not this crosses the enemy at any given time - like an FPS, except with little to no reference point. Enemies' AI boils down to running in circles, which is actually surprisingly effective, considering how slow and floaty the controls tend to be. The difference in feedback between a sword hitting or missing is negligible, and thus much of your melee combat becomes a ridiculous ring-around-the-roses of chasing an enemy frantically clicking the left mouse button.

Beware large, irrelevant warnings in bold Arial font.

As much as this might sound like Diablo II, Darkfall's combat is rather more similar to a Quake mod circa 1997. The lack of hit detection saps the combat of any weight or skill, and makes it incredibly frustrating to fight enemies during PVE or PVP combat. Judging the distance that one needs to be at to fight a foe is largely guesswork, and, worse still, your combat skills affect how often you actually connect. It isn't even an issue of timing your clicks based on the connection with your sword - it's nigh-on random. Using spells or arrows is somewhat less exhausting, but usually ends messily when an enemy decides to run at you, leaving you with the choice of changing weapon (a ten-second operation - five if you're particularly nimble) or running backwards in the vain hope of not dying.

While playing for a few hours of reasonably solid combat only netted me a few increases in sword handling, a kindly fellow informed me that it would only take me "about six or eight hours to get good". On further questioning, this was revealed to mean "keep banging your head against the same goblins until you can reliably hit something bigger".

Awkwardly moving things between bags was my favourite part of Lord of the Rings.

And so hit those bloody things I did, not enjoying one second of it.

You see, everything in Darkfall is based on attrition. You slowly but surely gain stats in everything as you do it, ranging from running to wood-chopping to sword-fighting to spell-casting. This sounds as if it would make for an incredibly individual and adaptable experience, but the lacklustre presentation of the game melds with the tortoise-slow skill-up speed to make the experience quintessentially painful. Not even old-school EverQuest - which was actually graphically superior- felt quite as stiflingly slow and ponderous in its levelling curve.