I am about 2 weeks into Darkfall and even though my skills are crap, my gear is crap and I have barely explored further than the newbie areas, I have to say it is a lot of fun. I am actually quite surprised as to how fun a game it is. Remember, at launch this game produced enough bile that every subscription came with a pack of antiacids. Folks on this very site dismissed the game after wrestling with its arcane user interface. Every forum (Darkfall’s included) was filled with wailing over how bad this game was. It scored a 2/10 in an early review… and then that review was hotly argued… by the developers and the review site’s editors nonetheless.
It was the biggest trainwreck since Age of Conan — The Trainwreck of All Trainwrecks — which is a cornucopia for hobbyist internet vultures such as myself, but did not bode well for the health of the game. And yet, here we are nearly a year after launch and through several patches and expansions, Darkfall is still around and it has become a good game.
Say it with me, “Darkfall is a good game.”
I am having a great time. The two friends I sort of dragged along with me are having a great time. Talking to a few vets, I find that they are having a great time. The Darkfall forums are generally positive and for every “I quit” post (can’t have a game forum without them) there is one “I am thinking of coming back” post. Membership in NEW (a guild that caters to easing newbies into the otherwise harsh game) is trending up over the last few weeks. Development is continuing with more features being added, more bugs being fixed and more exploits being closed. It seems the Internet’s Most Maligned Game (this week) has hit a stride.
One thing that I think has helped attract and keep new players, and currently the best part of Darkfall for me, has been the game’s PvE. That is likely to surprise people who’ve never played and is certain to annoy the game’s vets who are gnashing their teeth, screaming “Carebear!” and queuing up their Gank skill as we speak. But it’s true. Darkfall has been touted as the PvPer’s paradise — a hardcore, free-for-all, full loot gankfest where player skill trumps gear and giant 100 v. 100 sieges are commonplace. It may actually be all of that, but it is also a game with some of the most engaging and exciting PvE I’ve seen in a long while.
Saying that PvE is the best part of Darkfall is a bit of a stretch. As a new player, there are huge aspects of the game I haven’t seen. I am sure that most veterans of Agon would claim that PvP of one stripe or another is Darkfall’s forte. For me, PvP mostly consists of getting smacked down by meth-amphetamine enhanced circle-strafers with stats macroed well into the thousands all wearing depleted uranium armor and wielding two handed plasma cannons… at least that’s what I’ll say when I cry on the forums.
Seriously though, Darkfall is a game with a pretty steep character progression curve. Stats matter, skills matter and though it matters less than in most games, gear does still matter. As a new player, I am seriously lacking all of those things and so it will take quite a bit of time to close that gap. Closing that gap for most means grinding PvE and fortunately, Darkfall’s PvE is a pleasant surprise.
Great Environments — Darkfall’s world of Agon is filled with ancient ruins, caves, villages, goblin huts, statues, bandit forts and abandoned keeps. The environments look good, are well-designed and are fun to explore. It has been a long time since I have experienced an MMO with more “Let’s check that out!” moments as Darkfall has. And there is a good reason to check out these sites. Many of them hold magician’s boxes, chests and crates of food and resources. Others have lucrative monster spawns. Of course, some sites have nothing, or spawn monsters that will rip the unwary newbie in two. Not knowing is a lot of the fun.
Terrain Matters– The first cool moment I had playing Darkfall was when I realized that hiding behind a boulder allowed me to draw a lone goblin into striking distance, and that a tree would allow me to kill one goblin while protecting me from an other’s spells. All games have trees, boulders, hills and shrubs, but Darkfall is the first game where they matter… a lot. Having the high ground is useful in melee and archery, but being up against a wall exposes you to splash damage from spells. Also, many mobs in DF have ranged attacks and will start shooting as soon as they spot you… none of this pansy 25 ft. aggro radius. Stealth in Darkfall means crouching in shrubs, or behind rocks and trees and how you approach a battle has a lot to do with winning it.
Skill Matters — Two times in my life have I been sleeping while doing something that theoretically requires human intervention. The first time I was a student working the night-shift in a motel and I had an early morning appointment in a nearby city. About half way through the drive, I realized I wasn’t going to make it and so I turned around to head back home. Half an hour later, I woke with a start at a red light about a mile from my house, seemingly having driven 25 miles while sleeping.
The second time, I was playing City of Heroes. I hear I did pretty well actually, firing off buffs, holds and attacks without missing a beat. I guess controllers are easy mode after all!
That’s not to say that tab-and-click MMOs take no skill. They do, but much of that skill comes from knowing the game mechanics, knowing your build and your combat options and constructing proper skill chains to react to various in-game events. Once you perfect your build, a lot of the minute-to-minute gameplay is rote. Start fight, press 1, then 2, then 3, then 2 again, then 5, then 1… spawn is dead. Move to next spawn, rinse and repeat.
Darkfall’s FPS gameplay keeps me engaged, even when fighting spawn after spawn of mobs. You have to aim. You have to dodge. You have to keep an eye out for new mobs and enemy players looking to capitalize on you making a mistake. Falling asleep during Darkfall would be a little like dozing off playing Modern Warfare…
Decent AI– Though no computer game has great AI, the mobs in Darkfall do a good job of making combat interesting. I have seen DF mobs lure me into their friends, circle strafe me, flank me, find their way up two flights of stairs to ambush me while resting in a supposedly safe place and pelt me with arrows from an unreachable position on a nearby cliff. Mobs are difficult right from your first quest to kill four goblins. Ask 100 DF vets and I bet 99 of them have a story about underestimating a mob and ending up dead.
Constant Reinforcement– The skill system in Darkfall is a lot like those you find in Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion in the sense that your skills increase as you use them. So, as you are slogging through goblins, you are rewarded with a steady stream of messages about how your sword skill is increasing, or your defense skill has improved. As you craft and gather, you are increasing your skills, but also your stats which will eventually make you a combat machine. Everything you do in the game improves your character.
Risk v. Reward– A lot of game developers talk about risk versus reward and very few of them get the equation correct. The main reason for this is that there really is never any risk in a typical MMO. If you die in WoW, you have to repair your gear at the cost of some gold, or possibly sit a few minutes as your rez sickness wears off. In City of Heroes, you accrue some debt which slows your rate of xp gain a little. It used to sting, but over the years, the devs have reduced the debt so much that death effectively has no penalty. In Champions Online… there is no death penalty to the point where “graveyard zerging” (alternating deaths and making sure at least one character in a battle survives long enough to allow the others to return, thus you heal to full while the enemy is slowly worn down) is the main strategy to beat a few of the bosses.
Darkfall’s risk comes from the fact that combat is inherently dangerous for much of the game. There are no levels and no “conning” in the game, so you only know how hard something is going to be by hitting it and getting hit by it. Of course, at some point, you learn what you can handle. Even so, most mob spawns contain mutiple mobs, that will work together to kill you and respawn fairly quickly. It is easy to get in over your head if you aren’t careful. And if you aren’t careful, you can end up winning a fight, only to end up with a quarter of your health and out of stamina and at that point, you are a prime target for a PvPer looking for an easy score.
At best, death means running back to your unmolested corpse and having to fight your way back to reclaim your gear. At worst, you lose everything you brought with you and everything you gained this trip. Every time you grab gear out of the bank, you are taking a risk.
On the other hand, by adding the risk into the game, the developers have made the rewards that much sweeter. Every time I find a chest and get a free infusion of cash, I am elated… and paranoid. A good hunting or mining trip where I make it back home to bank a pack full of cash and goods makes me happier than looting yet another blue item off yet another boss mob who happened to be sitting around waiting for me to kill him and even if I managed to die in the battle, I could just return in five minutes to try again. And spotting that player corpse on the horizon when no one’s around is quite a rush. Who knows what you might find? Or could that player be storming back to retrieve his stuff? Could it be a trap?
Welcome to Darkfall.