Game Over Online ~ Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty

GameOver Game Reviews - Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty (c) Microsoft, Reviewed by - Lawrence Wong

Game & Publisher Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty (c) Microsoft
System Requirements Windows, Pentium II-333, 64MB RAM, 300MB HDD, 3D Accelerator, Internet Connection, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 80%
Date Published Friday, January 4th, 2002 at 04:30 PM

Divider Left By: Lawrence Wong Divider Right

One of the new frontiers that entertainment software publishers would want to have us raving about is the MMORPG. Ultima Online literally launched the popular revolution of this genre; a graphical remake of the old MUDs and primordial ancestors like Meridian 59. Ultima Online was later challenged by both Asheron's Call and Everquest. These three titles formed the triumvirate that prepared the industry for what is supposed to be a coming renaissance. Consequently, this spurred other publishers to start cobbling something to produce a persistent universe game and the fad spread to more than merely RPGs. WWII Online is a first-person simulation/shooter using this concept. Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot and others are second generation to what is known now as the big three of MMORPG. Asheron's Call entered the arena with a heavyweight publisher, Microsoft, as its primary backer. Both Everquest and Ultima Online have gone through numerous expansion packs. Third Dawn and the recently released Shadows of Luclin go about a massive overhaul of the two respective franchises. If you can believe it, Dark Majesty is the first expansion pack to Asheron's Call.

Dark Majesty is actually Asheron's Call plus the new expansion pack features all rolled into one. You also get a coupon code to redeem one month worth of free gameplay, which in itself, is worth $9.95 US. Existing players can simply enter this to redeem one month of free play. The whole package can be found for $19.99 US plus or minus a few dollars street value. So, for $10 US you can actually vault into one of the more established MMORPGs. One of the main additions is a new land called Marae Lassel. New portals, the way to travel in Asheron's Call, have suddenly reopened to this lost continent. Developed in isolation, Marae Lassel offers challenges to both new players and veterans. Obviously, the new land lets you travel and see new terrain or monsters.

Asheron's Call was one of the more impressive MMORPGs to emerge in its time. It featured elements like changing weather effects, a set day-night cycle and 3D graphics, obviously superior to its antecedents, Ultima Online and Meridian 59. It was graphically usurped by Everquest but unlike the other RPGs, Dark Majesty offers no technical overhaul of the original Asheron's Call engine. It still looks largely the same as it did before. The addition of the new lands and monsters help mask some of the aging special effects but at times, it doesn't seem substantial enough. I was one of the participants in the open beta of Asheron's Call. Though the allegiance systems and quests work better now, I haven't seen much in Dark Majesty to convince me that great strides have been made to improve the game world. Nearly all of Dark Majesty is still devoid of sound. All you seem to hear are looping effects of birds, insects and water.

One notable improvement Dark Majesty provides is easing new players into the game world. This is done through a starter city to get the user acquainted with crucial skills like combat. Similar things have been done to Ultima Online and Everquest. Even with the handholding, it will undoubtedly be disconcerting to players new to MMORPGs. After your basic training, you are basically released into the wild with a few notions on who to approach for your first few quests. The rest is up to you and perhaps that is the charm that keeps players returning to Asheron's Call. Dark Majesty does not make the game any easier. Asheron's Call is known for its anemic interface and while Ultima Online, for example, has cleaned up their interface with every new expansion pack, Dark Majesty retains the quirky one of the original. It is still a bit of a hassle to juggle between large amounts of inventory and the chat window at the bottom gives the feel of a MUD. Still, it is a tried and true concept but the reliance on a mix of keyboard/mouse commands is not something easy to pick up.

The lack of a persistent world economy means you can't do much to achieve wealth (other than begging or pillaging remains of other players) but to fight. Fighting is made easy in Asheron's Call and there are plenty of monsters to go around. Some of them move in fixed patterns but more often than not I just went into the 'wild' a few scant miles away from the city to hunt down stationary monsters who existed for no reason but to be hacked, bludgeoned, or slashed to death. Through the use of quests, of which there are many (continually updated by the developers), you can navigate to dungeons or planned events full of monsters. Dark Majesty is excellent in this regard. You are never out of errands to run or things to do if you make the effort to look for it. If fighting is not your cup of tea, there is, sad to say, very little Dark Majesty will provide for you. Most quests involve combat and running errands, whether for players or for NPCs will get tiring soon enough. Unlike Ultima Online, Asheron's Call has no facility for production-run economies or dynamic market pricing to help facilitate non-combative careers. Everything, including the allegiance system, appears to be geared towards battle, although it is a great way to learn magical spells (for battle).

The population sizes of the worlds I visited were good, even during weekdays or early mornings. However, I found you have to make the effort to get to know people. Dark Majesty doesn't make this a more social game than before, so the onus on making this a sociable experience is up to you. Communal and private housing is being offered too but only after you perform a long-winded set of quests. It should prove to be no problem for veterans but it might be a little out of reach for beginners. Dark Majesty's major feature is this player-created housing system. Yet its competitor, Ultima Online, has long had this feature, including player-run vendors and even some player-run cities.

At the time of its release, Asheron's Call heralded impressive visuals and promised role-playing abilities that affected the entire game world. No doubt, it achieved this in its time. The visuals are not aging as gracefully as Ultima Online but at times, some of the vistas Dark Majesty conjures still stir the eye. If you have never played a MMORPG up until now or want to revisit Asheron's Call, this is a golden and economical opportunity to. Everything that was rough about Asheron's Call has been polished and honed to make an entertaining experience but only if your primary interest is in killing things, taking their possessions, advancing your character and repeating this whole process again. This is something that I hear Everquest excels in and Ultima Online is still thriving more for its social purposes than anything else. Recently, Sega's Phantasy Star Online v2.0 began charging a similar rate for its play but Dark Majesty helps add some depth that is lacking in Phantasy Star Online. Thus, when it comes to Dark Majesty, I'm not sure what it wants its raison d'etre to be. Launch problems, sign-up woes and server overloads plagued some of the online-only titles that launched this year. Dark Majesty goes to highlight what a veteran Asheron's Call is to the business. It certainly has some good foundations and cost-effective pricing to remain in the big three. Before, if you hated one MMORPG and could not fit in with one, you had only one choice left out of the big three. But with the fast growing communities and features of new second generation MMORPGs, retaining new players or wooing old disillusioned ones back permanently, even at such an inexpensive rate, will be the developers' toughest challenge.


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