Few online games ever fathom much less reach the stratosphere of
EverQuest, or even the remaining two of the big three; Ultima Online and
Asheron's Call. Most generate immense buzz at the beginning and then as
the warts are revealed and the trial subscriptions expire, the number of
players begins to level off. That was the general trend for newcomers
until Dark Ages of Camelot came along. Developed by Mythic, its
attention to gameplay, experience in crafting online games and expansion
of the basic fundamentals that worked in online gaming helped garner it
one of the fastest growing player bases around. The end result: a year
after its initial launch, we're already seeing an expansion pack with
new places, exotic classes, beefier graphics and more monsters.
Mythic's Shrouded Isles promises to make one of the most playable online
games even more so.
In many ways, the popularity and success of Dark Ages of Camelot shaped
some of the development that went into Shrouded Isles. Realm versus
realm combat, an oft-imitated feature first pioneered by Mythic, was a
wonderful idea but under the original graphics engine, poorly executed.
Hundreds of players congregating together frequently reduced combat to a
slideshow but the fact that realm battles continued to be the highlight
meant Mythic had something right. I'm happy to report that the lag and
slowness induced by many people appearing in the same area is finally
resolved. (It still won't fix lag problems you have with your Internet
connection though.) You'll actually be able to conduct some honest to
good tactics in realm battles instead of hoping and wishing your hit
will connect with someone.
All of this is due to the game engine enhancement Mythic has made via
Shrouded Isles. One chronic problem from before: graphic distortions
that required you to re-login every so often. That, fortunately, has
been rectified completely along with the speed increase. However,
there's a caveat emptor. No amount of tweaking will offset a poor video
card. If you run something at an ATI Radeon 9000 or NVIDIA Geforce4 Ti
range, you're bound to see a change for the better. But if you have
little graphics muscle (onboard and PCI cards) to begin with, you won't
see any improvement to the lag. And that's even if you turn all the
Dark Ages of Camelot came out with pretty hefty requirements and
Shrouded Isles merely raises them to keep up to speed with the latest
crop of online games. You do get a lot of eye candy in return. Trees
are more fully articulated now and possess a certain volume that
couldn't be done before. The flora and fauna do look better,
particularly in the new lands. Monsters are now able to traverse and
navigate the z-axis so you're certain to run into more flying and
ethereal beings during your travels. Overall, the animations for the
monsters, particularly the newer ones, are more fluid. And the water is
now finally at a stage where it's reflective, enabling Shrouded Isles'
improvements to match recently released (Asheron's Call 2 being the most
direct competitor) online games. Suffice to say, Shrouded Isles keeps
Camelot players at the bleeding edge in terms of visuals.
Also added this time around is an ambient soundtrack. One criticism
levelled at the original game was the shortness and repetition of the
tracks. It takes a good twenty to thirty days (not hours) of solid
gameplay to max out character achievement in Shrouded Isles - and that's
most likely with help from other players. Hearing the same score over
and over again can drive you insane (like Christmas music does to
retailers) but the ambient score helps alleviate this.
When Mythic got around to making Shrouded Isles, they didn't think let's
just patch some bugs in the original engine and paint a few new lands
for people to quest on. The care is evident when you look at the races
and classes introduced to complement the existing Camelot cast. These
aren't the same fighter or mage classes dressed in new Tolkien garb. In
the Albion realm, you have the Inconnu race with Necromancer and Reaver
classes. The Necromancer takes a page out of AD&D and Diablo. It
channels its fighting energies through a summoned creature while the
Reaver has pulsing spells that wreak havoc on stealth characters (if you
play Camelot against other players, you'll know why this is useful). In
Hibernia, players can look forward to the Animist and Valewalker. The
Animist can be particularly useful in defense during realm versus realm
combat because of his or her ability to summon living "turrets".
Finally, Midgard constituents get the Bonedancer, who uses even more
summoned pets and underlings than the Necromancer, as well as the
Savages, who can deal out crushing blows with various damage types. No
doubt, some of these classes will convince veteran players to drop their
favorite characters and try replaying the game with the new ones.
While the new lands look markedly better, many of the benefits of
Shrouded Isles can be enjoyed in the existing land. The latest quests
and dungeons, for example, are open to all classes. New races can also
come back to the existing Dark Ages of Camelot lands so the benefits can
go both ways. The recent areas provide a great relief valve for highly
populated servers so players will be able to level up with ease. Much
of the Shrouded Isles material, moreover, is geared towards levelling up
higher-level characters, which up to a point in the original game, was
not worth the hassle of attaining.
This highlights a crux in Shrouded Isles though. Higher-level
characters will be able to enjoy Shrouded Isles. Up and coming
characters will appreciate the additional monsters and dungeons in their
quests for advancement. Unfortunately, that leaves new players
completely out of the loop. Adventuring solo continues to be a personal
experience where you simply the thrill is in levelling up. The interface
may be very sophisticated and playable to veterans but to someone who
wants to experience what they experienced in single player RPGs
(Morrowind or the under appreciated Planescape: Torment), they're most
likely to find little value in the Shrouded Isles follow-up.
In fact, Shrouded Isles requires the purchase of Dark Ages of Camelot.
Checking retailers, I should note the price is now reduced for the
original corpus. Nevertheless, it's highly unlikely a newcomer will
sink money for both packages without ever having experienced the game.
On the other hand, Shrouded Isle is a sine qua non for existing players.
Even if you won't give up your current character, you'll want to follow
your friends to the expansion areas.
If there is one gameplay fault I can find with Shrouded Isles, it's the
fact that the new geographical areas are too expansive for one necessary
component of Dark Ages of Camelot; defending one's realm. When the
frontiers of your realm are threatened, it's a long walk or ride back to
the action. Since Shrouded Isles does little to change the existing
mechanics, defending keeps, conducting relic raids and protecting the
interests of one's realm continues to be at the top of the activity list
for players. However, the rest of the game is pure Camelot. It's all
very playable, well executed and mark my words, it will suck you
in for long periods of time.
Shrouded Isles doesn't do much to change the nature of Camelot. It
merely adds more flavor to the winning formula. It rectifies some
technical issues, reinforcing the communal focus of the game. It still
performs at its best when you participate in the realm versus realm
conflicts and you pitch your character into combat with a living
breathing human. Shrouded Isles tries to add something for the solo
experience but the real meat of the game continues to rest on playing
with, alongside or against other characters.
Online games these days tend to require players to sink an inordinate
amount of time into them. Existing Camelot fans and MMORPG players
would be smart to take up on Mythic's latest quid pro quo. Time spent
versus satisfaction - you're undoubtedly getting the better end of the
deal, even if you'll have to skip out on school, work and washing the