The Penny Arcade Expo is here, and FPBBrandon and I are chilling in our hotel after the first night. We started out with seeing Never Winter Nights 2 (images to come next week) including it’s freakishly amazing amount of skills and abilities for when you create your character. Gabe and Tycho held a panel where they announced their upcoming game, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. They’re teaming up with Hothead Games who have a bunch of people experienced in creating games based on well established characters, including Simpsons: Hit and Run, and The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. There were also a couple tournaments during the day, we got a chance to watch some of the Super Smash Bros. Melee Tournament, some pretty killer players walked away with some nice loot including a very sweet PC Tower Case. The day wrapped up with a concert by the Video Game Pianist, Optimus Rhyme, and the NESkimos.
Yes! Shadowbane! Now this is a game I have been waiting for for a very long time! For years now, I have been waiting for a game to rob me of all my free time the way Ultima Online did; a game that allows me to create a unique character that can actually affect the in-game world and the lives of other players. My expectations for this game were extremely high, and the truth is, it was a little scary to actually play the game for the first time knowing that it might not be as fun as I had hoped. But alas, I got into the beta test a few weeks ago, and I wearily stepped my way into the world of Shadowbane. I love it.
Why is Shadowbane so good? Well, mainly because it’s not like any of the other mindlessly boring MMORPGs out there. I’m sorry for those of you who like Everquest, but killing computer controlled monsters so my character can be more powerful so I can kill more computer controlled monsters is not fun. It’s boring. Not just boring, but pointlessly boring. Dark Age of Camelot tried to remedy the incessant leveling by implementing “realm versus realm combat.” That gives me a little purpose, but the idea of a place where everyone goes to fight it out is pretty silly. On top of that, you are never fighting for yourself. You are forced to pick a faction based on what type of character you want to play. I wanted to play an Elf, so I had to fight in the name of nature, but I didn’t want to fight for nature! I didn’t want to fight for my “realm!” Who are these people I’m fighting alongside anyway? I don’t know them! I’d rather be killing them because they are tree-huggers! Again, it’s pointless. I want to be able to make my own guild. I want to be able to build my own city. I want to be able to recruit my own army. I want to be able to start my own war. I want to be able to kill, or at least try to kill, anybody that I want to die simply because I can. Is that too much to ask? Well, apparently not because Shadowbane has gone gold.
One of the main differences that you will encounter first in Shadowbane that sets it apart from other MMORPGs is character creation. One of the countless reasons why Everquest is the most boring game ever created is because every character is the same. You’re a necromancer, I’m a necromancer. We have the same spells, same stats, and we’re both chicks because everyone thinks Dark Elf women are hot. In Shadowbane, you’ll notice from the very beginning that apart from the normal stat point placement you also have the option of choosing traits. Traits can do a variety of different things, but mainly they help make your character unique. For instance, I chose to be taught by a master thief, which gave me a bonus to be dexterity but subtracted from my strength and constitution. Traits vary from weapon proficiencies to basic skills. It really reminds me a lot of Fallout to tell you the truth, because many traits have pros and cons to them, and like Fallout, they all sound pretty cool. I mean who wouldn’t want to have “lightning reflexes,” or to be “tough as nails,” or to possess “eyes of the eagle.”
Character advancement in Shadowbane also plays out very differently from other MMORPGs. In the beginning you choose a class, which is pretty much going to make you just like every character of the same class for the first ten levels. At level ten, however, you must choose a profession. This is where it starts getting interesting. Professions define your character for the most part. There are over 20 different professions including Assassin, Warlock, Crusader, and Priest. But it doesn’t stop there. Different skills and abilities unlock as you gain levels, and you must put experience points into them in order to raise them. The main thing that sets Shadowbane apart from other games that have tried this, like Dark Age of Camelot, is the fact that there so many different skills and abilities for each profession that it would be impossible to effectively raise them all. This creates an extreme amount of diversity between characters of the same profession. On top of that, at level twenty players may also choose disciplines if they wish, which add even more skills and abilities for a more specialized character. Disciplines are only effective if you have a goal and stick to it. If you spread your points all over the place and try to be great at everything, you will never be able to take a good discipline. This makes players think hard about their characters and really gives them the freedom to play any type of character they want.
Another thing you will notice right away is leveling. It’s fast! Unlike other MMORPGs, Shadowbane does not put any emphasis on leveling, because; let’s face it, leveling sucks. Nobody likes to sit in one spot all day and kill the same monsters over and over again, and Shadowbane discourages this by letting you bust levels like there’s no tomorrow. Even when grouping with nine other people, you still get 80% of the experience per kill; as apposed to other games where you would get only 10%. From level 1-20 you may stay on the “Newbie Island” and level in peace without worrying about getting attacked by other players. From then on you must step out into the real world and live a little more dangerously, but you can still call one of the NPC-run cities home. These cities are safe-zones which prohibit player versus player combat. Then, at level 35, you’re on your own and you either have to start your own guild, join an existing guild, or live in the wilderness by yourself. Leveling up will go very quickly too until you hit the soft-cap, which will cause you to advance much slower. The soft-cap, and the fact that you are booted from all safe areas at level 35, forces players to stop their endless power-leveling and actually do something productive for once; to be a part of something big, or to start something big of their own. This game is not about leveling up and getting “l33t” items. It’s about building a community of players and changing the world.
This is where one of Shadowbane’s biggest selling points comes in. No, I’m not talking about personal housing. I’m not talking about having a little place to rest at the end of the day and to store all that useless junk you find on monsters. I’m talking about building a city, no, an empire! Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to experience building a city for myself, but I’ve visited player-built cities that are larger than NPC-run cities. I’ve seen small player-run shops near high-traffic areas where people go to buy harder to find weapons and armor and train their skills to higher levels. I’ve seen an entire continent filled with the small cities of one powerful guild, with one gigantic capital city in the center. It’s amazing to think of the possibilities, because quite frankly they are endless. Building and defending your city is a huge part of what Shadowbane is, and conquering another player’s city only brings you one step closer to conquering the world.
Now, my favorite part of any MMORPG: player versus player combat. Having balance in PvP combat is the most important aspect of any MMORPG that attempts PvP combat at all. Because Shadowbane is based on PvP combat, balance is even more important, and allowing such a wide variety of ways to create a character while maintaining that balance is especially difficult. In Dark Age of Camelot warriors beat rogues, mages beat warriors, and rogues beat mages. In other words it was like a big game of rock, paper, scissors. In Shadowbane, it’s rock, paper, cardboard, plastic, scissors, knife, spoon, fork, dish, bowl, screwdriver, hammer, and a variety of other household objects. A warrior might attack an assassin thinking that the assassin would never be able to hold his own toe-to-toe, but then the assassin might have decided to put his points into spell casting and now you have a really good fight on your hands. Every character can be totally different, and every character class has its strengths and weaknesses. Player versus player combat in Shadowbane is definitely a lot more interesting and exciting than in previous games.
Ok, so you put all these things together and what do you have? In my opinion, you’ve got the most revolutionary and exciting PC game to come out in a very long time. Shadowbane is the first step to taking online games in a new direction. Trying something new can be risky, but it paid off for Wolfpack Studios. We can only hope that game developers take such large leaps creative leaps in the future. All I can say is this game is more than worth checking out. I’ll see you all on the front lines of the biggest battle online gaming has seen yet, if you’re up for it. Play to crush!
Ultima X: Odyssey, currently in development by EA and Origins was made available to us in a little booze laden environment in San Francisco. Well, what we saw impressed us so much that we are actually going to write about it. Ultima Online, the first Ultima game to go massively multiplayer is still going strong, so EA is not going to mess with a good thing. UXO will not replace UO, but act as a sister product. Imagine Diablo 2, only massively multiplayer and enough remarkably unique ideas to intrigue even the most jaded gamer. Intrigued? Of course you are. UXO, the first MMOAG (Massively Multiplayer Online Adventure Game), has a few features that every other MMOG will have to have (but you’ll have to wait until the very end to find out about those, because I’m a bastard). Storywise, the game is an extension of Ultima 9 in which your character masters the 8 virtues and ascends to become The Avatar and fight for good. Well, apparently The Avatar isn’t doing so well, so he creates a new world to train other avatars and their disciples. The landscape is very diverse and contains several notable locations from the first 9 Ultima games (we’re not going to tell you what they are, as we’ve got to save something for later articles). These Virtues play a HUGE role in the game, which you will find out more about down in the ‘Gameplay’ section of my swank write-up.
I’ve seen the beauty of Everquest 2, I’ve had the privilege to behold the majesty of Dragon Empires, I’ve wandered the roaming ranges of Dark and Light. Ultima X Online, however, looks almost like World of Warcraft, only not as polished. Now, the important thing to consider here is that UXO is still only in pre-alpha and that the graphics are by no means shabby. As Rick Hall, Senior Producer said, “You can’t get stylish with photo-realistic. You play these games to escape reality.” In a world where every game is trying to reach photo-realism for imaginary creatures, the UXO team has crafted a very cool and sometimes wicked looking set of monsters. From the towering ice giants to the hulking Rhinorks to Toadstool’s steroid imbibing cousins, each monster is very well crafted and already looks quite good (1k to 3k polygons per model). The maps (or zones) are all quite large, and there are going to be at least 56 in the initial release, possibly more if Andy Dombroski ever manages to repair the damage we did when we discovered the “ShowHUDCommandList” command and wreaked havoc (more on that later). The maps, while large, are all hand crafted and have some truly stunning views. The game isn’t going to set any records for graphics, so why would you play it? Well, because games are much more than graphics, you ocular whores.