With the rapid growth of the Internet in the late 1990's, as well as the growing number of PCs built and purchased for the purposes of gaming, it was a logical extension of the technology for companies to attempt to create online games. Text-based MUDs had been around for a long time, and several companies tried to create more commercially viable RPGs of similar style. Origin was first, with Ultima Online, and Sony followed with Everquest.
Microsoft, viewing the massively multiplayer online RPG market as full of potential, worked with developer Turbine to create Asheron's Call. Featuring a massive world to explore, an innovative magic system, interesting skills, and unique allegiance system, Asheron's Call isn't perfect, but is an entertaining, unique way to spend lots of free time.
Olthoi, Virindi, and Shadows, oh my!
Long ago, the Empyrean race was living on the vast island of Dereth. When the great magician Asheron accidentally opened a portal to another world (isn't that always the case?), monsters known as Olthoi invaded. Asheron sent his fellow Empyreans away to attempt to stop the Olthoi invasion, and in the process, created portals that sent humans from the world of Ispar to the island.
Years later, the humans managed to secure their independence from their Olthoi oppressors, and had begun to create settlements on their new home of Dereth. However, new creatures continue to appear on the island, Asheron has disappeared, and the future of the world is unknown.
You play one of the Isparians who has been summoned to Dereth. What you choose to do is up to you - you can become a mighty warrior and attempt to stop the invasion of Dereth, you can become an explorer and visit distant, dangerous parts of the island, or you can make a living as a simple trade smith. The choice is up to you.
The story isn't the greatest, but it does a nice job of setting up the world of Dereth. The unstable nature of the portals leading to Dereth allows for new creatures to emerge, dungeons to appear and disappear, and so on. Turbine does a wonderful job, with monthly updates - everyone playing Asheron's Call anxiously awaits Patch Day, as there's always something new to find - new quests, new items, and new creatures. For example, at the beginning of April 2001, people in the remote outpost of Ayan Baqur found that all of the townspeople had disappeared and the Virindi, mysterious floating creatures, now inhabited the town. While it's true that the plot events are largely static and individuals can't actually change the world, it's still a constantly evolving world with new things to find and do. People seeking a strong, linear plot certainly won't find it in Asheron's Call, but there's a lot to like regardless.
It's also nice to see Turbine get away from traditional fantasy clichés - you won't find elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins here - instead, the humans are divided into different cultural groups (roughly based off of Europeans, Japanese, and Africans). Monsters are generally novel, and while they may be similar to creatures you've seen in other games, the overall picture is unique.
A massive world
The graphics of Asheron's Call are pretty good. You'll want a 3D accelerator to get the game up to snuff. You won't mistake it for anything on Dreamcast or Playstation 2, but to be fair, it's an older game, and it still looks quite nice. Character and monster models are a bit blocky, but they work. Lighting effects are very nice, with dungeons illuminated by torches, and spells.
There are some glitches associated with the 3D engine, though. Walls aren't always considered solid, and you'll find that you can fight some monsters through solid walls or doors (which can be a nice way to avoid spells, to be fair). Objects sometimes seem solid, but aren't at other times. You'll appear to be inside other people, creatures, and other objects, and there's pop in of monsters and the wilderness.
Where Asheron's Call triumphs, however, is the absolute sense of scale. The world is massive - you can run for hours and still not cross the main continent of Dereth, and this includes mountains, oceans, cliffs, deserts, jungles, and just about anything else you'd expect. Just running through the wilderness is worth the price of admission - you'll run past hordes of monsters, up and down hills and mountains, have to seek alternate paths, and so forth. There have been multiple occasions where I've stumbled across a scenic vista where I've had to stop and take a screenshot. I took a few hours one day and just explored the northwest plains of Dereth, and went from deserts to cliffs, and eventually ended up in the snowy fields of the north - really nice to see the variety.
There's also a nice sense of detail. Each day lasts roughly two real-life hours, so you'll see the dark of night as well as bright spring days. The world changes as the year goes along - in March there was still quite a lot of snow on the ground, but as April came around, most of the snow was melted and flowers were beginning to bloom. If you look carefully, you can even watch the moon or sun slowly rise and cross the sky.
What was that growling sound?
You'll find that when you log into Asheron's Call for the first time, there's no music. While it's initially a bit disconcerting not to have a soundtrack, it's the right choice - coming up with enough music that would fit yet not become repetitive would be a daunting task.
Instead, there's a very nice selection of ambient sounds. There are crickets at night, along with wind, thunder, rain, and just about every other environmental sound you'd expect to hear. There's also the rest of the sound effects you'd expect to hear - the growls, grunts, and howls of monsters; the roar of flame spells; the twang of bows, and so on. While there's nothing spectacular coming out of your speakers, it's certainly a good effort by Turbine.
Gameplay up the wazoo
As would be expected of a game of this style, there's quite a lot to do in Asheron's Call.
It starts with character creation. After choosing a name, heritage group, and appearance for your character, you get to choose a template, or make your own. The game comes with templates for warriors, blademasters, life mages, archers, enchanters, and more - but most people choose to make a custom character.
Characters have six attributes - strength, endurance, coordination, quickness, focus, and self - and start with 270 points to distribute among the 6 as they see fit (so you can have a well-rounded character, or a more extreme character with topped-off attributes for their primary skills). After this, skill selection occurs. Each character starts with 50 skill points, and can choose which skills to train themselves in and which to specialize. Specialized skills grow much more quickly than trained skills, but the high cost of specialization makes it difficult to specialize more than a few skills without neglecting your character.
Skills range from weapon based (sword, bow, axe, spear, etc), to spells (war magic, creature enchantment, etc), to other useful and miscellaneous skills (fletching, cooking, alchemy, healing). With over 30 skills available, it's difficult to decide how to spend skill points, but the decisions made at character creation will largely determine your long-term success.
Once your character's made, you appear in one of the starting cities. From there, you can do a quick tutorial dungeon to learn the game, which helps you learn the interface, how to fight, and gives you a small amount of experience to spend on your character.
Experience is handled quite well in the game. As would be expected, the primary way to obtain experience is by killing creatures. However, experience is also earned for successfully using a skill. Pick a lock? Dodge an attack or resist a spell? Make a pie? All of these actions give you some experience.
Moreover, while some experience goes directly into the skill used, most of it goes into a generalized pool - and you can spend this experience to raise a skill or attribute whenever you want. The cost varies on how much a skill or attribute has been increased, but allows immediate and constant improvement of a character. For example, my character has spent a lot of experience increasing his strength and coordination attributes, so increasing either of those by one point will now cost me about 37,000 experience - whereas increasing my focus attribute will only cost me about 10,000 a point (since I haven't raised it as much as my strength).
Asheron's Call rewards you as you progress, rather than giving you an arbitrary increase in abilities and attributes when you level up. Skill credits are awarded as you level up so you can train new skills, but for the most part, character level isn't a true measure of power.
Combat is an important part of gameplay. When a hostile creature appears on the radar, you can choose to attack it, or it may attack you. When combat mode is entered, you have a fair amount of control over the flow of battle. The first step is choosing how much power you want to apply to your attacks - do you want to go for a barrage of weaker, but fast blows - or attack with very low speed but high power? Attack height is also selectable, and plays a small role - if you're swinging high in the air, you're simply not going to be able to hit a rat attacking your feet.
Combat largely goes by itself, but you can choose to break away and run if you need to, and some enemies try the same. One interesting design choice is that characters and monsters "stick" to each other - if you're close enough to make an attack on a creature (or if you're running away from a horde of monsters), they "stick" to you for a hit or two. It's hard to explain, but immediately apparent when you play the game. It's not a bad thing, as otherwise it could be extremely difficult to hit enemies due to lag, but it takes some time to get used to.
The magic system is also very unique. There are dozens of spells, of a variety of types - ranging from flame bursts, to healing and defensive spells, to the much-desired portal spells (to facilitate travel around Dereth). You don't learn them automatically, however - you have to do spell research. There are a variety of spell components, such as scarabs, herbs, powdered gems, and talismans. Each spell has a particular formula - for example, to learn and cast a level 1 Shock Wave spell, you'll need a Lead Scarab, Hawthorn herb, Powdered Onyx, a potion of Vitriol, and a Birch talisman. With these components and a sufficiently high level of skill, you'll be able to learn this spell and cast it (provided you have enough mana and components).
Naturally, things become more complex as you go - higher level spells need colored tapers, and these are random for each person. Thus, there's actually a need to research and learn the spells you want to know. There's also a "spell economy", where the more often a spell is cast in an area, the less powerful it becomes - so there's incentive to keep some knowledge to yourself. For those impatient would-be mages, there are programs to help you learn your spells, but it takes some of the fun out of it.
As with all games, you're going to die. Death in Asheron's Call is set up so that it's an inconvenience, but not a crippling event. As you go, you'll find Lifestones, which you can bind yourself to - and when you die, you end up at the last Lifestone you used. There is a penalty, of course - you'll drop half the cash you have on hand, as well as a few of your more expensive items (thus creating the practice of carrying "Death items" - expensive but useless items that you can afford to lose). These can be recovered by going back and getting your corpse.
However, this isn't as easy as it seems, as death creates a Vitae penalty. When you die, all of your skills, as well as health, stamina, and mana, suffer a temporary decrease of 5% per death (up to 40%). This is worked off by gaining some experience. Vitae really forces you to be careful, without having any permanent effects - even a 5% decrease in skills can make you much more vulnerable to enemies, but given patience and help, you can work off your Vitae and be back at full strength. It's a nice way to work the issue of punishing a player for dying.
There are a fair number of quests to do in AC, as well as lots of dungeons to explore. Transportation around the island can be done on foot - but this can take forever, and is a risky proposition at times. As such, there are portals dotting the landscape. Some portals transport you to other towns - for instance, the starter towns have a ring of portals that allow you to get from one starter town to other towns in the ring without much effort.
Dungeons are also accessed by a portal, which allows Turbine to create and remove dungeons without changing the landscape at large. One nice thing about the landscape as a whole is there's never any loading on the main world - the portals take a brief period of time to load the new area, but if you're running across the wilderness, you'll never have to stop and wait for a new zone to load - it's entirely fluid.
One thing I was highly impressed by was the social system set into place. To begin with, most of the players you run into are nice. Sure, there's the occasional player out to ruin the experience for others, or the guy kill-stealing, but the majority of people out there are nice and helpful - especially for new players.
To further facilitate social groupings, the Allegiance system has been created. There are basic fellowships, which are your normal RPG parties (experience can be shared or not). However, allegiances are permanent entities - like guilds. A player can become a vassal of another player - the second player becomes the first player's patron. It's a give and take relationship - the patron receives part of the experience that the vassal earns (the vassal doesn't lose any exp, though). In return, the patron is expected to assist his vassal, with equipment, corpse recovery, and other things. Each patron can have several vassals - and vassals can themselves become patrons.
In the end, with enough people, a single allegiance becomes a giant pyramid, with the person at top being the Monarch. While some allegiances essentially become experience chains for the people involved, joining a good allegiance can be a tremendous benefit to the player - you'll have other people to quest with, you can share items with your friends, and so forth. It's perhaps the best way I've seen yet of encouraging players to create in-game friendships - there's no penalties for not joining an allegiance, but the benefits are worth it.
Cracks in the surface
Things aren't perfect in AC, of course.
The first problem is lag. Asheron's Call doesn't have as many players as the two major competitors - Ultima Online or Everquest - but lag can become very bad at times. With more than the 2000 players per server found at peak times, lag can cause you to die fairly easily at times. Certain areas can also become too crowded, and the solution is portal storms. In theory, when an area is too crowded, people will be randomly teleported away to ease the congestion. In the time I've played the retail version of AC, I've seen portal storms threatened several times, but nobody's actually been carried away (whereas in the beta, portal storms were common and everyone got whisked away sooner or later).
There are some definite balance issues. Many skills are simply flat-out worthless - if you spend skill points on, say, appraise armor, you've pretty much just wasted them. While I haven't played long enough to see the upper-level balance of the game, most people tend to agree that certain weapons are overpowered (dagger) or underpowered (spears, thrown weapons), and that magic is almost a necessity (particularly Life magic). I can't verify this for myself, but with a game this massive and with so many possibilities, imbalances are to be expected.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is that you really can't change the world. People can't build houses, or new towns. While the world changes a bit every month, the players are basically just along for the ride. The overall story of AC has been scripted ahead of time, and there's not much the players can do to change it.
Some actions can be tedious. Using fletching to turn some arrowheads and shafts into arrows can take a while - double-click on an arrowhead, click on the shaft, watch your character make an arrow - repeat until bored. Likewise, spell research takes quite a long time, even if you know what you're doing - because you're going to miss-cast spells, have to modify spell recipes, and let your mana recharge. It's a problem with an otherwise entertaining system.
I should also mention that because it's a massively-multiplayer online RPG, there's a fee. While the game is essentially free to purchase now (most stores sell it for $20 and there's a $20 rebate coupon), after the first free month, there's a $10 a month fee. It's justified, given the cost of running the servers and the monthly updates the game has, but it bears mentioning. Also, the first time you connect, since there's a year and a half worth of updates, be prepared to download about 100 megs worth of patches (though a patch can be downloaded separately to update your client to the December 2000 patch). Not flaws, just things to keep in mind.
A tremendous time-sink
It's hard to write a review for Asheron's Call, simply because it defies convention. If I rank it on plot, or music, it's not that great.
Still, AC is a fun game, and a tremendous time-sink. I've played the game for nearly 100 hours, and my character is only level 25 (though almost to 26). There's so much of the world I haven't seen yet, and so much I want to do, that I don't know where to start.
Asheron's Call suffers some of the same problems that many dislike PC games for - they're in a non-linear world with no set goals. When it gets down to it, unless you choose to become a Player Killer or play on Darktide (the PK-only server), you're probably going to be fighting monsters for your character's lifespan. It's amazingly addictive, and it's massive, but it may not be what you're looking for.
Still, there's nothing more satisfying than meeting up with members of my Allegiance and doing a quest with them. I spent about an hour the other day trying to track someone down after I found their armor and sword in a dungeon that they'd died repeatedly in - the community tends to foster that sort of self-support. People will answer your questions and lend a helping hand. That's perhaps the greatest thing about AC. There's a great sense of community, and it makes the game much better than it could be otherwise.
If you're willing to try a different type of RPG, you could do worse than try Asheron's Call. I'm on the Thistledown server as Sai Tortolia - look me up, and I'll help you out.
|He'll be jumping off the mountain when he comes...
|Tag-team Undead action!