When one thinks of Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs (MMORPGs), you probably think of Everquest. For better or worse, Verant's online juggernaut is the standard by which all other games in the genre are compared (along with Ultima Online), as well as the most imitated.
Mythic Entertainment is a small company that's been making online games for many years. When Dark Age of Camelot was announced, it was essentially promoted as a friendlier Everquest - the addictive gameplay without some of the flaws of Verant and Sony's progeny. It was released in October 2001 and was notable for a remarkably stable launch - only one server went down from stress, and the experience was relatively lag free.
In the end, Dark Age of Camelot proves to be an entertaining entry into the MMORPG market with some very serious flaws that greatly limit the long-term entertainment and viability of the product.
Three kingdoms, one goal
King Arthur is dead and Merlin has disappeared. It is indeed a dark time for the kingdom of Albion. With the demise of their great leader, dark forces have spread among the land. Furthermore, the Norse kingdom of Midgard and the mystical Celtic land of Hibernia have begun fighting for control of the lands and the relics of power each kingdom possesses.
There are some quests in the game that attempt to flesh the details out (for example, in Albion, members of the magical Academy get a series of quests to determine the source of the undead plaguing the lands), but for the most part, they're irrelevant. Many quests are simple "kill this critter" or "talk to this person" affairs, but they don't advance the story significantly. Essentially, you've chosen a realm, the creatures are there for you to become powerful, and you need to kill the members of the opposing realms because they're evil and foreign. Mythic has stated that that they rely on various legends to create their lands, but it doesn't really seem to add much to the game.
Three kingdoms, one war, one game. That's about it, fundamentally.
Lag hammers o' doom
The graphics are rather nice for a MMORPG. They're not up to the standard set by Anarchy Online, but they're also more reasonable for your system. Character models contain a good number of polygons, as do the monsters, though players all tend to look alike given the limited number of face/hairstyle options for each race. They're also reasonably well animated, although limited in their motions; there's only one spellcasting animation, each line of combat styles only has a few different animations, and so forth.
There are a number of different monster types, though there is definitely overlap between realms. There's also a good amount of both palette swapping and size swapping - different types of monsters may look the same but be different sizes. Overall, though, there's quite a lot of repetition and you'll be familiar with most monster models fairly early in your character's lifespan.
Moreover, the world graphics are fairly nice - there's some nice variety spread through each realm, ranging from mountain ranges to swamps and so forth. Since there is some attempt at following the historical myths, there's a lack of some of the more fantastic area types associated with the genre, but it doesn't overly hurt the game.
One issue is the game performance in crowded areas. The capital cities of each realm (Camelot, Jordheim, and Tir na Nog) are very graphically lagged, even when the number of players is somewhat low. What's worse is the graphical lag that occurs during large-scale Realm vs. Realm (RvR) combat - framerates can easily dip into the single digits, and that's not counting the lag caused by certain area of effect spells. Definitely a problem with the engine, and it hurts the game when quick reactions and good video performance is needed most.
Sound effects are decent, though very limited. Entire lines of spells have the same sound effects, as do types of monsters. There are a variety of sound effects - you'll hear that blow being blocked by a shield or parried, you'll hear the monsters growl, and so forth - but you'll hear them over and over again. By level 10 you've heard most of the sound effects that you'll be listening to for the rest of your DAoC life.
Music is similarly adequate, though not played very often (though the fight music is, again, something you'll be listening to a lot). After a while I just listened to MP3s instead of the in-game effects because the sounds and music weren't adding anything to my experience and I'd heard them all before many times. More variety is needed in this area.
It's a MMORPG; of course it's big
For starters, players choose which of the three realms they want to play in. Albion, based off of Britain, is a good mix of magic and melee, and is also the only realm that gets plate armor. Midgard, home of the Norse, dwarves, kobolds, and trolls, is a much more melee-oriented realm. Hibernia is more oriented towards magical abilities and spells, and is home to Celts, elves, the tiny lurikeen and the massive firbolg. Each realm has roughly equivalent numbers and types of classes, so it's easy to decide what type of character you want to play and not be forced to pick a particular realm for that purpose.
Players choose an initial class that they spend their first few levels as before they end up choosing their final class, so the first few levels are about learning how to play the game in general before they're forced to worry about the intricacies of specializing their characters. This way, if you're unsure of what specific class you want to become, you can still explore and get a feel for the game without being forced into a specific role immediately - for example, Albion fighters get a few levels to decide if they want to be the powerful Armsman, the less armored and faster Mercenary, or the holy Paladin, without having to decide immediately (though it does help to know what direction your character will eventually take).
There are a variety of ways to earn experience early on - you can defeat monsters, you can do quests, or you can complete tasks. Tasks are mini-quests that are given out by NPCs until your character reaches level 20 - they can be to either defeat a certain creature or to take an item to another NPC, and upon completion you will gain a good percentage of experience and cash for the level - tasks provide some nice variety for lower level characters instead of forcing them into permanent hunting careers.
Once you've hit level 5 and chosen a character class, you can begin to further specialize your characters. Each level a certain number of specialization points are given, and each class has several different spec lines to put points into. The Wizard, for example, can put points into Fire, Ice, and Earth lines, with spells being unlocked as the specialization increases. It is the distribution of spec points that ultimately determines the uniqueness of the character, as well as how effective they are and what their capabilities are.
Tradeskillers have several options from which to choose - depending on the class, they can specialize either in weaponcrafting, fletching, armorcrafting, or tailoring. Mythic claims that player-made goods are superior to items that are dropped by monsters, so players can choose whether to support their local crafters or to buy from NPCs or hunt for their items. As players gain skill in their respective trade the number of items they can make goes up, as well as being able to make items for higher-level players. Consignments are also available until players reach 650 skill, and involve crafters making specific items for NPCs, and generally making profits to finance further trades.
Grouping is encouraged by Mythic, with up to 8 players able to be in a single group at once. A very useful "looking for group" tab is available, so solo players can indicate to everyone around them that they need a group, and group leaders can likewise specify what types of classes are needed in their group. Many types of monsters actually "bring a friend", and the larger the group attacking them, the more will come to defend themselves - with corresponding experience bonuses to encourage these larger battles.
Quests are given by a variety of NPCs through the realms, with class-specific quests coming from trainers at certain levels. Each class also has an "epic" quest that begins at level 15 and continues through the rest of the character's life, and each portion of the quest gives a powerful item to the player (quest items are actually the best quality in the game, and available to everyone). While many quests yield rewards that aren't necessarily useful to all classes, they're a good source of equipment and items, especially early in a character's life when money is particularly tight.
The end game of Dark Age of Camelot is the Realm vs. Realm battles that Mythic has made the focus of the game. Each realm has a large, safe portion, where no enemy player can come. Each realm also has a smaller 'frontier', filled with higher-level creatures, defended keeps, and heavily defended relic keeps. These frontiers can be accessed by the other realms, which can invade to take keeps, attempt to take the opposing relics, or simply go hunt for enemy players. Relics provide realm-wide bonuses to opponents when captured, so there's an incentive to defend them from attack.
Dying in RvR is painless, with no experience loss - however, your opponents get Realm Points, which can raise their stats and be traded in for special items. RvR also removes the trash-talking element found in most MMORPGs - players from other realms can't communicate with you, aside from a few emotes like /laugh, /salute, etc., and the only time you see their names is when they kill you or you kill them. In short, Mythic's done all they can to take the pain out of RvR combat and attempted to make it a fun thing to do rather than something to avoid.
For a while, Dark Age of Camelot is incredibly fun. For casual players or those who aren't in a rush to join the RvR combat, there's a lot to like. It's only once you've reached the higher (25+) levels that problems start to arise - and there's quite a few at this point.
RvR is essentially the end game - once your characters have reached level 50, you can either try a different realm on another server (you can only be in one realm per server to avoid spies), make another character, or go RvR full-time. The problems with RvR are numerous. Like the rest of the game, levels are key - for the most part, if you are higher level than someone, you are more powerful than they are, and you can kill them, often with ease. Mythic originally said a level 15 could participate in RvR - this is an utter joke. On Palomides, the server I play on, many of the people who spend much of their time in the frontiers are above level 35, if not level 40, with a good number of level 50 characters around. Most players who aren't 35+ will die very quickly to a higher level player, forcing people to spend literally days leveling up characters to get to the RvR content.
Moreover, RvR is bugged. There's no point to taking keeps. Relics generally haven't changed hands, but on the servers where they have, relics are broken and bestow no bonuses to the capturing realm. This has reduced RvR to a giant Quake-style deathmatch with Realm Points as the only reward. The Realm Point rewards are also broken or absent - stat bonuses for levels of RPs aren't functioning properly, and promised rewards such as personal housing or horses are nowhere to be seen.
Classes are severely imbalanced at this point, both in combat versus other players and versus monsters. In RvR, archers are gods, with stealthing abilities that are very hard to combat as well as devastatingly powerful shots that can kill many players, especially lower level ones, before they have much of a chance to react. Many other classes have little role in RvR. Robed casters in particular have a variety of problems - their armor provides almost no protection, meaning many casters can be killed in one or two hits, their spells don't do as much damage as archers or some melee types, and they can be resisted by higher level creatures/players. Some classes lack all their abilities; some are simply much weaker than their comrades; the Mercenary has worse armor than the Armsman, and actually does less damage despite dual wielding.
A variety of zones are simply not itemized, leaving monsters to drop either coins only or nothing at all. This limits the amount of dropped magical items available for each player, and also means that equivalent level hunting zones with treasure drops tend to be more crowded than their non-itemized counterparts. This problem has affected all three realms, particularly early on - the high level dungeons for Albion and Hibernia were itemized after Midgard's, meaning that Midgard had an advantage of superior high-level equipment for a while.
This problem is compounded by the flawed tradeskill system. For starters, it's incredibly boring - consignments are fun for a while, but making tons of items for only slight profits and a chance of skill gains is very slow. Higher level items can take several minutes each to attempt, with the possibility of item failure or no skill gain on successes - watching the little green bar slowly progress is very, very dull. Even when crafters have high-level skills, they can't make items that are as good as the items dropped. The two highest-level materials aren't in the game yet for crafters to work with, yet items with better protection drop in dungeons, destroying much of the crafter market. Spellcraft, a future tradeskill that will allow crafters to add statistic bonuses to crafted items, is also not in the game yet, with no estimated implementation date. Eventually crafted items will be superior in all respects to dropped loot - but nobody knows when.
The economy is an interesting beast - characters go through several stages of wealth - for perhaps the first 20 levels most characters will be broke nearly all of the time. Levels 20-30 typically feature characters having enough money to get whatever they need. Beyond that, most players have more money than they know what to do with - once a player's properly equipped, there's no real need for money aside from wasting it on expensive cloth/armor dyes.
Run speed is slow. Aggravatingly slow. Horses have been added on pre-planned routes to facilitate travel within your realm, but aside from those it's a matter of running everywhere. Several classes get speed boosts - bard-type characters get very fast speed songs for their groups, and several types of caster get much slower run buffs - but aside from that it's almost painful to run anywhere just because the default run speed is slow. Despite this, the lands really aren't that big - on horses it can take about a half hour or so to get from one side of the realm to another. It would be much nicer to have a faster movement speed and more land to cover rather than the current system. I personally had to give up on an alternate character because it was just too aggravating for me to stop playing my minstrel, whose speed song allows movement about 80% faster than default, and play a character with no run speed boost at all.
The leveling is boring, quite frankly. Most agree that it's a lot less painful than Everquest's leveling treadmill. While I have no real experience to compare it to, it's still no fun. Tasks end at level 20, and from then on it's a matter of killing everything to level up. This is coupled with the group experience code. Originally, it didn't matter what level characters you were grouped with - you could group with a friend who was much lower than you and they'd level much faster than normal, eventually catching up. This friendly group experience code was changed to a version that seemingly throws out experience points entirely if the level variance in a group gets too large. Many players are finding that 8 person groups are not only more dangerous than fighting solo, but less rewarding - why are players penalized for working together in large groups and taking on very dangerous groups of creatures? It's incredibly frustrating not being able to work with a lower level guildmate simply because the game's experience distribution penalizes both of you for not being very close in level. This is a bad enough problem, but with high level being the basis for being effective in RvR, it's a tremendous strike against the game.
Finally, there's a lack of content. It's early in the game's life span, but it's dull. If played well and carefully, a level 1 character can see virtually everything in their particular realm and their frontier. Monster graphics are repetitive, dungeons are laid out similarly, and with the lack of complete itemization of many areas, much of the appeal of killing critters to see what they drop is incomplete. Many features promised since beta are still absent. Mythic is a small company and I'm sure they're working as fast as they can, but with much of the game off-limits without creating characters on other servers in the other realms, it doesn't take long to see pretty much everything available, and that's a real shame.
A work in progress
It's not my attempt to come off as overly negative about Dark Age of Camelot. I enjoyed much of the large amount of time I spent in-game. Exploring a new land is always fun, as is finding new critters to beat. I was generally happy with my character choice and it was nice playing a MMORPG with a real end-goal - protect your realm and kill the invaders. Perhaps the best thing Mythic has done is created a real sense of camaraderie - you're happy to help the people around you because you know that you're all working towards a common goal - you're working for your kingdom. They've taken some of the aspects that made Everquest tedious and made them less so - downtime is very limited, for example.
I'm that much more frustrated because of the potential that DAoC currently fails to live up to. I was happy to defend Albion and I liked charging off to the Hibernian frontier to kill some dwarves and elves. When I'm forced to spend hours upon hours on a leveling treadmill that grew very tiresome and very boring to fully participate in the uniqueness of RvR combat, though, I got very tired. When I logged in I had three options: go craft items that nobody wanted, level up despite the tedium and boredom, or go to the frontiers and get killed by increasingly higher level opponents. It's not a good choice to make and one I feel will ultimately hurt the game.
If you're a very casual MMORPG player, you'll probably have a lot of fun with DAoC. The lower level game is very nice - there's a great number of quests to do, there are 3 fairly large realms to explore if you don't want to lock yourself down to one particular server/realm, and there are 33 different classes to experiment with. Grouping is fun for a while, so is exploring, and crafting can be if you don't intend to become an ultra-high level tradeskiller. If you want a new MMORPG to play around with for 10 hours a week and just goof off with, you might find DAoC up your alley.
On the other hand, if you're seriously into PvP, or really enjoy bashing monsters, I can't recommend DAoC as highly. Until more content is added, particularly for higher level characters, classes are balanced better, and all aspects of RvR are introduced and working, the higher levels are more frustrating than fun.
DAoC has the potential to be a terrific MMORPG, once the high level content is as polished and well rounded as the lower levels. Until then, it's going to be a bumpy ride, and I can't make a solid recommendation.