Standing on the edge of the Brink, I stare transfixed by the whirling nexus of light in the sky that shone down upon nature unhinged. The landscape lay distorted, unraveling around me in snatches of quiescent decay – groaning in an eternal pageant of torrential upheaval. Despite the madness, there was something majestic in the chaos, like finding the meaning in the twisted mechanics of a post-modern sculpture. As I thought about the inland areas, bursting with vibrant life and color – awash in natural order and populated by the exotic, I found parallels between the landscape and the world itself. For much like the beautifully bizarre scenery found throughout the darker side of Rubi-Ka, Shadowlands is a wildly aesthetic experience haunted by a silent chaos continually gnawing at its edges.
In the Anarchy Online mythos, lovingly expounded in an incredible novel by Ragnar Tørnquist, the world of Rubi-Ka is center stage for the resolution of humanity’s legacy. As the only source of the mineral notum, the sole material that makes nano-technology a reality, this arid world would lay in constant turmoil between those who seek to profit from these abundant resources. In a way, Rubi-Ka shares many parallels with Frank Herbert’s Dune – a desert planet that is the source of tremendous wealth and power, and is not only the very center of interest for far-flung humanity, but a crux in the turning point in our evolution. Though, while Anarchy Online dealt with the political and ethical upheaval between a tyrannical mega-corporation and terrorist rebels, Shadowlands delves into far less convoluted waters – namely the eternal struggle between good and evil over the source of life itself.
Shadowlands was billed as a story-driven online experience, and while there has been a tremendous amount of back-story and content available leading up to humanity’s involvement in the struggle between the Redeemed and Unredeemed, the reality is far less enticing. For a virtual world populated by cities filled with beings of light and denizens of shadow, they really don’t have much to say. Outside of the nauseatingly over-talkative supercomputer Ergo and a handful of quest NPCs, there’s little else to move the plot along. The few non-player inhabitants of the floating city of Jobe and its satellite research facility are either merchants or tutorial aides. To worsen the dearth of interaction, there are numerous spelling and grammatical errors present in just about every scripted conversation. One would think that the linear nature of the expansion’s progression would give the creators ample means of enriching the lush visuals with compelling storytelling. Sadly, almost every conversation is either overly utilitarian – illustrated by never ending laundry lists of fetch quests, or overindulged – with screen upon screen of repetitive storytelling from the exact same NPC who happens to exist in every playfield.
As any attempt at storytelling in an online RPG has usually been laughable if not non-existent, I have to commend the fact that an effort was made to try to advance a plot, though I wonder why such obvious potential was wasted. The fact that no GM role-playing events have yet to occur in Shadowlands only adds to the emptiness. While there are brief interactions with Ergo that are genuinely interesting, they are so painfully few and far between that they leave almost no real impression on the player. Had Funcom spent more time detailing the story through regular NPCs, giving communicative life to the veritable army of inhabitants on the dark side of Rubi-Ka, Shadowlands would have been an enchanting place indeed.
What Shadowlands lacks in prophetic prose, it blossoms with overwhelming visual wonder. Using an incredibly enhanced version of the graphics engine already present in Anarchy Online, the expansion is visually astounding. From the lush gardens of Nascence to the molten slag of Inferno, the variety and artistry of the environment and locales found throughout this new world are so rich that I dare call them decadent. Likewise, the creatures, both large and small so painstakingly drawn and rendered that most players won’t mind having themselves disemboweled the first time they encounter a new monster. The Redeemed themselves are akin to fairies; bright and luminescent these creatures are almost as angelic in their gestures and movement as they are in design. The Unredeemed are abhorrently demonic, with some of the most deliciously twisted mutations to ever grace a PC monitor. The level of detail on every Shadowlands native rivals those of most modern first-person shooters and 3D adventure games. In the realm of MMORPGs, graphics just don’t get any better than this.
Sadly, the visual orgasm isn’t without problems; as dramatically inconsistent frame-rates, uninspired equipment designs, and reused monster models crop up at almost every turn. There have also been frequent problems with collision detection and players getting stuck in the geometry. While most in-door dungeons enjoy a fairly brisk and consistent frame-rate, they suffer from long freezes when doors to new areas are opened. Even more disheartening is that most of the beautifully crafted outdoor play fields have incredibly wild variances in frame rate. Nascence, for example usually chugs in the first area right outside of the Jobe Research facility. While the fluidity steadily improves as players move further away into the next area, there are several hot spots that cause screen animation to dive into the dumps. This inconsistency is less apparent in some of the later playfields, but is always noticeable, even with a top-of-the-line gaming PC. The polygon engine, while visually stunning, is clearly un-optimized, resulting in massive overuse of system resources and incredible variations on frame rate.
As a design choice, the player avatars did not receive an overhaul, resulting in an almost cartoonish contrast between overly simplistic models and incredibly detailed backgrounds. To further compound the problem, many of the new armors are simply textures not new models, and many that are unique to Shadowlands are overly colorful and sometimes outrageous. The Martial Artist Tier Armor is a lovely banana-yellow body suit while the Trader Tier Armor helm bears a striking resemblance to a lampshade. As an MMORPG, players are bound to find critics, and popular opinion has a strong influence on a player’s fashion sense. Nobody wants to walk around feeling like he/she looks like a tropical fruit or a piece of furniture, especially when reminded of these resemblances by other players. For a dark, metaphysical world, I don’t see the sense in putting many players in florescent armor and day-glow underwear. While this doesn’t hold true for all of the armor and weapons, there’s enough to make you wonder if the artists were mulling over their Fruit Loops more than their design documents. Overall, many of the new items have been statistically unimpressive if not visually uninspired, which is a far cry from some of the more robust designs from the aging coffers of Anarchy Online.
Acoustically, Shadowlands soars with some of the most dramatic orchestrations and ambient melodies ever to grace an online RPG. The complexity and breadth of many of the new tracks are so remarkable that you’d swear they were taken from a motion picture. Unfortunately, at this stage of the expansion’s infancy, tunes aren’t playing as intended. The new combat music is undeniably repetitive techno, and undeniably irritating as it randomly pops up even when you’re nowhere near an enemy encounter. The erratic appearances of melodies that are native to Rubi-Ka cropping up in Shadowlands locations is also perplexing and immensely vexing for an expansion that touts an entirely new score. Though, when the appropriate tracks are playing for their designated areas, and when the combat music hasn’t inappropriately stolen the scene, the experience is magical. Music is such an integral aspect of the Shadowlands that I find it difficult to believe that so many problems still existed in the final release. Thankfully, many of these foibles have been corrected in subsequent patching, but some still linger.
Without question, Anarchy Online is one of the most complex MMORPGs on the market. Sporting massive character customization and trade-skill systems, players have to rely on their minds to be their best weapon. As an expansion, Shadowlands raises the pre-existing level cap with the addition of 20 “shadow levels” and brings several new gameplay elements to an already complex system. The expansion even adds two new classes, the Shade and the Keeper, to the menagerie of pre-existing professions. There are also a host of new items, equipment and nanoprograms for all players. Three of the most notable additions to the gameplay are via the Perk, Faction and G.O.D. systems.
Perks are special enhancements, both general and profession specific, that are purchased with points gained every 10 normal levels and with every shadow level. Perks can come in the form of additional statistical boosts or even special attacks. There is an additional layer to these actions, as certain powerful Perk moves can only be performed when executed in conjunction with another Perk special attack from a complementary profession. Thus, players are encouraged to strategize their attacks, adding an element of coordination with other players for maximum effect. While this sounds great in theory, execution is abysmal; as having a profession with a conjoining perk special in your team is about as reliable as a forecast of 3 inches of snow in the Sahara.
The lack of flexibility and usefulness for many of the perks, especially in light of the incredible difficulty of the monsters in the Shadowlands didn’t make much sense. Though, some profession-specific perks make certain classes better suited to the increased challenge, this isn’t the case across the board. In theory, perks are supposed to give players a greater sense of role specialization, but a lack of descriptions for perk attacks means that there’s an inordinate amount of experimentation that is involved in finding the right Perk layout for your character. Thankfully, players are also offered the opportunity to un-train individual perks every 72 hours, allowing gamers to undo potentially crippling Perk designs; though, undoing a completely trained perk line consisting of 10 stages will take an entire month of diligent backpedaling.
The Faction system was one of the most promising aspects of Shadowlands, but also proved to be one of its most irritating in its current form. As a struggle between the forces of good and evil, players must eventually choose a side in the conflict. As players defeat enemies and complete quests for their side, they will gain points in their corresponding faction. This numeric representation of your loyalty is the very hub of gameplay in Shadowlands.
Faction standing determines if quest NPCs will talk to you, whether you can use certain pieces of equipment, and even determines if you can progress to the next playfield. Even more importantly, faction standing determines the percentage of shadow knowledge that is gained by a level 200+ player seeking shadow levels. In other words, faction is the single element that determines your progress through the Shadowlands. The problem is that obtaining adequate points in your faction of choice is a mind-numbing ordeal at most levels, and abysmal at the top tier. Firstly, faction points can only be gained while adventuring in the Shadowlands – they cannot be gained on Rubi-Ka itself. Secondly, faction points are primarily gained from killing creatures of your opposing faction. The problem lies in the fact that only a very small percentage of the enemy population will give you more than a few digits of faction. Also, the amount of faction gained from a particular mob will steadily decrease with subsequent kills. This formula applies to every creature of equal or lower faction standing, so players who chose to kill a particularly powerful leader of the opposing faction will find their faction gain from killing similarly strong aligned creatures and their underlings has dropped significantly. While I can understand why this system was implemented to prevent players from building insane amounts of faction early in the game, the descending curve is much too steep, leading to the entire server fighting over one specific enemy per playfield in order to consecutively raise their faction. Even more painful is the fact that being a member of a combat team diminishes faction gain dramatically.
Players who have already reached Anarchy Online’s level cap of 200 will no longer gain traditional XP. Instead they require shadow knowledge (Shadowlands-specific experience points) in order to progress through their 20 new shadow levels. As their degree of faction determines how much shadow knowledge they gain from an opponent, it becomes a mission to gain enough faction to ensure they get the maximum shadow knowledge for each kill. To add insult to injury, the shadow knowledge gained from difficult enemies, even with maximum faction, is piecemeal. To say this double task is entertaining would be a bold-faced lie.
There is an undeniable fact that an MMORPG is a social experience, anyone thinking otherwise has no business playing in a communal virtual world. The essence of these kinds of games has always been cooperation to accomplish goals. This is how communities are built and friendships forged, and the playerbase of Anarchy Online is one of the best out there. But, i’ll play devil’s advocate and say that sometimes its nice to be able to progress under your own steam – it lends to a sense of accomplishment. Sadly this doesn’t happen in Shadowlands, as solo play is strongly discouraged, if not nearly impossible. Players can certainly attempt to strike out across this brave new world on their own, but may find themselves humbled by significantly lower level enemies within seconds. One of the greatest aspects of Anarchy Online was that teaming was encouraged, not enforced. Players teamed up for greater wealth and experience gains, but it always remained an option. Sometimes it gets tiring relying on other people, and being able to enjoy the game solo has always been a viable option. With Shadowlands, teams are required for any progress into the expansion, and progress is very, very slow. Even though quests are given out on an individual basis, almost every one of them requires a full team of competent players willing to spend numerous hours camping enemies with long respawn timers and poor item drop-rates. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the break-neck pace of AO, but the plodding and methodical nature of Shadowlands gets tiresome quickly.
The next integral aspect of Shadowland’s gameplay is with the G.O.D., or gameplay-on-demand system. Unlike the randomly generated mission system central to Anarchy Online, the G.O.D. system of Shadowlands offers dozens of static dungeons with dynamically determined content. The software was designed to generate layout, bestiary, and trap systems based on the ability of the player or team entering a dungeon. While this sounds remarkable in theory, the reality isn’t quite perfect. To date, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable variations in dungeons, whether solo or in a team (regardless of profession changes) nor has there been much variety in their architectural designs throughout different playfields. Even more curious is the fact that the treasures found in these Shadowlands dungeons are objects specific to Rubi-Ka; namely items that are unusable in the expansion.
One innovation that was introduced in Shadowlands that’s genuinely commendable is the pocket boss system. As many MMORPG fans know, the best treasure comes from the rarest monsters. Once players are able to successfully defeat a rare monster, it’s not long before the rest of the server shows up to throw their hat into the ring. This creates a huge bottleneck as players spend hours, sometimes days, camping for their turn at the beast. In Shadowlands, players can find objects called “Patterns” that are blueprints for boss monsters. When a specific pattern is completed, it can be etched into a crystal via tradeskills and activated at an “incarnator”, bringing the behemoth to unholy life. This system is not only well designed; the implementation and execution is adequately challenging and rewarding. By making bosses spawn-on-demand, Funcom has managed to alleviate the bottleneck of respawn times and camping in a traditionally flawed system. If only the rest of Shadowlands was this visionary, the expansion would be a remarkable step in the right direction for the genre.
What can be said about the Shadowlands economy? Simply put, currency is extremely hard to come by. Not only are Shadowlands natives destitute, there are only a handful of objects of saleable worth. Since the standard healing and regeneration items commonly used on Rubi-Ka do not work in the Shadowlands, players have to purchase new gear that will actually function. The problem is that these new recovery items are astronomically expensive and are only available from merchants. You would think that these Shadowlands specific utilities would be commonly found in dungeons or off the local wildlife, but sadly, this is not the case. Since the only objects of any worth are precious metals rarely found on the bodies of a single creature-type, players are found camping the areas where they spawn in hopes of making enough money to continue their excursions in this metaphysical world. There just isn’t incentive to fight anything else. Compared to Rubi-Ka, Shadowlands is an extremely expensive safari with penniless wildlife and empty treasure coffers.
An unfortunate aspect of Shadowlands is the systematic breakdown of one of Anarchy Online’s greatest strengths – its variety. At any level of a player’s experience, there was always more than one viable option for weaponry and armor. With the expansion, players will find themselves upgrading the same suit of profession-specific armor throughout their entire Shadowlands career. Why is this? Simply because, at this point, the majority of Shadowlands items outside of profession tier armor is inferior compared to what has been readily available on Rubi-Ka for months.
Once a skills-based game, Anarchy Online, with the Shadowlands expansion, has become a pundit for the mundane EverQuest method of item restriction. Before this addition, almost all equipment requirements were based on statistics. As long as you had the right numbers, no peice of equipment was out of reach. While there were execeptions to the rule, they were seldom. With the expansion, all new equipment are level, breed and/or profession specific. For an expansion that claims to offer greater specialization for all in-game professions, variety seems to have become extinct.
At the moment, there’s very little to entice players below level 200 into the Shadowlands in light of the significantly easier and far more rewarding expeditions that can be experienced on Rubi-Ka. The high level content that Shadowlands promised level 200 players seems to be little more than fetch quests for dozens of camped items from limited creatures. I wait in line enough in real life, why would I want to do it in a virtual one? This kind of time-sink gameplay was a vexing aspect of many other notable MMORPGs, and to see this flaw accurately recreated in all of its grim glory in a game renowned for being fast-paced is distressing. The fact that these problems are inherent in every mandatory quest to progress through the Shadowlands makes the experience that much more aggravating.
With the addition of new abilities, players will also receive an entirely new GUI to help handle the massive amounts of player resources. While not as minimalist as the previous graphic user interface, the new GUI introduced with Shadowlands does a respectable job of keeping the player abreast of their vast pool of resources, though doesn’t offer any configuration flexibility. Thankfully Shadowlands supports the original GUI of AO, so players have the option of using either. Though far from perfect, the new GUI does a great job of keeping things simple for beginners and offers a host of mouse-over queues. In fact, Shadowlands brings even more stepping stones into play for newbies, which is wonderful considering the daunting amount of complexity the game entails. The Shadowlands training yard is a perfect example of a well-designed player tutorial. Not only does it introduce the player to several kinds of terrain and dangers they will experience when they leave the safety of the area, but it also offers mini-quests that introduce faction, special abilities and even basic storytelling. They even went so far as to reward new players with their very own campfire kit before embarking on their journey. Can’t you just sense the irony?
The control in Shadowlands remains as competent as that of AO, but with an environment turn asunder by the inhuman forces of nature, players will find themselves using platforming skills they never knew they had. Explorers will have to walk narrow paths along windy crags and take blind leaps of faith across bottomless gorges in absolutely wicked locations. AO players have had a jump button for over two years and now they’ll have reason to use it – alot. Unfortunately, problems with the polygon engine, client-server lag and problematic camera angles can make many of these adrenaline-filled experiences painful, as players go careening off platforms, tossing off into the abyss on accident.
In conclusion, there’s not much else to say about the long awaited expansion to one of the most popular MMORPGs on the market. Aesthetically, the game is brilliant: touting a breathtaking artistic and acoustic vision that is without peer; but fundamentally, the expansion suffers from many technical pitfalls, gameplay inequities and unfulfilled potential. Even though Shadowlands is described as an expansion, it doesn’t conform to those boundaries. Instead, the designers have created what is ultimately an entirely new game, but was it really necessary? Admittedly, the game does have good points and is challenging as well as entertaining, but seemed to have been released too soon.
When all is said and done, despite the problems, Shadowlands brings more content to the table than any other MMORPG expansion pack to date. The game offers better customer service, faster bug fixes, and a more proactive community than most current MMORPGs could ever hope to match. I’ll admit that some of the adventures are actually tons of fun to complete with friends, but the time-sinks, mandatory camping and outrageous fetch quests are simply unnecessary and unenjoyable.
As an online experience, Shadowlands is, and always will be, a work in progress. Technical problems and balance issues can always be fixed, new content can always be added, and usually is – given time. The question is, just how much time are newcomers and veterans alike going to give this new vision to fully take shape. I have faith that Funcom can bring out the full potential of Shadowlands, but with bigger and better games on the horizon; time is of the essence.