Summary: The flood of MMORPGs continues with Asheron's Call 2. As the first of the sequels, it has the benefit of first-hand prior experience and an established fanbase. Can it live up to expectations? Are those amazing official screenshots photoshops or real? Jakub reveals all in our review!
Asheron’s Call 2 is the first of the sequel MMORPGs. Unlike Anarchy Online, Earth and Beyond or other recent releases, it has not just the experience of other titles to build on, but that of its predecessor. Having prior experience is a huge benefit, just ask any developer. But with games as simple in style as MMORPGs, does it really make a difference?
Contrary to all our expectations, it works. Turbine does cheat a bit on the NPCs and quests. While you can’t get a quest from an NPC, there are veritable quest dispensers all over the place. Players go up to a statue or other object and inevitably it’s always broken, so they get a broken piece and must go find a fountain in a dungeon or an item off a monster and bring it back.
Why is everything broken?
The reason why all these statues and symbols are broken is because the land of Dereth went through a dark age. A great evil came after the golden age, driving everyone into shelters created by Asheron. Every once in a while, scouts would be sent out to see if the world is habitable, but they’d never return. Finally, one day scouts came back and said that while the world is wild, it is safe to return. The playable races of Humans, Lugians and Tumeroks escape their shelters and set about restoring the world. Players unlock the history of the world by finishing the Vault quests, which add a lot of depth to the story.
Dereth is littered with relics of the former civilizations like ancient, ruined cities. In these cities are forges which are fueled by resources. Forges are (obviously) useful for crafting, and become hubs for trade. On Kingdom War servers, they and the mines that feed the crafting industry also become strategic resources.
SIDEBAR: Athlon/Pentium 733MHz
32MB T&L video card
2GB hard drive space
64MB video card
’tis a bloomin’ economy
Asheron’s Call 2 is the closest that MMORPGs have come to a completely free market. The only time the game interferes with the economy is by including a way to turn items into gold. Loot and created artifacts all have a gold value, for which they can be traded in the inventory screen. We suspect that these values low-ball the true value of an item in an increasing fashion. As more gold is created, inflation rises and the trade value of items rises. More importantly, loot picked up off monsters also has resource scores.
A mining we will go
So what are resources used for? Crafting. The crafting skills are completely separate from combat abilities. A player opens his skills menu, goes to the crafting submenu and then sees a list of further submenus like Tumerok Weaponsmithing or Toolmaking. These open up and give the player an option of picking a set of items, like Tumerok spears. Here we encounter the crafting hierarchy. Primitive spears need only a 15 wood resource item to attempt crafting. The next level spears need 27 wood and 27 stone. The cost keeps increasing and gold is eventually factored into the equations. Additionally, not just anybody can attempt to craft any spear. To create the second level spears, players must first successfully create 5 level one spears. To create third level spears, they need to make 5 level two spears, and so on. Overspecialization doesn’t work too well either, since success is based off the general crafting skill (ie, Tumerok Weaponsmithing or Toolmaking.) To have a high skill level, the character needs to diversify his abilities. Alternatively, he can go to a forge to increase his skill.
Quests are as basic as they get. Almost all of them fall into the “go here kill/get this” theme, and those that don’t tend to be potion quests. Potion quests? That’s right, some monsters drop potions which give you a quest. Don’t ask… we don’t get it either. A potion quest is a time-limited quest which has a player hunt down X number of Y creatures, with a small reward at the end.
Additionally, there are vaults that are unlocked with glyphs. These vaults reveal part of the story when completed. All dungeons, including vaults have a level recommendation on them, which is occasionally way, WAY off the mark. Someone at Turbine should review dungeon difficulties.
SIDEBAR: Pentium 4 2GHz
Abit GF4 4200 OTES
The skill system
Asheron’s Call 2 uses a hybrid skill system, something between Dark Age of Camelot and the original AC. Like in Dark Age, certain skills appear at certain levels and need to be bought with skill credits. Taking a page from AC however, those skills are upgraded with the very experience points the player earns by killing monsters. After the pleasant change of pace in Earth and Beyond, we’re a little disappointed by the traditional “reach out and kill something” (two million times) method of leveling in AC2. That kind of gaming seems like part of a different era now.
Since the crafting skills are separate from monster killing, players could conceivably purchase all the resources they need and then sell the end product on the free market. It may take a great leap forward in the community mentality to actually achieve this, but at least it’s theoretically possible for someone to live off crafting alone. Not that this is a revolutionary concept by any means, since it dates back to at least Ultima Online.
Most combat skills are still limited by fatigue. It doesn’t matter if the player is casting magic, aiming his bow or bashing a drudge over the head with a club – if it’s a special attack, it drains his stamina. Basic skills that govern the player’s chance to hit and resist do not drain stamina naturally. In an interesting twist, they come in three steps, each available after a certain level. Choosing to be a grandmaster of a certain skill tree (melee, ranged or magic) prevents the player from attaining the same level of proficiency in the other trees.
The back button
Fortunately all skill choices are reversible. A player can choose to unlearn a skill at any time, gaining back all the experience and credits he invested in it. This does take some time, since to get that experience back he has to earn some by killing monsters, but this isn’t a punishing task. As with Dark Age of Camelot, players can’t get every skill and ability, so the chance to undo any character changes is actually a vital safeguard against developer incompetence. Every MMORPG has at least once screwed up balance in a massive fashion, rendering some characters useless until the next patch. Having a way out of this situation is a godsend for players.
SIDEBAR: I like techno when at least half my brain is gone. I have to be psyched up, tired, drunk, or er… ‘other’.
The music in AC2 is a mixed bag. The theme playing during the initial loading screen, for example, has a nice rough beat going to it. It’s got a style that resembles the all-time game soundtrack classic, MechWarrior 2. Then there are horribly depressing, strange tracks that kick in at various points and locations in the game. These make us wish that the “disable music” option worked.
Fortunately the schizophrenic music is where the sound problems stop. Sound effects are of very high quality, which is really saying something in today’s gaming world. They’re clear and can be really felt, though most combat effects aren’t realistic. We’d appreciate a few more ambient sounds and perhaps some variety in the combat effects, but these are just niggling problems.
Holy mother of…
At its highest detail levels, Asheron’s Call 2 obliterates the competition. There just isn’t a more visually impressive MMORPG out there. Unfortunately, the review system was not capable of handling the top settings. In fact, it had trouble running the game even on pretty screenshot mode, so we toned it down to make it more playable. RAM, both main and video, is the most likely performance limitation. At lower details, the game performs surprisingly well. In a change from most games’ minimum system requirement specs, the RAM setting, at least, is on the spot.
Even at toned down settings, we experienced occasional “loading lags”, where we’d come across an invisible zone boundary and the hard drive would start loading like its ass was on fire. The game freezes for half a second and then catches up. At higher detail levels, that half a second was more like four to five seconds. Fortunately, these loads didn’t occur in dangerous places and dungeons and vaults seem to be completely free of them. No worries about the character running through a mob of critters while beyond your control.
SIDEBAR: Darktide, the infamous PVP server from the original Asheron’s Call, is the second most popular in AC2 after Frostfell.
Graphics. The only thing the game is missing out of the box is a towel. The feature set is really complete and even when details are scaled down, the game looks very respectable. This is one of the most immersive graphical experiences ever, quite a feat for the generally homely MMORPGs.
Gameplay. More specifically, the combat-oriented gameplay is an unwelcome step back after Earth and Beyond. In other respects, particularly balance, we’re generally impressed with AC2. However, gamers who were turned off by the simplicity of E&B’s combat probably won’t like the simple AC system either.
SIDEBAR: I use earplugs and headphones when at LANs or playing in loud locations. It lets me blast the headphones without hurting my ears, while simultaneously drowning out background nose.
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