Darkfall Unholy Wars: The Best MMO You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending some of my spare time playing a massively-multiplayer PVP-oriented RPG named Darkfall: Unholy Wars. DFUW, as it is known among players, is the successor to a previous title named Darkfall Online that was pretty popular among hardcore PVP fantasy gamers. Both the original and it’s successor were developed by Aventurine SA, a small Greek game developer that bears a lot of at least superficial resemblance to CCP, the Icelandic developer of Eve Online. Many people carry the comparison further, and state that DFUW resembles Eve in a lot of ways, and that’s probably fair. But read on and decide for yourself.

The basic premise of DFUW is that of most MMO RPGs. That is, you log in and create a character with certain attributes that is then placed into a large virtual world where you explore, fight, loot, and generally act like you never could in real life. The world in DFUW’s case is fantasy-based, and contains the usual elemental themes that you find in any sword and sandals epic: castles, dungeons, monsters, etc. The setting is familiar to anyone who has read a fantasy novel, seen The Hobbit, or played games like Everquest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, or, well, 99% of all the role playing games ever conceived.

At the very start of playing DFUW there is little that hints at any departure from the norms set by those earlier, ground-breaking titles. You create a character, set up his or her attributes and appearance, and get dumped into a starter area. Sure, there are some signs that things might be different. The implication that roles are flexible, for example, or the way skill points are handled. As soon as you start actually playing, though, it very quickly becomes evident that the developers took DFUW in an entirely different direction. I’ll spend the rest of this post outlining some of those differences that I think are most innovative.

The first thing to mention is the setting. DFUW takes place in a huge, zone-less world that is at the same time rich in content and sparsely populated by “monsters.” Think Everquest without the zone boundaries. This is a contrast to the design direction taken by recent games that structure the environment as a more linearly connected series of increasingly challenging areas. Warhammer Online was perhaps the most standout example of this, where the zones were actually called “chapters” and were designed to be experienced in sequence as your character developed, with nearly every inch covered with monsters programmed to try to kill you.

The second most important thing is that DFUW is a free-for-all PVP game. There are four “racial” capitals for the main races in the game (Elvish, Orcish, Wolfish, and Human, more or less), each of which has three satellite cities. Wrapped tightly around each of these areas are “safe zones” where you cannot be attacked by other players. Everywhere else in the this huge world you are fair game. Since resources and opportunities are very limited in the safe zones you’ll eventually have to leave. Once you do, you will eventually be attacked and killed by another player, probably one much higher in skills and gear than you. When that happens your killer will have a chance to take everything on your corpse with the exception of some special newbie weapons that are always with you. I’ll talk a little further on about why this isn’t such a scary proposition, but it is a core aspect of the game that you should know about.

The third thing is that DFUW is not one of those games where the player base divides into PVP players vs. PVE players. This is because there is almost no PVE in DFUW. That’s not to say there aren’t monsters that drop loot. There are, and they range from trivially easy to massively difficult. In that respect the game is similar to all others in the genre. But there are relatively few places where dangerous monsters are found, compared to the overall landmass. There are also very few NPC’s to interact with beyond a few merchants. There are no NPC or racial factions of any consequence. You don’t fight for the Elves, or the Orcs, you fight for your clan, about which more below. DFUW does have a sort of quest system, called “Feats,” but feats are much simpler than the multi-part quests of other games, and primarily involve either killing something, harvesting something, or crafting something, and serve as a way to both gain skill points, and introduce you to the world and the game mechanics.

The lack of any NPC factions means that the game’s political structure is entirely player created, and this is a theme that will be repeated as other aspects of the design are revealed. Players form clans, clans form alliances. Clans can own hamlets, villages, and cities scattered across the world. Clans and alliances battle each other for control of territories by taking the population centers and their resources. Being in a clan is almost mandatory in DFUW. Once you are forced out of the safe zones you have two choices. You can either go rogue and harvest/farm out in the lawless lands, returning to the safe zones to refine, craft, and market your wares. Or you can join a clan and get access to a clan enclave which will serve as a base of relative safety from which you can explore. Take the first path and you’re on your own and fair game for any predator. Take the second and you have a clan and its resources behind you, perhaps making a killer think twice before attacking you, especially near your home.

The most striking difference between DFUW and other recent MMO games in the genre is the combat, and it will take a few paragraphs to cover it sufficiently. Here’s the main thing: DFUW does not employ a target+click combat mechanic. You target something by pointing or swinging your weapon at it. If you point in the right direction, or swing when something is within the arc of your blade, then you hit it. If you fire an arrow or a bolt spell at a moving target you have to lead it to account for the motion. When using arrows you have to account for ballistic motion (i.e. “drop”) over the distance of the shot. DFUW is in this sense more “twitch game” than a traditional MMO, and it shares some genetic material with FPS games where aiming well and shooting accurately is the entirety of a winning strategy. I wasn’t sure I would like this at first, but the mechanic has proved to be much more immersive and entertaining for me than simply clicking on a target and pressing buttons.

What keeps DFUW from being “simply” a twitch game is the stark realism of the combat and movement mechanics, and the depth of the economic foundations of battle. The game pursues realism almost relentlessly. Some examples: you can’t look behind you when running; you can’t look away from your target when performing some action like harvesting or crafting; there is no “loot all” button, you have to pick each item up; there are no levels, and no player is invulnerable. Last night I was attacked by a more experienced and highly-skilled caster, and killed him with a sword. He was too close and failed to kill me with his first shot. In any other game I wouldn’t even have been able to hurt him, but DFUW realizes that when you hit a guy wearing a robe with a sword you’re going to hurt him. That’s realism.

Other aspects of the dedication to “realism” include no crowd-control magic, no enchanted weapons and armor, no over-powered spells that wipe out multiple enemies. Players, regardless of how long they have been playing, are on a more even footing than in any other MMO I’ve experienced. There are in fact levels of weapons, gear, spells, and the other tools you need for creating mayhem. Crude weapons do less damage than superior weapons. Some armors protect more than others. But the key point is that these differences are never definitive with respect to the outcome. In a game like Dark Age of Camelot, for example, you had no chance whatsoever of hurting a player with a lot more in-game time than you. The same largely goes for Eve Online. As the experience I related above shows, this is not so in DFUW.

And that is much of the reason why getting “ganked” out in the lawless lands and losing your stuff isn’t the tragedy that new players usually assume it is. The first time it happened to me I had nearly everything on me, and it felt like a big blow. But in the end it took only an hour or so to gear back up. If you’re smart you don’t carry tons of gold and valuable material with you in the frontiers. Maybe you lose your armor, a leather sack with some wood, your sword and bow. So you go back to the clan city or safe zone and craft or buy another set and try again. The very temporary setback is more than compensated for by the constant sense of danger. My first tentative dash from the safe zone around the city of Amurran to the one near the Tovarr capitol of Cor Ymithril resulted in death. The second succeeded and it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a game in years.

It is in the economic underpinnings of combat that the game design really shines. If the game were just about combat people might quickly grow bored. You can’t spend all your time fighting in DFUW because you’ll have nothing to fight with. With the exception of the very lowest tier of crude weapons and armor, everything used in battle in DFUW is player-crafted from player-harvested materials. Within that framework you can choose your own style of play. You can harvest and refine everything you need, crafting your own weapons and armor. You can focus on acquiring gold and buy the items you require. You can go rogue and steal from outlying villages. You can seek out treasure chests by finding and following maps. There are many different approaches to integrating yourself into the economy. The only invariant is that you’ll have to pick one, because you can’t simply rely on PVE to supply all, or even most, of what you need to engage in battle.

Probably the last thing worth noting about battle in DFUW is all the many forms that it takes. Players can fight each other one-to-one or group-to-group. Battles can take place in open country, on the sea in ship-to-ship conflicts, or in sieges of clan towns and cities employing cannon and other siege weapons to break down walls and gates. If your clan holds an attractive location, such as an isolated fortress on an island or mountaintop with good resources nearby, you can expect other clans to try and take it from you on a regular basis. The typical siege seems to involve using siege weapons to break down the gates, followed by ground forces moving in under ranged archery fire. If they can occupy your city and destroy your bindstone they can take it from you, leaving your clan wandering the wilderness looking for a new home. Of course, you can always take it back from them. The cycle of attack and retaliation is endless in DFUW.

The last thing to note before closing out this long post is that Darkfall: Unholy Wars is an indie game, and it is far from perfect. There are some bugs, although I very rarely experience anything game breaking. There is a lack of interactive content in some places. Aventurine is busily adding stuff all the time, so this is being addressed. The interface is powerful, and horrible (or perhaps horribly powerful). That’s another similarity with Eve Online. The game lacks some of the mechanics that are expected in modern games of this type: there are no emotes, no “chat bubbles” or local speech capability, no quests, no quest NPCs. Many of these things will be addressed over time, but frankly they don’t really impact the core value proposition of the game, which is that players create the content in it, whether good, bad, or indifferent. In that respect DFUW is perhaps the most innovative game of its type in years, and well worth a try by anyone who enjoyed Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, or Shadowbane.

Darkfall: Unholy Wars is published by Aventurine SA, and is available online through the Steam store and other channels. A subscription costs 14.95 USD per month.

A Pat on the Backward Compatibility

I installed a new main system drive last week, a Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB to replace the aging SATA 1.0 74GB Raptor that has been in my development box since 2005. The new drive is three times faster, and lots bigger. So, to celebrate all that empty space I started dragging out old games to see if I could get them to install and run. Just to set the stage: my main development system is a Core 2 E8500 with 8GB of DDR3 RAM, on an Asus motherboard. The graphics card is an NVidia GTS-250. Audio-wise I use the onboard Realtek for Skype, and an Audigy 4 Pro for games/movies/etc. The operating system is Windows 7 Enterprise 64-bit.

I had some successes and some failures. Rise of Nations, circa 2003, ran fine in widescreen with a little hacking. Age of Empires II, circa 1999, worked but the graphics were messed up, and widescreen/hi-res modes were unavailable. Railroad Tycoon 3, circa 2003, worked fine, including widescreen with a hack to the engine.cfg file, but when patched with the Coast-to-coast expansion it broke. But the backward compatibility award of the day goes to Empire Earth, designed by Rick Goodman of Age of Empires, developed by Stainless Steel Studios and released in 2001 by publisher Sierra. Empire Earth installed and ran flawlessly in 1920 x 1200 widescreen mode. Here’s a shot:

The game ran perfectly in version 1.0 right out of the box. Worked perfectly after patching to 1.04 and then 2.0 as well. Sound worked, all available resolutions were supported, the graphics looked great, the game play was as I remembered. This is quite a feat for a nine year-old title. When Empire Earth was released the minimum system requirements included a Pentium II running at 350 Mhz., and at least 64MB of RAM. If you wanted to enjoy the game’s visuals you were requested to have at least 1024 x 768 pixels available. I think I have more pixels in some of my desktop icons now. Windows XP had just been released, and the hot video cards were the GeForce3 and the original Radeon. The other supported chipsets read like the walls in a technology mausoleum: 3dfx, Savage, Matrox, PowerVR. Network play? You’ll need a 28.8 kbps modem, pal.

As a developer myself I am thoroughly impressed anytime something this old installs and runs the way it was originally designed to. Microsoft gets slapped around a lot these days for being stodgy and unhip, not to mention monopolistic. But they don’t often get the compliments they deserve for getting the big picture right, establishing sensible and well-designed APIs, and then managing them well over the decades. The developers who worked on Empire Earth should be proud of themselves as well. It’s got to feel good to know that someone can take your nine year-old efforts, pop them onto a modern 64-bit DirectX 11 platform, and just have it all work. Well done, guys.

A Google Image Memory Game in Silverlight 2

I finally completed and deployed the Silverlight 2 game I have been working on for the last few days. I don’t think it will win any awards for game design, but it allowed me to explore a pretty wide swath of Microsoft’s second generation Flash competitor. I like the idea of Silverlight, for the simple reason that I want to do rich Internet apps, but I don’t want to learn ActionScript. I have nothing against Flash: it’s an amazing product with huge market share. Hell, its market share is so huge you really can’t call it a “share.” They have the whole market.

But… Silverlight is built on the .NET technology stack, which makes it immediately accessible to any developer with experience writing Windows Forms or ASP.NET applications. It leverages the concepts introduced with Windows Presentation Foundation in .NET 3.0 to essentially run sandboxed WPF apps in a web browser. It does what Flash does, more or less, on the .NET stack. Will it take off? I have no idea. I suspect that if people write cool stuff for it then it will. I doubt it will ever knock Flash off its pedestal, but it might garner a fair chunk of the market.

The game, which you can play here or by clicking the screenshot above, accepts a query term or terms, then searches Google Images on those terms and arranges the resulting images into a classic “memory” game grid. You play by clicking the tiles to reveal the images, and trying to match them up. In the process of writing it I worked with animations and storyboards, asynchronous calls to RESTful web services, json data serialization, and other interesting areas of the SL2 framework that I will write about in future posts. I also ran into numerous quirks and curiosities in the framework, as well as in the Silverlight Live Streaming service that I chose to host this game. The technology is not without warts, but it is very early in the development cycle, and I’m excited to see what the Silverlight team will be bringing us down the road.

Download the GMemory source code and project files.

A Hard Look at Warhammer Online

This post is about an online fantasy role playing game called Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. It is developed and operated by Mythic, now a division of Electronic Arts. I’ve been playing it for about a month now, on the Iron Rock server, with a bunch of former Dark Age gaming buddies. You would think I am too old to be wasting time on something like that, and, in the end, the point of this essay may be that you’re right. At least, it may be that online role playing games have moved on, and I haven’t. In any case, this isn’t going to be a very positive post, and I’m sorry about that. Mythic got monthly subscription dollars from me for Dark Age of Camelot for years. I wanted Marc Jacobs to succeed with Warhammer Online, and it may well be that he will, but it doesn’t look good from here.

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