Dark Legends, the new title from mobile MMO king Spacetime Studios, is already creating a buzz with its liberal use of an energy pool that is sapped as players go through standard gameplay. If this mechanic were packaged any differently and inside a sandbox, it's possible that people would call it "realistic" or "hardcore." Unfortunately, problems set in as soon as players realized that playing the game for hours on end would require some infusion of real-life funds or the ability to kill pretty large chunks of time in non-combat areas.
I would argue that the gameplay does not have to be designed for marathon gaming sessions. It's very possible that the "casual" part of the game's description actually means "casual." I still had issues with the mechanic; don't get me wrong. But if I was bothered by anything it would be Dark Legends' lack of borrowing features from Pocket Legends, Spacetime's flagship mobile MMO, which offers actual persistent areas and other MMO staples.
Of course, it's possible that Spacetime is simply trying something new. Heaven forbid it should attempt a new design!
Dark Legends casts players in the role of vampires who busily solve mysteries, eat humans, and generally cause mayhem, all while mostly looking really cool. Players spend their time in three main areas of the game: instanced, group combat areas consisting of one-button-activated cutscenes, and open, social areas where players can meet up, form guilds, buy a guild hall, visit shops and essentially hang out. My issue with the game wasn't so much with the energy mechanic but in the choice of vampire standards like dark lore and blood sucking. Then again, I don't complain when a Western features gunslinging and horseback, so I'm mostly OK with the design in Dark Legends.
"I was able to dress my character up in all sorts of cool costumes that were relatively cheap."
Graphically, the game works better on a mobile device. The smaller screen of my Android phone, for example, means that the details look crisp, but on the 23" monitor of my gaming PC, the graphics come across a little rough. It's important to remember that Spacetime made its name in mobile MMOs, so the browser versions should be measured with that in mind. Even then, the controls and large buttons in the browser versions feel great on a laptop or netbook or on the 10" screen of the iPad 2. Spacetime has been known to produce wonderful cash-shop goodies since the beginning, and this game is no different. I was able to dress my character up in all sorts of cool costumes that would be relatively cheap even if I had not been given a pretty large sum of platnium, the in-game currency, to play with.
Soon, I was running around as a gumshoe-themed vampire while everyone else sported the typical assortment of leather and skimpy tops. Customization is usually one of my favorite features of an MMO, and Dark Legends does not disappoint. Players can earn in-game gold with which to buy customization options, but some of the outfits and items of clothing take some time to get. Once again, dropping some dollars into the game would be the quickest route to fashionista status, but you can also replay previously visited areas for the chance at better loot.
I know that most of you have probably skipped to the point in this first impression when I tear the game apart because of its ability to scam dollars from unsuspecting gamers. Hopefully you know me better than that by now because I have no issues with the game's demanding any amount of cash. I have a problem with such behavior only when it sneaks in under the radar or when it is from a company that has not established its ability to list powerful items and content in the cash shops for past titles. Even the slightly out-of-whack pricing behind Dark Legends' energy mechanic should not be shocking or surprising. After all, this is a company that has sold "power" for a long time.
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Spacetime is successful because it sells neat items. Those titles offer a variety of gameplay for a variety of gamer types. Want to grind out hours and hours of dungeons? Go for it. Want to play for 15 minutes a day while on your lunch break? There you go. While I understand that the Dark Legends energy mechanic can severely limit the amount of time someone can play the game unless she spends some money, my point is that the studio has been designing games for short bursts of play since the beginning.
I am not defending how limiting the energy mechanic can be within Dark Legends. Again, I was granted a large sum of in-game cash for testing and preview purposes, so I literally paid my way through entire campaigns. I played my way through a lot of content, and I sat and watched as timers ticked down until I could play again. I wanted to see what every angle of the game would be like; this is why the press is often given in-game funds or high-level access. What did I find with access to those funds? Well, having cash means that you can buy your way to more levels and cooler items. Why would a player want to, though, and what effect would those purchases have on other players?
I can't imagine that many players would want to buy their way to a high-level character by skipping all of the actual combat and buying experience with platinum. After all, the ability to literally buy characters and ships in EVE Online with real money doesn't mean that everyone is able to take advantage of that -- or even wants to. The largest spenders in freemium or free-to-play games are always in the minority; this is commonly known.
"If two high-level characters are facing off, does it matter how each of them got to that level? What matters is experience, skill, and knowledge of the game: Those are the great equalizers."
Does having the ability to buy your way into higher levels mean that PvP in Dark Legends is unbalanced or unfair? While I did not play any PvP as of the time of this writing, I can't imagine it makes much of a difference. If two high-level characters are facing off, does it matter how each of them got to that level? What matters is experience, skill, and knowledge of the game: Those are the great equalizers. There are plenty of weapons and addons for sale in the cash shop. but I don't know whether all of them are available through in-game means or not. Honestly, I don't know that it should matter. Players seem to think that all games should be equally accessible or balanced. Some players think that a subscription is the only "fair" way to charge. Others think that no items of any status at all should be sold in a cash shop.
If you want to play for hours on end, rule at PvP, be the coolest-looking player on the block, and do it all for absolutely nothing, this game is not for you. Sure, you can buy a lot with in-game gold that you earned through play, but it is so much easier when you plop down a few dollars. The developers get paid as well, and they need to eat just like we do.
But (and I mean that with a capital B) the energy mechanic will throw many players off and needs to be tweaked, especially at higher levels when basic actions have a higher cost while a player's energy pool remains the same. (Action areas seem to remain at a constant cost.) The key with a game like Dark Legends is to ask whom it might have been made for. Forget the other titles; forget how Star Wars: The Old Republic or any other title does it. Dark Legends, in my opinion, was made for those break-time game sessions and quick gatherings with a buddy or two. Remember as well that the game is brand-new, so give it time. Complain loudly but constructively so the developers can tweak correctly. Poo-pooing the game because it uses a "Facebook" mechanic does no good... if anything, it only reminds the developers that social games can make millions of dollars.
Next week I will be jumping back into a MUD, this time BatMUD. I've had some experience with it so far, but the next week does look to be a challenge. Wish me luck and watch me play though the game on Monday, the 14th of May, on our Twitch.tv channel!
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook!