Another week of this column makes me amazed at how yet another older title, this time Asheron's Call, got so much right and yet remains so under-appreciated. A lot of this dismissal of past MMOs comes from the simple fact that humans do not enjoy something they have seen before, at least not the same as they enjoyed it when they first found it. In other words, we loved games like Asheron's Call, but they have fallen out of favor because we have moved on to bigger, newer, shinier things. After all, most of us don't sit around a fire and swap stories for entertainment anymore; we watch television. Although, damn, a fire sounds nice doesn't it?
The warm feeling that I might feel from an evening swapping tales in front of the hearth is the same one I get from older titles like Asheron's Call. These elder titles have a charm built in, thanks to dated graphics that remind us of younger years and times of discovery.
But there's something else going on here. These older games, games like Asheron's Call, are still really good.
I decided this week to check out the newbie tutorial instead of just running around on my older character -- the character I made the first time around -- in the hopes of remembering whether the first few levels were a blast or mostly confusing. It turns out that they were the latter, at least a lot of the time. I knew this because how easily I soared through these newbie tutorials. I was able to pass them without much issue only because I knew how the combat and other systems work. Yes, the tutorials attempt to explain things with some signs and NPC interaction, but I remember distinctly feeling confused when I first started and when I first used the tutorials. I mean, they're not impossible at all and are actually quite well done, but there was something alien enough about Asheron's Call to make me leave the tutorial out of frustration. At least I could figure out how to do that at the time. My first piece of advice, then, is to repeat the tutorials if you need to.
Asheron's Call is just old school. That means the game often boasts systems that are a bit odd by today's comparisons. I'm no stranger to older games as I've been MMOing since 1999, but I've seen so many games that get so far away from many of these old school systems that I can easily forget how to do some basic things in an older game.
For example, to kill something, you must first equip your weapon, then select your target. Once you do, you must decide at which height you want to attack and then whether to attack accurately and slowly or fire off attacks faster at the expense of accuracy. It seems really weird when you first use the system, but there are easy-to-remember shortcuts that help make combat flow more quickly. The truth is that the combat system has more in common with sandbox titles like Darkfall than anything, mainly in the way it forces players to take time to aim and time to loot.
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Ah, to loot. Get this one: You double click on a defeated mob and then double-click on particular pieces of loot and then wait for your avatar to literally bend over and pick it up. Perhaps there is a shortcut that picks up all items, but it takes just a second to remember how most modern MMOs, or at least a lot of them, allow players to loot everything they see with a simple right-click. When you think about it, modern looting is lazy and quite unrealistic. In that way, Asheron's Call is very ahead of its time but also just a reflection of game development at that time.
Looking back, I think it's easy to say that games like Asheron's Call were so fun and that the challenge of getting to know one of these older-gen titles was just a sheer blast. The truth is that the pre-World of Warcraft MMOs were fun but also often needlessly aggravating. I used to talk to people who would camp out for days for a kill or would spend hours figuring out the easiest way to take down a single mob. That wasn't me. The pre-World of Warcraft days were a ton of fun for me, but honestly, I think a game like Asheron's Call might have been more aggravating than fun for me. The old me, that is. Now I find the game exciting and actually really enjoy its graphics. Sure, the game has received plenty of updates and tweaks to systems, and I'm sure it's been streamlined at least a few times, but the "dated" graphics still look good. Monsters can especially be cool-looking, and running through a dungeon is often almost on par with modern titles, graphics-wise. The point is that Asheron's Call is not trying to be anything like World of Warcraft, and it doesn't need to be; it's fun on its own.
Try the 14-day trial (doesn't it sound funny to even say "trial" anymore?) and marvel at the number of character races and classes. There are very unique things going on even in just character creation. You'll be able to adjust stats, look, and combat style. Unfortunately you won't find these type of choices in most AAA titles anymore; the developers just don't want to bother with it right now. There are some possible future titles that will bring us back to the glorious days of design like the ones that brought us Asheron's Call, but these new games will have modern-day design built in as well. If we're lucky, and all things being cyclical, we might yet see a return to old-school stylings in major titles. We can hope, at least.
Asheron's Call is still a marvelous title that offers amazing dungeon-running and grinding. There are some interesting quests and nice, speedy ways of getting to those quests, but don't take all of it on alone. You'll probably just wind up frustrated. I doubt the game will ever see a more modern re-do; it will likely continue on the state it is in for all time, so grab friends if you decide to play. In lieu of friends, get on the forums or jump into a chat channel and ask for help. Take any offers to go to a dungeon or two -- you won't regret it.
Next week I am filling in a bit of missing information and taking on Runes of Magic. I was there in beta and occasionally since then, but Jeremy Stratton is our resident expert, so I haven't touched it in a long, long time. I'll be streaming the game live on Monday, the 5th of November, at 5:00 p.m. EDT right here on our Twitch.tv channel. Check it out... Jeremy will be joining me!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!