Choose My Adventure: Singing the skill grind blues

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|12.08.10

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Choose My Adventure: Singing the skill grind blues
Well, here we are folks, smack dab in the middle of our Darkfall run for Choose My Adventure. With three weeks down and three weeks to go, I have to be honest: I feel pressed for time. There's so much to see and do in this game that six weeks simply isn't enough to really do it justice (to say nothing of the fact that it's not nearly enough time to build a competitive character in terms of the skill grind).

In any event, I'll do what I can to give you an accurate read on the game, and as my first couple of columns have admittedly erred on the side of fresh-faced enjoyment, today's entry will touch on a few of the game's less than savory aspects. In addition to that, I'll recap a few of my gameplay highlights from the past week.

Join me after the cut for a look at my Darkfall present and future as well as a video diary of my adventures thus far.

While I'm pretty frickin' far from being a Darkfall expert after three weeks, I do have enough of an in-game vocabulary to talk intelligently about the world (and the mechanics) of Agon as well as give neophyte Agonians or curious readers an accurate impression. So what is that impression? Well, yes, the skill grind is huge, and yes you are in for a lengthy game of catch-up before you're on even footing with veterans. How lengthy? Eh, several months to a year, depending on how casually your cookie crumbles.

This isn't a bad thing, though, from my perspective.

Before we wade too deep into the skill grind pool, let me say that some of this may be in need of a little tweaking later this week, as Aventurine is gearing up to reveal its offline meditation mechanic in the next patch. I have no idea how it works yet or what skills it affects, nor do I know exactly which day it'll be pushed live and thus be under my particular microscope. I just know that it's supposedly coming this week. With that caveat out of the way, let's begin.

Darkfall mounted combatThe good

Now, I know I said in the intro that this is basically going to be a negative column, so why a sub-heading of "the good?" Well, it boils down to perspective and to whether or not you're an old-school or new-school MMORPG player (or failing that, able to temper your innate urge for instant gratification). I fall firmly into the first camp, and so the skill grind that is bemoaned by many Darkfall community members is not something that drives me away from the game. That's not to say I enjoy watching my stats inch upwards in extremely small increments, but it's also not something I think about often when I'm actually playing. Call it my naivete or my lack of Darkfall experience if you want, but I'm happy to harvest, craft, fight off PKers (or more accurately, lead them on long chases), and otherwise inhabit the world of Agon as opposed to grinding my butt off to arrive at some arbitrary definition of competitive.

Do I wish I could magically increase my skills and stats to 100 across the board? Not really, as I know that even if that were to happen, I would still be hopelessly outclassed in terms of combat savvy by the game's vets. Say what you will about the grind, the PK mentality, and other perceived negatives, but Darkfall's combat system is exceedingly deep and complex. Whether it's mastering the art of aiming as it relates to archery and magic casting on the move, or practicing your mid-air turns, jumps, bunny-hopping, circling, and many other twitch techniques, getting good at Darkfall combat isn't simply a matter of having high stats.

As one of my clanmates put it, the skill grind is simply the price of admission to this particular dance; you've still got to have the moves to avoid being an endgame wallflower, or worse, doing the Agon equivalent of the white man's overbite. This twitch proficiency doesn't take into account the huge number of spells to be researched, either. To this end, you can either explore via trial and error or pick the brain of the nearest vet for advice. Sadly, melee isn't quite as diversified in terms of sheer number of abilities, but as I mentioned above, having the numbers and having the chops are two different things.

While the skill grind is no doubt frustrating to FPS fans who just want to log in and be instantly competitive, I actually prefer the current system as it a) gives me a long-term goal and b) gives me time to practice all of the actual combat skills that aren't related to numbers. To summarize, yes the grind is big, but no, this isn't cause for QQ.

The bad

The downside to the preceding paragraphs becomes apparent when you actually fight one of Darkfall's skilled veteran players. This past week, I took part in a PvP event staged by Lord Zannul, Supreme General of the Shadows clan and a long-time player who has nearly every skill and stat at max level. The event was basically Zannul vs. a gigantic newbie zerg; there were literally 20 to 30 players chasing him around the city of Hammerdale attempting to kill him and loot the gear that he was graciously donating to whoever was fast enough to take it off his corpse.

The trick was turning him into said corpse, and the resulting comedy show was indicative of just how large the competitive gap in Darkfall can be. To be frank, Zannul could have killed all of us. He moved so fast and made such judicious use of his confusion spell as to be almost impossible to hit. When a random blow or two did land, it did negligible damage.

Eventually, some high-skill NEW councilors and a couple of Hammerdale regulars joined in and helped us bring him down, but scenarios like this are likely to frustrate hyper-competitive players who are new to the game and bent on min-maxing. For my part, I took my licks, hopefully learned from them, and at the very least, got a glimpse of what awaits the patient and the persistent at Darkfall's endgame. The other consideration here is that fighting a demigod player of this sort is rare (at least in my experience). The Zannuls of the Darkfall world rarely mingle with newbs (unless it's to help them), preferring instead to fight their own, siege, and otherwise entrench themselves in Darkfall's endgame. The game doesn't lack mid-level PvP bullies who like to pick on newbs -- particularly around Hammerdale -- but most of these guys are unorganized and easily dealt with in groups (not to mention the fact that they provide good PvP experience whether they intend to or not).

The ugly

I haven't touched on Darkfall's presentation much as of yet, save a mention of the UI in the first installment of this series. As I think about it, this omission is probably due to my being subconsciously aware of the fact that portions of Darkfall's visuals are well below the current MMO industry average. That said, the gameplay and sandbox world has thus far conspired to relegate these items pretty far down my list of annoyances.

The game's graphics certainly aren't state of the art, especially when it comes to the avatars. Whether it's fixing the striking ugliness of human females, Mirdain, and Alfar character models, or the clumsy (and sometimes glitchy) combat animations, Aventurine has some work to do regarding Darkfall's aesthetic polish. The world of Agon can be quite beautiful, and the devs have done a fairly impressive job of rendering very different environments and blending them all together into a seamless whole. The world itself conjures pleasant memories of Morrowind, but the characters and their animations leave quite a lot to be desired.

Gear visuals are a bit better than their character counterparts. There is a decent amount of armor and weapon variety in Darkfall, and the game does a good job of making it all accessible (there's none of that bind-on-equip or class-restriction nonsense here; if you want to use something, you can). The system falters a bit at higher skill levels, though, as people naturally gravitate toward the best items (infernal armor and certain weapon types), and much like your average MMO, Darkfall draws characters that start to look the same due to a lack of customization options. This is easily remedied via appearance slots or new and varied equipment skins, and though it's admittedly not as crucial as the combat and skilling systems, I still hope to see improvements in this area over time.

The recap

In addition to the aforementioned PvP event, this past week featured a decent amount of dungeon-based skill grinding, with a lot of my time spent in the tunnels of Mabria, a skeleton-infested fortress south of Hammerdale. I also turned in my first title quest (trekking back to my racial capital of Red Moon to do so), got my greatsword skill above 50, advanced my alt's mining, logging, fishing, and cooking skills well into the 60s, and participated in a funhulk race and strongbox loot giveaway sponsored by the Zealot clan (both of which can be glimpsed in the video above).

There were also numerous PvP excursions to repel PK raiders intent on razing the clan city of Hammerdale to the ground. This last bit took up quite a lot of play time on my main character, and I'll touch on that a bit next week when I delve into the time management aspects of Darkfall. Speaking of time, I'm about out of it for this week, and Agon's siren song is calling. See you next Wednesday for another installment of Choose My Adventure.

Continue to next week.
Go back to last week.

Join Jef as he morphs from a ranty writer into a grindy action hero in a Choose My Adventure directed by you, the Massively readers! Add Jef in-game to play along, or simply follow the column every Wednesday for a recap of the week's mischief. When six weeks are up, we'll spin the wheel of fate and do it all again.
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