Sunday, February 28, 2010

Darkfall Trial: First Impressions

I spent 18 hours playing Darkfall over the weekend. Consider this a review of what I call the new user experience. In fairness, I can't review the entire game but what I can do is talk about what it's like to be a fresh newbie in Darkfall.

The new user experience is an important phase for anything in which you are trying to adopt users. That's the case if it's an MMO or something as mundane as a rebate card at a Grocery Store. The new user experience is where people are going to form their first impressions and decide if they want to continue using it.

Graphics and Engine
I felt the graphics were subscription quality and better than I would have expected. The models could use a bit more detail if I am being hyper-critical, but they actually struck me as similar to Warhammer in terms of quality and style. That's saying a lot when you consider the relative budgets.

One minor criticism is that there are few (if any) interactable objects. By interactable objects, I mean objects that change when you interact with them (moving doors, opening chests, quest spawns, harvest nodes that diminish, etc).

This is by no means a deal-breaker, but it's noticeable and makes the world feel a like a painting. Not flat, but static or unchanging.

World is empty, but in a realistic way
This was a top concern of mine. I *knew* the world was empty and that's something that's bugged me in other games. For example, the lack of random mobs in the RvR lakes in WAR was very jarring and immersion breaking for me.

Surprisingly, it's works in Darkfall.

Honestly, it reminded me a lot of travel in the real world. When I'm on a hike, I don't run into a wandering wolf or bear every 10-15 feet. I only run into bears and wolves when I am near the animal den.

Oddly, this bit of realism makes it more immersive in that you are traveling through terrain and only seeing the mobs where you would EXPECT to see them.

In a typical MMO, you need lots of bears and other mobs because they die quickly with little challenge. It's really a function of needing lots of stuff to kill that necessitates having such a high mob density throughout the entire world. Of course, when you think about it, such density is something you would never observe in nature.

In Darkfall, you very quickly learn that Mobs are smart, tough and challenging to kill. If you ran into one every 10-15 feet you would die. Frequently and with great pain. And so having mobs be where you would expect them to be and not randomly placed all over provides some measure of safety and strategic planning on your part.

GUI mode or Combat (Gameplay) mode
The most startling out-of-the-box thing about Darkfall is the mode switching between GUI and Gameplay mode. If you haven't played Darkfall, the short version is that there is a mode for doing "mouse pointer" stuff called GUI mode and a separate Gameplay mode used for making your character move, kill, interact and so forth.

It's the mechanics of this GUI/Gameplay switching that has every single Darkfall supporter trembling in fear of criticism when a new player begins. As I wrote the other day, people like the familiar and this is NOT familiar. Nor is it intuitive.

Basically, Gameplay mode is a Free Look mode in which you move the mouse to aim. This is really the defining characteristic of what makes Darkfall combat unlike most other MMOs. You don't have a tab-target, you have to aim your shots.

Now obviously, you can't Free Look and move a mouse cursor.

In Free Look, or camera mode, you simply don't have a mouse cursor. Your aim is where the camera points. This is standard in First Person Shooters where you just turn the camera to aim and fire.

But in MMOs, we also need a mouse cursor to pick up and move inventory items, organize your hotbar, look through quests and so forth.

In pretty much every other MMO (including Warcraft, Warhammer, EQ, and EVE), this problem is tackled by providing a button you need to hold down to Free Look. If the button is not held down, you have a mouse pointer. The default for this in most MMOs is the right-button on your mouse that enables a Free Look camera mode.

Aventurine's solution in Darkfall is to use a Toggle to switch between these two modes (Free Look and mouse cursor). Essentially, rather than a button that needs to be held down, you need to hit the toggle every time you want to switch between modes. This is very markedly different and you notice it within seconds of logging in for the first time.

In other words, if you are in GUI mode (mouse cursor), you hit the toggle button to enter Gameplay mode (Free Look). To switch back, you hit the button again. By default, the key bound to this mode toggle is the right mouse button.

And as far as I can tell, the first thing most people do is figure out how to bind that toggle to another button. That should be Aventurine's first hint that perhaps they should rethink that part of the UI, but I digress.

After several hours of play, you get used to the toggle. However, I'll say I'm pretty critical of it because it's not very intuitive and not necessary. In my opinion, the right-button to enable Free Look camera that 99% of all other MMOs use is far superior and already an ingrained motion.

I suppose that you can make the argument that your finger would get tired from being held down all the time during combat, but at the very least, it should be an option.

Combat is fun and challenging
It says something about a game when the basic starter mob is quite capable of easily killing you in your first encounter. For one thing, it means that just hitting TAB-1-1-1-1-1 is not going to get the job done.

I actually found the experience a bit humbling and enjoyable. There is some depth here and I haven't even begun to figure out how to incorporate things like Parry into my playstyle.

Combat in Darkfall is often described as First Person, where your perspective is through your character's eyes. That's not wholly accurate. 

Melee combat is Third Person, which is the style used in most MMOs. Archery and Casting is First Person. Switching from a Bow to a Sword therefore switches you from First Person to Third Person perspective.

I think this is another area where Aventurine made some odd design decisions. Why the forced switch?

Arguably, some people like Third Person and others like First Person. But why arbitrarily force all Melee into Third Person and everything else into First Person. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a camera toggle and let the player choose if (and when) they want to be in First or Third person?

Now, that said, the overall experience and challenge provided by needing to aim shots (and avoid them) is pretty fun and enlightening. I recognize it's not for everyone. It's much more intense and every fight requires your constant attention.

GUI Mode is poorly implemented
First, I want to be clear that my real complaints about the UI are not about the combat system or even the GUI mode toggle issue. The toggle is not intuitive, but with some work and button reassignment you adapt to it. The combat system is different, but in a very positive way.

No. My main issue is the recurring theme that Aventurine designed the UI the way they liked it and user be damned if they don't like the way that works.

It's subtle things like not having multiple keybinds for the same action as an option. If I want forward movement to be bound to a mouse button and the "W" button, I can't do it. And there are countless little things that are just like that example.

From a new user experience perspective, this is a real nightmare.

Will I or can I adapt?  Of course.  A blind man adapts to not seeing by learning to hear more keenly. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't like to see.

Where's the Help file?
From a new user standpoint, I would say that fully half the complaints about the UI would disappear just by having a better in-game help menu.  Wait. Is there even a help menu?

Ya, I guess it's called Google.

For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to form a group.  It was baffling that something as simple as 'grouping' with another player appeared impossible.  It wasn't until I Googled it and found some guy's review complaining about how long it took him to figure it out that I learned how it was done.

That, in a nutshell, is Darkfall's biggest problem. That which you do in GUI mode is not very intuitive and the game does nothing to guide you through using the GUI.

Overall Impression
The game has promise. That said, I can understand why it gets negative feedback. I think it's easy for new users to get caught up in a UI that's not terribly intuitive, inflexible and lacks any tutorials or other in-game guidance.

But...I had fun.

Despite all the irritation caused by the UI and lack of in-game help, I've been having fun running around in Darkfall. The game has a lot of promise and while it's certainly not perfect, thus far, it's been entertaining.

Of course, right now my "New Player Protection" timer has yet to run out and I've been safe from getting one-shotted by the likes of Syncaine. I have about 6 hours left and I've taken to thinking of that countdown timer as my Doomsday Clock.

I'll be sure to let you know what I think when my timer runs out. :P


Carson 63000 said...

My little in-game help experience: I got a quest to catch a fish and cook it. The quest text told me a bit about how to fish (equip a fishing rod and unsheathe it, stand with your feet in the water, click) but I just couldn't get it to work. Kept saying "out of range", no matter how far into the water I waded. Until I started swimming, then it said "you must be standing on land". So I went to the in-game help.

The help text for fishing? It's a couple of paragraphs about how fishing is cool and how you can, y'know, catch fish. And stuff. It's not help at all, it's a feature description suitable for a blurb on a website!!

To figure out how to fish (answer: do what I was doing, but stare straight down so you're clicking on the water directly where you're standing), you got it, I had to Google.

Jordan said...

About the 'Help' menu

Go into interface mode and click on 'help' this should talk you through a fair bit. Not everything but its pretty good.