Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty
An update to the very popular Asheron's Call, Dark Majesty is a continuation of the story, after the fall of the Virindi (though they promise revenge). This time, Tumeroks and Olthoi have new might and cousins roaming the landscape, in particular the newly-found island of Marae Lassel, formerly an Empyrean nature preserve, now accessible (via the pretty new 'crayon'? portals scattered around) from the rest of Dereth. Far larger than the first two island additions, Marae Lassel has a host of new beasties to kill and things to look at.
Aside from the new island, the biggest change is the addition of housing, something that's been clamored for by players since the beta. Tightly controlled and well-designed, it promises to help relieve problems such as having to have mules and crowding near towns (and even in town halls.) You can even buy furniture for your cool new pad! Other new changes include more new monster, and tweaks to loot drops on others.
Basically something like a monthly update on vitamins, AC:DM is nevertheless worth packaging as a full expansion pack, though I'm not sure all the changes really warrant a full expansion pack price (which is probably why they've included the full version of the game, and not just the update, on the CD). Still, 20 bucks (plus a free month of play) is a bargain compared to other games' expansions.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
Though not new to this expansion pack, changes in recent updates to the game include some interface tweaking, including stretching the character window, adding in map coordinates under the radar readout, and incorporating a few ideas from the player-written add-ons that have cropped up over time.
Also relatively new are some character-creation options, including new templates and some cool newbie titling quests. If you haven't played the game in a while, you may enjoy spending a bit of time playing with the new options. Otherwise, the interface is basically the same.
Other recent, though not brand-new, updates include better ways of communicating with one's allegiance members, new character titles, better component management for mages, and several new quests. A couple of months ago, they also completely redrew the monster spawn map, and you can now find far nastier things closer to towns, and a greater distribution of high-level monsters to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of level 50+ players. The new island, for instance, has a fairly large portion dedicated to hunting grounds for players as high as 75 and above, while still maintaining pretty well-stocked areas for very low-level players.
Graphics for flames/auras and some landscape and structure textures has improved, especially on Marae Lassel, and the color palette is expanding. Monsters continue to get more creatively designed, though I can't quite decide if the new 'bird'? (Sirraluun) and 'dog? (Carenzi) monsters are cute or just lame. It's kind of hard not to laugh at something that looks like a semi-reptilian bulldog nipping at your heels (even if those nips are taking 30 points out of you each time).
The new island is full of all sorts of new sights, including some beautiful water features, new terrain and flora, and the very cool Aun village at the top of one of the plateaus (accessed via a portal 'elevator'? inside a neato giant skull sculpture). Plans to continue refining character and monster models also continue and it'll be cool when all the monsters are finally as smoothly drawn as the newer Drudges, etc.
Some new ambient sounds have been added, but otherwise the surround sound is just as good as before.
333 MHz processor or higher, Windows 98, Me, 2000 or XP, 64 MB RAM, 300 MB available hard drive space for typical install (100 MB available hard drive space for swap file), 4x CD-ROM drive or higher, and a mouse. Internet Connectivity and an active [Zone.com] membership is required to set up your Asheron's Call account. A monthly service charge is applicable after your trial period ends.
The new playguide is a pretty good mix of newbie and upgrade-targeted info. The details on house-buying are very welcome. I certainly miss the monster guide from the old one, though. I know that with the dozens of new monsters that have been added in the meantime, a full compendium isn't practical, but even just a cursory paragraph or two on what to expect to see, and what areas to avoid if you're new would've been nice. Given the recent upgrades of monsters near towns, I pity the true newbie who wanders around and gets nailed by a Mattekar s/he had no idea to avoid.
Fortunately, they've also included the text from the original playguide, all of the game lore, and the original map and keyboard map on the new CD, in the 'goodies'? folder (all require Acrobat). Also worth looking at on the CD are trailers for the game, including one for Asheron's Call 2. As always, though, the best information is found on the player and allegiance websites.
I've long since ceased caring about the overwrought storyline, so that part doesn't really hold any new interest for me. Indeed, I'd actually more or less stopped playing the game in recent months, because even the continuous addition of new monsters and quests was kind of getting predictable (that and I wanted a different type of game experience for a while). Though (as always) well-executed, many of the updates with this pack are predictable as well. Still, there are enough fundamental overhauls, most notably the begged-for housing, that the game is certainly worth a fresh look even from my weary eyes, jaded by almost two years of playing. Newbies to the game especially have a lot of great stuff to find, as the game is now far deeper and more complex than it ever has been (which is saying a lot, considering the complexity it already had).
My biggest (really my only) complaint with Asheron's Call, Dark Majesty is the box cover. After all the good feedback they've gotten about how non-sexist the game is (female characters actually able to wear full armor and not just tinfoil bikinis) it's really disappointing to find a female war mage on the box dressed in something nearly identical to the outfit worn by the High Elf on the Everquest box covers. This clothing item doesn't even exist (as drawn) in-game because the character model doesn't really allow for midriff-baring, and most clothing and armor is unisex. (The one revealing clothing item in-game caused a huge uproar when it was first released.) Besides, most war mages don't have much in the way of Melee Defense, so they're always covered in armor anyway. That some twit in Marketing was allowed to let this design go on the shelf (or perhaps even encouraged, as a selling point) is a major letdown. Here's a big ol' shot of Force Bolt VI upside the head (from my fully-armored war mage) to whoever made that decision. Let lesser games pander to the hairy-palmed adolescent crowd. Asheron's Call is above that.
Asheron's Call continues to lead the way in MMORPGs, especially in the aspects of sheer size and social organization. A few new games of this type, and updates to older games, have come out recently or are due to come out soon, and it's been amusing to see how they've tried to learn from AC's successes, yet still continue to miss the mark. Of course it helps when you have Microsoft's pockets available to aid in development, but even so, Turbine is still the vanguard in this genre, and I see nothing that will change that anytime soon.