Anarchy Online: The Shadowlands preview

Funcom is preparing to take Anarchy Online players into a whole new world. Get the details here.

We recently had the opportunity to visit with Norwegian developer Funcom, whose online game Anarchy Online suffered a problematic launch in 2001. However, many of the game's technical issues, including its crashing problems, were solved years ago so that players now enjoy much better technical performance as they play as character classes like high-tech spies, hackers, and shock troopers in Anarchy Online's sci-fi world of Rubi-Ka. The recently released Notum Wars "booster pack" gave players the ability to control plots of land to mine the powerful resource notum, a prized, energy-rich mineral native to Rubi-Ka that serves as an important precursor for practically all of the futuristic world's technology. The Shadowlands, the upcoming expansion pack for Anarchy Online, will literally bring you into a new dimension--the origin of both Rubi-Ka's most valuable resource and the planet's age-old war between the evil Omni-Tek corporation and the freedom-loving Clans.

Here's an example of Anarchy Online's new mission system, which is already being added to the original game.

Unlike the open-ended Anarchy Online, which lets you hunt monsters in the wild, clear out "dungeons" populated by enemies, or go on individual missions for personal gain, The Shadowlands will be a largely linear game. In the expansion, you will begin your quest in the floating city of Jobe, a gigantic metropolis that exists in another phase of reality, the titular Shadowlands. In Jobe, you will not only find plenty of new opportunities to craft and trade powerful new items and weapons, but you will also find the beginnings of a lengthy quest that will take you through various areas of the Shadowlands, each of which is characterized by different climates, environments, and enemies. And the expansion pack itself will be characterized by improved graphics and sound, including new water and environmental effects, as well as more-detailed terrain.

The Shadowlands themselves are controlled by an omnipresent computer intelligence called Ergo (the masklike being featured on the expansion pack's box cover), who was created in a time of war between two ancient factions of powerful inhuman beings known only as "the redeemed" and "the unredeemed"--the precursors of the Clans and Omni-Tek, respectively. These beings battled over Rubi-Ka as it once was--a lush and verdant paradise that teemed with life, until the war between the two factions tore it apart, scattering the combatants to distant parts of the universe, including a small, inconsequential planet called Earth. Apparently, the evil unredeemed faction, whose control over Rubi-Ka led it to develop advanced technology to drain the planet of much of its initial supply of notum, used human agents to create an Earth company called Pharmatech, whose genetic experiments eventually helped give rise to Anarchy Online's playable human races. Now, the unredeemed, working through Omni-Tek, seek to regain entry to the Shadowlands, the source of their original power. The spiritual, nature-loving redeemed have also returned to the world and are now working through the Clans in an attempt to stop the unredeemed from draining Rubi-Ka completely dry, though it's said that some of them even entertain hopes of restoring Rubi-Ka to its former state. The key to victory for either side lies in the Shadowlands, and in Ergo, who controls them and all the notum within them.

The Shadowlands' improved graphics engine will render Rubi-Ka as it once was.

Everything will begin in Jobe, a huge city in which you can actually choose to begin entirely new characters. The expansion pack will accommodate characters from levels 1 to 200 and will even let you advance your characters to level 220, though you can only gain your final 20 levels in the Shadowland areas. Regardless of what level they are, all characters will find life very different in Jobe, especially since the flying vehicles that so many players use to travel on Rubi-Ka don't actually work in Jobe, nor does the Grid, a highly specialized computer network that, for years, has let characters with hacking skills instantly transport themselves from one end of the planet to the other.

However, characters will be able to pick up a huge number of new quests, craft and trade lots of powerful new items, and also acquire all-new suits of profession-specific armor. The Shadowlands' new class-specific armor will be specific not only to each player profession, but also to specific level ranges so that they won't simply be a single, final goal to attain at your highest level; you'll constantly be filling out and improving your collection of class-specific armor, just as you hunt for better weapons and unlock the key to the next area of the Shadowlands. And as it happens, the expansion will also add brand-new character-specific benefits that you'll gain automatically as you gain levels; characters will be able to learn "perks" every 10 levels or so and learn specializations every 50 levels or so. These new abilities will help you customize your characters' roles in Anarchy Online.

Through the Looking Glass

The Shadowlands will feature seven new environmental themes that were loosely inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy. These new themes will make up 20 new playfields (in addition to Jobe). You will begin your quest in Nascence and Elysium, pastoral areas that resemble the paradise the Rubi-Ka once was. You'll then move to Sheol, a barren and rocky world littered with the remains of the ancient civilizations that once ruled Rubi-Ka. From Sheol, you will advance to Adonis, a half-submerged world in which you will battle with incarnations of the elements: fire, water, and air. Once you've completed your tasks, you will move on to Penumbra, a frigid, icy realm whose bizarre landscape consists of deformed mountainous ridges and rocks that float in midair. After Penumbra, you will tackle Inferno, a fiery realm full of lava rivers bordered by groves of dead trees. Finally, you will end your quest in the realm of Pandemonium, a perilous land of utter chaos.

High-level agent characters will be able to procure a specialized stealth suit.

In all areas, you will face new challenges from powerful new monsters that are particular to each region. The Shadowlands' new monsters and character models will have an increased polygon count and improved animations, and these new enemies will have new sounds as well. In addition to fighting against region-specific monsters, high-level players can also challenge denizens of "the brink"--the outlying edges of each area in The Shadowlands. At the brink, the land tapers away into nonexistence, though these areas have given rise to exceptionally dangerous and challenging brink monsters that will serve as good prey for high-level characters that tire of performing routine low-level quests.

However, even experienced players may wish to start over from level 1 when the expansion is released, since it will introduce two new playable character classes, the shade and the keeper. Shades are offense-oriented, close-combat characters that specialize in drawing energy from their opponents to empower themselves. Keepers are defensive characters that use area-effect auras to increase their companions' abilities, though they tend to fare poorly on their own. Characters of all classes and levels will profit from adventuring in The Shadowlands, and while they explore these areas, exceptionally accomplished characters who are highly loyal to their factions may be able to temporarily convert themselves into a shadow breed. Shadow breeds are exceptionally powerful beings imbued with the power of either the redeemed or the unredeemed and are able to perform superhuman feats--but they'll be able to do so only if they've served their factions well. The Shadowlands will have an all-new faction system that will increase or decrease characters' standing with certain groups depending on which monsters are fought and which quests are performed.

The new shade profession will let you drain the essence from your enemies.

Even controlling land will be different in The Shadowlands. Though you will still be able to erect towers along notum veins as you did in The Notum Wars, you'll find it more important than ever to control all the notum veins in a specific area. That's partially because large notum veins will be present around temples--important, faction-specific locations in which an ancient spirit grants blessings to players of the correct faction and poses a powerful threat to players of an enemy faction. These temple spirits will serve as formidable adversaries for group sorties, much like the "raid" monsters in EverQuest, but they'll also grant powerful bonuses to nearby allied notum towers--bonuses that can be spread across adjacent towers if you build close-knit networks of them. It will be of particular strategic importance for allied players to build these networks of towers, just as it will be particularly important for enemy raiders to disrupt these networks by destroying central towers, thereby breaking the connection between tower groups.

It's very clear that Funcom is attempting to use The Shadowlands as an opportunity to do something very different from its previous work with Anarchy Online and also that the company hopes to open up its game to more new players by including lots of brand-new content that can be enjoyed by players of any level, even level-1 beginners. Any who wish to explore this brave new world (or just visit Rubi-Ka to see how the new features will work with the existing game) will be able to enter the Shadowlands this summer.

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