Anarchy Online: The Shadowlands Updated Impressions

We re-visit the upcoming expansion pack for Funcom's futuristic online game.

Massively multiplayer online games can be incredibly challenging to create. These games let you create a single character to play as, and then venture out into a colorful persistent world to fight monsters, acquire treasures, and develop your character over time while journeying with thousands of other players just like you. However, creating these huge online worlds isn't easy--developers have to create enormous landscapes and populate them with challenging enemies, provide stories and quests to keep players busy, and make sure the game is running smoothly online at all times. Developer Funcom ran into some serious technical issues during the launch of its 2001 sci-fi themed game Anarchy Online--issues the company has since addressed. Though the game's futuristic world of Rubi-Ka, which is populated by assault-rifle-toting soldiers and sunglasses-wearing hackers reminiscent of characters from The Matrix, was recently supplemented with a "booster pack" product, The Notum Wars, the world will expand greatly later this year with the first full-fledged expansion pack, The Shadowlands. We recently had the opportunity to take a brief tour of the expansion's new areas and see some of what it has to offer.

The Shadowlands will feature an all-new game interface, among other things.

Aside from its long-since-resolved technical issues, Anarchy Online has also been criticized for its great complexity and steep learning curve; aside from having a great many physical attributes, all Anarchy Online characters also have lots of various skills associated with melee combat, ranged combat, computer and hacking skills, vehicle piloting, and others, in addition to profession-specific nanoformulas--a futuristic version of magic spells. To address these issues, Shadowlands will introduce a new icon-based game interface that will put visual shortcuts to your character's inventory and skills onscreen; it adds a bit of clutter onscreen, but may be a bit easier to learn than the game's original, and more-advanced interface, that tucked away all information offscreen, though you'll be able to use either. And in the expansion, you'll also be able to play through the huge and entirely new Shadowlands area with any character from level one to level 200 from start to finish, especially if they choose to use the expansion's two new character classes, the offense-oriented shade and the group-oriented keeper.

We began our tour with the interior of one of Shadowlands' new apartment complexes (which players who pre-order the game will apparently receive automatically) in the expansion's new floating city of Jobe a multi-level metropolis in which you'll be able to receive quests and procure the expansion's all-new profession-specific armor suits. These swanky new apartments have huge plate-glass windows that overlook the floating city and are much larger than the apartments that are given out to new players in the original game. Like in the original game, you'll be able to decorate your apartments with tables, chairs, and other fixtures, and the developer plans to add plenty of extra furnishings in the expansion.

Not all of the expansion's environments will be quite as inviting as this one.

We then traversed the expansion's seven new environments, which were inspired by the circles of heaven, hell, and purgatory in Dante's The Divine Comedy. In the expansion, you'll have to work your way through each area in succession in a linear fashion--solving a specific quest to advance to the next area; however, each area will also feature ancillary quests and different monsters to fight, if that's all you're after. As we saw, each environment looks completely different from the other, and each is humongous. The different areas will all feature completely different flora and fauna--you can expect to see more animal-like monsters in the earlier regions of Nascence and Elysium, while the shattered kingdom of Scheol will be home to bizarre creatures that haunt the floating remains of a huge city, and the realm of Inferno will house some truly terrifying high-level monsters whose attacks with be supplemented with fire and intense heat. Actually surviving these different environments may require special equipment--for instance, the undersea expanses of the plane of Adonis. Though you won't actually be swimming your way through this area (you'll instead be exploring undersea passages paneled with glass), you'll still need to keep your breathing equipment equipped at all times.

While underwater, your character will exhale bubbles with all-new particle effects, and in the frigid wastes of Penumbra, your character will actually exhale steam. In addition to these graphical enhancements, the expansion will make improvements to the core game, by making characters both more interesting to play, more varied, and, the team hopes, more balanced. In addition to the profession-specific armor suits found in Jobe, players will be able to augment their characters further using the game's "perk system;"--as characters advance, they'll gain access to a new perk once every 10 experience levels, and at level 200, they'll gain a new perk each level until they hit level 220 (though these last 20 levels may be obtained only within the shadowlands). And depending on each character's standing with the expansion's seven main political factions, which include the good-hearted redeemed, the evil unredeemed, and the neutral computerized keeper of the Shadowlands, Ergo, highly advanced characters will be able to briefly transform themselves into a powerful "shadowbreed" monster with exceptional combat ability. Though the shadowbreed abilities and durations are still being adjusted for balance reasons, high-level characters should be able to use them about as often as they use the game's powerful last-ditch "dimach" psychic attack.

Hey, it's the undersea kingdom. For you and for me.

Unfortunately, the expansion was recently tweaked to remove the new style of land-control first introduced in The Notum Wars. Funcom had originally planned to implement raw notum veins to mine in proximity to one another--setting up allied notum towers in succession would create an energy-rich "constellation" of towers that would provide exceptional bonuses for their owners, but the developer decided that this system required additional balancing and fine-tuning, so it won't be launching with the expansion pack, but it may make its way into the game later on. According to the developer, the expansion isn't really intended for players who seek wealth and possessions anyway; the dungeons and quests of Rubi-Ka will be a much better source. However, The Shadowlands will offer a much more focused experience for both new and experienced players, and should also hopefully encourage players to play in groups, especially since some of the expansion's more-advanced side-quests will require group participation in downing exceedingly powerful monsters or even capture-the-flag-style objectives. Both new and experienced players will be able to enter the Shadowlands when the expansion is released later this year.

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