Hopefully by now you're familiar with online role-playing games on the PC. You start playing most of them by creating a single character from a pool of different races and character classes, and then you take that character out into a huge online world to fight monsters, recover treasures, and socialize with hundreds, even thousands, of other players who are playing as their own characters. And if you've been following the progress of online RPGs in general, you may have already heard of Wolfpack Entertainment's Shadowbane. Shadowbane was announced a few years ago, and though it was originally planned to be a simple 2D game, it has evolved over the years into a much more ambitious fully 3D game. Though fans of Shadowbane are impatiently counting the minutes until the game is made available, both Wolfpack and publisher Ubi Soft have held back the game's release, stating that they prefer to make a strong first impression, rather than launch the game in an unpolished state.
Shadowbane will be a fantasy-themed game full of swords and sorcery, like EverQuest, but it will have a number of major differences that will help set it apart. Like other online RPGs, it will let you create a character and hunt computer-controlled monsters in search of fame and fortune, but it will also strongly emphasize the social and competitive aspects of online role-playing games. Like in other games, players will be able to group together to form guilds, which are permanent affiliations of characters that can quickly communicate with each other over a custom chat channel. However, guilds will be much more important in Shadowbane than they have been in other games, since Shadowbane's guilds will eventually be able to build their own castles and cities and do battle with rival guilds in the field and at the walls of each others' towns using siege engines.
But before you can ascend to the leadership of a powerful guild, you'll have to start at the beginning, and it just so happens that Shadowbane will have some very innovative ways to create and develop your character. When you begin the game, you'll be able to choose from a total of 10 different fantasy races in addition to humans, including elves and dwarves. And among these 10, Shadowbane will also have a set of what the game refers to as "restricted races." These powerful creatures include the half-man, half-horse centaurs; the huge, bull-headed minotaurs; and the aracoix, who are winged bird people with the ability to fly.
Naturally, each race has different strengths and weaknesses. The powerful half-giant race, for instance, is extremely strong, but none too bright. You'll be able to choose your character race by "paying" for your race from a pool of 30 starting stat points, though until recently, new players weren't going to be able to begin the game as one of the restricted races. This changed recently with the announcement of the Shadowbane promo CD, a bonus disc that will be carried by certain retailers and will come with a lot of extras, including the ability to choose from the restricted races.
But choosing a character race will be just part of the puzzle--you'll also choose your character's class. Similar to 2001's Dark Age of Camelot, Shadowbane will let you begin play as one of four base classes: fighter, healer, mage, and rogue. Though playing each of the basic classes will be straightforward enough, Shadowbane will let you change your character to a more-advanced profession, using its interesting character discipline system. Rather than simply having a linear, hard-coded character progression system, Shadowbane will let players choose to study different, highly specialized skills called disciplines. Each character can study up to three, and these powerful skills will help define your character's advanced profession.
A Class Act
On one hand, these disciplines will allow you a lot of freedom to eventually build an interesting character. On the other hand, they will also help distinguish players at high levels. For instance, when EverQuest first shipped in 1999, the only difference between one high-level wizard and another high-level wizard was a few pieces of gear and possibly the characters' race--otherwise, they all had the same abilities and the same spells. In Shadowbane, no two advanced characters will be alike, since players will be able to advance from their basic classes to an intermediate class and then to a high-level prestige class. Here's an example: You might play as a rogue, and your friend might play a healer, but both of you will eventually be able to aspire to the powerful sorcerer class. However, you might have spent much of your adventurer's life as an assassin, learning stealth and the art of dispatching enemies with poison, while your friend might have chosen to play as a prelate, preferring to resurrect his fallen comrades on the battlefield and calling forth divine powers to smite his enemies. Though you'll both eventually be powerful sorcerers by choosing and developing the proper disciplines, you'll have very, very different skills, backgrounds, and abilities.
You'll need all the help you can get when you're adventuring in Shadowbane's dark and sometimes harsh world of Aerynth. It's not that Shadowbane will be difficult to start playing, since the game will seclude all new players in a protected area in which no player may hurt another so new players will be able to hunt, fight, develop their skills, and get used to playing the game in peace. If they die, they'll simply be transported back to their original tree of life--a magical tree that restores life to dead adventurers and damaged cities. However, once players reach their 20th experience level, they'll be booted out of their sanctuary and forced to adventure on the mainland, where anything goes. Or rather, almost anything. Though the continent of Aerynth will have safe zones, it will also have several areas that will basically allow free-form player vs. player combat--that is, player characters will be able to freely attack each other. Fortunately, in addition to the safe areas, Shadowbane will also have a number of countermeasures in place to make sure that mean-spirited "grief players" won't be able to freely slaughter new players. Aside from the fact that all mainland characters will begin their careers at level 20 (a respectable level of power), Shadowbane will also award experience points on a sliding scale. That is to say, although you'll be able to get experience points from winning any fight--against a monster or another player--killing off a character that is of a much lower level than you will barely yield enough to make fighting worth the trouble, especially if that lower-level character belongs to a very protective guild. Randomly assassinating other characters can make some very powerful enemies, and it might start a guild war or even get you expelled from your own guild.
Guilds really are the core of Shadowbane, as powerful, wealthy guilds will be able to build their own towns from the ground up. Wolfpack Studios' graphics engine, the Arcane 3D engine, will let players change the actual landscape of the world by building cities and huge fortresses on it and by razing those cities and fortresses to the ground. Make no mistake--laying siege to a city in Shadowbane will be grueling. You and your guild will need to commission expensive siege weapons, such as battering rams, ballistae, and trebuchets, and spend hours attacking your rivals' walls and buildings. Your ultimate goal will be to breach your opponents' holdings and neutralize their city's tree of life. Laying siege to a city won't be easy by any means, but it can be very rewarding. If you can successfully conquer a rival guild, you may be able to make them your vassals, thereby expanding your guild's power and reach.
It's been a long time coming, but Shadowbane has come a long way since it was announced. It will definitely be interesting to see how the game's competitive guild system and siege warfare will eventually work. We should be able to find out when the game is released later this year.