Online role-playing games seem to have something of a bad rap. They're colorful games that let players create fantastic characters to explore a vivid online world with other like-minded players--but some people tend to think these games are just a bit too colorful. Games like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot offer huge fantasy worlds populated by dragons, werewolves, and other fearsome fantasy creatures, but they also feature legions of players running about as pointy-eared elves wearing shiny green armor, whose names are crudely misspelled variations on "Cloud Strife" or "Gandalf." Developer Wolfpack Studios went into the development of Shadowbane with the intention of making a fantasy world--but one where the elves ain't happy, and players don't do battle just with monsters, but also with each other.
We were able to take the early levels of the prerelease version of the game for a test drive, creating new characters to bring into the game's bleak, war-torn world. Shadowbane features 10 different playable races, including mundane choices like humans and elves and more-exotic choices like centaurs and minotaurs. You begin with a set number of character points that you can spend to increase your character's various physical attributes, including strength and health, but interestingly enough, you can also use points to acquire different attributes that can give your characters bonuses to their skills or statistics.
Shadowbane has an unusual character class system that defines characters both by their professions and by their specific attributes and skills, which are indicated by gem icons in your character's information screen. All characters have only a few slots for these attributes, and they begin their lives with two basic gems: one for their race and one for their basic profession. However, by taking on miscellaneous attributes and class-specific skills, characters can essentially upgrade themselves to a new character class, or discipline, that is defined by powerful advanced skills. For instance, players can begin as lowly rogues, but later learn skills like poison blade, disguise, and invisibility to become a much more formidable assassin character.
Once you've created your character, you can jump into the game's world. Shadowbane's interface is surprisingly complex, and players can open up various menus for their characters' inventories, statistics, equipped items, group information, and special abilities. The game's control setup is also unusual--though you can rotate and zoom the camera around your character to change your view, you actually move your character by pointing on your destination and right-clicking, rather than using the traditional first-person-shooter-style control scheme that most online RPGs since EverQuest have used.
During the beta, players would begin outside of a small settlement populated by armor and weapon merchants and skill trainers who can help players increase their abilities as they become more powerful. Shadowbane uses an experience-level system and indicates how much experience your character must acquire to reach the next level with an experience bar at the bottom of your screen. Once you've gained a level, you'll earn character points that you can use to improve your various weapon and magic skills (which make you more effective in straight combat and spellcasting), and once you've increased your basic skills by prerequisite amounts, you can begin learning advanced skills and disciplines.
For instance, if your characters spend enough skill points to increase their skill with a quarterstaff, they'll eventually be able to use more-advanced skills like the batter attack, which deals additional damage and can stun enemies. Casting magic spells is based on your characters' skills and their mana reserves, which increase with each level gained. Every character also has a spell-like "sprint" ability, much like in Dark Age of Camelot, that lets him or her run unusually fast, though you'll expend endurance while doing so. You can replenish both your mana and your fatigue bar more quickly while your character sits.
Much of our time in Shadowbane was spent searching for monsters to hunt for loot and experience. Fortunately, this process was surprisingly easy to carry out, since the game has a minimap that clearly shows the locations of the nearest monsters and player characters. You can even right-click on specific locations on the map to automatically move to them, without having to hunt around with your mouse pointer. Unfortunately, our beta travels were often interrupted by server lag. Hopefully the final game will iron out all the technical problems. Shadowbane is scheduled for release at the end of March.