The commercial success of massively multiplayer online games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest is enviable. These games have been around for years, have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and make each one of those players fork over about $10 a month--that's a lot of profit, so it's little wonder why so many competing products have been announced in the last couple of years. But unfortunately for those would-be competitors, many of them are finding that it isn't easy to convince an EverQuest player to make the switch to their brand. After all, someone who's committed hundreds or even thousands of hours to building up a character and a network of allies in his or her online world of choice wouldn't be quick to drop everything and start playing a different game. Certainly, one thing that almost all online role-playing games have in common is the sheer amount of time they demand.
At any rate, the release of Dark Age of Camelot in October of last year proved that it is possible for a game to directly compete with the likes of EverQuest if it's good enough. Though superficially similar to EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot provided a number of compelling twists on the formula. Also, unlike most other online RPGs, it launched without incident. Now a commercial expansion pack, Shrouded Isles, is available for Dark Age of Camelot, adding new player races, character classes, and scenery, plus a whole lot of new stuff to find, fight, and do. Some enhancements to the game's graphics and interface are also provided, making Shrouded Isles by all means a substantial add-on that could easily afford you with hundreds of hours of gameplay in exchange for the $30 retail cost. And while Shrouded Isles isn't a stand-alone product--you need the original Dark Age of Camelot to play it--it does show that Dark Age has come a long way since its original release last year, and that the game is well worth getting into even now. Meanwhile, experienced Dark Age players (most of whom no doubt already own the expansion) should find that Shrouded Isles does a great job of reinvigorating their game.
By now, many aspects of games like Dark Age of Camelot can be seen as conventional, since it isn't a huge departure from the formula that EverQuest established in 1999. You start by creating your own character, choosing from a number of different races and classes, and then you set off in a huge fantasy world in your quest to grow stronger and get better stuff. At least early on, most of your time will be spent fighting monsters and gaining experience. Teaming up with other players allows you to slay monsters more efficiently, though you can alternatively try taking on quests or tasks, which are simple hunting missions. You can also try building up your proficiency in various trade skills, a couple of which--alchemy and spellcraft--have been added since Dark Age was first released last year.
The big twist in Dark Age of Camelot is that the game features three entirely different realms: Albion, which is based on Arthurian legend; Hibernia, which is based on Celtic folklore; and Midgard, which is based on Norse mythology. Each realm has its own unique player races and character classes, though the classes are roughly analogous across the board. Nevertheless, the realms at least look completely different, and that alone makes the experience of playing in each one quite distinct. The realms exist in a state of perpetual conflict: Once you've become strong enough, you'll be able to venture into the frontier beyond your realm and start fighting members of opposing realms for the glory of your kingdom. So at higher levels, Dark Age of Camelot turns into sort of a huge game of capture the flag, where teams of players take on opponents in an effort to steal opposing realms' relics, which grant special bonuses to their owners. Player killing thus is a major element of Dark Age of Camelot, but it's optional, and since you can't even speak with members of an opposing realm, it really has none of the drawbacks that used to be associated with player killing in these sorts of games.
Alternatively, Mythic Entertainment recently launched a purely cooperative server, where no player killing is possible and all three realms exist in harmony. Those looking for an experience more similar to EverQuest should enjoy this option. On the other hand, those looking for even more player-killing mayhem can sign onto special servers where it's possible to attack players even of your own realm. Still, the majority of Dark Age of Camelot servers emphasize high-level realm vs. realm combat, though questing and hunting monsters remains viable throughout a character's lifetime. Of further note, since the launch of the game, Mythic has added the ability for players to consensually duel each other to prove who's strongest. There's no real penalty for losing a duel, so this is a fun feature if ever you've wanted to test your skills against one of your comrades.
Though it doesn't change the focus of the game, Shrouded Isles contains new content for all levels of Dark Age of Camelot players. One new race per realm has been added--the reclusive iconnu join Albion, the treelike sylvans join Hibernia, and the feral valkyn join Midgard--and while these differ more in appearance than anything, they do help diversify the game's population. Each realm also gets one new magic-oriented class and one new combat-oriented class, and most of these are pretty interesting, even though they're somewhat similar to some of the existing classes. Midgard's savages prefer to fight empty-handed, and their reckless fighting style allows them to sacrifice some of their hit points for offensive bonuses. Hybernia's valewalkers fight with huge scythes, and while they do not wear conventional armor, their nature magic allows them to protect themselves. Albion's necromancers can shed their corporeal bodies to become shades, meanwhile channeling their dark energies into undead hosts that do their bidding. Mythic is continuously working on balancing the game's literally dozens of different classes, but each one has plenty of different abilities, purposes, and strategies, so they can all be enjoyable to play. Shrouded Isles' new classes fit in well with the existing ones, and they can viably fight alone or provide valuable contributions to groups of players.
The new player races begin in entirely new areas of their respective realms. These large landmasses contain plenty of new places to explore, things to fight, and quests to undertake. They exist discretely from the remainder of their realms, so you'll experience a brief loading time as you teleport to and from the main landmass. Beyond that, there are few such abrupt transitions in Dark Age of Camelot, most of whose lands stretch on seamlessly for miles. The fact that Mythic built up the world of Dark Age of Camelot equivalently across three already huge realms can make it somewhat difficult to appreciate the breadth of this expansion's content, but if you take the opportunity to try out at least one of the new classes in each of the three realms, you'll more than likely be impressed at just how substantial an expansion pack this is.
Some of the new interface enhancements include the addition of more room onscreen for hot buttons for your characters' various skills. It's a very helpful change, since most characters have a large variety of spells or special attacks that they always want to have on hand. Additionally, there's a new set of optional onscreen hot buttons that provides easy access to some of the game's most commonly used commands, many of which you'd otherwise have to type out in the text window. The game's interface is still compartmentalized in numerous different windows, and learning where everything is and how everything works can take a new player some time to figure out, but the game is still relatively user-friendly for an online RPG.
The graphical improvements featured in Shrouded Isles will make the game run more smoothly on some systems, especially when lots of player characters are around, and that's probably the least obvious but most useful of the enhancements. Other than that, the use of enhanced 3D effects makes for some impressively realistic-looking bodies of water, subtly reflective or shiny surfaces, and enhanced spell effects. The spell effects in Dark Age of Camelot were the best-looking part of the original game's presentation, and they remain so after the expansion. The rest of the visuals are clean and functional, but not spectacular--particularly the rather simple character models, even for the new races. On the other hand, the new landmasses added in the expansion for the most part look quite a bit better than the original scenery, and generally appear noticeably more natural and lifelike. Shrouded Isles also adds some effective new sound effects for the realms' new monsters and some enjoyable new ambient music that quietly plays in the background of some of the new scenes.
Since Mythic Entertainment is constantly changing and adding to the world of Dark Age of Camelot anyway, the company has set its own high standard for how substantial an expansion pack Shrouded Isles ought to be. Dark Age players would never have just settled for a small amount of new content, or just one or two new races or character classes, since the game already has so much. Thus Mythic has jam-packed Shrouded Isles with new material, making it one of the biggest expansions to date for an online role-playing game. And with tens of thousands of people playing Dark Age of Camelot at peak hours, the demand was certainly there for all this new content.
Of course, the core game itself is still absolutely worthwhile. Since last year, Mythic has added lots more high-level content and helped address one of the fundamental criticisms that Dark Age players brought up: that the game could get boring after a while, and that there wasn't enough to do (albeit after hundreds of hours). It's still a time-consuming game that's not worth getting into unless you're ready to put some serious time into it, and much of that time will be spent killing monsters, often the same ones, repeatedly. Nevertheless, actually playing Dark Age tends to be a lot of fun, due to the strategic combat, the large-scale battles. Dark Age of Camelot is still one of the best online role-playing games on the market, and by extension, one of the best such games to date. And Shrouded Isles succeeds at making it even bigger and better.