So-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games have roots in text-based multiuser dungeon (or "MUD") games, but they've since evolved into one of the most prominent and most fiercely competitive PC game markets around. These games let players create characters to adventure in a huge online world with other players, and they get thousands of subscribers hooked on their addictive hack-and-slash combat and lengthy quests. And though these players always keep coming back for more, it seems like some of them are never happy--they constantly complain about how certain aspects of their favorite games are tiresome or even infuriating. Play Asheron's Call 2: Fallen Kings for a while, and you'll realize that developer Turbine Entertainment clearly wanted to avoid as many of these problems as possible. Such nettlesome issues--like losing items after your character dies, or being forced to run back to the nearest town to sell off burdensome loot and replenish supplies--simply aren't in the game. As a result, Asheron's Call 2 is a highly streamlined, highly accessible online RPG. Yet although the developer plans to add plenty of new content to the game in the coming months, the game's world of Dereth also seems bare for a number of reasons.
Then again, when you first step into the world of Asheron's Call 2, you'll immediately find something that the game can't be faulted for: its superb graphics. Asheron's Call 2 makes excellent use of new DirectX graphical features to create spectacular effects like animated water, colorful magic spell effects, and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. Asheron's Call 2's impressive graphics engine also allows for massive architecture in both indoor and outdoor areas, including gigantic statues, huge towers, and truly bizarre structures in the game's various dungeons. And the game has highly detailed, colorful character models and monsters that look considerably better than those of practically any other online RPG on the market today. Unlike most online RPGs, Asheron's Call 2 uses an offbeat, completely original fantasy setting (rather than a traditional medieval fantasy backdrop, the way games like Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest do), and the game's powerful graphics engine has really let Turbine's team of artists articulate this unusual setting. These excellent graphics do come at a price: In order to fully appreciate the way Asheron's Call 2 looks, you'll need a good computer, preferably one equipped with at least 512MB of RAM and at least a decent midrange graphics card, like a GeForce3 Ti200 or higher.
Most online role-playing games tend to have rather sparse sound to help players really feel as though they're exploring a vast, open world, but Asheron's Call 2 has a subdued, ambient soundtrack that plays constantly in the background. It's not the least bit offensive, but it's indistinct enough that it can be easily ignored. Though the game has a dynamic music system that changes the music depending on various factors, it's really not noticeable except for when player characters get together and use instruments to play music. Players can use Asheron's Call 2's emote system to make their characters quietly laugh, wave at each other, or play up to 10 variations on the game's musical instrument melodies, which sound different depending what sort of instrument (such as a lute or a drum) each player is using. It's not uncommon to see players standing about a crafting forge--a special area that can enhance players' item-crafting skills--playing musical instruments in a group when they're not out hunting monsters.
Unfortunately, as things are right now, there isn't much to do other than fighting, crafting, and occasionally playing music. Though Asheron's Call 2 has a seemingly complex story that involves the destruction of Dereth (and the impending reconstruction of the world in the months to come), you'll uncover it only by clearing out the game's vaults--huge underground dungeons full of monsters presided over by an especially strong monster. For the most part, you can complete a vault by killing the vault's boss monster. Once you do so, you're rewarded with a brief cinematic sequence and quest points that will count toward something eventually, but currently have no in-game value. You can also try to complete a normal, non-vault dungeon, or an aboveground quest, which will usually require you to kill certain monsters to collect specific items off their bodies. Or, you can try to find a spot where monsters spawn aboveground and hunt them for experience and items. Either way, you'll be fighting monsters quite a bit--especially since fighting is the main way to gain experience points and pick up monster loot.
Loot is more important in Asheron's Call 2 than in other games, since it's the direct source of all your character's money and will likely be the direct source of all your character's weapons and armor. All loot items are composed of one of five basic raw materials (wood, stone, iron, crystal, or acid) and can be instantly changed into gold by dragging each item into a prompt in your character's inventory screen, much like in Gas Powered Games' action RPG Dungeon Siege. However, you're better off attempting to craft your loot into better items yourself, especially since crafted weapons are far more powerful than most any you'll find on the body of a slain monster. One one hand, this streamlined crafting system eliminates the "mule" problem of the original Asheron's Call. In that game, trade skills were best improved by spending experience points on them, so many players had a regular combat character, whose experience they spent normally on combat skills, and a "mule" character, whose experience they'd spend only on crafting skills. Then again, since monster loot is really the only source of crafting materials, you can't really lead the life of a peaceful artisan either--you've got to keep fighting and looting in order to improve your crafting skills.
At any rate, Asheron's Call 2's crafting system is highly streamlined and very easy to get into. Rather than developing a generic metal-smithing or wood-carving skill, you simply improve your skill making an individual item repeatedly, and with each success, you become better at crafting that item and can unlock more-advanced versions of that same item. While it's certainly a lot less complex than the crafting systems used in other games, it also seems more shallow. Rather than being renowned as an expert smith, your characters are "the guys who make good gloves"--or they would be, if so many other players weren't also crafting the exact same things you are. The ease of crafting shifts dramatically once you unlock your fourth-level recipe for just about any item, since crafting high-level magic bows, swords, and armor not only requires high-quality materials from high-level loot, but also insanely rare monster trophy items, such as wings from wasps and spikes from Dereth's spiny reedsharks, which are so difficult to obtain that their market value is overblown. At this point in time, the fourth tier of crafted items will generally bring the careers of all but the most dedicated artisans to a screeching halt.
But since crafting is so easy to get into and produces relatively good items, it's a highly common practice for low-level characters, especially since Asheron's Call 2 has no non-player character merchants. In fact, with the exception of its many monsters, Asheron's Call 2 has no non-player characters at all--ostensibly, this is part of the game's story, which rests on the premise that the world of Dereth has been overrun by mysterious assailants who have destroyed its towns and slaughtered its inhabitants. The fact that players can quickly and easily get rid of unwanted loot without having to run back to town is an obvious benefit for hard-core online RPG veterans, who in previous games would have to immediately quit whatever hunt or quest they were on and abandon their fellows whenever they were encumbered with loot to sell, or if they ran out of arrows or spell reagents. But there are no spell reagents in Asheron's Call 2, bows are equipped with an endless supply of arrows, and your characters don't get encumbered, even when their inventory is full. And if they need to get rid of their items, they can convert them immediately into gold, or craft them into weapons and armor on the spot without having to leave the area. It's remarkably convenient, but when you set foot into a town that doesn't have a popular forge (there are currently very few of these), you won't find any non-player characters hustling and bustling about the area, and you probably won't find any other players, either.
In fact, if you don't play on one of the more popular servers, you may go for hours without seeing anyone else at all. Asheron's Call 2's player community is currently rather small compared with that of other games, which can actually be a good thing for EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot fans who are burnt out from crowding into the same dungeon or into the same area with tens or even hundreds of other players. To these players, and to groups of friends who are looking to start playing a new online role-playing game together, Asheron's Call 2 may very well be an unspoiled paradise--a huge virtual world with hardly anyone else around to bother you. However, if you're looking for a vast community of like-minded players to meet and socialize with, you'll have a hard time finding it in Asheron's Call 2. Though you may be impressed at the sight of a dazzling sunset across the ocean, or pleased by the fact that you can quickly craft a better sword than the one you're carrying, running through the wilderness without seeing another soul for hours on end can make the otherwise beautiful world of Dereth seem empty, even lonesome.
You can still try to socialize with other players, provided you can find company. Like the original Asheron's Call, Asheron's Call 2 lets you form hunting groups, known as fellowships, as well as long-term player associations known as allegiances, in which players swear fealty to a lord in exchange for protection, information, and company. There are already numerous player allegiances trying valiantly to recruit new members, but they're spread thinly across Dereth and generally end up being extended hunting groups. Some players are trying to get into the game's interesting kingdom vs. kingdom system, which lets players of opposing kingdom alignments fight each other, usually over resource mines, but until the game becomes much more populated, these skirmishes will likely remain few and far between.
You can chat with your allegiance, your fellowship, or nearby players using a simple chat window that unfortunately doesn't separate fighting messages from chat by default, but if you play with the game's chat options for a bit, you can use the game's four different chat windows to keep tabs on your fellows at all times. The original Asheron's Call littered the screen with bunches of colored buttons and icons, and though Asheron's Call 2's interface suffers a bit from a lack of hotkeys, it's still much easier to navigate than the previous game, and you can hide parts or all of it as you see fit.
However, the relatively low population of Asheron's Call 2, along with the ease of crafting and selling off loot, highlight how focused the game really is on fighting. Fighting monsters is the source of most of your characters' experience (other than experience awarded by quests) and all of your characters' loot. Since you'll be spending relatively little time crafting items and no time at all running back to a town merchant, you'll be free to fight, fight, and fight some more. Asheron's Call 2's fighting system is easy to grasp, and it's more interesting than the fighting systems featured in other online games in that monsters will occasionally become exceptionally vulnerable to a powerful attack, so if you're fighting a tough opponent, you'll want to pay attention and make sure you strike when your opponent is vulnerable. Then again, if you stick to monsters that are about your character's level or slightly lower, you run hardly any risk of dying in combat. It can be as enjoyable and as addictive as the hack-and-slash combat of most RPGs, and since Asheron's Call 2 has very little "downtime"--waiting for your characters to recover lost health and vigor after a fight--you can quickly and easily get your character to level 15. But past that, you'll need to spend a lot of time gaining experience to advance in levels--so currently, you really won't do much in Asheron's Call 2 other than fighting. Each of the game's three playable races has three basic ways of fighting: melee, missile, or magic, though each race has advanced skill trees available--and just like in the original Asheron's Call, you can improve your skills by investing experience points in them. However, the game lets you un-train any skills you've chosen if you don't like how your character has turned out. This open-ended skill system allows you much more freedom than other games, in which your characters' skill progression is locked, and in which, if you're not satisfied with your character, your only recourse is to start a new character.
It's easy to look at Asheron's Call 2 and see the potential for a truly intriguing game once Turbine begins rolling out its regular monthly content updates with new quests, items, and monsters. Like other online RPGs before it, Asheron's Call 2 focuses mainly on combat, but as a result of the game's streamlined crafting system and total lack of non-player characters, this focus is much more obvious, and since the fights aren't terribly challenging, many players prefer to play solo. If you're that kind of player--the kind who's more interested in hacking and slashing, and less interested in constantly chatting with other players--you may enjoy Asheron's Call 2 a great deal. Also, considering the game's streamlined interface, low learning curve, and unusual setting, if you're new to online RPGs--especially if you're a fan of console RPGs, with comparably bizarre characters and monsters--you'd do well to give Asheron's Call 2 a try. If all these things and the idea of a small, tightly knit player community appeal to you, Asheron's Call 2 may be just the game for you. But if you're looking for a bustling online world with plenty of other people and many different things to do, you may not find what you're looking for in Asheron's Call 2 for some time.