At a glance, Turbine's massively multiplayer online RPG Asheron's Call may not seem very attractive; its uninspired presentation, esoteric setting, clumsy combat system, and cluttered interface do little to recommend it over its competitors. Yet despite these weaknesses, Asheron's Call has a number of even greater strengths, and it's these strengths that let it stand both on even footing with and apart from any of its contemporaries.
As mentioned, Asheron's Call probably won't make a very good first impression on you, particularly if you're familiar with its competition, Origin's Ultima Online and Verant's EverQuest. Though Asheron's Call's characters' clean lines and motion-captured animation beat Ultima Online's diminutive, washed-out sprites handily, their uniformly simple, blocky models and equally simple textures can't compare with EverQuest's diverse pool of expertly textured high-fantasy inhabitants. As in Ultima Online, every single playable character in Asheron's Call is human, so you'll never be able to play as a hulking ogre or a lithe elf. You'll also never do battle with standard high-fantasy monsters; instead of fighting against dragons and ogres, you'll fight against giant insect Olthoi and catlike Drudges. Then again, you can customize your character's facial features, ethnic background, and the cut and color of his starting set of clothes. In addition, every single piece of armor or clothing your character wears actually appears on your character, and given Asheron's Call's great variety of different types of armor and clothing, it's very possible to have a character that looks different from everyone else's, even if all the characters are human.
And though many of Asheron's Call's special effects, such as flaming swords and magic spells, look quite good, others, like trails of caustic acid and gouts of blood, look like nothing more than clumps of colored soap bubbles. Then again, Asheron's Call's simpler special effects and character/monster models let more characters and monsters appear onscreen simultaneously without inducing undue slowdown or lag. And Asheron's Call has something that neither Ultima Online nor EverQuest has, if you can look past the blocky character models - specifically, up. Asheron's Call has some beautiful dynamic sky effects; you can literally watch the moon cross the sky at night. And moon or no moon, even though Asheron's Call's darkest nights and the dankest dungeons are quite dark, you'll still be able to see, unlike in the oppressive darkness of EverQuest, which would cause many players to curse their night-blind Erudite, Human, or Barbarian eyes.
Asheron's Call sounds about as unassuming as it looks. For the most part, sound is sparse in Asheron's Call; other than the odd ambient sound of a wandering creature, the gust of wind produced by a magic spell, or the shouts and grunts of combat, Asheron's Call is more or less completely silent. All of these sounds are effective if nothing else, though some monsters, like the mewling drudges, sound silly; others, like the chittering mites, sound downright annoying. This isn't to say that Asheron's Call actually sounds especially bad. What little sound there is, is usually loud, crisp, and clearly indicative of the event, creature, character, or combat exchange that caused it.
And combat is one of the most important parts of Asheron's Call's gameplay. Unfortunately, it's nearly always marked by awkward pauses. Drawing your weapon, sheathing your weapon, or doing nearly anything else causes you to stop dead in your tracks - which can make pursuing fleeing monsters, doing battle with multiple enemies, or beating a hasty retreat of your own needlessly difficult. Fortunately, the monsters' artificial intelligence is lax enough to allow this; many monsters can be led to walls or other obstacles onto which they'll get stuck and can then easily be dispatched.
But there's more to combat in Asheron's Call than just jarring pauses and gullible monsters. Melee combat is actually a fairly sophisticated affair: You can choose both the speed with which and the height at which you swing your weapon. As a result, combat is much more strategic than in other games of this sort, as it factors in an enemy's weak points and the amount of stamina your character expends while fighting. And the monsters themselves can be surprisingly persistent, in spite of their sometimes-flawed behavior routines. Monsters wielding ranged weapons will draw an unerring bead on you and fire away, while those not so equipped will pursue you across some distance before they give up. Yes, unlike the unrelenting monsters of EverQuest, Asheron's Call's monsters will eventually stop chasing you if you run far enough. Though it can be said that this eliminates some of the challenge of combat, it also makes solo play in Asheron's Call much more feasible than in other games, like EverQuest, whose insanely powerful and relentlessly vindictive high-level monsters more or less require you to group with other players after a certain point. Asheron's Call offers a more complete gaming experience in this regard, since it's actually possible to play productively with companions or alone, especially if you can't seem to find a group.
This isn't to say that solo play is the best way to go; a good group is much more effective in slaying monsters, recovering treasure, and gaining experience points than a solo player is. To this end, Asheron's Call has two grouping systems: the fellowship and the allegiance. The fellowship is a standard adventuring party that lasts only as long as its members decide to stay together. However, the allegiance system is an innovative and completely unique means of character association. In it, characters swear fealty to other characters; these vassals provide an experience-point bonus to their lords, in whose best interests it is to help their vassals in turn, as lords receive the most bonuses from active and successful subjects. In addition, as a lord's vassal conscripts recruits of his own, that lord advances in rank and receives an even larger bonus from his subjects' activities. At worst, the allegiance system is a multilevel marketing scheme, whereby greedy, uncaring patrons enlist as many vassals as possible in order to gain large amounts of bonus experience. But at best, the allegiance system can provide a tightly knit companionship for players genuinely interested in helping others and developing an organized assembly. And should either of these social systems become confusing, unrewarding, or tiresome, you can leave them by toggling a simple on/off option buried deep within Asheron's Call's interface. You will have to do some digging to find certain game options. Asheron's Call's interface is cluttered, to say the least. It will initially seem difficult to lose yourself in the fantasy world of Dereth, since even in full-screen mode, your view is framed at the top by your character's opaque health, stamina, and mana displays and at the bottom by the equally obtrusive chat bar. Opening any sort of menu screen switches the view to minimized mode and pulls up a number of little icons and tabs, which when clicked on, open up other submenus. The only alternative to hunting around for the correct option with your mouse is to memorize Asheron's Call's many keyboard shortcuts. Then again, once you do, you'll find you have access to all the information about your character that you could ever need. Unlike other games of this sort, clicking the correct tab or using the correct keyboard shortcut will let you view just about any and every statistic and ability your character and his equipment possess. And it's these character abilities and statistics that collectively compose what is easily the most intricate, deep, and best part of Asheron's Call - the creation and development of a unique character. Characters are generated more or less entirely upon physical attributes and skill sets, each of which can be custom-tailored to suit your tastes. Though Asheron's Call does offer preexisting character classes, these are nothing more than suggested templates of statistic and skill combinations; you can edit these templates or create your own character from scratch. Being able to create your own character allows for a staggering number of variations, yet each variation is balanced, since a character's skills and attributes are determined by a set number of bonus points - and every character begins with the same number of points. As such, you are given the option to diversify your character's abilities, but you end up sacrificing depth for breadth, as should be the case.
Once you've generated a character, you can set out to see the world, fight monsters, and gain experience points. You can use these experience points to further develop your character by spending the points on attribute and skill increases. In contrast to other games, where character advancement is mostly vertical - that is, a character's abilities are governed almost entirely by his experience level - Asheron's Call lets characters advance both vertically and laterally. In other words, gaining experience points not only increases your character's inherent power in the form of experience levels, it also lets you strengthen and develop your character's statistics and skills in exactly the way you wish. This emphasis on creating and developing a unique and powerful character is enormously different from both EverQuest and Ultima Online, where in many cases the largely fixed path of character advancement tended to result in a single best way to create, develop, and equip a particular character class, and as such, obtaining the best weapons, armor, and loot was usually more important than actually developing a character.
Of course, all this development and advancement require that your character do the two things that every online RPG character must do: explore and die. Fortunately, Asheron's Call handles both of these beautifully. Though traveling long distances overland and entering dungeons both require you to enter a portal (which whisks you away to your destination at the expense of load time), exploring the enormous isle of Dereth can theoretically be done in a single, continuous run, without any long and unavoidable transitional load times. If you do decide to strike out and head for a new part of the island, hit the road, or hop into a portal, then visit the nearest lifestone to set where you'll reappear after you die.
Unfortunately, even though it's much more possible to avoid death in Asheron's Call than in other such games, your character will still die a good number of deaths. However, death isn't nearly as painful as in other games. When your character dies, he takes a minor penalty to his statistics and skills and loses half of his cash and a precious item or two - but nothing more. As a result, dying in Asheron's Call is far less painful and unpleasant than in other games; you don't lose all of your possessions, and you don't lose a whit of your total experience points, much less an entire experience level. Though the penalty itself is meaningful - losing five percent or more of all of your important skills and statistics can reduce your character's effectiveness - it won't cripple him. And since the penalty can be negated entirely by earning more experience points, dying certainly isn't the catastrophe it is in other games. And because both dying and exploring are so relatively painless, exploration in Asheron's Call is simply more feasible than in other games of the sort. You'll never have to worry about a ridiculously powerful monster spawning on top of your head, or a gang of player-killers ambushing you unless you decide to play on the PK server. Then again, joining a strong alliance will go a long way toward extending your life span on the PK server.
It should be noted that latency, the bane of every online RPG character's existence, is a minor problem in Asheron's Call. The game itself is mostly free of lag, though the game will occasionally slow to a crawl because of a lag spike and will very, very rarely disconnect you from the game entirely. For the most part, these lag spikes aren't a problem in Asheron's Call; they'll usually be gone as quickly as they appear, though it is possible to die an occasional lag death from monsters you thought you had evaded. While lag deaths should ideally never happen, their impact is at least lessened somewhat by Asheron's Call's lenient death system.
Asheron's Call might not seem like much at first. It doesn't have the glitter and flash of other comparable games, and at first, moving about and doing battle seem awkward and unintuitive. However, it compensates for these problems with a great deal of hidden depth, especially in terms of the enormous area to explore and the impressive number of combinations of character classes that can be created and developed in almost unlimited ways. As such, Asheron's Call is a solid, well-rounded online role-playing experience that's at least as good as any other out there.