Shadowbane has two major features that set it apart from most massively multiplayer online role-playing games. First, it doesn't use a first-person shooter control scheme like every other game of this sort, but instead uses a mouse-driven interface that is reminiscent of Diablo's control scheme. Secondly, it seems as if, above all else, the game's designers wanted you to have fun. The first of these features may take some getting used to. The second doesn't. Despite the fact that Shadowbane was originally billed as a complex game of large-scale siege warfare and political intrigue, once you get past the game's interface and other issues, you'll find that Shadowbane strips away the constant battle between players and the rules and simply lets you go out, meet some people, fight a bunch of monsters, and gain some levels.
At first, you may not find Shadowbane to be very accessible, especially since the game's interface can seem all but unintelligible at first. Moving and attacking, which are performed with simple mouse clicks, are easy enough to learn, but mastering the game's many interface windows is a nightmare, and after dozens of hours of play you may find yourself still struggling to remember how to bring up the "group information" window. Similarly, assigning hotkeys to powers and spells is neither straightforward nor intuitive, which is a shame, considering that games like EverQuest helped set the standard for simple interfaces, and most subsequent games in the genre have only improved upon this standard. Shadowbane can't compare in this respect, and you'll find yourself constantly reaching for the game's manual.
Unfortunately, Shadowbane's interface problems are compounded by the game's tutorial, which is at best useless and at worst a hindrance. There's no training ground to gradually acclimate yourself to the world of Shadowbane. Instead, you get a bunch of pop-up windows that explain game mechanics and interface issues that pertain to your current situation in unclear ways. These windows pop up directly in the center of the screen, obscuring your view of whatever it is they're supposed to tell you about. Basically, you'll need to learn the ins and outs of Shadowbane by trial and error.
These initial stumbling blocks are unfortunate, because there's a lot to like about the game once you learn how to play. From the first time you set out from your home city and begin fighting the creatures of the world, you'll recognize that Shadowbane is substantially different from other games in its genre. You'll undoubtedly fight on your own for bit, and gain a substantial amount of experience. And then you'll join a group, and you'll gain an even more substantial amount of experience. Shadowbane doesn't employ the typical experience penalty for being in a group. In fact, you'll gain almost as much experience for killing monsters in a group as for killing monsters on your own. This means that large groups are preferable, even though they can be chaotic messes in the early levels, with everyone simply running around, killing things on their own. You could say that Shadowbane does feature the so-called "leveling treadmill," in which you kill monsters, gain experience and loot to buy better weapons and armor, and then use these items to kill even more monsters. The difference in Shadowbane is that the developers seem to have set the treadmill on "sprint."
As you advance, it becomes more difficult to have these huge "group soloing" experiences. But that doesn't affect the amount of experience you gain. Well-coordinated groups, though they can be rare, can easily dispatch significantly higher-level monsters, granting you huge experiential and monetary rewards. In fact, for a long while, you may be wondering just what you're going to do with all the money you earn. Though training can become expensive as you advance, you'll still likely find yourself with a constant surplus of gold--though you'll quickly learn to keep all of it in the bank. Shadowbane employs what is possibly the most punishing death system of any game in its genre. When you die, you lose experience points, and all your unequipped items and gold stay at your grave. EverQuest players will probably have flashbacks as they traipse across Shadowbane's huge landmass just to recover their goods. Unfortunately, in Shadowbane, anyone can loot your grave, so carrying your life savings around is an unwise decision.
As to what you'll do with all the gold you manage to hoard from the greedy hands of passersby, the answer is simple: You save it for later. The fact that you level up so quickly in Shadowbane also means that you can basically advance to the highest levels quickly. This means that, after you've spent some time killing monsters and exploring the world, you must find other ways to occupy yourself.
Like in Mythic's Dark Age of Camelot, the killing of monsters and gaining of levels in Shadowbane serves as a primer for the player vs. player game. When you reach level 20, you can no longer use a computer-controlled city as your character's home (where he or she will appear after he dies). You can become what the game calls an "errant" character, but your best bet is to join a player guild. Guilds can build cities within the world, with forges, shops, houses, and guards. And other guilds can raid these cities and attempt to burn them to the ground. While Dark Age of Camelot's high-level game is basically a massive session of capture the flag, Shadowbane's is like a cross between SimCity and capture the flag, which raises the stakes on the flag considerably. Note that at the time of this review, no real sieges have even taken place. In other words, it's not clear whether laying siege to a city will be as enjoyable and challenging as the game's advertising purports it to be. It's also unclear what will happen to the world of Shadowbane once it becomes crowded. Hopefully it won't suffer the same fate that Ultima Online has: turning into a large tract-housing development.
Some may find Shadowbane's player vs. player component a bit extreme. As if grave robbing weren't enough of an issue, thieves can also sneak up on players in the field and take their goods without detection. There are safeguards against such actions, such as items that allow you to see hiding characters, but you'll still find yourself checking your pockets frequently.
You'll likely be frustrated by some of Shadowbane's other design decisions as well. For one, in addition to health and magic power, you must conserve your character's stamina. While this isn't as much of an issue for spellcasting classes, fighters can use up a great deal of stamina in the field. Furthermore, you also burn through stamina very quickly when running, so you must sit and rest fairly frequently when traversing the world, especially if you're wearing armor. It's very annoying, and hopefully something that will be adjusted in upcoming patches.
There are other issues that will hopefully be addressed as well. At peak hours, the game is usually nigh unplayable because of severe lag, and server crashes have occurred with some frequency since the game's launch. Another problem is the chat interface, which allows characters to broadcast information to a wide area. Anyone who has played a massively multiplayer game will know that other players are both the genre's strength and its weakness. And listening to the worldwide ramblings of your fellow players in Shadowbane definitely falls into the latter category.
One thing that certainly won't be fixed in a patch is the game's graphics. Frankly, Shadowbane's visuals aren't its strong point. If you have a powerful system, you can crank the level of detail up and make it look decent, but you run the risk of significant slowdown when you reach areas that are graphically intensive.
But again, you may end up forgiving Shadowbane's visual shortcomings once you get into the details. Character creation and modification are interesting and varied. There are four basic character templates: mage, fighter, healer, and rogue. When you reach level 10, you must choose a profession. It is here that things get interesting, because Shadowbane allows for a variety of professions for the different classes. And they are distinctly different--a fighter who chooses to become a knight will be very different character than one who chooses to be a barbarian. Likewise, a rogue who becomes a scout will end up being very different than an assassin. And Shadowbane offers even more variation, allowing characters to find powerful runes that will give them higher-level skills called disciplines.
It's true that Shadowbane's design has a few questionable aspects, and that figuring out how to use the game's interface can be a chore. There's also no denying that Shadowbane is going through some growing pains, and that it has yet to prove whether the town sieges will be any fun. But there's no denying that when you find a good group and you're fighting, chatting, and gaining levels, Shadowbane is at least as good as EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot. And though at first you may ask yourself if you really need another game that plays, for the most part, like both of those games, you may eventually be so busy fighting that you'll forget the question.