User Rating: 8.1 | Shadowbane PC
It's difficult to judge a game like this because so much of it is dependent on the player community--much moreso than a game like Everquest. This is because, at its core, Shadowbane allows the player community to shape the game world to a far greater extent than any other massively multiplayer role-playing game I've ever played or read about. In short, I believe that Gamespot’s review was using the wrong “lens” to look at the game: it was judging it as a “player-versus-environment” (PvE) game instead of a “player-versus-player” (PvP) game, which is what it really is; these two kinds of games are actually very different and the strengths of one can be the weaknesses of the other. In Everquest--the very model of a PvE game--fighting computer-controlled monsters and gaining levels was by far the main focus of the game. A handful of other players--the friends you adventured with--certainly added a great deal to the fun factor, but the community as a whole didn't matter as much because they didn't have much power to alter the game's history, economy, or politics--in short, what makes a persistent multiplayer world really interesting in the long run. For me, the major flaw in this PvE model is that it gets very boring very fast. Computer AI can only be so good, and after a while I get tired of wandering around, raising my level and stats, getting new weapons, mechanically killing really stupid monsters over a period of several hours, even if I'm doing it all in good company. Shadowbane's designers realized this, so they decided to make a game that made players the masters of their world, allowing them to build their own cities, guilds, companies, religious organizations, or nations, form alliances, declare vendettas, start coups--in short, they wanted to give players the power to shape the game's environment. As a result, I believe that Shadowbane is so dependent on the creativity and participation of its player community that its world is kind of like a "blank slate" that the players write on. This has both good and bad effects. For instance, one reviewer could play on a Shadowbane server with an immature player community, and write a (justifiably) horrible review of the game, while another reviewer could play on a server with an excellent player community and a burgeoning political scene, and write an excellent review of the game. Since Gamespot's review was written when all of Shadowbane's servers were still nascent, there was no political structure to speak of. For a mature and interesting world to develop, a lot of relatively mundane stuff has to happen first. For one thing, players first have to go through a "leveling treadmill". This is a somewhat controversial part of the game that's like any other PvE MMORPG stripped down to its bare essentials: get some friends, find an enemy, kill it, gain cash, gain levels, get new powers and equipment, repeat. Because Shadowbane's designers were so focused on PvP mechanics, they made the PvE element so barebones as to allow players to gain levels as quickly as possible so that they could easily "max out" their character and then get into the political scene, at which point their player is mature and can compete with other "maxed out" characters. The irritating thing about this is that because the PvE combat is so cut-and-dry, it makes it more boring than in most other MMORPGs. Fortunately, at least this leveling treadmill is turned on "high speed", so you still get through it far faster than any other MMORPG, but it still takes at least a good week of full-time playing to accomplish this, which is horrible for the casual gamer. Fortunately, guilds can help greatly speed this process in a variety of ways, so a mature political scene also makes this treadmill move even faster. After going through the treadmill, extremely dedicated players can start guilds and build and maintain cities, which costs a great deal of money, manpower, and (most unfortunately) time commitment. To get the money, guild members "harvest gold": this is very much like the Shadowbane equivalent of harvesting resources in a real-time-strategy game, only instead of cutting down trees or mining ore, you're killing monsters and taking the gold they drop. Unfortunately, this can be pretty boring, but at least it can be combined with the “leveling treadmill” so that incoming guild members can harvest gold while gaining levels. From what I've seen, most servers are still in this early phase: many characters are still leveling up to the point that they're "maxed out", and most guilds are still fortifying their positions and harvesting gold like crazy to create buildings and train merchants in their cities. Once this happens, large scale inter-national relations can start taking place. Shadowbane’s innovative hierarchical guild system is very simple, yet extremely flexible: it just means that one guild can be the “parent” of another guild, and the highest-level guild in a heirarchy is a “nation”. This simple concept provides for a huge variety of political structures. With the maturation of a political scene, guild cities can become the vassals of nations, a nation can start colonies in far-off lands, a religious organization can build cathedrals in cities across the world, companies can be incorporated, alliances formed, wars started, cities besieged, and more. It’s all up to the creativity of the player community. There’s even a ton of background lore available for the game--it’s far more unique and provocative than the generic Greek/Norse polytheism of most fantasy worlds like Everquest’s--but it’s up to the players to take advantage of it and build their characters and guilds off it, if they so choose. Put simply, Shadowbane is not a PvE game, but it looks like one at the time of this writing because nations are still forming, so most people are fighting monsters--either to gain levels or harvest gold for their guild--instead of other players. And because Gamespot reviewed Shadowbane as a PvE game, many of the flaws they pointed out about it are actually its strengths--the issue of stamina points and player death, to name two. And, above all, the feature of Shadowbane that the review touted the most--its mundane PvE combat--is actually one of the game’s biggest flaws.