Raises the bar for expansion packs, not just for MMO's, but for games as a whole.

User Rating: 8.8 | Anarchy Online: Shadowlands PC
Anarchy Online, you’ve come a long way, baby. Ridiculed at release by players frustrated with an infamously instable launch, Funcom proved its dedication to its disappointed fan base by turning its much maligned MMORPG into the broadest and deepest online experience available. Not only did it overcome its initial growing pains, it became the standard by which these games would be judged, featuring a deep and often complicated skill system; a huge and varied game world; an involved and fascinating story arc; and a tremendous amount of content sure to please veterans of the genre. Shadowlands is the first full expansion released for Anarchy Online, after 2002’s Notum Wars, a somewhat lackluster add-on pack focused on higher-level group content and adding little to bring new players into the fold. If Notum Wars was a disappointment, then Shadowlands is, quite simply, a triumph of game design. Funcom has created a brand new, enormous expanse to compliment Rubi-Ka, complete with two new classes, a brand new perks system, a new and focused mission structure, and a host of new content that is both exciting and intimidating. With these additions, not only has the most complex online RPG become better, it has raised the bar for expansion packs, not just for MMO’s, but for games as a whole. Omni-Tek scientists working in the city of Jobe, a city floating above the planet Rubi-Ka, have discovered an alternate reality known as the Shadowlands. There, two factions known as the redeemed and unredeemed battle for control in a war eerily similar to that between the clans and Omni-Tek. Jobe is reached either as a starting point for new characters, or via portals on the planet proper. Players can choose to take some missions or battle creatures in the initial beginner’s area, or simply jump into Shadowland’s main quest. And what an amazing quest it is, more focused and linear than what most expect from a game of this type. While some players may be surprised and partially put off by the relative lack of free form gameplay to be found in Shadowlands, there is still plenty of room for exploration. In fact, you will travel long distances from region to region, and for the most part, the world is packed with monstrosities to fight and plenty of eye candy at which to gawk. The Shadowlands in some ways looks significantly different from Rubi-Ka, owing more to traditional fantasy settings than the cyberpunk atmosphere on the main planet. Those new environments are still quite original, and do not feel out of place within Anarchy Online, a blessing considering you will progress through a number of different regions with their own special look and feel as you wade through the missions. Unlike on Rubi-Ka, your trek from Jobe has a singular end, and because the expansion eschews private mission areas for shared quests, you may miss the short-term personal dungeons from the main planet. Because of this, casual players and soloists may find less to love about the Shadowlands trek, as the linear journey requires a certain amount of patience while you wait for a particular enemy to respawn or a crowd around a particular NPC to dwindle. As if a brand new world almost as large as the original and brimming with content wasn’t enough, Shadowlands also features two new classes, the keeper and the shade. The keeper is a traditional paladin-type character, and what he lacks in originality, he makes up for in brute force. The shade, on the other hand, is a martial artist with a significant gameplay twist: he buffs himself with tattoos stolen from defeated spirits, rather than using traditional armor. Both classes come with a new array of nanoprograms and abilities, such as the keeper’s “righteous fury,” and the shade’s “procs,” mainly consisting of debuffs and damage-over-time nanos. And as if Anarchy Online’s skill trees were not already complex enough, another significant change is the addition of “perks,” entire lines of skills and enhancements, some of which are generalized, and some of which are profession-specific. Completion of those trees can also unlock new abilities for characters, making for seemingly infinite ways to customize your avatar. Not are there perks for all classes, not just the two newest, but each profession can look forward to new nanoprograms, armor, weapons, and items. This all sounds incredibly complex, and with good reason; Shadowlands deepens what is already the most complicated and involved online RPG on the market. Thankfully, Funcom has simplified the interface and implemented a brand new tutorial, making new players’ initial impressions less daunting than before. New help tips have been added, but can fortunately be turned off, as they are often more annoying than helpful. The beginning missions on Jobe guide new players through the standard Anarchy Online interface and control, although Rubi-Ka is still the superior locale for beginners. The final result of this wide array of improvements is a gaming experience that feels brand new to veterans without losing any of the atmosphere and drama that differentiate the game from its brethren. Beginners will find the interface and gameplay less intimidating than before, but would still be better served starting their online careers on the main planet before making the dedicated trek through the Shadowlands. Shadowlands does make some attractive enhancements to textures and environments, and exploring is certainly easy on the eyes. This is, though, an expansion to a game released in 2001, and while it was graphically superior to other MMO’s at launch, the engine is showing signs of age. In particular, character models have not been updated, and look overly polygonal by today’s standards. Funcom has obviously made the most of its artistic talent, however: environments are often stunning, detailed, and full of lush vegetation and frightening fauna. All in all, many of Anarchy Online’s visuals hold up well, and the original and overflowing environments help make up for some clunky models and stiff animations. As in Anarchy Online, it is in the audio where Shadowlands truly shines, and its soundtrack remains the best in the genre, particularly with the addition of brand new music. While exploration in most MMORPG’s is a silent affair, save for a few random ambient sounds and the noise of your fellow players, the experience here is heightened by appropriate and interesting music that immerses the player without ever seeming repetitious. While most audio effects are recyled, the new enemies are accompanied by original and frightening sounds, and the atmospheric noise is appropriately creepy. With so much new content, enhancements, an additional skill system, a huge original world, and more, Shadowlands is the quintessential expansion, and serves as a primer to developers hoping to reward their dedicated players. It may not do much to reduce a steep learning curve, but new players undaunted by complex gameplay would do well to take this opportunity to experience Anarchy Online’s unique futuristic setting. Experienced players and those looking for a reason to return need look no further: Shadowlands delivers a deep, expansive and highly satisfying journey.