You don't need 20/20 hindsight to see why the successful early-October launch of Dark Age of Camelot was such a significant event in PC gaming. It's safe to say that this impressive online role-playing game marks the dawning of a new era in a gaming genre that has steadily gained prominence since Ultima Online made national headlines in 1997. Developed by the experienced but heretofore little-known Mythic Entertainment, Dark Age of Camelot squarely takes aim at other popular online role-playing games--namely, Sony and Verant's definitive EverQuest, Microsoft and Turbine's Asheron's Call, and Funcom's recent sci-fi-themed Anarchy Online--and, by and large, it blows them away. Even if you've already invested hundreds of hours into one or more previous online role-playing games, you'll find that a brush with Dark Age of Camelot--let alone countless sleepless nights with it--will justify making the switch to Mythic's game. That's because, through and through, Dark Age of Camelot is solid, well designed, interesting, and rewarding. It's not for everyone--like most online RPGs, it demands much more of your time than the average game, and you won't enjoy it as much if you can't commit yourself to spending hours on end in its sprawling world. Regardless, Dark Age of Camelot has a great concept, is already teeming with tens of thousands of players, and promises to keep getting better.
Those thousands have no use for this review--they're enjoying the game already. This long review is best suited to those who've yet to decide whether Dark Age of Camelot is worth its retail price, the time commitment, and the monthly fee (approximately $10, payable by credit card or numerous other methods) for the service after the first free month. Based on extensive research and play time, this review is intended to empirically evaluate every significant aspect of Dark Age of Camelot, and, in doing so, to imply the broad scope of the game. Rest assured, you wouldn't have spare time for too many other games if you get into Dark Age of Camelot--but we'll suggest that such a sacrifice would be worthwhile. Furthermore, note that this review is based on Dark Age of Camelot as it exists to date--less than a month after its release. The nature of online games is one of constant change, which means that, over time, some of the following statements may no longer be applicable. In light of this, it's important to try to anticipate how a game like Dark Age of Camelot might change over time, using all available evidence to support the predictions.
Dark Age of Camelot takes place during a period of turmoil after the death of the legendary King Arthur. The people of Camelot are being called upon to defend their nation against its encroaching foes. Interestingly, the game presents this conflict from three different angles--not just Camelot's. That is, in addition to the realm of Albion, whose capital is Camelot itself, the game focuses equally on her two rivals: Hibernia, a magical land based on Celtic folklore, and Midgard, a harsh land based on Norse mythology. Dark Age of Camelot invites you to play as a character in any one of these three realms and eventually grow so powerful that you can invade the lands of your opponents.
To become powerful enough, you'll first need to gain a lot of experience by defeating countless evil creatures in your own realm. And regardless of whether you choose to be on the front lines against enemy players, Dark Age of Camelot's unique setting still creates a real sense of camaraderie between players in the same realm, who know that they have a common foe. Furthermore, the inclusion of features designed to help you find groups of other adventurers (or other adventurers to join your group) and organize large player guilds means that there's a very strong social framework in Dark Age of Camelot. It's easy to meet friendly people in the game, and playing with them generally makes the game much more enjoyable.
When it launched, Dark Age of Camelot offered 10 different game servers--sometimes known as shards--for players to choose from. These host several thousand players at peak hours, and Mythic has already added no less than half a dozen more servers in the few weeks since the game's release. Take note that if you wish to play the game with some of your friends, then you all have to play on the same server and within the same realm. As it is, in Dark Age of Camelot, the only thing you can do with players from other realms is to try to kill them. The game features an innovative, interesting player vs. player (PvP) system centered on the conflict between the realms. The dramatic notion of realm vs. realm combat between armies of players is completely realized in Dark Age of Camelot. If this notion sounds intimidating, it is. But it's important to emphasize that Dark Age of Camelot isn't strictly about PvP combat--not unless you want it to be. Though there's no penalty on players that get defeated, PvP combat is still best suited for seasoned players of higher experience levels, and it's relegated to discreet (but large) frontier areas on the outskirts of the realms. It's a very intense and carefully designed part of the game, but it's completely optional, and it isn't the focal point of Dark Age of Camelot. You could just as easily play and enjoy the game for hundreds of hours and never take up arms against another player.
Likewise, you could easily spend all your time in just one of the game's three huge realms. Dark Age of Camelot really is like three online role-playing games in one. Granted, many of the differences between the realms are superficial. The realms themselves are also rather spare--all lush, rolling terrain with scattered landmarks that are far apart from each other. Unlike EverQuest's various colorful zones, the realms don't have distinctly different environments. Still, the superficial differences within and between Dark Age's realms are plenty interesting, and playing in the different realms invariably leads to different kinds of experiences. You'll undoubtedly want to at least take a look at all the realms. They're equally appealing, though their respective mythological source material doesn't always come across--at a glance, they all seem like traditional high-fantasy worlds.
If you've ever played EverQuest, you'll find that much of Dark Age of Camelot will be immediately familiar to you. The deliberate pacing (it takes lots of time to run about the expansive environments), the emphasis on combat and gaining experience levels, the various character classes, and even some of the graphics are reminiscent of Verant's groundbreaking game. That doesn't mean Dark Age of Camelot is a copy--it simply acknowledges that certain aspects of online role-playing games are already well defined and doesn't try to reinvent the wheel in these cases. This is much the same as how brand-new real-time strategy games or shooters still tend to use certain conventional mechanics that make these games intuitive for players who've played other games like them. This also means that Dark Age of Camelot isn't an outwardly innovative game--it's clearly inspired by the games it's competing against, and offhand, it bears a striking resemblance to them. But as you delve deeper into Dark Age of Camelot, you'll take notice of and gain appreciation for both its subtler features and how generally refined it is.
Dark Age of Camelot lets you play as many different types of interesting characters, and it offers a streamlined character creation process so you can jump right into the game without delay. Each of the three realms has four different playable character races that vary in physical appearance and in their natural talents. You can choose male or female versions of any of the races, and you can select from several different faces and hair colors for variety's sake. Each realm also has four or five starting character classes you can choose from, not all of which are necessarily available to each race. These classes roughly fall into the typical archetypes for high-fantasy adventurers: You can choose to be a basic fighter, magic user, healer, or rogue.
Later, based on your initial choice, your character will be invited to join one of various specialty guilds. For instance, Albion characters who begin their lives as fighters may go on to become paladins, who can use holy auras to bolster themselves and their brethren in battle; armsmen, who can wield deadly polearms; or mercenaries, who are experts in using weapons ambidextrously. In this fashion, every basic class of every realm branches off into at least a couple of different specialized classes distinct to that realm. This gives you some room to grow into a character you'd like to play, and it also helps make character creation a simple process initially. Still, you'll have best results starting out with a specialty class already in mind--you probably will, since the game tells you up front about which of these will be available to your race/class combination. The three realms' respective classes are in fact all different, though some of them are analogous--for instance, Albion's minstrel, Hibernia's bard, and Midgard's skald all fill the same supporting roles in their respective realms.
Dark Age of Camelot is a deep, complex game that can take a while to learn. Still, the game does a fairly good job of holding your hand through the first several hours of your character's life. You start out right in front of a trainer character who will send you on a series of simple quests that are basically the same for every class. These will teach you a little about the lay of the land, how to form groups with other players, how to converse with non-player characters, how to fight, and so on. You might get killed in your initial encounters with enemy monsters, but for the first few experience levels, there's absolutely no penalty associated with death. You just reappear at the last area where you "bound" your character--typically some sort of friendly town or outpost. Later, the penalty for dying starts to get more serious. You'll lose up to 10 percent of the experience points necessary to get to the next level (though you can never lose your current level due to death), and you'll also lose a few of your character's constitution points, which can be restored by paying an NPC healer. The price for recovering constitution (which influences your total number of hit points, among other things) starts to get very steep as your character gains in levels. Fortunately, healer player characters can resurrect dead players, thus saving them the high cost of restoring constitution. This is one of the reasons healers are so important in Dark Age of Camelot, and it's also one of the many reasons it's not really a good idea to venture out on your own.
Many character classes in Dark Age of Camelot can viably fight foes of similar experience level throughout their lifetimes. The fights are fast and the action looks good, and your hit points, endurance (used for executing special melee attacks), and power (used for casting spells) all recover quickly when your character is at rest, which means there's little downtime. Unfortunately, throughout your character's early levels, the fighting won't seem very dramatic--you'll have to hack at various weak-looking beasts before you'll be powerful enough to take on anything imposing.
To get through the early stages as quickly as possible, you should bear in mind that the game gives tremendous advantages to coordinated, efficient player groups. A group can consist of up to eight players--a nice big number, though especially in realm vs. realm combat, you'll want to be a part of even larger teams. The game gives significant experience bonuses to groups of players, which can join forces to defeat foes much more powerful than any individual member of the group could handle. Dark Age of Camelot also actively discourages "camping," a common style of play in other online RPGs where characters simply mill about in the same place, fighting the same old monsters for experience. Dark Age circumvents this by giving you experience bonuses for such things as fighting more than one monster at a time, fighting monsters in their native territory (that is, where you can be ambushed by their brethren), and fighting types of monsters that haven't been fought recently. All this effectively encourages--but doesn't force--an active, adventurous style of hunting that can be very satisfying.
The combat itself is quite fun, too. Monsters smartly pick their targets, and sometimes they call for help. It's hard to flee from battle, but it's possible if you've reserved your endurance for a good sprint. You'll gain a good sense of your character's increasing strength as you gain experience. Each character class has many different combat options, many of which are designed to be useful to other players. Melee characters learn what are called "combat styles" as they grow more specialized with particular weapons. Combat styles use up endurance points, but they're generally much stronger than normal attacks and can also debilitate the foe in various ways--cause it to slow down, to begin bleeding (which causes damage over time), to be stunned, and more. Some combat styles can be used in combinations, others must be initiated from the flank or from behind the foe, and others are only effective in situations like after parrying a blow or after the enemy fumbles its attack. Combat styles make the melee classes in Dark Age of Camelot more complex than fighter-type characters in most role-playing games, although you'll find yourself relying on certain styles much more often than others, which diminishes the sense that melee classes in fact have a lot of combat maneuvers.
Magic-using classes typically have more options than the melee classes do, and they have plenty of magic power, so their downtime is minimal. There are many different spells in the game that are used for offense, defense, and support. Still, caster classes are focused on particular kinds of spells, so your options aren't completely open-ended. But just as melee classes can become proficient with particular types of weapons as they gain levels, spellcasting classes can specialize in different magic paths, allowing players to differentiate themselves even among those of the same character class. Though debates on message boards rage on about character strengths and weaknesses, the discussions all point to the fact that many options are viable for most any class in the game.
Combat is the main way to gain experience in Dark Age of Camelot, but it isn't the only way. You can also perform quests for experience points and other rewards. The quests are quite involved, and they generally require a lot of legwork and various different steps. You can keep track of what you're supposed to do next by checking your automatic quest log, but this doesn't provide extensive information--you'll just have to ask around if you get stuck. Low- to mid-level characters can also perform what are called "tasks," which are randomly generated, relatively simple miniquests that reward you with a good chunk of money and experience and can offer a nice change of pace from constant battle. Many NPCs will willingly assign you tasks. But regardless of how you gain experience, by the time you reach your "teens," you'll find that gaining experience levels can be very slow going. Currently, Dark Age of Camelot players can reach a maximum level of 50. Don't expect to get there anytime soon, if ever. Fortunately, there's generally good enough of an incentive to get to the next level that you don't really need to think about the end of the road, but rather just the next milestone. You'll usually gain some new skill, spell, or other ability with each new experience level.
Besides fighting and questing, you can also spend your time practicing various trade skills. Trade skills are important in Dark Age of Camelot for several reasons. First, spending the time to learn how to make good weapons or armor can fetch you a pretty penny from other players, since you'll be able to sell this gear for a lower price than the NPC merchants. You can also accept consignments from NPC master traders, which work like tasks and can earn you some cash and help you boost your trade skills.
Actually, various trade skills can also be combined to make the siege weapons used in realm vs. realm combat. Siege weapons are not easy to create, but if you can coordinate with a group of well-practiced craftsmen, you can indeed assemble catapults, battering rams, and ballistae for use against your foes and their defenses. Needless to say, these make the prospects of realm vs. realm combat all the more appealing. Siege weapons can be used to help breach enemy installations so you can claim their holy artifacts in the name of your realm. Such actions grant your realm bonuses against their foes and earn you "realm points," which can later be spent on various special rewards--though Mythic hasn't implemented many of these yet. Still, the incentive to earn realm points is intended to be one of the motivating factors for PvP encounters.
Money is a real commodity in Dark Age of Camelot--it can seem frustratingly difficult to come by, as you can't just kill relatively weaker foes to earn it, because they'll give you neither loot nor experience points. Good weapons and armor don't come cheap, and, as mentioned, recovering constitution after death isn't cheap, either. The game's tight economy makes you value every copper piece to your name.
Dark Age of Camelot's interface is effective, but it takes some getting used to. There's a chat window (which is cleverly divided into two sections, so chat messages and combat messages don't blend), a fully customizable "hot button" bank, your status panel, and your character sheet. There are also optional mini-windows for keeping track of your friends currently online, your group members, and your pets (such as the spiritmaster's ghosts). You can move and resize most of these displays as necessary, and you can even make them transparent so you can see the environment through them. Their information is presented clearly enough, though it's spread out across the screen, and at lower graphical resolutions, it clutters up your view. Some types of information are lacking. The differences between weapon and armor types aren't obvious, and you can't tell what defensive spells have been cast on your pets, nor what your spells actually do. Other types of data are easily recognizable--the names of monsters, and even equipment, are color-coded to indicate their relative strength. Experience and damage bonuses are clearly delineated, so you know when you're doing something right.
Dark Age of Camelot looks great. The game can be played from a first- or third-person perspective, though the latter tends to work best, since it lets you see more of your peripheral surroundings. However, your character can sometimes block your view of combat, unless you make some adjustments to the default camera perspective, which is pretty painless. It's also somewhat distracting that characters clip right through each other when they're close, though at least there's never a problem trying to get past someone. The character models themselves aren't very detailed, but there's a good variety in the types of armor they can wear. You can even dye individual armor pieces to customize your appearance (some of the more attractive colors are very expensive) and don a flowing cloak (with or without a hood) to give your character the classic look of a hero. Guild members can even have their cloaks emblazoned with their insignia--for a fee. Most of the game's terrain and architecture looks suitably realistic, and the various weather effects look nice, too. Some aspects of Dark Age don't look particularly good, though, like the rather blocky trees found throughout the realms. But most aspects, like the character animation and especially the game's dazzling spell effects, are outstanding.
Likewise, while the game's sounds are repetitive, they're mostly good. And the musical cues, which play when you walk into towns or other locations of note, are well suited to each realm and location. Dark Age of Camelot's other technical features are even more impressive. On a mid-range or high-end system, the 3D engine's performance rarely falters, even when scores of characters clutter the screen--although, in crowded areas of major cities, you'll likely see the frame rate take a hit. The game is extremely stable, and lag shouldn't be much of an issue even if you play over a dial-up connection. Loading times are mostly nonexistent. The scenery stretches on for mile after seamless mile--a double-edged sword, since this makes the world seem huge and immersive but also makes the scenery in any one realm seem empty and quite repetitive, even lonesome at times. What loading times there are--when entering capital cities, as a rare example--are short.
Like most online role-playing games, Dark Age of Camelot is well suited to extremely devoted, hard-core players, who will surely feel an intense competitive yearning to be among the first to dominate in realm vs. realm combat. If you're not in this category, don't worry--those miles and miles of terrain to explore, including dungeons and various other landmarks, are devoid of PvP combat, and there are plenty of monsters to fight despite how populous the servers are. For players who are new to the genre, the game's manual does a decent job of providing some basic information on learning the ropes, and there's also an in-game help system that fills a few other holes.
A better option for getting help lies in the game's built-in volunteer advisor program, which allows you to easily locate players willing to give you some pointers. Otherwise, Mythic's own customer support team has apparently been vigilant thus far, and it seems to be able to handle support issues in a relatively timely manner despite the sheer volume of inquiries it's received from the thousands of early adopters. The game's developers are also extremely active in the player community, and they often shed insight on their next projects and priorities on message boards dedicated to the game. They're clearly interested in player feedback--the entire game is a testament to that.
There's a great deal of content in the game already, and it's suitable for a variety of different play styles. Still, Mythic acknowledges that many game features are yet to come. There isn't much high-level content currently in the game, outside of the PvP combat. That's a moot point for most players for the time being, since many hundreds of hours will be necessary to get a character to high levels. You can ride horses in the game, but they currently work like a subway system--they automatically take you from one place to the next. Expanded options for horseback riding are promised in the future. New types of game servers have also been promised. Currently, there are a few "role-playing" servers in addition to the normal ones, which are basically for players who wish to play "in character." Forthcoming server types may in fact bend the rules, though--perhaps playing up or playing down the realm vs. realm combat aspect.
Mythic has also suggested that player-owned housing, special titles, and various character skills are also on their way. There's plenty of reason to think that Mythic will make good on all such claims in due time--the company has stated that its entire staff will remain committed exclusively to Dark Age of Camelot for the foreseeable future. While other companies go on to do other projects, Mythic intends to build on Dark Age of Camelot indefinitely. This seems completely viable in light of the game's great success at retail in its first few weeks, and it bodes very well for the game's future. And for your future, too, if you're playing Dark Age of Camelot, since it's an already great game that should become greater still.
Dark Age of Camelot isn't beyond reproach--its design won't necessarily appeal to everyone, such as those who completely dislike the idea of playing with others, or those who don't find its mythological theme appealing. Many aspects of the game are derived from other online RPGs, for better or worse. The world of Dark Age can feel barren--it's a very time-consuming game, and if you get lost in the wilderness or stuck with a disorganized, reckless, or tactless group of players, it can be frustrating. But that's life in the realms, and it's a life well worth living despite whatever trials and tribulations you'll endure. The fact is, as an online role-playing game, Dark Age of Camelot surpasses any such game to date and promises to remain the finest in its class for a long time. Dark Age of Camelot is based on historical legends and folk tales that grew stronger, more pervasive, and more influential as they were appropriated by different cultures and passed from generation to generation. In just this fashion, Dark Age of Camelot takes inspiration from past achievements in the genre and uses these as the building blocks to achieve an even greater goal.