Shadowbane is the latest raindrop in a vast sea of massively-multiplayer online RPGs. Developed by Texas-based Wolfpack Studios, the game has spent quite a long time in coming. Touted by Wolfpack to be a player-versus-player-centric experience (a shaky proposal in the MMORPG business), Shadowbane actually offers a wide variety of gameplay--a welcome change amidst the cookie-cutter slew of EverQuest clones on the market. At first glance, Shadowbane looks like most any other MMORPG on the market--an enormous 3D world populated by a large variety of player characters, NPCs, and monsters. Appearances can be deceiving, however; while Shadowbane certainly can’t deny its vaguely Ultima Online and EverQuest-inspired roots, its gameplay approach is a unique mix of monster-killing, player conflict, and social intrigue. Before jumping into the world of Shadowbane, a player must first of course create a character. A wide variety of races are available, including such standard fantasy fare as humans, dwarves, and elves; there’s a fair assortment of original races as well, including shades (half-undead) and irekei (demonic-looking elf offshoots). There are also three restricted races, which unlock at the rate of one per month of paid game time--a nice reward for consistent gameplay. After selecting a race, you’re given a choice of one of four basic classes: fighter, mage, healer, and rogue. These starting classes are fairly basic; once you gain a few levels, you’ll be given the option to promote to a much more well-defined profession. After selecting a race and class, you’re allotted a number of training points with which to increase your character’s basic ability scores (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, and spirit) or purchase runestones. Runestones give characters special abilities, such as faster movement speed or the power to see invisible creatures. Extra training points are awarded as you gain levels; these are used to raise your ability scores and improve your character’s skills. Once character generation is finished, you are placed on a beginner’s island; this island, which is designed to teach new players the ropes, is populated with low-level monsters and a liberal assortment of villages. The first few levels of a character’s existence are primarily composed of hanging around spawn points and killing monsters; to this end, it is in a character’s best interests to group with other players and form hunting parties. Finding fellow players to group up with is as easy as sending a message across Shadowbane’s flexible chat interface, which includes a number of channels to facilitate a variety of global and private communication. Your character improves in level as you gain experience; eventually, you will be given the option of promoting to an advanced class. These advanced professions are significantly more in-depth than the four basic classes--players may elect to become thieves, warriors, druids, assassins, bards, scouts, rangers, and more. All told, 18 classes are available, with 6-7 selectable by each of the basic classes. Players may further customize their characters through the use of disciplines, which grant even more specific sets of skills--as long as you’re willing to spend your hard-earned training points on them. Combat is as easy as drawing a weapon and double-clicking on a target. Various factors, such as a character’s weapon skill and defense, factor into how fights turn out; as your combat skills improve, your character also gains access to several nifty weapon powers (or spells, in the case of magic-users) for some added punch. Fallen enemies yield gold, items, and of course, experience points. Death is usually a minor setback, usually facilitating a quick corpse run amidst the hope that no vindictive players have wandered by to clean you out. Fortunately, equipped items stay with you when you die--but any gold or extra items you’re carrying are fair game. As noted earlier, player-versus-player combat is a major theme in Shadowbane. In addition to the possibility of having a fallen corpse looted by other players, characters are free to attack one another at whim; once the beginner’s island is left behind, anyone is fair game. Thieves are free to steal from unwary players as well, so you’ll have to keep on your toes. Fortunately, players are able--if not encouraged--to form guilds, both for safety and friendship. If that weren’t enough, several guilds can get together and build entire cities. Players can purchase real estate, elect city officials, make laws, and hire guards--all in an effort to build a flourishing empire. True to its conflict-oriented roots, Shadowbane allows for large-scale city-to-city combat; cities can wage war upon one another, laying siege and engaging in massive group skirmishes. Shadowbane’s interface takes a bit of getting used to. Movement is not accomplished via the arrow keys, as in traditional MMORPGs; instead, your character moves about via mouse clicks on either the main screen or a small mini-map window. Actions, such as talking to shopkeepers or drawing a weapon, are facilitated by various keyboard hotkeys. The default view is an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, though you are able to zoom and swivel the game’s camera with almost total freedom. A few hours of tinkering should get you accustomed to the interface, but those first few play sessions are bound to be at least a tad confusing. Shadowbane’s graphics are fairly dated. Having been a work in progress for several years, Shadowbane’s graphical engine isn’t extremely impressive--it looks like a game that should have come out a couple years ago. Though the character models are large and fairly detailed, much of the game’s environments are very bland; after a while, most places just end up looking the same. There are plenty of clipping issues as well. The dated aesthetics can be improved by tweaking the graphical settings, though the game retains its somewhat shoddy visuals no matter what the case is. At the time of this writing, there are a slew of notable driver problems, particularly with ATI video cards. The music in Shadowbane is comparable to most any game of its type--fairly good, though it gets repetitive fast. Most players will likely find themselves shutting off the game’s background music after a few plays sessions. The sound effects are nothing new; players, monsters, and NPCs come fitted with an assortment of grunts, yelps, and annoying greetings. Most of these are likely to cause eventual irritation, though sound effects are often a crucial way to gauge the situation. The Shadowbane client’s performance is a mixed bag. The game runs nice and smoothly most of the time, with only the occasional lag bubble. Populated or densely-foliated areas of the map can cause extreme amounts of latency as new textures are loaded; it isn’t uncommon to come out of a lag spike only to realize you’re suddenly at half health thanks to the monster that just appeared right next to you. Thankfully, Wolfpack seems to be steadily improving the performance problems; the retail version of Shadowbane is leaps and bounds ahead of the beta test client. Shadowbane isn’t a game for everyone; it’s mainly geared toward gamers who have grown weary of the run-of-the-mill monster-killing MMORPG fare. The city warfare aspect is certainly a unique approach, as is the fairly elaborate character development system. The graphical engine is a bit archaic, and the game client certainly has a few glaring problems that need to be addressed. Despite these issues, one must certainly admire Wolfpack for weathering the numerous production hurdles associated with Shadowbane’s development. MMORPGs are a cutthroat business, with only a handful of true successes and an exponential sum of dismal failures. Which category Shadowbane falls under remains to be seen, but if Wolfpack plays their cards right (and judging from the loyal cult following they’ve garnered, they’re off to a good start), they could have a real winner on their hands.
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