Publisher: Mythic Entertainment
Developer: Mythic Entertainment
Release Date: December 7, 2004
Pre-order 'DARK AGE OF CAMELOT: Catacombs': PC
I was recently Mythic's guest at their Corporate Headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia to meet with the development team and check out the progress on Dark Age of Camelot's third retail expansion, Catacombs.
I came away from the meeting with two things: pages of notes from a guided tour by Destin Bales, the Content Lead; and a beta account so I could see for myself how the project is coming along, which means that this preview isn't the sole result of being fed a picture of perfection by the development team. A lot of the opinions I'll be putting forth here are the result of actual hands-on time.
The first expansion, Shrouded Isles, was your typical MMOG expansion with the usual mix of new areas and classes, but overall didn't really add much new stuff to the game – just more of what made the original great. The follow-up, Trials of Atlantis, was more controversial, introducing Master Levels and Artifacts to the game, many of which require insane amounts of people to complete. I'm not going to say much more about ToA here, other than that I'll admit while I dislike the need for a few hundred of your closest friends to complete some of the ML's, I do like the fact that Mythic went out on a limb with ToA, and steered the game away from another Shrouded Isles-type expansion.
Catacombs is the opposite of ToA, designed solely around a single-group of eight players. The new areas are set under the capital city in each of the three realms, and unlike ToA, each realm's area is unique. Catacombs has one new underground city for each Realm, and the rest of the expansion is a mix of instanced zones and what Mythic calls “underground terrain zones” – essentially large underground zones the size of a standard outdoor zone. The large zones give different groups of players plenty of breathing space, so you aren't always sitting right on top each other fighting over a spot.
The instanced zones are designed for the solo player as well as a single group. In several of the underground terrain zones, as well as each of the dungeons in the classic zones, you will find glowing doors; behind those doors are the entrances to the instances, and each instance has a base level that it is designed for; unfortunately, each instance doesn't automatically spawn monsters appropriate for your level.
The instanced zones are successful on several fronts: by eliminating camping, they encourage people to actually move through the dungeon; and they give the solo player meaningful content they can do in a 90-minute period. I brought my level 46 Warden through one of the instances in Coruscating Mines, a classic zone instance, and got one full bub of xp, 100 gold pieces and 660 Aurulites (more on these later). It wasn't the fastest xp I've gotten, but it sure beat the heck out standing by a tree chain pulling the same monster over and over again. I don't know if this was just my luck, but none of the monsters dropped anything besides coin and Aurulites, and there wasn't a boss monster at the end; I have a feeling that the bosses only spawn in a group instance.
If you go link dead, it's easy to get back into the instance. Mythic recently allowed you to invite someone from a different zone to your group. Once the person has been re-added, they'll have access to your instance. Since the instances don't respawn dead monsters, it'll be easy for them to catch up. Also, if you're in a group with a total moron, kicking him from the group also kicks him from the instance.
The art direction for the expansion is excellent; the art department really deserves praise for this one. The Midgard “newbie zone” is a large, haunted Viking ship; Albion has underground aqueducts to run around in; and Hibernia's first zone is large chunks of floating rock connected by stone bridges in a massive, red swirling vortex. In the past expansions, I've thought some of the Hibernia zones were lacking in the art areas, but they've really made up for it in Catacombs.
Scattered through the zones you'll find obelisks; clicking on them allows you to teleport from the new central city to that zone. One of the new zones, the Abandoned Mines, lets you get to any of the classic dungeons, and also lets you take a mine cart ride to get there.
The zones are designed for you to level from 1-50 in, and they seem to be successful at it. I ran through the newbie zones and they are well stocked with quickly respawning monsters so you'll be able to level up quite fast. There are quest-givers and trainers in the new city, so it's possible you'll never leave the zones. What I don't know about is the loot drops, yet, as I didn't get too deep into any of the 40+ zones to see the loot.
There is one loot-related thing to mention, though. Monsters in the instances drop Aurulites, which work like the seals in Darkness Falls – hand them in to select merchants to get decent gear. After 90 minutes of solo hunting, I had about 600 Aurulites, which was enough for one piece of armor. According to Mythic, the goal is for the loot to be better than the Darkness Falls gear, but have it salvage for less, and from what I saw, it looked marginally better. There are some interesting new pieces I've read about, including items that will lessen the xp loss on death. Also, almost all of the new bonuses will only work in PvE zones; Mythic is trying very hard to make sure the new items don't have a huge impact on RvR.
There are also five new classes here: Albion gets the Heretic, a Dark Priest Evil Cleric class; Midgard gets the Warlock, a spellcaster who can queue up multiple spells for a single attack, and the Valkyrie, a chain wearing hybrid who casts Cone Area Effect specks – a new spell type that affects every enemy in front of the Valkrie who is in range of the spell; Hibernia gets the Vampiir, a fighter who wields a one-handed piercing weapon in its right hand, and casts magic with its left hand, and the Bainshee a cloth wearing class whose magic comes in the form of sound-based attacks.
It's still way too early to tell how these classes balance out in the long run (it's one thing to test in beta, and another thing when thousands of min/maxers figure out the little details of the class), but they look fun. Unlike the loot, the new classes are designed to have an impact in RvR. One of the problems right now is Albion outnumbers most of the other Realms, and they are hoping the new classes draw some people away from Albion to try out the other Realm's classes. Is it likely to happen? I doubt it, since it's tough to convince people to start over in a new Realm. That said, I'm looking forward to giving the Valkyrie and the Bainshee a test spin.
The new zones feature more detailed models and geometry than in previous releases, and they've gone through and re-textured the old classic dungeons as well. The new character models look nice, and are certainly a sight better than the old ones. The big changes are that faces and armor now have their own geometry instead of just painted textures, giving them more depth and a realistic look. When I saw early screenshots, I thought they looked better than the EQ2 models, but after running around with them, I don't think that's the case.
That's not a bad thing, since I thought the EQ2 models looked too plastic, and the Catacombs models do have better shading. That said, they do look much better than the current models and integrate well with the rest of the game, something I don't think a highly detailed model would have. I've also noticed the game runs smoothly, and zoning appears to have been reduced across all zones with the new engine as an extra bonus.
So, what am I not happy with?
The fact that they've put off re-doing the classic city zones, for one thing. While I do understand the reason for this getting cut, the new models really show the age of the old city's graphics. I also wish there were an easier way to get into the new city zones without having to run through the first zone. While there is an obelisk in the first zone, it's a decent run in; I think the obelisk should be near the front of the first zone.
There are some graphics issues with the new models that need to be worked out, specifically with the hair – they are still a tad too pixelated for my tastes. It's easy enough to fix, but it's on my List of Things to Reserve Final Judgment On Until After Launch. Also, I wish there were more customization options with the new faces. Right now, each race gets about five face and hair choices, and that's not enough. Also, facial hair is tied to specific hair choices, so if you like one hair shape, you can't get a beard to go along with it. While I don't want Star Wars Galaxies-type customization – I never got close enough to any model in that game to appreciate that someone took the time to get their cheekbones just right – I'd be ecstatic with about 10 choices overall.
Most of these issues are in the nit-picking category; the gameplay in Catacombs is really fun and fills a huge void I've felt Camelot has been missing for a while: 90-minute content a solo-player or single group can chew through. I've been excited about this expansion since it was announced, and so far, it hasn't disappointed. It goes live on December 7th, so break out your spelunking gear then.
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