Developer: Artifact Entertainment
Release Date: December 9, 2003
Buy 'HORIZONS: Empire of Istaria': PC
I’m going to spend the next 1500 words or so telling you all the pros and cons of Horizons so you may decide if it’s worth tossing your hard-earned bucks towards it. If you haven’t bought Horizons yet and are planning to: Caveat Emptor. On June 16th the publisher, Artifact Entertainment, laid off 70% of their staff. The game wasn’t making money, so staff had to go. It’s my opinion that this game isn’t going to survive; it would take a monumental effort for the game to continue. With that out of the way, the official Worthplaying review.
Humans, Fiends, Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Saris, Sslik, Half-Giants and Dragons were the nine playable races at launch, but since then the players have freed two additional races: the Dryad and the Satyr. Each race has the usual plusses and minuses that help determine the ideal class for them. In addition, each race has a Special Ability that gives them an additional benefit. For example, Elves get an Elven Leadership ability that increases their groups’ ability to hit in combat.
But the ability to play a dragon was what really drove people to the game.
The mythical dragon is one of winged death. Smaug, the legendary Tolkien dragon, turned Laketown into a boiling cup of man-chowder before retiring to the Lonely Mountain to sit on a pile of treasure while dreaming of sacrificial virgins.
The Horizons’ dragon is more like a puppy-dog. If you took the dog from “The Grinch who Stole Christmas”, replaced his tied-on antlers with dragon wings, you’d have your newborn Horizons dragon. Your dragon hatchling literally bounds like a puppy, and that’s an intentional similarity the developers put in the game. Dragon breath? Hah! More like morning breath for all it did. When my noble dragon died in a battle with a maggot - you read that right folks, a freakin’ maggot - I was embarrassed. Smaug promptly disowned him and cut him off from the will. That moment almost ended my adventures in Horizons, making this a short read.
When I heard Horizons would let you play a dragon, like most people, I was intrigued. Playing a winged messenger of fiery doom sure beats playing a gnome, and the fact that you could eventually fly didn’t hurt its case at all. Your dragon can’t fly when you create it, instead it goes through a long quest called the Rite of Passage, where once you complete it you are an adult and can fly. From what I’ve read it’s a decent, fun quest and I wish there were more like them in the game. Dragons must also accumulate a hoard, which then determines how powerful you are. You add items to the horde by dragging them to an inventory slot, and if the item is deemed worthy it’ll be added to your horde.
One of the interesting things about the game is you can swap classes at will. Start out life as a Scout and decided you like being a Healer better? No problem, just head on over to the nearest trainer and you’ll become a Healer. You’ve got two types of levels: Class Levels; and Adventure Levels, which are based off your class levels. The Adventure level is considered your overall level, which Horizons uses for determining what armor you can wear, whether or not you can kill a given mob, and whether or not a mob gives XP. Since dabbling in classes can artificially inflate your Adventure Level, it’s easy to gimp yourself. However, it’s not as bad as the skill based system in Star Wars Galaxies, where you had a certain number of points to spend and it was easy to spread too thin.
Combat is fairly straightforward. You run up to a mob, hit auto-attack and go make popcorn. When you come back, either you or the mob is dead. Sure, as you level you get extra abilities, but I found the re-use timers too lengthy for them to be much use. You also get three combat stances you can use, which work on a “rock, paper, scissors” principle, where each one gives advantages, and dis-advantages, against certain types of combat. Also, get used to killing maggots, as I spent most of the first ten levels killing variants of them.
Horizons also allows you to adventure solely as a Crafter, but like most crafting games you’ll spend most of your time digging through piles of ore to get the components you need. As you advance, you can elect to join one of the Prestige classes, which are hybrids of two or more classes. You’ll need to get to a minimum level in each required class to unlock the Prestige class. Unfortunately, the Prestige classes aren’t documented anywhere, and I happened upon them reading through some message boards.
Also, players craft every item in the game. When you kill a mob, instead of dropping an item the PC can use, it drops something a crafter can use to make the PC a better item. I’m not a big fan of this system; I much prefer a system like Dark Age of Camelot, where monsters drop usable gear but players make the best items in the game. Call me a sucker for shiny things.
There’s a rudimentary questing system in Horizons as well, where most quests fall into the Fed-Ex or “kill x mobs”. It’s not as deep as the questing system in Dark Age of Camelot, where the quests help promote the overall story arc. There is a story in Horizons, where the Living Races – the players – are warring against the Withered Aegis – the undead mobs, but the quests don’t really reflect that conflict.
Traveling in the game is very easy. You can teleport between all the major cities and there’s an excellent in-game map that shows where you are, and zooms to a street level view when you enter a city. You also get a speed bonus when running on the roads and all characters have the ability to recall to their bind point.
What’s a fantasy game without dungeons? Horizons, apparently, since there isn’t a single dungeon in the game, and the omission is glaring. Dungeon crawls are a staple of fantasy games, and I was very disappointed to learn they weren’t in this game.
There are a number of odd bugs I ran into just getting the game going. After I installed it, I had a hard time just getting it patched. The game uses an Internet Explorer-based login interface and the patcher quit unexpectedly. I was also initially unable to create a character on my main rig and had to use my laptop to create her – it just kept locking up when entering the character creation screen. Getting into the game was a often a chore, as I would frequently get “transport errors” when I tried to enter the world. Canceling the subscription is likewise challenging. You can’t cancel from the login screen; instead you call an 800 number to cancel. Unfortunately, the automated system couldn’t pull up my credit card number and I had to go iBill’s web site directly to cancel. It was a needless frustration.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. While the character models are blocky and sub-standard, the landscapes don’t look bad and there are enough varied areas so you feel like you are actually moving from one locale to another. In fact, my favorite part of the game wasn’t fighting or crafting, it was running around the different areas taking screenshots for the review. The landscapes are reminiscent of the one’s in Morrowind – although without the water effects - so if you liked those, you’ll like Horizons’. The world is also large and very immersive. The game is a lag-fest, though, and even with a beefy rig the large city of Tazoon ran at slide-show framerates. Since that was with a small amount of players in the area (gee, I wonder why?) it makes the point of having a large city moot; after all who wants to go there if the city is laggy?
On the surface, Horizons isn’t a bad game. Unfortunately, the MMOG space has become so overpopulated there isn’t enough room for a simply “OK” game – a game has to really shine to succeed. And that’s Horizons’ main problem: it doesn’t offer enough of a twist to lure people away from their current game, and there are plenty of established games that are simply better. The staff reductions aren’t helping either. Artifact Entertainment has promised this won’t hurt customer service, except one of the people laid off was their Internet Community Manager, the person whose primary job was to answer questions on the various community message boards. While there’s a core following that still plays and enjoys the game, the server populations range from “light” to “very light”, which gives an indication as to how many people are playing the game. Since it’s an online multiplayer game, the lack of a strong player base will seriously impact your enjoyment of the game; or worse, waste your $30 if Horizons continues to loose cash, forcing the game to close. Because of that uncertainty, I can’t in good conscience recommend this game to anyone for at least 6-8 months while we see how the game weathers the storm. Which is too bad because there are parts of the game that show promise.
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