Asheron's Call takes role-play to the next level
(IDG) -- Whether it's the random player killing of Ultima Online or the rat-hunting monotony that plagued EverQuest, the online role-playing genre is still under construction.
Enter Asheron's Call. The latest in the field comes from Microsoft, and say what you will about the megalopoly, this game looks pretty sweet - especially under the surface.
The backstory is worthy of a TSR book series deal: the legendary magician Asheron calls the bravest of the brave to the land of Dereth (with other worlds coming soon to a PC near you). These heroes must venture on quests, create new magic, and toil separately or together to rid the lands of evil.
The world of Dereth, where Asheron's Call takes place, at least initially, is monstrous. Portals exist that will teleport you from region to region, but even then it would take real-life days to cross the land. And it's all populated with monsters, animals, player characters, and NPCs who bring the world to life.
As you explore the world, you'll see farmhouses, villages, even decent-sized cities with shops, taverns, etc. that add to the realism of the world -- although a trusted bank system would be a nice touch.
"Rolling up" your character -- an integral part of any RPG -- is well handled. You can allocate points to six main attributes, from Strength to Quickness to Focus, as well as various primary and secondary skills. You also determine your character's appearance, including facial features, from hair and eye color to the shape of the face, resulting in thousands of possible combinations, especially when coupled with the variety of armor and weapons that can be worn and carried.
You can hop in with a randomly generated character, but you'll be better off if you take the time to allocate points to skills and attributes. There aren't traditional classes per se, but a character with high strength and low mental abilities will be more suited to a non-magical profession.
While allowing players to kill other players may be the most realistic approach to a virtual world, as in Ultima Online, it can take the fun out of it for many. Asheron's approach might be called watered-down, but like EQ it works. Every new character enters the world as a non-player killer and can't hurt anyone else. Later, if you decide that you're sick of the goody-goody approach, you can switch over to player killer -- but you can only attack other player killers.
A nice unique feature amongst these massively multiplayer RPGs is the attack system. When you do decide to attack, clicking the dove icon switches you out of peace mode and prepares your character for combat. The difference is being able to swing high, low, or middling at a selected target -- not every creature is the same size, so swinging high at a flying wasp will do more damage than swinging to the middle.
The interface includes a nice radar screen that shows you where other players and monsters are (who won't attack you until you come within range, and will then chase you down until you or they are dead). The map screen is somewhat hard to follow because of the lack of detail, but serves its purpose by showing you your place in the world.
You accrue experience points by killing creatures and gaining items, and you determine how they'll be used -- not simply when you reach a new level but whenever you wish. If you've got 200 points lying around, you can raise your coordination or speed a point or two. No other RPG allows you to define your character on an almost constant level like this. Excellent feature. It really allowed us to bond with our characters even when he was a low-level wussy.
Magic is also different from other RPGs. Spells are created from recipes of reagents. When combined in different manners, they create different spell effects -- meaning that users can create their own unique spells. But the more casters that use a specific spell, the less powerful it will become -- so magic-users aren't eager to share their new creations.
Character interaction, also a weak point in previous online RPGs, is almost a requirement in Asheron's Call. With a feudal system of allegiances and fellowships, newer characters can get a step up from more advanced players. By swearing fealty to a patron, you give them a share of your incoming experience points (sort of like a fantasy Amway). In turn, they will provide you with money, weapons, and so forth to make sure you get a solid start.
High-ranking patrons receive other benefits as well. Certain powerful items in Asheron's Call can only be used by a character of a certain allegiance rank, so if attaining them is your goal, you'll need to climb the corporate ladder quickly.
The graphics were still touchy in the beta version we've been playing for several weeks. Even when 3D-accelerated, pixelization and boxy edges could be seen. But they're a good start -- creatures can be identified at a distance, characters can be easily distinguished by the appearance and garb.
Asheron's Call isn't perfect. We spent a lot of time slaughtering rabbits until we found a suitable patron. But from what we've seen so far, based on the playability and the interaction, it has the potential to rise a level above the online RPGs that have come before it.
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