The market is becoming somewhat flooded with massive multiplayer games - some of them will try and gain subscribers with a great license (Star Wars Galaxies), a focus on skill-based action (Planetside), or fantastic creatures to control (Horizons). Wolfpack Studios' Shadowbane is unique in its PvP-oriented nature. The ability to create a player-run city, defend it against enemy players, and attack enemy strongholds is what makes this game worth playing.
Shadowbane isn't totally about PvP, but if killing other players in a MMORPG sounds silly, then this is definitely not a game for you. The marketing for Shadowbane goes on about the "game of thrones" and making a difference in a dynamic world, and while few players will really be that influential, the game certainly is dynamic in a way completely new to online RPGs.
Shadowbane runs on Wolfpack's own Arcane Engine, which is suited for loading up lots of data on the fly and getting it onto the screen quickly. The engine does not support any newer-generation features, nor does it even really allow for any great visuals, but it can show hundreds of players on-screen at once. On top of that, unlike some games, Shadowbane has no "zoning" - the only time you will see a loading screen is when you first start up or when you teleport moderate-to-large distances.
The game doesn't really run at a massively great frame rate, even when there isn't much going on - rarely will you see more than 45 frames per second in this game. In fact, the average on my machine (specs listed at the top of this page) was in the high 20's. Large fights will bring the frame rate into the range of 10fps or less, although this doesn't hurt gameplay as much as one might imagine.
The last thing that winds up being frustrating is the game's problem with ATI Radeon video cards. The readme suggests that one revert back to older ATI drivers - to my knowledge, no other developers are suggesting the same thing on any recent game. It makes me wonder if this is ATI's problem, or Wolfpack's; it sounds more like the latter. Either way, though, the older drivers still don't help that much - the Shadowbane configuration program fixes a couple of problems, while other discoloration bugs are still there.
As of the time of this writing, there have been two major patches for Shadowbane that have fixed numerous gameplay bugs, but some of the problems I list in this review have not been addressed at all. We can assume bugs and login problems will be fixed over time, of course, but Shadowbane has wound up as another case of "release now, patch later". Talking to previous beta testers, I find that most really enjoyed the underlying game, but they all agreed that it need another month or two of work at least to be a solid game.
Shadowbane's controls are functional, and in some ways very complete. One can move all the windows around and even customize them a bit, which is pretty nice. Wolfpack seems to have left out a few things that I would consider vital, though - especially in a game where more than two hundred players can be on the screen at once. A lot of players communicate, and a ton of information zooms by constantly in these situations; better control of these aspects would go a very long way.
The first thing to notice is that unlike many MMORPG's, Shadowbane is not a first-person game. While everything is in 3D and the camera is fully adjustable, there is no first-person mode - in fact, moving your character around is done far more like Diablo than like Everquest. This definitely takes a bit of getting used to, but it works well enough after that.
Sony has put something around seven years of development into Everquest so far, and its interface has changed drastically in that time - new features keep getting thrown in, as well. Shadowbane has quite a few cool features, but it seems to lack a few simple ones that I consider vital. First, there is no way to set yourself "AFK" (Away from Keyboard) - if someone sends you a private message in game, they don't have any way to know if you are ignoring them or if you are just out walking the dog.
On top of this, the game does allow one to set up multiple windows for chat, game events, and more. The problem comes with filtering out the game text that flies right through the window; sometimes it is so fast it's unreadable. There are several of types of messages that could be filtered out, if the game allowed it, which would make the information window much more useful. All in all, Shadowbane really does need some interface enhancements - and while it is configurable enough, it still lacks compared to the competition that is already out there.
As is with the game engine, Shadowbane's graphics won't be winning the game any awards. The game looks great in large scale battles, although some players may not ever take place in fights of that size. While the game does have some fairly decent-looking textures, one may find that it simply runs too slow with all the detail turned up.
Every MMORPG winds up with its own distinctive visual style, and Shadowbane is no exception. The lands are quite varied, with swamps, tundra, forests, rivers and more. What you won't see are dungeons or otherwordly planes, though. While I am sure that Wolfpack considered dungeons, the control scheme and lack of camera automation would have made navigating them a huge hassle.
Special effects in Shadowbane are quite good, although none of them are close to being spectacular. It seems that even the effects were meant to deliver the best graphics at the cost of only a few polygons, and in that case, they do deliver. Unlike some other MMORPG's, spell effects don't tax the video card too badly, so they don't have to be turned off in the more demanding events.
Character models in Shadowbane do look fairly decent, and the more unique races, like Centaurs, Minotaurs, and Dwarves are all pretty unique. Armor and other equipped items look nice overall, but again, none of it is awe-inspiring. Buildings do wind up being quite impressive, and since player guilds build their own cities (which are custom-constructed one section at a time), each city will have a unique design.
Enemy characters are of all the various fantasy types, including dragons, undead, lizards, bears, and far more - player-looking NPCs also populate many areas, including whole camps. Again, nothing is terribly exciting to look at, but it's not embarrassing either.
As is in any MMORPG, the graphics, sound, technical problems, and more can all be swept aside in a player's mind as long as the gameplay is fun. And Shadowbane can be excellent, but that only happens if the player is dedicated enough to play into the game's strengths. Role-playing in this game is something that is certainly a possiblity, and Wolfpack has already encouraged it through in-game events, but I have found that most people skip the role-play as much as possible.
One new thing done here is the idea of restricted races - players must wait a month after starting their game account to gain access to Minotaurs. Centaurs come after the second month, and Aracoix (the bird-like race) come last after 90 days of having an account going. There was a deal that allowed pre-orders to get access to all of the races from the start, but that deal is of course unattainable now.
I can understand doing this in order to drum up pre-orders, but Wolfpack needs to relax this whole thing pretty soon if they want to keep players interested. Anyone who picks up the game today is going to be a little miffed at not being able to pick any race he or she wants from the start.
There is no doubt about it: Shadowbane is heavily PvP oriented. Newbies do get an initial reprieve, though; they get their own island, separate from the warring factions of other players, where the only things they need to worry about are monsters and thief players. Once they hit level 21, though, the player is literally kicked out of his or her newbie guild and removed from the low-level lands.
After that, they are required to fend completely for themselves out in the world, starting at the "safehold" cities that are not run by players. Inside the safeholds, one is safe, but outside them, people can kill you, take anything that is not already equipped on your character, even follow you around and kill you repeatedly.
Yes, these things can and do happen in Shadowbane - the game can be downright brutal on a player who might want nothing more than to be left alone. After level 20 or so, even very high level players can kill you regardless of your level. So how could you possibly survive in Shadowbane? Well, hiding inside a safehold city isn't really an option for one who actually wants to gain levels; the only other option is to get a guild.
Success in Shadowbane depends very heavily on grouping with other players and joining a guild - more so than in any other game I have played. The only real vocations a solo player will enjoy might be that of a scout, assassin or thief - and even then, you will still need to group with other people to level your character up. Other classes can do a few solo activities, but generally most people prefer to travel in the safety of a group anyway.
The PvE (Player vs. Environment) game in Shadowbane is distinctly different from the PvP activities you can do; most MMORPG's tack on PvP as an afterthought. Others, like Dark Age of Camelot, have you fighting over a predefined set of static control points. Here, though, player-built-and-run cities are essential to any player who makes it past level 40, as only the better player cities will have the vendors and skill trainers required to make one's character really useful. For that reason, city managers have to do plenty of maintenance on the city's buildings, vendors, trainers, and NPC guards - all of this is required to keep a guild's city going. Each server will also have a different political environment, with cities in vastly different locations.
The meat of this game does come in the PvP area - while one's character can only gain levels fighting monsters in PvE, that area of the game is meant to be far less painful or time-consuming than other MMORPGs. One can make level 50 in a week or two of hard play, and level 60 in another week or two on top of that - if one finds the right spots to level at. So once you are done with that and have made 50 or more, PvP is meant to be the main reason to play.
Speaking of losing items, Shadowbane allows any player to loot your "grave" once you die. Any equipped items will stay with you, and can't be taken by other people, but those items must be repaired at NPC vendors for a cost - otherwise they will break permanently. As far as gold or un-equipped items go, anyone can grab it; if you are lucky, maybe one of your guildmates will grab your stuff and hand it back to you later. Maybe not.
Wolfpack has made sure that people make enemies with each other in Shadowbane. There are monsters that drop some very nice items, as well as runestones (permanently installed powerups which can give your character a wide variety of new powers). People naturally fight over the territory in Shadowbane, as many areas have some great treasure to be had.
Sadly, not all is so mind-bending or wonderful about Shadowbane's gameplay. The game is quite complicated, especially when it comes to understanding the many rules about building your character. Every character is different in this game, and some are far more powerful than others - the problem comes when the game gives you a "description" of a certain runestone or skill. Basically, the descriptions are full of role-play fluff that tell you absolutely nothing useful about how something works. Sure, everyone loves the cute role-play descriptions, but some actual hard facts are needed for some items or skills.
The worst part about all this is that with the wrong stats or runestones, a character can turn out as a complete waste of time before it even enters the game world. Shadowbane desperately needs an extensive set of tutorials; the manual tries valiantly to help, but it fails on almost all counts. The text goes on and on about skills and disciplines, but it refuses to give up the hard numbers. This is ironic because the game does supply plenty of numbers regarding your health, damage output, mana, experience points, and more. We get a wealth of information on one side, and we are left completely in the dark on the other side.
On top of all this, Shadowbane is plagued by several of the usual MMORPG launch problems, many of which veteran massive multiplayer gamers now take for granted. The client software crashes regularly during big PvP events, the login server clogs up with players all trying to cram in at once (causing hours worth of delays for some people), and the lag, while mostly manageable, still can get annoying - or get one killed. I've seen worse MMORPG launches, but Shadowbane definitely has its own problems.
So, we have a brutal, unforgiving, sometimes unstable, graphically mediocre game that requires lots of the player's dedication for them to get anything out of it. How can this game possibly be worth it? That's simple - the first time you see a siege in action, you will know exactly what Wolfpack had in mind. Hundreds of players take place attacking a city, setting up defenses, firing huge trebuchets at stone walls. When the wall breaks down, in flood the players and everything turns into a huge melee. Wizards and channelers sling spells from the rear while huge minotaurs and half-giants wade through the sea of enemies, looking for the enemy weaknesses.
The biggest problem I see here is that not many players will make it to this point in the game, and this may hold true even for some players that try their hardest to get into the more powerful guilds on their respective server. While some guilds hold to a strict role-play-only code, others go simply on how powerful your own character is - and unless you have an experienced friend help you build your character, then you might go through a dozen without hitting the nail on the head.
Ok, so that must mean that the internet is full of FAQs, info, and ideas, right? Alas, the highly competitive nature of this game seems to kill all that. There are a few helpful sites out there, but for the most part the veteran players are sharing this information with their guildmates, not with the public at large. You might notice a trend here - getting a guild solves a bunch of problems in this game. It's a solution that some players will simply refuse to take place in, and in that case, they will most definitely despise Shadowbane.
Shadowbane is the first MMORPG I've played that didn't have, in my opinion, absolutely lousy music. It's pretty good stuff, and while I might not be copying the music over to my MP3 player any time soon, it still fares better than most. Sound effects are great as well, even though there are a rather limited number of them. Wolfpack did make sure that the few they have for the game are crisp, interesting, and unique.
One area that impresses me is in the emotes. In Shadowbane, you can do a ton of fully animated gestures including laughing, pointing, giving a thumbs-up, rolling on the floor laughing, and a whole bunch more - and many of them have nice animations as well as sound effects. It adds a good chunk of liveliness to a game that otherwise can be bleak, foreboding, and brutal.
This game is both brilliant and disappointing at the same time. Wolfpack's idea of a MMORPG is unique and wonderful, and in some areas they delivered perfectly; in others, the delivery was a big letdown. I find that the biggest problems have to do with technical issues, overly brutal gameplay, and lack of help for newbies. If one can forgive these issues, he or she will find a wonderful game in Shadowbane.