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Shadowbane Preview (PC)
game: Shadowbane
posted by: Aaron Stanton
date posted: 09:10 AM Mon Jul 1st, 2002
last revision: 04:24 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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Sometimes realism is a drag. Ultima Online, when it first went live back about 1998, was the first unlucky pioneer of the massively multiplayer genre to discover this. Built on an expansive, self-evolving world that relied on the players to determine the direction of play, UO discovered that when people are left to themselves they can be very, very boring. The complex vision that UO was built on was too realistic. Traveling meant danger and possible loss of life; adventure and ego fanning were easier found in a tavern carousing a woman who claimed to be a 21-year-old supermodel from France. Money, it turned out, was easier made sitting at home developing new ways to string together deerskin boxer shorts. The first releases of Ultima Online found out something for us all. Sometimes people have to be driven to great things, and if we aren\'t we\'re about as exciting as a trip to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and a case of Roman noodles. As a consequence, the next generation of MMP games scheduled to hit the market are all trying to figure out ways to not only give the players something to do, but to drive them to do it. It\'s no longer just about giving the player freedom, but also about making that freedom interesting, easy, and smooth to use.

No one stands as eager to embrace this new way of thinking than Wolfpack Studios with a massively multiplayer game called Shadowbane, to be released by Ubi Soft in Fall of 2002. Brought to my attention by the rest of the GamesFirst crew -- they practically lead me by the arm to the booth -- Shadowbane won over a good portion of our E3 team (only Paul seemed in doubt, and I\'m still working on him). Shadowbane is different from Everquest, Galaxies, or World of Warcraft; different from almost any other MMP game aiming to hit the market (though Lineage and Lineage 2 have a claim to that same \"differentness\"), and I\'m not just talking about the primarily third-person perspective. It\'s different in the roles the players are expected to take on. The developers have strived to combine a progressive and rich world with an environment that gets the players out onto the dance floor ? so to speak ? by placing them in the role of city founders, not just explorers, but builders of great kingdoms. Players can build cities, homes, villas, and explore in such a way that promotes a realistic economy (I\'ll trade you three deerskin boxer shorts and some healing magic if you agree to act as my henchmen) while still making sure the game is fun, and that players are proactive. Ultima Online tried to do this, but Shadowbane, lead by a team that\'s studied the failures and complaints that clogged the boots of the earlier generation, is getting it right.

The civilized world has collapsed. Social order has given way to chaos, and individual cities find themselves as the last strongholds in a land struggling to recover from political strife and natural disaster. Alpha males struggle for dominance through sword length competitions, and the politically correct term \"server\" has been replaced with \"wench\" once more (or so I assume). To top it all off, dark rumors of an ancient evil stir in the depths of a far off land, threatening to undo the very race of man (and others) and do very bad things to many good people. The only thing that may be able to save the world is a legendary sword called Shadowbane. In an interesting design move, Wolfpack has written the story to progress, and presumably conclude, over the course of five years, encompassing major storyline events that will happen along the way. This allows for a truly progressive world, much in the way that a good book forces a reader to face something new with each turn of the page. Camping, the act of sitting at one spot where monsters are generated in order to raise your skill level, would be like reading one page over and over again.

This is the world to which you are born (or will be born, come launch), and though you may start off lowly, you\'ll soon find yourself marching about with your own sword, founding cities, making friends, and leading the world toward the greater good. The cities are perhaps one of the most interesting elements in Shadowbane. A player can found a city (indirectly, since player run guilds actually have access to this function) by planting what\'s known as a Tree of Life. The trees bestow various powers to the owner and his friends, including health (literally, the tree possess a sort of regenerating aurora that can heal characters) and security (they provide locations for re-spawning). Individually, players can build buildings, construct shops, and so forth. Construction of this type can occur pretty much anywhere except for certain combat areas. The owners of a city can trade the healing powers of the tree to owners of the buildings for things like taxes or allegiance during warfare. Of course, other guilds can attack your city, though not easily. Wolfpack has promised that a few petty players will not be able to undo the large amount of time and energy put into building a successful city. Castle sieges are expected to take at least twenty-four hours to complete -- with some estimates ranging up to a week ? since the defenders are healed by, and re-spawn at, their tree of life. Attackers find themselves miles away at their own city when a similar fate leaves them a bleeding corpse. A great amount of time and effort has gone into the balance between players. Taking over the world will be hard, but not impossible.

From a technical standpoint, Shadowbane has done away with the \"single server = isolate world\" way of thinking. Instead, players can travel from one server to the other through portals or teleports. The brief pause while crossing between zones will be gone as well. Simply walking will take you from one environment seamlessly into the other. As part of their narrated style of free-play, Wolfpack is keeping a sizable staff onboard after launch, including graphic artists to develop new weapons and buildings, and storywriters to help accommodate all the wacky things they expect players to throw at them.

It\'ll be interesting to see how Shadowbane unfolds. This level of complexity (and it really is complex), the free flowing world that relies on the players to make the game any fun, hasn\'t really be tried in the U.S. since Ultima Online first burst onto the stage. That depth is both the element that will make Shadowbane great, and the stumbling stone they\'ll have to avoid tripping over as time goes by. I can tell you one thing, though: At E3 I was able to watch as a building stood steeped in flames, and the promise of siege engines floated in the air. Shadowbane is striking out to build a truly self-evolving world that\'s meaningful and feels like it has a purpose. It\'s a grandiose design that, if successful, will give us a world to expand and explore with a complexity matched by only a select few others on the market. As Wolfpack likes to say, \"Change the world.\" Cool.