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Anarchy Online: Shadowlands - Review
Wouter 'Hyrrix' Ryckbosch, 2003-10-30

It has almost become a tradition by now. Every single article concerning Anarchy Online mentions the bad launch somewhere along the way. Back when the game was released 2 years ago, it received quite a few negative reviews and critiques. Luckily for us, this seems to have only inspired the people at Funcom to work even harder on their game. In the years following after the launch, a lot of work was done, bugs were fixed and content was added. Today, Funcom presents us with the ultimate possibility to re-evaluate the game, by introducing the game's first expansion: The Shadowlands.

Anarchy Online: Shadowlands tries to bring the player a much more linear mmorpg experience in a mmorpg. Besides introducing two new classes (the keeper and the shade), the main focus of the expansion is on the addition of a brand new world area: the Shadowlands. People are supposed to be able to spend their whole character's life in the Shadowlands. In reality though, this is quite inaccurate, as many of the mobs are harder than their level would suggest, which makes it often very hard for solo players to progress in level there. The Shadowlands actually consists of 7 sepparate areas, through which the player has to progress in a linear way. This means that you can only progress to the next playfield by working yourself through the current playfield all the way to the portal. Probably the best thing about the Shadowlands is the unique atmosphere of each of the different playfields. You start off in Nascence, a quite unfriendly looking but exotic place mostly populated by newbie monsters. Once you've made it all your way through Nascence (which requires you to reach a moderate level), you can use the portal to Elysium. This playfield stands out in its peacefulness and is supposed to be some kind of Eden. After Elysium comes the plane of Scheol. This place, consisting of a desert-like landscape complete with rocky mountains and canyons, is most famous for its enormous sandstorms. After Scheol, you end up to be in Adonis, the underwater city. Designed with great care, this place is without doubt one of the most interesting of the Shadowlands. Next up is Penumbra, a world totally frozen over that is remeniscient of the Dark Age of Camelot realm Midgard. Before the final playfield, which has been kept secret up until now, you have to make your way to a volcano and lava-river covered area: the Inferno.

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As should become clear from looking at the list of new areas, each with their own backstory and very personal characteristics, a whole new territory has been added to the existing world of Rubi-Ka. In fact, the Shadowlands expansion provides the player yet again with as much new areas as AO originally featured at the release back in 2001. It would greatly surprise me if any MMOG developer has ever doubled the size of their game world with one single expansion. Of course, size isn't the only thing that matters, for the largely empty planet surfaces of Star Wars Galaxies has proven to a lot of people that large worlds do not guarantee a higher level of excitement. This time, Funcom did pull it off however. Every part of the world design has been done manually and obviously with great care. The graphics engine might not be as powerful as the ones used for Star Wars Galaxies or World of Warcraft, but calling it outdated would be quite unfair. The engine has been patched up here and there, and combined with some impressive new effects (especially the three suns), the Shadowlands world becomes one of the most interesting to explore in any mmog at this point. The new and reworked interface is a great improvement to the game as well. Not only does the GUI look a lot better now, it's also easier in use than the old one.

The original Anarchy Online featured 200 player levels, which has now been increased up to 220. Those final 20 levels are rather different from the first 200 and will be quite a lot harder to get through. Altough for the people with level 200 chars this increased level cap will probably be a good reason to go out and gain the 20 new levels out in the shadowlands; for most others it only adds to the levelling threadmill. Luckily there are some quite interesting additions to the character development as well. A great new addition are the perks. Every 10 levels, a player can train further in a certain perk, in which he has the choice between some general, race- or class-specific perks. The last 20 levels the player will receive a perk point at every level. Most of these perks add an interesting touch to the character, granting them various special abilities and powers. This new feature is probably one of the most valuable to experienced players, since it can actually enhance the playstyle of a character a lot.

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As always with mmorpg expansions, Shadowlands introduces two new player classes to the game: the Keeper and the Shade. The latter is a quick and aggressive stealth-warrior, that seems to be very popular among the player-base right now. The keeper on the other hand, could be compared to a futuristic paladin: a "tank" with the ability to empower his teammates while fighting through health and mana regeneration nano's (the equivalent of spells in AO). Both new professions have been received pretty well with the community, and seem fairly balanced at first sight.

One of the focus points in the Shadowlands are quests. There are dozens of huge quests spread all over the playfields and their gardens. Interestingly, most of these quests offer a much more interesting story and concept than we usually get to see in mmorpg's, but all too often a quest comes down to camping a certain monster to retrieve a quest item for it. Since most of the spawn times seem to take rather long and a lot of people are often waiting for the same spawn, it sometimes reminded me of camping mobs in Everquest. And that's not a good thing. In the higher playfield levels of the Shadowlands, large groups will often be required to complete the quests and to move on to the next playfield area. The linear progression from one playfield to the other is a great concept and adds a whole new experience to the game. No longer is character level the only thing that counts, but also the progression in the playfields, and the storyline for that matter. For most new players, however, it will often be difficult to find sufficient groups in the Shadowlands. At its core, most players seem to stick to doing missions in Rubi-Ka for experience, instead of teaming up in the wilderness. At the higher levels this tends to get better, but it's still recommended to get into a good guild or organisation to be able to regularly team up with the same people.

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As with the original Anarchy Online, the new music soundtrack is absolutely great. There's no single other mmorpg out there that even comes close to delivering the soundtrack quality of this one. Also a great deal of new sound effects have been added to the original. The fact that a complete new soundtrack has been written to go with this expansion tells you already a little something about the size of this whole project.

So, how difficult is it to start off as a new player in Shadowlands? I have already mentioned the simplified and easier to use interface, but at its core, Anarchy Online remains a rather complicated game. As with most sci-fi mmog's up to this date, it's easy to get lost in the sheer number of items, statistics and skills available to you. Altough all this hasn't changed with the introduction of the Shadowlands expansion, a new series of tutorial quests in the training grounds at the Shadowlands (for new players who chose to start off in the Shadowlands immediately) offers newbies a lot of basic information about the game. A number of NPC's who will explain the purpose of the Shadowlands content have been added to the territories as well, but in the end the core gameplay of Anarchy Online is still the same and will require a steap learning curve for most new players.

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Luckily you're not alone, and most Anarchy Online players tend to be quite willing in helping you out if you encounter any problems. If they can't help, then there're still the Advisors of Rubi-Ka (better known as ARK) to turn to. Not only do these GM's help you with any problem you might have, but every new player will be individually welcomed by a member of the ARK to see if there's anything they can do to help him/her. Having played Star Wars Galaxies, with its terrible customer support the first few weeks, the helpfulness and efficiency of the ARK came to me as a shock. It's obvious to me that Funcom and their GM's have grown and matured along with their game. Looking at the stable game client and efficient customer support today, it's clear that Funcom has learned from their mistakes in the past and will never make them again. However, this does not mean that Anarchy Online is now completely without bugs. For instance, one of the things that annoyed me a lot, was the terrible pathfinding routine of pets and bots in the game.

It's clear that over the years, Funcom has continued to work on Anarchy Online with great care. As a result of this the game has now become one of the most stable and interesting mmorpg's available.

The Verdict
Graphics (10%) 85%
Sound (10%) 80%
Control (10%) 60%
Community (15%) 75%
Game World (15%) 95%
Fun (40%) 80%
Overall 80%

The ups and downs:
World designSome minor old bugs
Linear playfields conceptOften boring quests
Overall very stable
Great customer support

Reviewer's System
Version: n/a
CPU: 2.6 Ghz
RAM: 1024 MB
Graphics Radeon 9700 Pro
Sound SB Live!
OS: Windows XP Pro

Average Reader Ratings: 7.5 (10 votes)
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