Gamers will answer Asheron’s Call

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The beauty of Asheron’s Call is difficult to describe. Having been a devoted fan of the reigning champion of online-only games, Origin System’s Ultima Online, for years, I was used to a somewhat lower standard. Play Asheron’s Call just once or twice and you will never want to go back to Ultima.

Asheron’s Call was not the first online-only game to use a first-person interface, which until recently was nearly impossible due to bandwidth constraints as well as the difficulty of programming a fully interactive 3D environment. That honor goes to Sony’s EverQuest, which we reviewed just before it went mainstream.

But EverQuest has a lot of problems. Besides not looking anywhere close to as impressive as Asheron’s Call, there are a lot of graphical errors where monsters will disappear for a few seconds, only to reappear behind you. These errors could be attributed to Internet lag I suppose, but they don’t occur at all in Asheron’s Call.

On the issue of lag, I have been testing this game almost daily for over a month and only one time during that period have I experienced even a hint of lag. During that event a monster appeared to slide across the ground instead of running towards me, but the actual combat with the creature was not harmed by the lag. In other words, I was never in danger of dying because of a lag hiccup. I can’t say that about any other online game I’ve ever played. Lag in Ultima will kill you every time, and I suspect EverQuest’s problems are, in part at least, due to this.

Asheron’s Call was tested over both a 256K Frame Relay connection and a standard 56K modem. And guess what? No matter which connection I use, I can’t tell any difference. The game is just as playable over standard phone lines as a high end link to the Internet. I don’t know if Microsoft devoted a server to every user or what (just kidding) but the game is smooth at all times, including peak hours.

There are so many wonderful things about Asheron’s Call, it’s hard to get to all of them. I suppose the most impressive feature is the graphics. Since Asheron’s Call is enhanced by your video accelerator card, those of you with good hardware are going to be in for a surprise. On a Voodoo 3 card, I am able to play the game at 1024 x 768 without any lag or rendering problems.

And it looks fantastic! Rain or snow pelts down on me. Clouds leisurely race across the sky. Fires burn in their pyres and slowly turn to black smoke rising with the wind into the sky. Spider webs move slightly in the deepest dungeons. And the sun rises in pinkish glory in the mornings and slowly sets beyond the mountains at night.

The sound, for an online role-playing game, is almost as impressive. Fountains actually sound like water, fire crackles and the realistic weather makes realistic sounds.

Realism is the name of this game, which is impressive considering it is a fantasy world. At one point in the mountains way up north I found a spot of land that was covered with barren rock, while the rest of the mountain I was climbing was covered in thick snow. Standing on the rock face I could hear violent wind whipping around, pushing the snow from the ground. Looking around, I saw a beautiful lake nearby, and the wind was coming off it and rushing up the mountain, which attributed to the lack of snow in this one area. Talk about realism. You could spend your life exploring the world and finding spots like that one without ever fighting a monster — if you were a fast enough runner. The entire world is the equivalent of 500 square miles.

But the point of the game is to go on quests, fight monsters and improve your character. Microsoft and developer Turbine Entertainment have made this easy to do. The lands are littered with dungeons, and a few coins to a local tavern keeper will get you rumors and legends of local fare. If you follow your information, you can find secret caves, abandoned crypts, mines and structures that have been overrun with beasts. Most quests involve an elaborate chain of exploration where you talk to various people, find items and return them to their owners, and eventually get rewarded or find a grand item at the end of your journey. Items tend to respawn every 20 minutes or so, so if the item you need has already been picked up, you don’t have to wait too long for it to show up again. And the higher level dungeons are so far away from civilized lands that they are almost never crowded.

Monsters are diverse and some are quite scary. Since you are playing the game in either a first person or, the way I prefer, an over the shoulder Tomb Raider-type interface, you can tell at a glance how tough most creatures are without having to officially study them. If they come up to your knee, you can probably take them if they don’t have a lot of friends around. But if they tower six feet over you, it might be a good idea to run, or have a big group of friends by your side.

Speaking of friends, its easy to make them in this game. The game is designed to encourage inter-character relationships. There is an extensive guild system that encourages players to band together to share experience on their journey, and in my experience many people are ready and willing to organize a raiding party into a local dungeon at the drop of a hat.

Player killers, the bane of most online RPGs, are not a problem in the world. You can become a player killer by praying at an evil alter, if you can find it, but once you are a killer the only people you can kill are other player killers who have taken the same evil vows. Killers can’t harm non-player killers or be harmed by them. You can change back if you wish, but only by praying at a good alter, that is even harder to find than the evil one. Few people take the player- killer role in this game, though there is one server devoted to them if your desires turn that way.

Personally, I think player killers pop up when players are board. But I would guess that you could play this game all your life and never find all its secrets. Just to make sure of this, every month or so Microsoft is offering a different world quest. This is a major quest that is open to anyone playing the game. The first one they did involved the freezing of the planet. Winter came to the realm and the harsh weather made it snow all across the land. I’ve heard a city of frost worshiping mages are at fault, but none of my characters are yet powerful enough to head out and do anything about it. If Microsoft keeps its promise however, there will be plenty of quests in the near future.

This is certainly the most advanced online-only role playing game available today. It sets the standard for others, and will be the measuring stick for similar games for years to come.

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