Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Cast A Long Shadow

Mmorpgs, they're the gaming equivalent of slasher movie villains, aren't they? Exceedingly hard to kill. Even when they're down and seemingly out for good it never does to turn your back. They have a habit of hauling themselves back up, somehow, for one last stab at your heart. Or your wallet. 

One of the stranger news items I read yesterday involved the re-animation of a game that closed down over a decade ago: Shadowbane. It triggered some vague recollection; the dessicated corpse of the original source code, disinterred from its digital coffin, traded away across the seas to a land far away. I just never imagined it would come sailing back, a ghost ship pulling into Steam's safe harbor, a specter at the feast.

Yes, yes, alright. Enough of all that melodramatic twaddle. Let's examine the facts.

I never played Shadowbane but I remember it well enough. It was a very long time ago that I first heard of it. I imagine I would have been playing EverQuest at the time. Those were the days when news of any new mmorpg was pored over and examined like holy writ. We had no inkling of the glut to come.

2003. It launched in March 2003. I just looked it up. I can remember following its development so I most likely became aware of it the year before.

I never played it. That's surprising. I played just about ever mmorpg I could get my hands on back then, all the AAA releases, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Horizons...

There'd have been a couple of reasons. The subscription. Just about every online game came with a monthly rental fee in those days. It wasn't feasible to play multiple mmorpgs without feeling your money was being wasted, not least because playing mmorpgs in the first few years of the millennium wasn't all that far off being a full-time job. If you already had a for-real full-time job you definitely didn't have time for more than one mmo on top. Even students and the unemployed probably couldn't stretch to more than a couple.


That wouldn't have stopped me trying it, though. I bought quite a few mmorpgs, knowing I'd probably never play past the free month that came with the box. Some I bought even after I'd played the beta and knew I wasn't going to enjoy the finished game. It was nice just to have the case on the shelf. 

Still is. I'm looking at them a few feet away as I write this. All the games I've mentioned so far and more. But not Shadowbane.

The reason I didn't buy it was, of course, the same reason it's still remembered so fondly by some, when so many other games of its time are long forgotten. The same reason a game almost twenty years old, dumped onto Steam virtually unchanged since the day its sun set in 2009, has the kind of glowing reviews you might expect of the latest seven day wonder.

"The best at the time, and possible still is "

"This game is perfect"

"Highly recommend!"


The reason is free-for-all PvP.

The way the concept has dominated the conversation for two decades might suggest otherwise but there really haven't been that many ffa pvp mmorpgs. The last really big one was probably Darkfall, another game I never played, for much the same reasons, but my understanding is that even Darkfall ameliorated and watered down its hardcore offer over time.

Shadowbane supposedly didn't. I mean, don't ask me. I never played. But that's its reputation. And the description on Steam has "unlimited free PVP" in the very first line, right after "MMORPG".

Not everyone agrees. One of the few negative reviews complains "The game is not "Unlimited free PVP" as advertised" although when you read on to find out what he's complaining about it turns out the reviewer thinks "free" refers to the cost not the gameplay.

No, the Steam version of Shadowbane is not free as in "free to play". It costs £8.29 (odd price) but you can get it right now for twenty per cent off, so £6.63 (even odder). 

Shadowbane's "free" PvP means players are free to kill you whenever and wherever they find you. And take your stuff. In theory, you can do the same to them, although that would require you to be better at it than they are, something I'm unlikely to experience first-hand. That's why I never bought it, or even tried it when it actually did go F2P in March 2006. 

At that time I would still have been quite nervous about PvP. I'd dabbled on EQ's various PvP servers but you could hardly say I'd PvP'd.  I'd been killed a few times but I'd never managed to kill anyone back. 

I'd done better in Dark Age of Camelot but there I'd always been in a gang. An army, really. And more often than not my computer had been struggling so badly under the weight of all those bodies it'd been about as much as I could do to bash on a door with my axe. Again, I don't believe I ever killed anyone in a straight fight.

Over the years I got a little better and lot less nervous as the games reformed themselves to suit the more casual killer. I found I liked instanced battlegrounds quite a bit and spent a lot of time there in several games, DAOC, Warhammer, WoW, Rift...

I also discovered I didn't mind PvPvE so much that I needed to avoid it. I never joined the camp that claimed killing goblins was more fun if you knew at any moment some player might roll up and put an arrow in your back but neither did the possibility put me off, or not unduly. So long as it didn't happen repeatedly I was quite willing to treat it as an environmental hazard like falling in lava or being stomped on by a giant.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I found in Guild Wars 2's World vs World the kind of PvP I really, thoroughly enjoy: territorial siege warfare. I was about a decade late. I could have learned that about myself in Dark Age of Camelot. Only my PC wouldn't let me. It's amazing how much more fun a castle siege is when you can actually move.

Shadowbane has territorial siege warfare although it hardly seems to be the focus of the game. Almost none of the reviewers refer to it and it doesn't even get a mention in the publisher's blurb, although that might be down to translation issues. The new owners and publishers are ChangYou Games from Hong Kong and they describe Shadowbane like this:

MMORPG, unlimited free PVP. 12 races, 22 occupations, 48 affiliated occupations, more than 200 attribute points, more than 500 skill points. Open battlefield that can be arbitrarily harvested in the game. Its freedom and cruelty are its characteristics, and it is also a fair competition for power.

Some of that does sound interesting. A lot of races and classes. Maybe now I'm more weathered in imaginary battle I'd be willing to give it a run? 

Nope. But not for the same reason, not this time around. The FFA PVP may not attract me but it doesn't put me off. Provided I can get off spawn and into the game for long enough to get a few screenshots and have a bit of a run around it would be worth the pittance of an entry fee just for the blog posts I'd get out of it.

The barrier to entry this time is something that would absolutely not have been any kind of issue back when Shadowbane released. It's what it looks like. I have a huge tolerance for outdated graphics in games for which I feel some nostalgic affection but it doesn't extend to games I never played back in the day. It's not fair but that's just how it is.

Never say never, though. I'm not disposed right now to fork over a few quid for the privelige of messing around in character create and checking out the newbie island but I'm not saying the mood might not come over me another day. And if the game ever does go F2P again, I guess I'd probably feel duty-bound to download it and log in at least once.

For now, though, I'm happy to see it back for the small but happy band of free for all warriors who've mourned it all these years. Let's leave them to their slaughter. May heads roll and bags fill until the next sunset. 

Just don't imagine it'll be the last.


  1. Wow. I never expected to see this thing resurrected... Again. *cough* It did have some emulated servers for a time.

    I played it at launch though, and the only exception to the free PvP (as in anywhere, rather than cost, hah) was for the first 20 or so levels on training island. You could level up to 20 there without fear of PvP reprisal, but after that if you died or otherwise left (I think there was a voluntarily route other than dying too, lol) you were gone to the mainland.

    From there the siege warfare and city building components essentially *were* the game. The 'world' such as it was, was a vast nothing with literal square shaped patches of hunting ground, copied and pasted around the map, with nothing between them unless someone plopped a Tree of Life and eventual town there.

    I have mixed memories of Shadowbane for its time. The beta was incredibly rough. Finding it wouldn't work after downloading >600MB on dial-up was quite the experience, let me tell you.

    But I think for all that, the game itself for all its rough edges certainly held that certain quality you don't readily find in games with more limited PvP.

    1. I think the emu servers may stil be running. There's some mention of them in a few of the Steam reviews, where the feeling seems to be that having the game on an official server will, if nothing else, stop the owners of rogue servers giving huge advantages to themselves and their friends.

      The flat, square, featurelss world is very interesting. In GW2 I've frequently heard the more virulet "fight" players advocate a similar system for WvW. Their argument is that having any aspect of PvE, including visual worldbuilding, is a waste of development time because all that's needed is a flat space with strongholds and structures that can be fought over. The most extreme version even does away with those.

      The usual counter is that regular Arena PvP exists for people who just want to fight for no reason other than to see who's toughest and the counter to *that* is that there needs to be a space big enough for armies to fight, not just groups or squads.

      Unsurprisngly, the "we don't need no stinkin' scenery" demographic doesn't have much chance of making headway in a game whose reputation in large part rests on having one of the best art teams in the genre.

  2. I was always intrigued by the fact that you could play some really oddball races like centaur. Just never enough to actually try it (nor has that changed).

    As for old graphics, I find that if you can force yourself to play an old game long enough the graphics start looking normal and you don't notice them anymore. Some things even start looking pretty. But yeah, a big dose of nostalgia does help you get over that hump more quickly, or at least gives you the motivation you need to weather through it.

    1. As I recall, I didn't think Shadowbane looked great even when it first appeared. It definitely hasn't aged well.

      I'm also very intrigued by the variety of races. I would definitely at least play around with character creation and do a few levels on that PvP-free newbie isle if the game was free to play. Really should have thought of that in the three years it actually was, I guess.


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