Friday, June 4, 2021

With The Crows: Crowfall - First Impressions

Crowfall might be one of the strangest mmorpgs I've ever played. It's always been very much its own game but there was a time when I at least thought I knew what it was aiming for and which audience it was likely to attract.

Not any more. Based on the handful of hours I've played and the scattered details I've been able to absorb from the wiki and several "getting started" guides I now have no clue what Crowfall is or who it's meant for.

Which is not to say I don't like it. I'm actually having a much better time than I expected. I'm not convinced I want to pay fifty dollars for it, yet, but I would probably pay half of that. I might even go as high as two-thirds.

That would seem a reasonable price for what I'd get in just the first two worlds, Eternal Kingdoms and God's Reach. In contrast to the rest of the game, both of these are pure PvE. They're also permanent fixtures, always available through every campaign.

Ah, campaigns. Let's not even go there. I'm not even going to attempt to summarise Crowfall's exceptionally arcane plans for built-in obsolescence and eternal renewal. I spent half an hour reading about it this morning and all that really did was raise more questions. Here's the official "How to Play" guide. Maybe that will make things clear.

At this stage I couldn't say if the apparent mindnumbing complexity is nothing more than the typical brainfreeze that comes from trying to wrap your head around any new mmorpg or whether Crowfall really is as insanely overcomplicated as it appears. I'm leaning toward the latter.

J. Todd Coleman, the driving force behind the game, certainly thinks Crowfall is different to any mmorpg you've played before. He's been talking about breaking the mould since the game was first announced and he hasn't backed down on the rhetoric. 

His pre-launch blog ratchets things up even further: "We set out to do something bold and exciting, to make a new type of game – one that had never been done before", he says. And he might have done it, too. The question is, if he has, who has he done it for?

I'd take a bet that almost everyone reading this thinks of Crowfall as primarily a PvP game. I certainly did. I still do, because it is. It also has a very clear warning when you log in that it's not meant for children. It's a teen-rated game and ArtCraft are very definite that means no under-thirteens.

Which makes it all the stranger when you log in and find yourself in the virtual embodiment of a Saturday morning cartoon. It's a colorful place, somewhere any nine-year old would feel at home, a world painted with the broadest of brushstrokes in blank washes of flat pastels and primaries. 

Everything has the rounded, soft-edged feel of a digitized, Western animated kids' show. All the building are doorless caverns with the minimum of ornementation and the maximum of statuary. Of all the mmorpgs I've played the one it most closely ressembles, visually at least, is probably AdventureQuest 3D.

Character creation offers one of the widest choice of races I've seen for a long while. Anthropomorphism has a free run. As well as the (in)famous Guinecean (aka the guinea pig race) you can be an Elk, a Minotaur, a Centaur, a Fae... Here's the full list. There's a dozen of them.

Classes, weirdly, total eleven. Why not another round dozen? Not a clue. There are hard restrictions on which race can be what class and some races can only be one gender, by which I mean no gender. Actually, no-one has a gender but some races don't have two of them. It was interesting and, I thought, rather smart. I'd go into it a bit more but I'm musing on a separate post about it.

Visually there aren't all that many options. Not if you want to be a guinea pig, anyway. Some set faces, a few hairstyles, a limited range of fur colors. That's about it. I suppose I should check if the other races get more... hang on a sec... nope. Everyone gets the same, more or less. Well, less, really. 

Inversely proprtionate to the choice of appearance is the information about what your race is and what your class can do. I can't say I've ever seen more detail on a character creation screen and definitely none that were better-presented. Exemplary. If you make a mistake choosing your race and class you have no-one to blame but yourself.

Not that it seems to matter much. In Crowfall you don't have characters, just disposable "Crows". You don't even get to name them. 

Every character on your account has the same name: your account name. It does warn you about that when you create the account but I think perhaps they might want to make a bit more of it. If you do something dumb, like use your email address, customer service can change it but in general you're going to be stuck with whatever you picked when you registered the account so watch that!

It's a radical solution to the reputation problem. In a PvP game you don't want people to be able to shuck off their misdeeds simply by swapping to another character. On the other hand, Guild Wars 2 manages to handle the exact same issue far less awkwardly by making the account name visible on inspection, while allowing all the characters on the account to have their own, unique names.


The precautions against character anonymity seem even stranger when you finally log in and find yourself playing something functionally indistinguishable from a standard PvE mmorpg. Come to think of it, the very begining is even tamer than that.

There is an option to set your Eternal Kingdom to PvP and invite people to come fight there but by default there's no-one in it but you and some NPCs. It's the game's version of housing and it's where you return with the spoils after you've adventured in the more dangerous worlds. It's also where you begin with a super-basic "how to move" tutorial and a bunch of pop-ups on how to use the crafting stations and housing functions.

When you're done playing with those, it's on to the next world, God's Reach. It's effectively the game's starter zone and it's pure PvE. Everyone there is on the same faction so no-one can attack anyone else. There are NPCs with quest markers standing around waiting to give you instructions on what to do and where to go and there's a typical introductory questline that takes you through most of the systems and mechanics. 

I didn't find that too surprising although I can't say I was expecting it. What did astonish me was the way every single NPC insisted on making a speech. It was like being lectured by a series of verbose museum guides. There seemed to be an inexhaustible fund of gods and heroes and battles and apparently I needed to be told about every goddam one of them. Some of the questgivers had me clicking through half a dozen or more pages of lore before they finally got to the point and told me what I had to kill.

This seems seriously odd for a game predicated on various kinds of PvP matches. Even most PvE players don't read this kind of stuff, do they? Would it really make much difference if the NPCs just said "I want the satyrs dead. Kill five. Come back and I'll give you something"?

Yeah. Tell me about it. Or, wait, no. Don't.


Yes, it would make a huge difference in any game that prides itself on (and more relevantly promotes itself as) telling a story. Crowfall, however, is a "constantly-changing universe of worlds" with " the players in control". Does it need a boiler-plate mystical backdrop for that and even if it does is the new player experience the place to put it?

Probably not but that's where it is. You might equally well ask whether a game like this need levels and the answer would be the same: it might not need them but it's got them anyway. It appears to have the full-fat, basic theme park low-level levelling experience, in fact. I don't imagine there are any dungeons but you get a quest journal and you''d better be ready to use it.

I did. I got to level eleven before I had to stop to make lunch. It took me a couple of hours, I think. I wasn't timing it. It might have been longer. I was having fun so the time passed quickly. 

Everything seemed very easy until I got to the final quest boss in the first sector of God's Reach, the Temple of Earth. I only died once and that was when I was in a camp trying to work out how to cook. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't able to put the meat in the pot until I realized it was because I was dead. I have no idea how it happened. Maybe I was standing too close to the fire. 

When I ran up agains that quest boss, though, everything changed. I died twice trying to figure out how to beat her. I went away and ground out another level killing satyrs. I trained up some new talents, came back and died twice more. 


Finally I went back to my Eternal Kingdom to craft myself some better gloves and a better hat, which was all I had mats for. I also thought about what wasn't working in my tactical approach and changed it. Then I took another crack and that time I beat her. Just. 

It was good fun.The same kind of good fun I've had in countless, decent, mid-range PvE mmorpgs, both imported and home-grown. The quests were meaningless nonsense, the map always told me where to go, there wasn't much of anything worth looking at while I ran from one place to another, the fights were nearly always one-sided in my favor... but the mobs dropped gear I could equip and use and sometimes it was better than what I had and there were plenty of mats and nodes to gather from and I could look forward to making even better gear...

Exactly the run-of-the-mill mmorpg experience we've all had a hundred times before, in other words. It works for me because I already know I like that loop and I know I'll go round it a good few times before I get bored and drift away. As I said up top, I'd probably pay $20-25 for as many hours of that sort of thing and come away feeling I'd had my money's worth.

The thing is, it isn't at all the experience I would have expected from Crowfall. I very much doubt it's the experience anyone's looking to the game for, come to that. And most importantly I very much doubt it's the experience the game is going to keep on providing after the initial fifteen or twenty levels, so even if you like it, it's not going anywhere.


In beta, you can even go straight into something called The Hunger Dome, for which you're given a pre-made character and get to skip the entire levelling process. Makes you wonder why the levelling game is there at all.

I'm quite pleased it is, though, because I'm enjoying it. I just got a mount and I think I'm maybe a third of the way through the PvE content in God's Reach. Looking at the map, maybe not even that. I'm curious to see the rest. Exploring is exploring even if the world isn't much to look at.

Then there's the crafting and the gathering. I've had a browse through the recipes and a glance at a guide or two. Finding and securing resources looks to be the real meat of the game and not just in the dangerous worlds beyond.

With the beta set to run for another couple of weeks it's quite likely I'll spend a fair few hours as a Crow. I wasn't anticipating that when I downloaded the game but I'm always happy to be pleasantly surprised by the confounding of my misapprehensions.

None of which tells me who the game is meant to appeal to long-term. If I work that out I'll be sure to let you know.


  1. I've had access to the game since beta 2, and I've poked my nose in a couple of times since it has taken on something more resembling the game it has since become but never really become attached it.

    Not in small part though simply due to my latency. If they had a US West server option I could probably make do, but US East is a stretch too far for poor ol' NZ -- at least for the PvP side which is where my interest lay however many years ago now that it would've been that I received (it was a gift) my backer account. xD

    So for the time being, I'm happy to live vicariously through your investigation into what Crowfall is these days.

    1. I chose the East Coast NA server rather than the Frankfurt-based Euro one. There was a significant difference in latency but the NA one was still only around 70-90ms which is fine for PvE. Might be a disadvantage in PvP though.

      Despite that ping and a decent frame-rate, I had periods of medium lag yesterday. It certainly wasn't due to the number of people playing because Crowfall is one of those rare games that gives you exact numbers on that and there were fourteen people in God's Reach out of a capacity of 1225. I'm going to take a look at those figures today at peak EU and off-peak East Coast NA to see how they look at the weekend. They seemed unnervingly low to me yesterday.

    2. 14? Eeeesh. That is indeed an unnervingly low number.

      Latency for me was in the 250-350 range unfortunately, and that's with Fibre connection from this end and over Ethernet to the router, so no Wi-Fi or anything else local to drive it upward. Just solely the distance / route to server.

  2. I played a few 2? years ago. It felt massively grundy at that time. For gear that broke quickly too. It was lots of prep time for short periods of PVP. Which were fun, but if too many people got involved it got super choppy. Hopefully they've fixed those issues.

    But I share your question about who it's for. If I want to play a PVP game I certainly don't want to spend more time grinding PVE than playing pvp. I hope the game succeeds, but based on what I have read on their forums and on reddit I have my doubts.

    1. I have the vaguest memory of playing briefly in some early open testing phase. At that time I couldn't really find anything much to do at all. There's plenty to do now but none of it seems to have much to do with either PvP or preparing for PvP. The decay on gathering tools is ridiculously fast although I think that's part of the progression - make better tools and they last longer. It's very irritating, though. As for the choppiness, that's very evident even when all my connectivity numbers and frame rate are in the green and there's no-one near me. Not sure what's going on there. I ought to go read the forums and see what other people are saying about it.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide