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Sunday, 4 December 2011

Game Review: Drakensang Online
Game Type: MMMO, Browser Based
Fees: Free to play with in game premium currency
Status: Open Beta

Drakensang Online – one to watch?

I play a lot of games, and I have given up on playing a lot more. There is always something new coming along, and very few games actually have the staying power needed to compete in such a fickle industry. One of the latest games to attract my attention is Drakensang Online, but is it here to stay or will I be playing something else next week and saying Draken-what?

Drakensang Online is a typical fantasy game, the hero wields a sword or casts spells and fights all manner of evil looking creatures, both alive and undead. A little research shows that the game is based on a German PC game that received praise and won a few awards. Still, its German, I have never heard of it, so I am guessing it didn’t take off much outside of Germany.

First Impressions
As I said at the start I play a lot of games, and have played a lot of browser based RPG games so I was not really expecting much here. What I got was a huge visual treat. The 3D environments are fantastic and the graphics are outstanding. For a browser based game I think this is on the edge of being one of the best.

Here it is a simple case of talk to an NPC, get a quest, jolly off into the countryside, or the cave, or the forest (all visually superb) and generally either kill stuff or search for stuff. The search part is a pleasant addition to the usual 'just kill stuff' in most games. The controls are very easy and consist of clicking the mouse to move and attack, holding it down to continue, and a 'belt' feature for skills and potions which are accessed by pressing a numerical key. One nice touch is the ability to use the 'tab' key to switch quickly between 2 skills set for your right mouse button.

As your character kills monsters and completes quests you get the usual EXP to level up. An increase in level brings with it new skills, or more access to more powerful versions of the skills you already have.

Currently there are only 2 character classes available (but a 3rd coming soon). They are the 'Dragon Knight', a hand-to-hand specialist, armour wearing with either a sword/axe/mace and shield combo else a double handed weapon, and the Spellweaver a typical magic user class who relies on a variety of magic spells.

The fights against monsters in Drakensang Online are very simple, but the animation, the variety of enemies and the over all graphics make it more entertaining than it normally would be. Make no mistake though the grind is still there. Kill monster, gain exp, hope monster drops useful item, repeat is basically the game. The addition of skills/spells make the combat more tactical than just hit/slice.

A couple of interesting game play points stand out, the first is the way damage is applied. Rather than have a % chance to hit/miss and a damage value, the approach is that hits cause damage, which is then reduced by armour. This makes enemies armed with missile weapons (or range spells) very annoying if you are engaged in hand to hand. Whilst it is possible to simply move to avoid arrows (hmm....) you cant if you are attacking, meaning you are going to take a little damage from range while being unable to respond.

The second novel point lies with the character classes and their skills, especially when you party with other players. The Knights skills only become available when they generate enough 'Rage' points through damaging the enemy, the Spellweavers magic is the opposite. Spellweavers have mana that depletes when they cast a spell. This means that Knights get better as the fight goes on, whilst the Spellweavers need to rest to regain their magic. This makes combat interesting, do you wait for the Mage, or press on while the Knight is stronger?

Party Play
There are many areas in the game that are tough and it is really best to approach them with fellow players. Drakensang handles this in 2 ways. Anybody in the same area can attack the same target, with whoever gets the kill gaining the exp and item drop, or you can officially party up with other players and share the exp and drops. This is a great idea meaning you can play with friends and guilds, or you can give and receive help from any player in the area if you playing alone but get in trouble in a tough fight.

Open Areas v Dungeons
The places between towns and outposts are free roam for any players, and the areas are jointly shared. Given the very nice co-op and co-ordination options available to players, you are often happy to be not fighting alone, especially when rushed by a ton of monsters. The only down side is when you are on specific 'slay x creatures of a certain type' missions and then the presence of other players can become irritating, especially if they are on the same slay mission as yourself. It becomes a game of waiting around for the re-spawn then hoping you get the kill.

Dungeons are a different story. When you access a dungeon, its your own personal dungeon (or your parties). No other players, outside of the party, can interfere with your game. If they enter the dungeon, it spawns a different solo area for them. One nice addition here is the inclusion of 'Special Dungeons' teemed with harder creatures and which yield better rewards in terms of items. These dungeons require special shards to enter, and are mostly recommended for party play.

Player verses Player fights are available in Drakensang and handled in two ways, both of which work in theory very well, but in practice a little less so.
The first PvP is a kind of free roam, you can set your PvP option to 'open' in any town (safe areas) and your name will turn red instead of white, to show you are up for a fight. From now on whenever you head out of a town you can engage in combat with any other PvP player, anywhere, any time, even in a field of monsters.
This approach works very well, giving the player a choice to pvp or not, but it also makes for a bully environment, high level characters picking on low levels when they turn up, but you can always turn tail and run!

The other approach to PvP is in the Arena. The player can pick to join either a 3v3 Death Match, which takes place in a confined area, with a 7-minute clock counting down. Whichever team has the most kills at the end wins, but all players earn credits (to spend in the special PvP store) so even defeat earns you a little reward. There is also a 5v5 'Capture the Flag' but its a little hard to understand how it works, and from what I have seen and played, it always ends in players running aimlessly around doing nothing. Hopefully this will be patched sometime soon.

While PvP awards credits to use in a special store to purchase new items, the mechanics of this suffer from the best items being way to over priced. Some of the numbers really need reworking, or the rewards per game increased, as for top tier weapons you will be looking at playing PvP non stop for a very very long time...

Worthy of note is that the option to join PvP arena can be selected from anywhere at anytime, and you can continue playing, questing and fighting, while the game searches for balanced opponents. Once a game is found a pop-up window, with a 15 second count down, appears asking if you want to join the game. You can click yes and be teleported straight to the PvP Arena, or decline the invite if you have changed your mind.

Items/Game Economy
Like is the trend these days, free games have 2 different in-game currencies – the standard 'gold' dropped by monsters and a 'premium' currency which is generally purchased with real life money.
It is however worth noting that premium currency is dropped by monsters and the purchase price itself is extremely low (starting at just over £1.00).

Premium currency is also given as quest rewards, which itself is a very nice way to encourage players to stay at the game and play.

There is the usual selection of weapons, armour, shields, rings, amulets etc that are found in most games, with the stats of each raising as the level of the item increases. Each item has 5 levels from Standard through to Legendary. A nice recent addition is the ability to craft better items from items the character finds but doesn’t need. All but standard level items can be improved by combining any 4 items in a special crafting machine. The result of which is a random item (based on the attributes, and type of the original items used) of a higher level. For instance 4 magical items will wield 1 exceptional level item.

While there is a nice selection of items, and a way to improve items, the design is very simple, almost lacking when compared with other games of this kind. The problem is that in most cases only one item exists for the characters level. For instance only 1 axe, or one type of armour, so every time you reach a new level its almost like you must go back to town and get rid of your old axe and get the new one, and what’s more every other player has the same pick. This ends up with every level 20 Knight looking identical because every level 20 uses the same level 20 gear.

There are of course small exceptions to this. Stats on magical items can sometimes negate the need to level your item (enhanced armour on magic boots for example may increase their base armour to higher than the next level items base stats) and there is also the option to level-up your item, useful if you have a nice item with nice stats and the next item isn’t available until you are higher level.

Magic items are also limited in what they can grant the player in terms of bonus. Extra health, armour, damage are the most common, with some items spawning bonus to attack speed or other such. Work here needs to be done. There are no boots that boost speed, or helms that boost LoS in dark areas etc. More imagination is needed to spice up magic items.

What is lacking, greatly, is any kind of player to player trading system. The only options you have with your old gear, no matter how magical or great, is to sell to a vendor for coin. Items degrade over time and need repairing, but this isn’t a problem, more of a hindrance as coin is plentiful and you shouldn’t run short.

At time of writing this the game boasts over 1.8 million registered accounts, how many play is a different question. There are only 5 servers, and while occasional minor lag is experienced during peak hours it is clear that nowhere near these numbers are actually playing. That is not to say the game lacks players, at any given time in any area you can find plenty of players, and finding a party to co-op with is extremely easy.

The game is in Open Beta, and so far has had nice regular updates and tweaks. It feels as though the game is supported at design/management level and that the company are going to stick with it.

The community support however is a different matter. Given the game boasts 1.8million registered accounts, only 1.8 people seem to have found the official Forum. Community involvement here is very small, for whatever reason nobody seems to use the forums much, new topics are rare and questions can go a long time unanswered. Maybe that the game is German may have something to do with this, I don’t speak German but perhaps that’s where all the players hang out, in the German Forums.

In summary -
This game is visually superb, from the back drops to the creatures (little and large!), to the lighting elements (my axe actually reflected in-game moonlight). Combat is easy, the addition of skills and different playing styles of the 2 classes make for some tactical fights, but in the end it is simple hack n slash, over and over, and can get a little boring sometimes.

Party play is good and the reward drop system is a nice change (items drop for all players regardless of who makes the actual kill), finding a party and inviting/joining is also very simple. The game feels as though it encourages party play, whilst also allowing solo play, which is always a good thing.

The downside is that it is lacking in certain areas. PvP Arena balance needs work, as does items and abilities, to try and move away from the feeling that every character of a specific level is almost identical to every other character of that level.

For Open Beta however this game is certainly one to watch, and I recommend anyone with an interest in games like this to try it out for a few hours, you will be impressed with the visuals at the very least.

Will this game last? That’s a tough question.. it is essentially a Diablo clone and with D3 looming on the horizon, with all the support and budget of the giant that is Blizzard, Drakensang needs to pull something magical out of its time in Beta to survive against such tough competition. Until D3 is released though, I will be enjoying Drakensang Online.

For more information and to try the game for free, visit

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