Darkfallout

By Kieron Gillen on July 17th, 2009 at 2:43 pm.

So, I reviewed an MMO.

Some director notes. We start with useful information, get increasingly meta.

Now, I’m traveling for the next 10 days, but a glance around the comments reminds me a couple more things I wanted to bring up. One positive, one negative.

Negatively, I catch someone talking about how altering the bindings improves the control system. Which is, of course, like saying “If I reprogram the game, it becomes playable”. You can fix Darkfall, but having something in an optimum position is the game designer’s job. The example I was going to use was the mysterious case of the run key. It’s – if memory serves me – Shift. However, swapping your hot-key bars default to SHIFT plus a number. So if you’re running away trying to switch to a more appropriate weapon – like your staff to allow a little healing or whatever – you actually swap what set of icons rather than to the weapon you may need for a little thing like saving your life. This is fixable – though notably the key I wanted to select for the task wouldn’t work for some reason – but the idea that a developer hadn’t even thought about it – or, even worse, thought that somehow it was a good idea - speaks volumes.

Positively, I mentioned the the joy of running for my fucking life the first time. There was a later time, when I was involved in a duel with an Orc Beastmaster. I’d lured him away from the pack, around the back of the castle, and was committing more energy to the battle than I normally would. He falls as the moment as another player in fancy armour on a mount comes careening towards me. I react immediately. I have to run. Of course, the castle is at the top of a peak. To escape, I throw myself off the cliff. I have more of a chance of surviving the floor than a direct confrontation. Of course, I die. The guy rides up and rather than doing the coup de grace which would send me back to whence I came, heals me then rides off. A lovely little vignette which comes entirely from Darkfall’s characteristics.

That’s the thing with Darkfall. Despite everything, it’s much more like an MMO I’d like to throw my time in than the anything WoW-derived. Its problem is that it’s just not good enough. To be charitable, you can say “yet”. But “Yet” doesn’t matter in reviews. Marking for potential is forever foolish.

It’s been an interesting gig. I knew it would be the second Tom phoned me late on Thursday night to ask if I’d be willing to do it. Of course, I was half-cut, so happily agreed. I was on contract with Eurogamer for a set number of pieces a month. I was off on holiday for a week, so was happy to take this clearly poisoned chalice. And, as I’ve told everyone who’s asked me about it, I ended up feeling like Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction. “There’s a dead review with a hole in his head in the Eurogamer car. Can you help us scoop up its brains”. Of course, I’m nothing like Mr Wolf, as it took me two months to get it done.

But I got it done. And it’s an odd gig.

Problem is that there’s so much bad blood. Aventurine didn’t want the review for a variety of reasons, but the obvious one is “whatever score you give it, doesn’t matter.” Give it the same mark, we’re just not budging. Giving it high, we’re a sellout and/or admitting EG’s incompetent. Give it a middling one and you’re splitting the difference. Of course, this is true. The job was trying to make it possible for the review to become something else other than just a straight review. Which is what attracted me to it. It’s a job that required both an enormous ego and a lack of one. As in, you had to be willing to deal with things no straight review ever could dare to while trying to keep the “you” relatively invisible.

Because, really, this was a scooping up bits of brain job… but instead of getting the body in a car-disposer, I had to go and perform a relatively tasteful funeral. Ed’s took a world of shit for this, up to and including threatening phonecalls demanding he be sacked to his not-videogames-connected day-job. (I almost brought this up in my recent piece for Drowned In Sound regarding the whole Death of the Critic thing, where I was comparing what music and games critics get up to. I decided to avoid it, as invoking Darkfall before the review came out would muddy the waters even further).

Conversely, I can also understand the outrage of the fans. While I didn’t read Ed’s review, I read a lot of the response to it. And more importantly, as I say in the review, the people who go native in an MMO have emigrated there. The response is at least partially a patriotic response. If I published a serious column in a newspaper saying the USA was shit, I’d get a similarly vicious response. This is about identity. And, as my time with Darkfall proved, most of the players were perfectly friendly. The actual rampage on the net had one major consequence – a lot of people who weren’t committed started to dismiss them as plain nutsoid. Why on earth would you want to play a game with them? Darkfall’s got many problems, but in my experience, the playerbase isn’t amongst them.

In other words, I wanted to try and do something which was about understanding – try and show what all the sides were thinking and why they were doing so, without actually not writing about what I think. So, the interstitial-essay approach, the (relatively) stripped-back prose style, and so on. Seems to have done okay.

Couple more things:

Firstly, I mentioned I was on contract with EG. Well, I’m not any more. I’ve too much comic work on right now, so can’t really keep it up. As such, it means that RPS is my sole ongoing games journalism commitment – and we don’t do reviews. As such, I could have totally have quit at the end of the review to amp up the drama-llamaism some more. But that’d be becoming the story, and betrays of the lack-of-ego part of the gig upthread. If I didn’t feel so sad over the whole thing, I may have been tempted. But this one mattered too much for stage-gestures.

Secondly, there’s one group I’ve been genuinely furious at over this. That is, a selection of my fellow journalists. Even with a slight amount of thought, you can see why Editor Tom couldn’t back down just from Aventurine saying it’s so. In private conversation, it’s pretty bad. In public conversation, it’s sickening. Seeing long term professionals – and, even worse, long term professionals who I could name reviews which if their editors listened to the reader response should have sacked their sorry asses on the spot – side entirely with Aventurine was the blackest hour of this whole adventure. When you could be the next one to have to deal with this shit, through no fault of your own, a little respect and faith in your fraternity is something you could consider displaying. And if that’s too much, shut the fuck up.

Finally: The Darkfall review was written entirely to the Gallows first album, the Bronx’s third and Sleater Kinney’s Good Things. All are lovely.

, .

233 Comments »

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  1. ChaosSmurf says:

    I’ve read one sentence of this article and half the review and give it 2/10.

  2. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    So, better than Darkfall, then.

  3. qrter says:

    The line “For the record: If I ever actually find out conclusively that someone was lying in this matter, I will do everything I can to destroy them.” made me laugh, although I’m not really doubting it is sincere.

  4. cullnean says:

    comics books gain is our loss

    any chance of a sign copy of beta ray bill?

  5. Bears says:

    Owch, you ripped that game a new one.

    Most interesting part of this:
    Your listening to the gallows? Owch. Man, I went to a live show they supported at, they got boo’d off about…4 songs in, they were dry, drunk and boring. Fun times.

  6. SwiftRanger says:

    Well, a comment like this probably would be swamped in the EG comments so here it is: good show.

    Not doing anything for PC Gamer UK anymore as well?

  7. LewieP says:

    Surely it would be better for everyone except idiots to stop putting scores at the end of reviews?

  8. The_B says:

    There’s nothing much extra that needs adding, other than the fact I think both you and Tom (Bramwell) went about this in entirely the correct way. I really felt quite bad for Ed, having to put up with all the shitstorm around it.

    And when you compared the response to patriotism, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the time Charlie Brooker wrote an offhand comment in one of his television columns about wishing Bush would be killed, which was shortly followed by death threats to him. Seriously, this writing thing can be a bastard sometimes.

  9. Jockie says:

    When a review needs a historical disclaimer you know it’s going to be interesting.

    I read the review this afternoon and thought it was a fantastic piece of journalism, even-handed, seemingly unbiased and entertaining.

    That it managed to get under the skin of issues surrounding MMO reviewing and the different approaches you considered applying to the review effectively immunize you from criticism from Darkfall players and I think a number of them (assuming they actually read it and not just the score at the end) will probably agree with you, from what i’ve seen of coverage across the web.

    At the risk of posting a superlong comment that no-one reads, I’m in the same boat with regards to preferring something that steers clear of the WoW/Thempark MMO archetype. Mortal Online seems to be the great white hope with regards to that currently (Aside from Eve anyway). Hopefully it’s developers can see where Darkfall went wrong and create a more complete experience.

  10. Paul says:

    lmfao, surely they can’t complain about this loquacious review.

  11. Mike says:

    It’s all good, what you say. Whilst I think the review is good, that you’ve written, there simply isn’t a way to resolve something like that well. You’ve got so many accusations flying; as you say, whatever you had done, it would never have been right for everyone.

    At least that’s the end of the matter. Now we can go back to the games we actually play.

  12. James G says:

    I must admit, I jumped straight to the end and the comments on the review itself although read your comments here in their entirety, and will be looking at the review itself a bit later. However I was vaguely amused by this comment:

    “Not only a Darkfall review but a review of reviewing MMOs themselves, now that was a bit unexpected.”

    To which I couldn’t help but think, “This is Gillen we’re talking about here, thats exactly what I’d have expected.”

  13. Kieron Gillen says:

    SwiftRanger: Haven’t done anything since the back page for issue 200. I’m sure an occasional thing will still happen.

    qrter: That line was probably rephrased more times than any other one. I smirked a bit when writing it too.

    Bears: But when they’re on, they’re on.

    The_B: I was thinking of Brooker when writing that.

    KG

  14. Flyboy says:

    @ChaosSmurf;
    If the half the review you read the the negative then I can fullu understand.

  15. Ian says:

    For this part:
    “The guy rides up and rather than doing the coup de grace which would send me back to whence I came, heals me then rides off. A lovely little vignette which comes entirely from Darkfall’s characteristics.”

    Is that really a Darkfall-specific thing, or is it just one of those moments of relief you sometimes get in MMOs when you realise not every other player is a dickhead?

    Either way, the review was a great read.

    Now all we need to do is get you shunned by the world of comic books so you can devote your life to RPS.

  16. Kieron Gillen says:

    Ian: The amount of sheer fear in terms of relative power levels, etc. How often these people cross paths. That kind of stuff.

    KG

  17. Schaulustiger says:

    Wow, this is easily the best MMO review I ever read.

    And a bold move to state the estimated time you played (~ 20 hrs). Most people will complain that this time is too short for a fair review in the genre, but I agree that if it doesn’t turn you on in that time span, why bother with it even longer? Gaming is meant to be fun, not to put 30 hours of hard work in it just to earn the possibility of a reward. It’s funny that it’s almost only MMO fanboys that do this twisted thinking.

  18. The Hammer says:

    I absolutely loved the review. I thought it was passionate, I thought the interludes were very interesting (I loved the idea of revealing you’re a journalist JUST before you logged out), and I thought you were very, very fair on the game. You weren’t dismissive of it.

    Fantastic, enjoyable piece. For me, the score here was irrelevant. It’s a game I’m never going to play, and neither am I going to play games of its ilk (I’d rather see a totally different MMO experience like APB, than a more hardcore and unintuitive version of my current love, WOW), but it was really interesting to read nonetheless. Great stuff.

  19. Ian says:

    KG: Ah, fair point. Was looking at it more from the “well that was nice” viewpoint rather than the gank-potential.

  20. Kieron Gillen says:

    Something Darkfall does do, which is worth elaborating, is show how interesting a more action-based system can be. Someone running from you, switching to arrows and then judging trajectories to get one in their head to finish off… that’s a great little moment.

    KG

  21. Premium User Badge

    Kelron says:

    Good review. I’ve been following Darkfall for ages, would probably have bought it if it wasn’t for the ridiculous price. I think it’s one to check out again in a year or so, when hopefully many of the problems will have been sorted.

  22. The_B says:

    How long have we got before the Darkfall community find this post and invade this comments thread?

    I mean, I need to know when this shelter has to be ready by so we can all hide in it.

  23. Quinns says:

    Gnn. The review is way too good. It’s practically fly-by-wire. If that does turn out to be the last games review you ever write, you’ve set the bar nice and high for the rest of us.

    Salute!

  24. Ben Abraham says:

    I loved your review Kieron. Just beautiful, in every way.

  25. Acosta says:

    Kieron, I was wondering if “I have too much work doing comics” it´s a good excuse to leave the professional side of this industry of games critic, and just keep the romantic one (RPS). Are you burnt of this work? (I have the feeling you already were in your last days as Deputy Editor at PCG).

    Sorry if it sounds too personal, it´s just that I’m passing for my very own crisis about the business of gaming criticism/reporting (in part because external situations related to the sorry state of press in general in my country, in part for the limitations and nature of this job). So I was wondering if you have foreseen a kind of conceptual dead end for this job, at least at its most professional side.

  26. CitizenParker says:

    I quite enjoyed the piece, and if it does indeed serve as a “goodbye for now” from EG, I can’t imagine a better way.

    That said, it still strikes me as a bit odd that you can get your game re-reviewed as long as you and your playerbase raise a stink.

    I know there are precedents for this kind of thing. Ebert’s re-review of Brown Bunny comes to mind, but then again he reviewed two different cuts of the film. I can’t quite imagine that the Darkfall of your review was that different than the Darkfall of EG’s previous.

  27. Quinns says:

    Acosta: Those of us who consider games journalism in crisis are the exact ones who need to stay.

  28. Kieron Gillen says:

    Acosta: Hunger for the new. Only so many hours in the day and I’ve agreed to do so much stuff something’s got to give. If I had another 10 hours a day, I’d do it all.

    I’ll admit the money is an influence in terms of what I’m prioritising. When I love it all, doing something just as creative which pays better* is attractive. And I’m almost 34. I probably should think about actually earning a wage at some point in my life.

    I will be sad if I ever stop writing on games.

    (I stress, I’m talking about an *ongoing* relationship. I’m still open for people asking me to do stuff. Tom’s having me look at Left 4 Dead 2 when I’m at San Diego, for example)

    EDIT: I was burnt out when I left PCG. Change of pace rejuvenated me nicely.

    KG

    *And you get more respect for, abstractly could lead to new stuff, etc.**
    **And the new. Doing new stuff is exciting.

  29. unique_identifier says:

    beaut’ piece there kieron.

  30. Schadenfreude says:

    Excellent review, and excellent commentary on the review.

    In some respects I can see where the Darkfall players are coming from.
    The average non-Darkfall player looks at it and thinks “The UI is beyond broken, therefore it is rubbish” (Or something along those lines), and a lot of Darkfall players say “Well if you took the time to learn our horribly over-complicated and unintuitive UI maybe you’d love the game” (Only with more swearing and general hostility).

    This argument of theirs is rarely given much credence but it brings Dwarf Fortress to mind. The few times I’ve tried it, it was utterly impenetrable, and there’s a lot of people who agree with me. Yet you only ever hear its praise sung.

    I’m not really going anywhere with this, and obviously they’re very different games and Darkfall has more problems than the just the UI (And costs a lot more than free) but it seems that its major crime, rubbish controls/UI is occasionally a forgivable offense.

    Or it’s that Dwarf Fortress is so bloody awesome the hurdle of its UI is worth it, whereas even with the best controls in the world Darkfall would still be a little pants.

    Well now I’ve talked myself up into trying to crack Dwarf Fortress again.

  31. Butler` says:

    I’m not surprised your fellow journos were split on the whole thing, 2hrs is stupid, but even the 8hrs he put forward after the accusations is hardly ideal for an MMO :\

    Ah the joys of reviewing MMOs.

  32. Dinger says:

    As a review it’s okay. Because he breaks up his prose in tiny bits. Digestable fragments. Still, giving it a 4 is selling out. Shoulda been a 2.7

  33. teo says:

    I too thought the review was great, but man, what a challenge. Great pieces like these really put game writing into perspective. It’s too bad you won’t be doing much game coverage going forward =/ all the best writers get out of the business. PCG is still good but it’s slowly sinking. More and more stuff from the American staff.

    Dammit if Brem X Jones doesn’t review Deus Ex 3!

  34. Schadenfreude says:

    Still, giving it a 4 is selling out. Shoulda been a 2.7

    He needed to support his hungry kids and big-spender wife apparently. Darkfall comment pages really bring out the mentalists.

  35. Doopliss says:

    Darkfall sounds very reminiscent of Star Wars Galaxies, an overall horrible and broken game but one that could still satisfy a certain type of player through the freedom it gave to create their own place in its world. That plus running up verticle cliff faces.

    Then they had to go and rip out its soul, perhaps leaving a better game behind but with nothing to connect it to the old but the dreary aesthetic. Bah, fuck SoE. The wounds are still raw :(

  36. Greg Wild says:

    The Bronx II > The Bronx III

    :D

  37. bookwormat says:

    @LewieP “Surely it would be better for everyone except idiots to stop putting scores at the end of reviews?”

    I wanted to agree to this first, but it’s not true of course. The illusion that review scores are an indication for a game’s quality is very helpful to many customers, because it allows them to ignore most of the games that are released and narrow down their buying decision to a few games.

    I think it does not really matter that the score is not a real indicator. If you have to decide between 100 different games and some magic numbers offers to help you to cut it down to 10, you don’t ask questions.

    And of course news magazines get linked on metacritic and on a game’s website. And the numbers are a very good topic for ‘discussions’.

  38. Acosta says:

    Thanks for the answer Kieron. The piece of drownedinsoul was excellent, it reflects very well many of my own issues with the media, except for the part that I’m not an award winner journalist and I don’t have any kind of prestige that could make me believe I could change things. Let’s say that my “denial cape of protection” was tinier than yours, and now I think I just lost it.

    Will check your review tonight, I’m sure it´s worth reading. It´s a shame no more publications allow to their reviewers stay two months reviewing MMOs, I’m sure we would have more interesting and well thought pieces of criticism. It´s pretty amazing that these games are still treated like every other, when being part of a ongoing community it´s such a key part of the experiencie. I’m not contrary to a more “inmediate” review, but editors should make a effort to find a more rationale formula for covering these games.

  39. Lobotomist says:

    We have proof Kieron only played 4 hours!

  40. Fleeter says:

    This is one of the few reviews I’ve read in entirety in the last couple of months. I enjoyed it thoroughly, I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be the end result — enjoyment. I think Kieron has handled it well, though I believe Ed’s evaluation is as valid as any reviewer’s opinion has ever been.

    In short, I suppose, I came for the controversy and stayed for the writing.

  41. Nick says:

    I heard he played 3 hours then spent the last hour thinking up ways to compare Darkfall to sex.

  42. Bhazor says:

    I’ve always thought the best way to review an MMO is a sort of MMO MOT. One full review on release to cover the first month and then a mini review every 3 or 4 months to see how it’s progressed. That way you give a full overview following its first public month and any glaring errors or glowing triumphs whilst the MOT would be able to explain how the community has changed and whether the problems have resolved/grown. Admittedly as most new content is “end game” stuff then you risk hiring natives but really MMO developers should give reviewers a debug version or the chance to borrow an appropriate level character.

    I also think if a game hasn’t sucked you in after 20 hours, my limit would be six hours, then it just isn’t worth it. A review is a consumers guide first and foremost and theres plenty of better more absorbing games out there.

  43. Z says:

    Hey, Kieron, your review (along with a nice bit of perspective on the whole situation) has been posted to Metafilter. It’s a nice post, too. (Thought you should know)

  44. AbyssUK says:

    It’s stuff like this why I read RPS with adblock off.. good show sir you are a credit to your profession. I really hope you’ll do at least some more reviews for EG just so it doesn’t go all IGN on us.

  45. Dante says:

    I agree with Lewis. Down with scores!

  46. Jeremy says:

    That’s definitely a tough position to be in, having to review a game with this kind of history, especially with the “conspiracy” mindset the gaming world has been obsessed with of late. No matter what score you gave it, someone was going to shout “CONSPIRACY!!”, but in the end I thought that it was a very fair and balanced review. You didn’t try and hide the fact that there was a review fiasco before, you explained the good, the bad, and the frustrating, and in the end I got the impression that you truly felt it deserved a 4 and nothing more or less.

    I also have to say, major respect for standing behind your fellows, a lot of people these days are quick to sell out because the “customer is always right” and numbers are everything. Which is of course false, the customer is never right, and loyalty is of more worth than currency. Good stuff.

  47. M.P. says:

    It’s amazing how a good piece of writing can enliven the experience it’s describing. Reading through your review made it seem like you were having a lot of fun. In fact, even your descriptions of the game’s worst flaws, by being humorous, made it seem like those flaws amused you at some level and thus perversely contributed to your overall enjoymentof the game. I was hence kinda shocked to see the low score at the end. I think numerical scores are idiotic tbh, but the review itself was great. It actually made me want to try it out even though I had no intention to beforehand, because it did a great job of highlighting its pros while warning me about its problems.

  48. M.P. says:

    (Just to add: I think it’s pretty obvious that people forewarned of problems deal better with them, so, ironically, reading Gillen’s mostly negative review before trying the game would probably improve someone’s reaction to it – negative reviews boost sales! :) )

  49. Jeremy says:

    A little note since I can’t Edit: I really thought SoloRaider was joking, but he’s actually kind a of nut.