Think of all the clichès that put people off playing MMORPGs: the level grind, the super-generiquests, the identikit enemies, the stupendous amount of time needed to do anything, graphics textures that could peel paint from walls at 30 paces... yes, Asheron's Call 2: Legions has them all. I think you can see where this is going. Before we continue with the character assassination, a little explanatory refrain.
Legions is the expansion pack to Asheron's Call 2 and adds a whole new continent, Knorr, to the game world. It also adds two new playable races, (one of whom, the Drudge, must be unlocked via a quest) and a revamped character skills system, Hero System 2.0. This is, no doubt, great news for people who've played AC2 from release, and need some virgin territory to explore. With over 100 high level quests available, there's a lot of adventuring to be had here. Long-term devotees will be delighted to play as a member of the ancient Empyrean race (read "Elf" - I don't care what fancy name you want to give it, if it walks like an Elf, has pointy ears and dresses like an Elf, it's an *Elf*, okay?), of whom Asheron (of the game's name) was a member. The back story to the game world of Dereth is fairly standard MMORPG fare - invasion by a powerful hitherto unknown race, leaving the world in ruins, heroic fight-back, yadda-yadda-yadda. None of this is really important - what's important is that everything you know (or think you know) about MMORPGs probably holds true here. The bottom line is this; is Legions worthy of your subscription fee?
Here's where the reviewer promptly gets a case of schizophrenia. If you're already a long standing subscriber to the game, then yes, it is. I can see the point. If you've paid your nine dollars a month since it came out, and still have a passion for the game, then you're probably not going to need to read a review to justify your decision to buy Legions. The prospect of grinding your way up to character levels in three figures probably already has you moist with excitement. The fact that the expansion has been bundled with the original game, however, indicates that Turbine are keen to entice new players into a burgeoning online addiction, and it's here where I have to put on my critical hat.
'Here's where the reviewer promptly gets a case of schizophrenia'
You see, Asheron's Call 2 is nearly three years old now, and it shows: Badly. This game hasn't aged well at all - I believe I mentioned paint-peeling textures? That's not the half of it. There are the tell-tale sniffs of dodgy server side movement, with your character moonwalking forward for a couple of feet before the running animation kicks in. The general standard of the character animation is notably poor as well. It's telling that the best character animation by far is for swimming (of all things). It completely fails to convey any sense of involvement when you're in combat and has very little variety. Sound effects are lacklustre and the in-game music is pretty feeble. Likewise, the graphics engine is desperately showing its age, and is weak by modern standards. Even running the game on an Athlon 64 system with 1GB of RAM and a Radeon X800 XT, with all the bells and whistles turned up to the maximum, the game is graphically unimpressive. The spell effects and animations are nothing to write home about, and painfully bland compared to any similar title from the last 12 months. Only the water effects stand out, though that's only because of the relative drabness of the rest of the game.
What is most likely to alienate newcomers to Legions is that the game world feels painfully dull. With AC2's popularity waning since its release, there are just three game servers for the whole worldwide population - one for the US, one for Europe, and one for Everywhere Else. Given the size of the game world (which, to be fair, is absolutely huge) meeting another player can be a rare event, and the rest of the game world feels absolutely empty as well - towns and cities with no NPCs, miles and miles of wilderness with nothing for company except the occasional group of mindless monsters... it's just so achingly lifeless. There are the odd sparks of grandeur in the design - the starport on Knorr is pretty spectacular, considering the low-tech graphics engine - but any sense of wonder is sucked away by repetitive texture use and horrifyingly bad clipping errors, with your avatar seemingly being able to get stuck on any particularly sharp polygon.
Even worse, the interface is clunky at best. I could live with a title that conforms to MMORPG staples if it at least made it easy to play the game. Yet Legions suffers from an awkward interface layout, unsatisfying combat mechanics and poor implementation of the 3D camera. The method of examining items and inventory management in general is needlessly complicated, too. The mini-map is of very little use at all, without being used in tandem without the map window, which means you can't have the Examine window open at the same time, requiring you to constantly switch between the two, as you try and decide which way to go, and whether you should fight that monster or not...
All these niggling flaws will weigh far too heavily on a new player's mind, and render AC2: Legions rather obsolete in the face of competition from more modern and accomplished titles. So, whilst the additions Legions provides to the core game are commendable enough, and indicative of Turbine's attentiveness to their long-term customers, Legions' appeal will most likely be confined to those customers. The difficulty curve is far too steep to play solo, and with its diminishing popularity, new players are going to find it very difficult to find other people of equivalent level to party up with. With other, more newbie-friendly MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars on the market, it's practically impossible to give Legions a wholehearted recommendation, or to be brutally honest, even a half-hearted one...