Friday, July 21, 2017

Dark and Light Early Access Review - Shit's Broke, yo

Dark and Light Early Access Review – Off to a Rough, but Promising, Start
By Jordan Hall(ApocaRUFF)

You may have heard of Studio Wildcard, creators of Ark: Survival Evolved, having been acquired by Snail USA some time back. So it comes at no surprise that Snail would be interested in making use of the wildly successful (if not universally acclaimed) Ark platform. Dark and Light is the result of that, with obvious artifacts left in the game that were taken directly from Ark. That's not to say it's a bad thing, Ark with a Medieval Fantasy theme and mythical creatures is an interesting setting. Without further ado, lets hop into the review and see if the "Mixed" rating on Steam is deserved or not.

What Is It?
A few thing you absolutely need to understand before you go into this game. First, this is an Early Access game. It's going to be broken and horrible for the first few weeks, don't buy it if you can't accept that. Second, you won't be able to enjoy the game unless you put more than a few hours into it. Maybe they'll update it so the learning process is easier, but it's not going to be a fun game while you're trying to learn everything and level up your first character. And third, Steam does not accept refunds if you have played the game longer than two hours. If you're on the fence AT ALL wait a couple of weeks for a handful of hotfixes to be released before you buy the game!  

Dark and Light was originally an MMORPG released in 2006 and closed down in 2008 due to legal issues. I'm not sure how good (or bad) the original game was, but I saw some trailers. Graphics were standard for its time, and it had some stuff that other games did not have and wouldn't really become standard for sometime. Such as gliders, parachutes, and flying mounts. Actually, looking back at the old trailers, you begin to realize that the two games are fairly similar in themes. Anyways, at some point in time, I guess Snail USA acquired the rights to Dark and Light and decided to redevelop the game.

There decision was to take the concept of Dark and Light – a gritty world that is under threat of dark forces that most often rear their head during the dark of night – and cut it down from an MMORPG and turn it into an Online Multiplayer Survival game. Part of this decision, I assume, was in part of Snail USA's acquisition of Studio Wildcard, which gave them access to Ark: Survival Evolved, which is most definitely the basis of which Dark and Light was developed. There's a lot of artifacts in the game to prove this, such as sounds (like rifle noises when you zoom in with a staff) to mobs being referred to as "Dinos" in the config files. But to be clear, I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I'm just saying it's a thing.

There are some things that set Dark and Light apart from Ark and your typical survival game. The biggest difference is the addition of friendly NPCs that players can interact with, that live within NPC cities that players can rent buildings in. Sure, you can go out in the wilderness and create a Fortress of Solitude in the mountains, but you can also rent a nice home right outside town and stay near where all the action is. And when you consider the fact that there are Factions that players are supposed to work together to develop and lead, it makes sense why you might want to stay in town rather than venture out.

Which brings me to the Faction vs Faction vs Faction aspect of the game. There are three factions in the game, separates by race and land. Humans, as usual, are the middle ground and are found in the middle of the map. You can join the dwarves to the North or the elves to the South. Each faction has the means to elect a player Lord to help lead their faction. Right now, though, it feels like this feature isn't completely fleshed out. Lords can apparently take control of the massive castles found within the NPC cities and set laws within their lands, but this early on it's not exactly clear if the system even works as intended. I've yet to hear of a player getting the Lord slot for their faction.

Other than the factions, NPCs, and NPC cities... well it's mostly the same as other survival games but with mythical creatures and undead rather than dinosaurs or zombies. You'll have to get food to keep from starving, seek out sources of water to stay hydrated, there's a new stat known as Focus which you'll need to replenish after casting a lot of spells, generally you just try to survive by gaining more of these stats than you expend. There is, of course, crafting. Your typical crafting for melee weapons, tools, food, etc... but also crafting for spells. I'll get into that later in the review, though.

It's Essentially a Mod for Ark: Survival Evolved
It really is. One reviewer did something funny and crossed out the D in Dark and turned the logo into "Ark and Light." Now, I want to assure you this isn't a bad thing... so long as you enjoyed Ark. For me, this is great. I liked Ark, and taming Dinosaurs was fun, but I wasn't a fan of the rest of the setting. I didn't like the jungle-heavy world and I'm not a fan of guns in survival games. I much prefer the medieval fantasy setting in Dark and Light with the mythical creatures and magic. So, while some will scoff that you can find "Dark and Light" under the games 'mod' folder, or chuckle when they see mobs being referenced as "Dinos" in the configs, or shake their head when rifle sounds play when zooming with a staff, I'm OK with it. Those things will be ironed out over time and I have no problem paying $25 for a mod – especially when it's standalone quality – that will get professional development and support. I guess you would call that an expansion, Snail calls it's a separate game. Either way, it's fun and has soon good design. It just needs a lot of fixes and tweaks.

The graphics in the game are, in my opinion, good. I like this art style – which is very similar to Ark – and I feel it fits the setting perfectly. It's 'realistic' but not too much so. There's a slight cartoony-ness to the world. When that world is filled with mythical creatures and eldritch horrors, it works out quite well.

There's a lot of great views like this in the game.

That being said, I can't begrudge the players who complained about the quality of the graphics. Perhaps the graphics options aren't currently fleshed out, as there doesn't seem to be massive differences between Epic or High. The quality of the textures isn't incredible, either. There's also a lot of issues like flickering shadows or missing/broken textures that I've come across. So, yeah, the graphics can certainly be improved.

But, like I said, I actually like them. If you've ever read any of my reviews, you know I'm a suck for beautiful in-game vistas. I once read a novel with an MMORPG theme (Epic by Conor Kostick, I suggest you read it if you like MMOs) and one of the characters in the novel had taken screenshots from within the game and had them printed and framed in real life, keeping them on the wall. Since then, from Star Wars Galaxies, to Age of Wushu, to ArcheAge, to Black Desert Online, and now Dark and Light, I've taken screenshots of important moments or beautiful vistas in Online games and printed them out. Dark and Light has contributed a few screenshots to that endeavor.

Nidhog's are assholes.

What's Cool
One of the selling points of Dark and Light(DnL), to me, is a very lore-rich world that is actually interesting to read about. The mythical creatures that fill the land are all contribute to a story of the world. Speaking of the creatures, The Bestiary in DnL is something I had hoped to find in Dragon's Prophet way back in the day. Sure, Dragon's Prophet sort of added it later on, but the Bestiary in DnL is exactly as I envisioned it should have been. You get some basic information on the creatures before you interact with them, and once you kill or tame them you fully unlock the artwork and get more information. It's a fun little achievement system that is also useful.

It's a bit broken right now, unfortunately. But when it works, it's great.

Guilds in Dark and Light are referred to as Houses. I think it's the same in Citadel: Forged with Fire? Either way, the functionality of Houses is actually more advanced than I figured. You can set up multiple groups within a House, assigning them different permissions. You also get to set up rules for 'House Governance' that controls things such as the ability of House members to unclaim creatures, and whether or not when someone claims a creature that creatures goes strictly to them or is available to the whole House (if the group the house member in has the permissions for it, that is).

Lots of great functionality.

There's also a nice alliance feature, where you can name and create an alliance. From there you can invite or remove members from the alliance. Of course, there are War Declarations, which are important. Houses can craft an item that makes them immune to damage (and stealing?) from non-House members and the only way to circumvent this is to declare war on the House.

Magic is an interesting concept. It's fairly important to the game and its combat, so you're introduced to it early on. It won't take you long to unlock a handful of spells you can craft. Yeah, you heard that right, you craft spells. So, if you die, you'll either need to craft them again or hope you can find your body. Your friends, if you have any, can also give you copies. Spells range from extracting resources from gatherable nodes (rocks and trees), to shooting fireballs, to lifting massive boulders out of the ground and throwing them long distances.

I'm throwing a fireball here, but you can also see a set of Runes on my hotbar.

Magic doesn't stop there. There's Thaumaturgy and Alchemy, too. Also creature taming. Using the enchanting magic skills you can create contracts to make beneficial deals with some intelligent magical creatures (centaurs were the example given in a dev blog post, I believe) or press a Goblin into your service. You can also build alters to summon enthralled magical slaves if you were lucky enough to get the appropriate essences. It's a very nice and robust system that actually feels a tiny bit like the Minecraft Witchcraft mod, Witchery, if you've ever had the pleasure of playing it.

Speaking of magical creatures, there's a lot. There's the normal creatures, of course, but it's not unheard of for a meteor to fall right outside your house, opening a brief gateway to the nether region and spewing out a Reaper or a couple of skeletons. The meteors fill the same roll that Ark's massive pillars of light that drop lootboxes did. They are restricted by level, meaning unless you are, for example, level 25 you won't be able to open them. Personally, I feel they need to remove the level cap for them as there's no reason to have it in the game (so far as I can tell, anyways). Either way, they drop some alright loot and are worth pursuing if you're of an appropriate level to open them.

I just want to re-iterate that Nidhog's are massive assholes.

The base building is essentially a clone of Ark's. You'll start off with basic straw huts and work your way up to wood, metal, and eventually you'll unlock the 'manors' which are castles. Each faction has its own 'manor' skill which unlocks the manor architecture for your character to craft. With the current way the game is optimized, it's within your best interest for performance to get far away from the starting area and begin building your own base. Once it is optimized further, though, there will be a lot of encouragement to rent the buildings within or nearby the towns rather than setting up your own base. Or, at the very least, getting together with your House to set up a compound somewhere in the world and then renting out one of the buildings for your House to use as a base of operations within the town.

I forgot to take screenshots of building my hut, so here's a storage box instead.
Base building, when combined with the House (guild) system, offers a very nice and powerful set of permissions. Using a House Seal makes anything within its range immune to raiding *unless* an opposing House decides to (literally) throw a war banner at your House. Within your House, you can set up multiple permission groups (aka Ranks) and fine-tune what they can and cannot do within your protected House areas. You can also set up alliances - which can be named! a nice fluff feature - with other Houses.

The rentable houses, at least in the human area, wasn't too numerous. There a handful of houses right outside the main town bridge which can be rented and are of a decent size. They look nice, too There's a lot of empty/unused houses within the town itself that don't seem to be set up for renting yet, but I get the impression they will eventually. There's some particularly large ones that I imagine will cost a lot more than the base 30g for two days that all the others currently cost, so perhaps it's more meant for the Houses or people who have unlocked higher titles within their faction via contributions to the faction. There's two more things I want to mention. First, there should be rentable beds within the Inns, I think, but they don't appear to be implemented yet. And second, I've yet to get the renting feature to work as, even if I find a house that is not currently being rented and have more than enough gold for it, I get told "Rent Failed!" whenever I try.

I've tried multiple times, even with the correct amount of money, and still get "Rent Failed!" However, it appears to work on some servers and even for some people on my server.

Then there's the NPCs. They mostly act as places to buy very basic goods and sell stuff for Gold Coins... on the surface. When you dig into it, they're a bit more advanced than that. Hopefully they'll continue to flesh them out. Most people don't realize you can Donate to the NPCs to unlock more advanced items, reduce prices, and have the vendor hold more of items. You're supposed to work with the rest of your faction to 'level up' the vendors via donations, but I haven't seen much of that yet. If you decide to play, join Knight 2 in the human faction as I've unlocked a fair amount by donating a lot of money to the Tavern Wench. With a small amount of gold you should never fear running out of focus or spiced meat because of my hard work. Do your part!

I've been working on improving the inventory of this NPC in the human starting city on the US Knight 2 server.
And speaking of working together with your faction, the Lord system is interesting. I've yet to see it in use but I've gleamed some information by looking at the billboard found outside taverns. If you reach level 20 and are the leader of a House, you are eligible to sign-up for the Lord vote. Once you sign up, other players can vote for you via the billboard. I guess if you get the most votes (not sure what the time frame is...) you are given the Lord title. As Lord you get access to the castle, which appears to have some form of housing surrounding it? Not sure if or how it works, though. You can set up the rules/laws of the land, but how far those rules reach I don't know. Could be they only have any sort of effect within the city walls.

It's an interesting system, on the surface. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it put to use yet.

One thing I noticed during a tooltip in a loading screen is that you should be able to achieve higher ranks within your faction by contributing. I'm guessing the only real way to contribute right now is via donating, but so far I haven't unlocked anything to my knowledge. This brings up one of my biggest gripes about the game: Lack fo documentation. I have no idea what anything does or how to do anything, except what I've learned through little bits and pieces I've gathered from other players, or what I learn via trial and error. There needs to be a better, more in-depth tutorial or some sort of in-depth out-of-game documentation to help us figure things out.

Laundry List of Issues
The game is in Early Access and honestly probably should have had at least a few more months of work put into it before coming to Steam. I can't begrudge the developer, though, because there's some obvious outside pressure to get their game out and played. And, to be honest, so long as you come into the Dark and Light Early Access with the correct mindset, you're probably going to have a lot of fun. Especially once we get another two or three updates (we've received two so far as of 7/21). That all being said, lets get into the nitty-gritty of where the game is currently broken.

While the gathering didn't seem too bad, with nearly 70 people on the server this sheep did not register ANY of my melee hits. My fireballs killed it in two shots, however.
Server lag is a massive issue. I'm not sure if that's due to poor optimization of the game code, poor performance on the actual servers part or the server code, or if the game is just getting bombarded on all sides with new players due to it just entering Early Access. Either way, while it's not as bad as the lag you would have found during the early days of the Ark Early Access, the lag can be really horrible at times. Especially while gathering. I can beat on a tree for twenty or thirty seconds before I actually get anything from it. It also seems that the server won't actually recognize any of your hits during these laggy times, too. If this wasn't EA, it would be game breaking and I would have refunded just for this. Hopefully hotfixes and privately ran servers will save us.

My biggest gripe is how unresponsive the game is right now. I can walk up the a bush and the game will prompt me to left-click to harvest, and I'll do it. Then nothing happens. I'm not sure if that's the same lag as I suspect is behind the tree chopping issue, but it's there. Same with fighting mobs. I've tried to kill three rabbits so far, ranging from level 5 to level 60. First, what do the levels even mean? Why is there a level 60+ rabbit? Second, none of them died, even after five or more minutes of slicing at them with a sword. I see blood splatter and it sounds like I'm hitting them, but as far as I can tell I'm doing no damage. However, mobs don't seem to have any issue killing other mobs. I've seen a Reaper (which looks incredible, by the way!) take out a few sheep, a skeleton, and someone horse without any issue and I have no issues doing damage immediately with magic, so it appears to be an issue mainly related to using melee swings.

The tutorial isn't as good as it should be. And I don't meant to gripe about this too much; a tutorial is much more than a majority of survival games gives their players. But with the current bugs and other issues, it can take you a long, long time to get anywhere with it and there are several points within the tutorial/quest system that are broken. It took me an hour to get through the first portion of the tutorial, mostly because it was so hard for me to actually gather resources due to the bugs mentioned above. When it came time to get ten gold and ten apples from barrels in town... well, I tried for about thirty minutes before I decided just to look around for unconscious players (they should really warn us that logging out doesn't make us disappear...) and getting gold from them, which took about five minutes. Then I went out and beat on tree for another half-hour and got a nice stack of wood and all the apples I needed. It would have been better if the tutorial suggested I go cut on trees until I got one-hundred wood, which would have netted me about ten apples anyways, and then sell them to a vendor for a cool 75 gold profit. It's annoying because the tutorial tells me to do that (essentially) later on anyways.

This tutorial would be incredibly if it were streamlined and fleshed out. And fixed.
So, the tutorial works to a degree, but it's too slow because of other broken features that I assume will get fixed soon(tm). But that's not the only issue. Like I said, it doesn't go over all the important things, or at least not soon enough. So far as I can tell, there's no tutorial that teaches players how to rent rooms or houses in the city, despite mentioning it in a quest text and loading screen tips. And speaking of, there appears to be no way to craft a bed until level 10, and I need to sleep. But it currently takes forever to get level 10. I assume renting a room or home (whichever it is) may give you access to a bed, but I have no idea how to do that. Do you see the issue?

One other major gripe with the tutorial is that it doesn't explain NPCs until much later than it should. I had no idea how they worked. It took me a while to figure out that I had to gather a certain number of something before I could sell them to an NPC. And then I had to figure out the hard way that when it says "Sold Out" that means you can no longer sell it to the NPC (I guess they got enough from other players?). That doesn't make much sense. You would think that they would want to buy something they're out of.

Hunger is fairly broken, though the recent hotfix helped it a decent amount. It's alright most of the time, but as soon as it's night and if you're not near a source of warmth, you're going to lose it incredibly fast. I was losing .3 or more of hunger per second during the night when not near a campfire. As a newbie this is devastating and will lead to death in minutes. That's if you're lucky enough to get food that'll keep your hunger up. Apples are OK, but not great. Blueberries are even worse. They need to do something, either reduce it or make the newbie clothes offer at least some warmth. The 'public' campfires aren't enough and it's too annoying being forced to sit the entire night cycle next to them. And sure, once you unlock Rune of Warmth it's not a big issue. But with all the other stuff I mentioned, it'll probably take you a while to get to the point where you can get the Warmth spell AND realize you need to use it without someone telling you.

Text. A lot of it is... well, it's bad. It's obvious that whoever wrote a lot of the UI text does not speak English as a first language. This is something you would expect to be fixed before release to EA and it's one of the biggest things I've seen that gives credence to the claim that Dark and Light entered Early Access in response to Citadel announcing they're going into Early Access on the 26th of July. I'm hoping we won't run into similar issues as we found in Age of Wushu, where a majority of the game text remained broken for a long time (and perhaps even to this day?).

What Needs Changed
There's also some tweaks that needs to be made. The bed roll needs to be unlocked much sooner. Waiting until level 10 for it, with the current skill/leveling rates on the Official servers, is brutal. Most people fail to realize they need to interact with NPCs to unlock more buying options that include foods that will make it so they no longer need to worry about sleep. Of course, sleep is free... if you can get a bed. Speaking of, on the server I played there seemed to be a bug where buildings in the NPC town were not rentable - one of the features I was looking forward to the most. I was also hoping for rentable beds in the Inns - which seems to be planned, but not yet implemented. Hopefully the server reset and hotfix will change that.

Obviously, there needs to be a massive amount of optimization. The game is currently essentially unplayable on a server with over fifty-five or so people on it. Things start to get really bad from twenty-five players and up. Trying to kill animals on a server with any sort of population is mostly a loss cause unless you are able to spam fireball non-stop, and it'll take you a while to get to that point with all the current optimization and lag issues. And may the gods help you when you try to butcher the animal.

Other than those... well, the game seems to be on the right track. Once the content is fleshed out more, the game (and servers) are optimized, and the playerbase sheds most of its initial surge of Steam trolls... I feel like we'll have a fun game on our hands. Right now, it's fun but trying. I've had to scramble around various servers rather than focusing on a single one because the game becomes incredibly annoying to play once that threshold of players is reached. Hopefully they can fix that soon, or maybe reduce server population caps, so that I can focus on my primary character on the US Knight 2 Official Server.

And on the topic of servers... They really need to add more support for private dedicated servers. It's doable right now, but it's a bit convoluted so most people simply don't bother. I'm a firm believer that the game won't reach its full potential for fun until server admins can some actual support. Official servers have their purpose... but, and especially right now, they're too clogged up to be a great experience.

A lot of people worried that Snail wouldn't offer much in the way of support for the game. I can't blame them on their apprehension based on Snail's past escapades. However, since the launch yesterday there have been two updates. The first helped increases performance, which helped a decent amount but there's still a long way to go for a smooth and stable experience. The second introduced PVE-focused official servers and a handful of fixes and tweaks.

I have hopes that we'll be playing a much, much, much more smooth and fun game next week at this rate. The tweaks helped a lot, and players should feel more comfortable expanding out and exploring now that they aren't essentially guaranteed to die unless they're a level 7+ character decked out in at least leather gear, all the spells they could unlock, a full set of runes, and a ton of spiced meat. Because of this second update, I can cross "Hunger" off my Laundry List of Issues. But also keep in mind that Snail may do as they did in Age of Wushu and slowly pull support from the game after the initial hype as died down. Fingers crossed that it doesn't happen!

Initially Dark and Light had a "Mostly Negative" review score on steam, with around 200 or so Negative Reviews being posted within the first hour or three of the launch. Most reviewers had less than a hour, some even as low as 0.3 hours, before leaving their sparse negative reviews, so I took a majority with them with a grain of salt. So, you may assume the damage is done and the people have spoken... Well, not so much. An overwhelming number of people who have spent 3 or more hours in the game have given in a positive review and it seems that those players who reserved their judgment until they have gotten a handful of hours into the game have turned the "Mostly Negative" into "Mixed." Who knows if we'll see "Positive." I hope we do because I personally don't feel that Dark and Light is a bad game or concept. It's got bugs and needs tweaks, sure, but once those get fixed it will be incredibly fun to play. Now, whether or not it's a better game than its main competitor, Citadel: Forged with Fire, is a completely different question we can't answer until at least after the 26th...

So, do I suggest the game? Yes. So long as you meet three criteria: You liked the gameplay of Ark: Survival Evolved, Medieval Fantasy interests you, and you can comprehend what you might run into while playing an Early Access game. Otherwise, I would highly suggest you stay away from the game and see how things develop in the coming weeks. Sure, Steam offers you the ability to refund the game so long as you don't go over two hours, but two hours is not enough to have fun with the current version of the game with all its issues. It's better for everyone involved if you just hold onto your money and wait for things to get fixed up before you buy!

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