Well, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I decided to plunk down the $50 or so for Asheron’s Call. Here’s my brief impressions so far.

The Internet Gaming Zone is a joke. When running AC from the Start Menu, trying to simply launch Asheron’s Call results in a cryptic error message implying that my system is configured incorrectly. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but using Windows 98 SE, Internet Explorer 5, trying to access an already existing Zone account, and using MSN as my ISP, I really doubt that Bill Gates, in his wildest pinheaded dreams of market dominance, could have specified a more perfect platform to run AC on. I had to actually fire up a web browser and go to AC’s web site on the Internet Gaming Zone. This is not something most neophyte users are going to think to do when playing a game. Of course, MS can presumably afford lots of decent technical support, so maybe they figure making people call Redmond and instructing them to launch MS-approved web browsers to go to the correct web sites is a good thing. Not only that, the service rejected a credit card of mine that had several thousand dollars worth of credit remaining on it, so either they knew something I didn’t or, more likely, their subscription process is a wee bit broken.

Nevertheless I managed to eventually log in to Asheron’s Call, and made a character on the PK server (no wishy-washy "PvP" label for you!). I had created a mage, so I was able to have the following conversation immediately upon entering Darktide:

(Lum the Mad: appears.)
J. Random Dork: Are you the real Lum the Mad?
Lum the Mad: Force Bolt I
Lum the Mad: Flame Bolt I
Lum the Mad: Lightning Bolt I
(J. Random Dork: dies)
Lum the Mad: I love my readers.

However, he had a few friends, so I rapidly discovered the joys of running in AC. If you select Run as a skill, you basically have, in Everquest terms, Spirit of the Wolf as a skill. You can outrun monsters, other players, even possibly small bits of shrubbery and rabbits.

I ran quite a bit, and practiced my new Mortis Fu (the art of dying repeatedly) while learning the interface. AC’s interface is very keyboard-dependent, so those of you used to playing with your mouse and maybe 1 or 2 keys are in for a rude shock. (I’m sure you can probably redefine your keyboard to play exactly like Quake 1, but I didn’t figure it out.) 

PvP in Asheron’s Call is far superior to Everquest. There are no zone lines, so no zone kills, and folks who play naked mages (like me) usually don’t have the strength to actually carry around the expensive armor they may find off of melee types as loot. The grouping system, which is far more flexible than in Everquest, allows for a happy band of PKs to run around the landscape communicating easily (along with the oh-so-fiction-breaking radar screen in the corner). However, there are a few bugs in the system, that Azile is busily crusading over on her site. My main problem with PvP in AC, though, is its wild unbalance. Simply put, a newbie (aka me) should not be able to do what I was doing (running around shoving Force Bolt Is up everyone’s butt until they died). Magery is seriously overpowered. Judging from the patch notes on the AC website, Turbine is aware of this, so expect many fun nerfs to come. On the other hand, the "newbie factor" from UO is much reduced. You can be a PK and have absolutely horrible stats (like me). The combat system is such that 12th and 15th level characters really don’t have that much of an advantage over 5th and 6th level ones. Of course, that then begs the question of why anyone would bother to be 15th level, unless they just wanted to get into level-restricted dungeons or something.

PvP is the best feature of Asheron’s Call. Everything goes downhill from there. 

The world is just blah. The engine is technically brilliant, and you can see little details like lens-flared sunsets and butterflies flitting about. But it’s an engine put to absolutely no use. For all the vaunted customization available in Asheron’s Call, everyone looks pretty much the same shade of off-gray polygon. The dungeons are very well rendered and completely pointless. (OK, I go down a little deeper, see a couple of drudges… oh, look, a chest! It’s got a wakizashipunti in it. I am thrilled.) The much-heralded improved monster AI consists of the creatures running away after you get a certain distance. With practice, I was able to "kite" monsters with my mage in an almost scientific fashion using the radar screen.  Of course, after the 9000th Bitch Shreth you’ve knocked down you start to ask yourself — why?

Everquest’s engine isn’t nearly as advanced, and EQ has tons of problems all its own, but one thing EQ did nail was the art of actually portraying a world. When you’re in Norrath, you’re not in some generic carbon-copy medieval village. Your surroundings are actually interesting. Although no one roleplays in either AC or EQ (believe it or not, Ultima Online is still the only major ORPG where any roleplaying takes place, and I’m sure there’s a nice long story there as well), you have some suspension of disbelief in EQ, just from the immersiveness of the world. In AC, the world has zero immersiveness. You always see it for what it is, a set of polygons which for all you know may well have been randomly generated.

Everquest and Baldur’s Gate share many similarities (beautiful world, brainless combat, no plot to speak of.) Ultima Online has echoes of Ultima 7 in its design and its persistence. However, Asheron’s Call reminds me of nothing other than that magnificent failure of a game known as Daggerfall. For its time Daggerfall was an outstanding technical achievement – in 1996 a massive roleplaying game using a true 3D engine was just unheard of. But Daggerfall wasn’t a world, but a set of randomly generated obstacles to making your XP total go higher.

And, sad to say, for all its randomness and bizarro NPCs, Daggerfall is a more immersive game than Asheron’s Call. Asheron’s Call has a large and unique world, but no one populates it. The NPCs are limited to mute shopkeepers and the occasional "collector of funny things you should cash in".

The PCs, naturally, react to the total lack of a coherent world by basically playing themselves. If a game was ever actively anti-roleplaying, I’d say AC was it. Given the alienness of the flora and fauna, combined with the familiarity of the player models ("Do I wanna be Asian, Arab or European?"),  you would have to be utterly insane to try to roleplay here. At least in Everquest, you know somewhat how, say, a halfling or an elf would react in a given situation. Trite models, but well known, well worn ones. What does a Gharu’d’im say when confronted with a Humongous Monogua? I haven’t the foggiest, either.

So, my recommendations. If you’re a roleplayer, stick with UO. Nothing comes close, limited buggy engine and all, for the ability to actually simulate a living world. If you’re a monsterbasher or an explorer, EQ is, although not as technically adept, more fun.  And if you’re a PvPer, and absolutely desperate for something to do while waiting on the Second Coming of Our Lord and Savior, Asheron’s Call may foot the bill, bug fixes permitting.

Am I going to renew my subscription? Probably not. 3 games is a bit much to maintain, and nothing in AC jumps out and compels m
to play. And that is a conclusion I suspect many others will make as well.