Darkfall Online ($15/month subscription, 14-day free trial) hearkens back to some of the earliest days of MMOs, especially Ultima Online, where a combination of game design issues and misreading the audience led to the early months being pretty much a nonstop slaughterfest. While the history of MMOs since then has shown that most players do not like to pay 15 dollars a month to be someone else's victim, there's a small, but very loud, group that wants the hardest of hardcore PVP. The MBA degree holders in that group play spreadsheets-in-space game EVE Online. The rest play Darkfall.

Darkfall Online screenshot Don't let the seemingly placid scene fool you; Darkfall is full of opportunities for sudden death.

I'm not a big fan of Free-for-All Player vs. Player games, but I was illed only once by another player in Darkfall, and he resurrected me seconds late.; I do not know if he killed me by accident, was just trying to raise his casting skill, or if this was some kind of initiation rite. ("Welcome to Darkfall! Die! Aw, just kidding!") He ran off before I could ask. Another player tried to trick me into attacking him while in one of the rare "safe" zones, by dancing around me threateningly and casting non-damaging spells on me. If I'd attacked him, the guard towers would kill me instantly and he'd be able to freely loot my corpse. This was a common tactic back in the UO days.

Darkfall has a freeform skill system in which skills increase as you use them. You learn new skills by purchasing them (at level 1.0) from assorted vendors or sometimes gaining them as quest rewards), and many have prerequisite skills you must master first. Skills include combat, magic, and crafting, with many options. You can be anything or master any set of skills, though of course there are plenty of user guides out there opining about the optimal mix and/or which aren't worth your time. Learning armor and weapon crafting helped me replace broken basic gear at minimal cost; it's a good thing to have.

Combat in Darkfall is a mix of game mechanics and player skill. You don't just select an enemy and spam actions; you must constantly keep them targeted. Enemies in Darkfall, as opposed to those in most MMORPGs, do not stand there and let you kill them. They run, dodge, call for help, retreat when wounded, and surround you. They will attack from range and will not close in just to make it easier for you to kill them. About the only thing they don't do is loot your body.

When you die in Darkfall, you drop everything you were carrying except a single basic weapon. You must then make your way back to your corpse to retrieve your items, and your corpse is still surrounded by the monsters that killed you when you were fully armed and armored. This is why a lot of my time in Darkfall was spent running from the monster spawn areas to the town, banking everything I had, and running back. "Bank early, bank often." Also, run. Don't make a last stand; even if you die, the further away from the main monster areas you die, the better. And rest. Don't go into any fight at less than full health. This is a very different playstyle than most MMOs, where death is borderline meaningless and there's no real risk of loss. Assume that you may permanently lose every item on your person every time you start to play, and accept that as part of the game. (Players who happen on your corpse can loot it; you may return to find there's nothing left on your body but items not worth taking.)

Darkfall equipment also takes wear-and-tear damage from normal use; if you don't pay attention, you may find your weapon or armor breaking mid-battle. While aspects of Darkfall might appeal to those who just want to kill kill kill, such players will probably not last long, as planning and patience are as important as quick reflexes.

Darkfall Online has no instances or arenas or scenarios. It's entirely open-world PVP. There are no mechanical restrictions on who can attack whom, but players who prey on their allies may find themselves barred from the major towns and cities (player-built cities, of course, set their own rules). To really survive and prosper in Darkfall, you need to join an active clan (guild), who will help you train and gain gear.

Darkfall's interface is modal; you're in 'combat mode' or 'UI mode', activated by right-clicking. This can take some getting used to, as can constantly switching weapons and items during combat. I won't say it ever got intuitive, but it got easier the longer I played.

Graphically, Darkfall ranges from adequate to pretty darn nice, especially given that it's coming from a small studio. . Lighting, plants, and weather effects are very atmospheric, and there are nice touches, such as rivers with currents that can wash you along. There's a price to this beauty, though. I was sputtering at about 8-16 FPS until I turned off shadows; then my FPS shot up to 80-100, which greatly improved my ability to fight and target foes.

The community is mixed. The players I chatted with privately were generally helpful and gave me good advice on getting started, but the general chat channels and forums have a distinctly negative vibe. Again, finding a good guild is paramount if you want to have fun in Darkfall.

Because of the way your character gains skills in Darkfall Online, veteran players have a strong edge on newer ones, despite changes to accelerate learning. Likewise, the game attracts "win at any cost" types who will use every exploit known to achieve victory. Competitive players will need to keep on top of scripts, macros, and optimization tips.

Recommendation? If you like this playstyle, there are not many games that offer it, and Darkfall has been around long enough to work out most of the major bugs and balance issues. Other than EVE Online, Darkfall is probably the best-supported and populated PVP sandbox game out there. An important caveat to note is that Aventurine is working on Darkfall 2, which is likely to replace Darkfall at some point in the future. This can make investing a lot of time in the existing game risky, as Aventurine has been open that the bulk of their corporate resources are focused on the sequel game. Very recently, Aventurine dropped the requirement to purchase the game itself, allowing you to pay just the subscription fee.

The 14-day trial is long enough to allow you to judge Darkfall Online. After that, there's a $15 per month fee (or $40 for a three-month subscription), with no cash shop, microtransactions, or free-to-play options.

Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of the software.

--Ian Harac

Copyright (c) 2012 PCWorld Communications, Inc.