E3: Anarchy Online: Shadowlands Expansion Pack Impressions

In an interview with Jørgen Tharaldsen, product manager for Funcom, specific details regarding the eagerly awaited Anarchy Online expansion pack Shadowlands. Unlike most simple add-on packs, Shadowlands offers a wide array of new features, and takes the game in a slightly different direction than its current state.

One of the more straightforward aspects of Shadowlands is the addition of the floating city of Jobe. This city was included in the original Anarchy Online plot, but never introduced into the game itself. Often a requested location by the player base, Funcom has seen fit to make it a very important locale in the expansion. The city will be classified as neutral, as well as function as a launching point for many of the more advanced changes. Jobe is currently broken into three districts: Administrative, Trade, and Entertainment. Very lush and grand in appearance, the city will offer a wide variety of new clubs, shops, and meeting places. Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is that it will offer a portal to the realm of the Shadowlands.

The world of The Shadowlands is quite different from the normal, Terran world of Rubi-Ka. It was classified as a "spiritual realm", residing "above" the land of Rubi-Ka itself. Instead of being merely an extension of the game world, The Shadowlands are completely new environment to experience. Being a spiritual location, all entities entering it undergo a metamorphosis, becoming very different from their original form. Based on preliminary screens, player characters look very much more like "monsters" than humans. As a derivative of this concept, the aspect of good vs. evil--or Clan vs. Omni--are made quite apparent. A Solitus (human) Omni looks very much "evil", while a Solitus Clan character may not. Unlike the physical realm of Rubi-Ka, The Shadowlands have no night and day cycles--maintaining an ethereal, almost “aurora borealis”-like, atmosphere.

The new areas, which are comparable to 9 existing zones in size, are said to be much more linear than on the world below. All the areas must be completed in order--each with their own targets, goals, or objectives--to allow passage to the next. Many new items will be introduced, including such things as class-specific armor. Items found in The Shadowlands may be brought back to Rubi-Ka, and will facilitate continued character growth in place of extending the level cap above 200.

Aside from The Shadowlands themselves, many improvements are being made to the opportunities on Rubi-Ka as well. The mission system is slated to be considerably revamped, allowing for open, detailed, and multi-level environments. Many of the static dungeons shown spanned both indoor and outdoor areas, were very expansive, and looked to be much more optimized for team-based play than the enclosed areas available at present.

Another feature being introduced is that of profession specialties. While it has yet to be finalized as to the mechanics of the system, one example given was that of earning points which could be distributed towards certain types of actions or specialties. This would allow for many inter-class "paths", providing for more flexibility within individual professions. As a compliment to the "learning" system, methods will also be created to allow for "un-learning"--whether it be an immediate reset of skills which you earn the ability to utilize, or a gradual process that, while "free", may take several real-time days to complete.

The story was yet another point that was touched upon in the vision for Shadowlands. Acting on player demand for a more active plot, Funcom is planning to directly tell the story through the game instead of via the various story resources on their website. Many aspects of the game are set to be reworked for this, including the fleshing out and addition of NPC characters that actually interact with players. Currently, most NPCs say little to nothing and are only able to answer the most simple of questions. The story will also include some new twists, such as the arrival of an elite group from OmniTek (the head of the company, and not merely the Rubi-Ka branch) called Unicorn--sent to take care of ending the war as soon as possible. (Among other things that Funcom would not mention at this time.) These forces appeared to be quite daunting, and quite a bit more intimidating than the average Omni-Pol soldier. At this time, players will be unable to affiliate themselves with this group, with it being its own entity apart from the Rubi-Ka OmniTek forces. This plan to introduce more in-game story also solves some of the issues of having multiple "dimension" (or world) servers which fail to have a balanced distribution of story elements. One more aspect of the "new" story methodology, is that Funcom wants to make the conflict between the Clans and OmniTek much more prevelant. Some of this is handled in the spiritual representation of sides while in The Shadowlands, while more subtle changes will be made as well. For instance, they expressed their desire to almost force, or at least encourage, neutral players to eventually pick a side in the conflict instead of being its own entity in the war.

When asked about backward compatibility and support for the "original" Anarchy Online, Funcom stated that they would continue to support it fully, and maintain the current patch schedule with little to no changes. All items equipped by expansion-capable players will be fully visible and compatible with older clients, meaning that those with such versions will still be able to readily interact with Shadowlands players.

During the interview, the importance of pre-release testing was heavily emphasized. Funcom has stated that, while rather catastrophic, their post-launch woes have taught them what to avoid during the crucial launch period in order to steer clear of disaster. While currently envisioned for a Christmas release, they stated that the game would be released "when it's ready." Funcom also mentioned that closed beta testing (limited to roughly 200-300 people) would begin "shortly", and that an open beta phase would be performed before the final release.

All and all, Shadowlands looks to be one of the more intriguing expansion packs available, if not simply the most ambitious. We will keep you posted on any further information as the development process moves along.

So that you can see for yourself, we now have 10 hi-res screens and 12 huge pieces of artwork to look at.

Many thanks to the Funcom reps for providing us with info and media.

05.24.02 - 6:40 PM