Delta Tao, $50. Requirements: 68040 or higher, 16 MB RAM, System 7+, 50 MB HD.. For more information, visit Delta Tao at http://www.deltatao.com.

Review by Ed Carmien

Warning: this game is addictive. Currently in commercial release, Delta Tao's online interactive fantasy role-playing game (think Ultima Done Right) is as addictive as they come. This reviewer has sunk countless hours into playing this darn game, and he's even managed to drag friends from across the country into this bottomless pit of fun. So beware. Your buttocks could be a lot flatter in a few months if you decide to start playing this game....

Gimme the Details

This is a top-down role-playing game. You adopt the role of an exile from the empire, now living on some hick island out in the ocean somewhere. There are many different races to choose from (let's see: Thoom (think Mon Calamari from Star Wars), The People (humanoid cats), Sylvan (Elf), Dwarf, Halfling (Hobbit), Ghorak Zo (Klingons) and oh, yeah, Human. There is another option: hooded nobody--this is what you are before you choose to "reveal" your character's race to everyone else in the game.

Your character begins broke, with the clothes on his or her back, and a stick. It's up to you to run your character through Puddleby (currently the little village where one starts play) and learn how to become one of the possible character classes in Clan Lord: Fighter, Healer, or Apprentice Mystic.

The array of foes in the world is daunting. There be little critters, such as rats, ona chiggers, and vermine to contend with. Then there are several flavors of myrm (giant ants), Orgas (think semi-intelligent to ? intelligent giant gorillas), and undead to deal with. And I haven't even mentioned various animal nasties such as ferals (wild dogs), cougars, lions, and so on.

The area around Puddleby contains lots to explore. When that gets dull, your character can spend a few coins and rent a boat in order to explore Ash Island. In the land of Clan Lord, there's never a dull moment....

Yes, There are Gods

For one thing, as one might expect from Delta Tao, makers of the wildly successful Spaceward Ho! and Dark Castle games, the designers are very interested in the events and people of Clan Lord. So you might run into an Ancient, in one form or another. If you're lucky, it might be Astral Spark, who takes the form of a ball of light (when you can see it at all) and who can heal characters very, very quickly. Then again, you might run into an Ancient in a darker mood, someone who can fry half a dozen people in the blink of an eye.

Clan Lord is anything but static. Periodically, Puddleby is invaded. Typically, after a bunch of characters raid the Orga village, a bunch of Orgas will return the favor. Don't let anyone tell you they are dumb animals. And once, so goes the tale, when the Queen of the myrms was teased out of her hive and into town, she suddenly began talking and summoned her minions to assist her in her time of need.

Character Interaction

No player killing. Hear me? Unless you voluntarily move your character to a place where it is possible to strike other characters, you can't hurt other people. Physically. That's good. Anyone who has any experience with Ultima Online, or even most MUDs, knows that newbies are nothing but light snacks for experienced characters. Delta Tao has created two mechanisms to foster cooperative playing styles: karma and spirit linking.

Karma is simple. You can give good karma to other characters by thanking them. You can also curse other characters. Everyone has a roster of good and bad karma, and everyone can see what your karmic balance is like. Characters with negative karma are easy to spot because their names appear in red letters. If your character does a stupid (or intentionally evil) thing, like leading a critter to other characters busy doing something else (like, say, healing each other), your character is apt to get cursed.

Some characters appear to enjoy this. I question the level of self-esteem involved, but some people like to play evil characters. I've seen characters deliberately lead monsters to other characters, and even move in such a way as to block characters who are trying to escape from a monster. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose.

Spirit Linking is an ingenious mechanic that encourages group versus solo play. If your character kills a creature solo, your character gets full experience points for that creature. Everyone that hits a creature that dies gets fifty percent of the experience points for that creature. Think a moment. That means that two people divvy the total, but three people end up with a total of 150% of the creature's total experience value (even though each indvidual still receives only 50% of the value). Here's the kicker: by spirit linking with another character, 10% of the experience your character earns is given to the character you share with. This does not reduce your character's total experience gain.

The long and the short of this mechanic is that a group of five characters who cross-link with each other can gain as much as 400% of the value of a creature by making sure everyone gets a blow in. If you share and share alike, your character will advance much more quickly in power.

Character Development

There are some annoying aspects to Clan Lord. As a published game designer and player of role-playing games since 1976 (dang I'm old!), it seems obvious to me that players will want to see their character's statistics, even if they are expressed only in terms of words. Delta Tao is resolved not to provide such an option, however, hoping to keep the focus of the game on role-playing and characterization, not statistics.

Sorry, guys. Learn your market audience. We rpg'ers want the stats. Those of us who are good at role-playing will role-play well, and those of us who aren't, won't. The only thing keeping the stats out of sight does is require players to keep scrupulous notes about what skills their characters train. Various freeware products have already been developed that make up for this stupendous shortcoming, but it is a hassle to download and install software to do something the game should do for you.

The great thing about character development is that characters will evolve differently depending on the choices made by you, the player. Fighters have many different options to explore, being able to train in attack, defense, toughness, balance, balance recovery, and so on. Healers are a bit more restricted, but still have plenty of opportunities to pick their strategy for success. Some fighters prefer to train balance, to give them more strikes at the enemy and better defense against being struck themselves. Other fighters might prefer to concentrate on attack and damage, hoping to be able to crush their enemies quickly and thereby avoid too many counterattacks. Some may prefer an all-around approach, avoiding over-specializing in any one thing. A common strategy for fighters is the "brick" approach, becoming so good at defense they can stand next to monsters but not be injured by them, allowing others a chance to kill them.

The reason this works is the game is not entirely open-ended, at least not yet. Characters who have learned a lot tend to learn more things slowly. This means the choices you make while ranks are plentiful will be important, because it seems very difficult at this stage of the game to train in all areas that are available. This mating of playing style with character ability will invariably result in very different high-level characters...as opposed to what seems to happen in most on-line role playing games: the higher the level of the character, the more alike they are in combat ability.

Bones in the Fish

It's not perfect. Delta Tao self-admittedly hates to market their product. A close cousin of marketing is customer service--and in this sort of computer game, customer service is much more important than is usual in the computer game industry. Unfortunately, customer service isn't all that much fun, and in a company run along the new-age lines of Delta Tao, it is all too easy for customer service to fall through the cracks.

Case in point: during the transition between the beta version and the commercial version, the folks at Delta Tao did a lot of work to make it fun for the beta testers--and to allow the beta testers to have a perk or two at the beginning of the commercial release. Unfortunately, I discovered a bug that left me staring at a featureless screen for three hours--in the game, the area where dead folks wait for a few minutes before reappearing in the game. President Joe Williams, obviously too busy to do good customer service work, blew me off. Finally, after someone ELSE found the same bug, an in-game Game Master heard my pleas and after some stumbling managed to fix things up.

Sure, in games like this most of the things players whine about are petty. "I lost a bunch of coins, can you give them back? Can I have green hair? Where are the secrets?" The guys at DT, and their many helpers hither and yon, probably get pretty tired of listening to such tripe. While my personal experience can't be used to paint DT's customer service efforts as a whole as being dismal, even after the problem was fixed, efforts to salve the extreme amount of annoyance were minimal. That in itself is suggestive of the overall problem DT needs to address.

But wait, there's more. This game will be re-reviewed in 3-6 months. Why? On the one hand, DT has a good attitude that the game will continue to evolve and grow over the years--this is a long-term project, not a stamp it and milk it for a year or two project. On the other hand, key things aren't yet in place, creating the strong impression DT set this game in motion earlier than they should have. While I'm continually impressed by the new additions, many of them seem to be changes to the way the world works in a basic sense, things that should have been in place before folks started paying to play.

Oh. And the manual is a bit soft-headed. Look for much better material about the game online, linked via the Clan Lord web page.

Too Many Words

Well, I've already written about 1200 words about this game. If you don't already want to go out and play, I haven't been doing my job. This is a great game, even if the designers made some choices I might not agree with completely. Look for it to set a new standard in on-line rpg's, with mechanics that encourage role-playing and action much closer to that of table-top role-playing than I've ever seen before.

More to come: I'll be doing a re-review of the game in 3-6 months, and check MacReactor for ongoing Clan Lord material. This game is still a bit raw, but it is very playable, and the depth of the game's background continues to grow.

 
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