I have to admit, killing people in online games is one of my favorite pastimes. I’m not a very aggressive person, but blowing up someone you don’t even know can be very rewarding. However, there are limits to how long senseless killing can be fun. Also, spending an outrageous number of hours in search for the 'Superior Lightning-cleaver of Obscene Might and Utmost Shininess’ gets boring. Of course, it’s an awesome feeling when you actually stumble across the item you’ve been looking for, but at least I want to be able to leave a mark in the game world, which will still be there after I leave.
A Tale in the Desert takes place in ancient Egypt, where civilization needs to work together to improve and progress. The game lets you control a single person, in a third-person mode. You begin with no resources and no skill, but this changes in time. At the beginning of the game you choose between various places of “birth”, that happen to be next to an experienced player. You see, as you improve in the game and learn how things work you’ll want to teach new players. Teaching a newcomer all the aspects of Egyptian civilization is no small task, but afterwards your student will hopefully build you a mentor shrine, and if you, as the mentor, meditate there you’ll earn one point. Saving up these points will let you get very nice rewards.
One of the core aspects of the games dynamic is the seven disciplines. The Egyptians believed that if you perfect yourself in Leadership, Thought, The Human Body, Architecture, Worship, Conflict, and Art you will live forever. Each of these disciplines has an initiation task, and when you have passed them you’ll focus on a series of goals that are far from easy. For instance, in the architecture discipline the initiation task is to build a tent; which may sound simple, but which can easily take hours for a player with few resources. The first goal in architecture is to build an obelisk that’s 1/7th taller than the tallest within a fairly large radius. Early in the game this isn’t too difficult, but as time passes and really tall obelisks are erected you may need to work for a really long time.
When a person has perfected himself in for example architecture, he can start working on a 'great work’. Very little is known about these great works, but it’s been said that they’ll change the entire society in some way. They will require a tremendous load of work, so nationwide teamwork will be needed. The players “win” when everyone has perfected themselves in everything, because then you’ll supposedly have a utopian society.
Egyptians also rely heavily on knowledge, so players need to visit schools (School of Leadership for instance), pay a certain tuition, and learn skills that can usually be used to build new machines. Also, each of the disciplines have universities, where things work differently. The universities have scientists working for them, on things like “Pyramid building”, or even “Beer making”. The scientists require a great deal of resources, but once sufficiently donated by players the skill can be learned for free by anyone!
All these menial tasks may sound like a lot of boring work, but the one thing that’ll help you the most is communication. Getting to know your neighbors and making good “trading buddies” is crucial, because since the majority of the players are mature and willing to help out, you can often get tips on where a important public machine (one that has been donated by a player or a guild to the public, so anyone can use it.) is located, or who to ask if you want to trade for instance leek seeds.
Information is very important in A Tale in the Desert, so to really be efficient you should keep an eye out for the maps, lore and forum at www.atitd.info, the official news and forum at www.atitid.com and the official IRC channel at #atitd on irc.stratics.com. On the forums you can easily pick up tidbits like what technology has been unlocked at what universities, so you won’t have to spend hours traveling somewhere to no use.
There are not a tremendous load of MMORPGs that have really mind-blowing graphics. A Tale in the Desert doesn’t take things much further. The entire game takes place outdoors, so the engine could be specialized more than for instance the engine of a first-person shooter. The game does however run in a window, which does limit things. Because of the somewhat outdated looking login (etc) menus my first impressions were not outstanding; things just seemed “budget”. That said, having played the game for weeks I have no problems with how it looks. Egypt is filled with sand, mountains and grass. All of this looks quite good and lifelike. The grass sways in the wind, but it can be a bit annoying, because if you drop a seed into it you’ll probably have a hard time finding it again. Luckily you can modify quite a lot in the options, so turning off the grass entirely is what most people do. On top of the ground you have trees, cacti, schools, universities, and a myriad of things to pick up. Everything you find is useful, and most can be traded for something else.
And then you have what people build; things like tents, carpentry shops, furnaces, shrines, sheep pens, and so much more! Each of these has a distinct look, even though some of them could use a higher polygon count. The characters have various skins to choose from, and you can alter things like pieces of clothing, and more. When the game resets, in a bit less than a year, the developers have planned to include a new set of skins, but old players may use their old one, and that way be recognized as an old-timer. When looking at early videos of World of Warcraft, Star Wars: Galaxies and Everquest 2 it’s obvious that A Tale in the Desert could have looked better. On the other hand, Everquest 1, which is still the most popular MMORPG doesn’t look as good as A Tale in the Desert, so it’s obvious that a pretty package isn’t enough to attract subscribers. The best graphical feature is arguably the water, because unlike many other games with ponds and lakes the water actually moves up and down the shores, and is shaded according to the angle of the sun / moon.
Another result of not having a huge budget is the limited library of sound-effects and music. Most of the game is dead silent! You do a whole lot of running in this game, so at least you hear the sound of footsteps. Additionally your ears will be fed the sounds of various animals, nearly water, and certain confirmation sounds when you build something. There is no music and no sound effects, so this is certainly a game you can play when you don’t want a lot of noise. Of course, that’s the positive angle. More sounds would’ve been great, such as hearing realistic sounds when you begin an operation in some machine. Background music isn’t really needed, but it wouldn’t have hurt one bit if we could at least opt to listen to it.
It’s incredible to see how much depth has been put into this game with such a limited development team, choosing a setting that’s more or less brand new to the MMORPG genre. The developers are constantly available to the players, and through the law-system in the game you can suggest laws, which are essentially suggestions for the developers. There are many great suggestions that are awaiting implementation, so it’s obvious that this game isn’t perfect, but the idea of being able to leave a mark in the game-world, being able to help the entire “society” by donating resources, being able to have serious politics with guilds, and even being able to watch and suggest changes to the game sounds great to me. This review was actually supposed to have been written a good while ago, but because this game is so addictive it has always been delayed. I used to play a lot of Diablo 2 because of the depth once you really started researching skill / item combinations, but I grew tired of it. A Tale in the Desert has a new kind of depth that I like a lot, so I fear for my social life. It is a fact that not everyone will like this game as much as I have. This game requires patience, and a player that’s willing to do a simple task for several hours, just to build something you need. Also, since there is no killing involved you shouldn’t subscribe to this game thinking it’s a hack-and-slash kind of game. I do suggest that anyone who’s interested in something new and fresh should give this game a try. The game (74mb + in-game updates) can be downloaded at www.atitd.com, and the monthly subscription is $14. Once downloaded you can start a trial account, where you’ll get 24 hours of game-time for free.