The cooler fans whirred. Massage rollers stirred. With a hum, the seat heating kicked in. The FIVR capsule was waking up from sleep mode. The initial checks flashed before my eyes. Self-test. Operator connected. A 3D Desktop menu unfolded in front of me. I mentally knocked on wood and started Desolate era’s game client. A second’s delay as it ran an automatic upgrade. I fed my credit card information into the registration form and, ignoring the endless scroll of the world’s description, headed straight for the character generation menu. Choose character. “High Elf.” For your information: High Elves are recommended for experienced players only. The High Elves’ religion of Gods of Light makes them a legitimate prey for all the supporters of the Fallen One. Furthermore, the City of Light which is their capital and start location borders on the Dark Lands. Although the city itself is well-fortified against the Fallen One and his henchmen, the neighboring locations can already bring encounters with beings of the Dark. Are you sure you want to choose this race? “Confirm.” Congratulations! You receive +1% racial bonus to Intellect at each level. This what might seem like a negligible bonus had compelled me to choose an Elf. An extra 100% Intellect could tip the scales in my favor already at level 100. Even though it definitely complicated my way to the top levels, it stood to reason that the time spent leveling up was nothing compared to top-level playing. The end reward was large and quite tangible, worth every bit of the creators’ pain in the butt. Because, let me tell you, the top levels do not end the game. This is only where it starts. Choose class. “Warlock.” For your information: Warlocks are the Fallen One’s secret worshipers and are attracted to the Dark forces. Other Light races tend to shun them. Certain NPC characters may refuse to interact with you. Quite a few vendors might jack up their prices when dealing with you. On reaching level 10, a Warlock will have to decide on a specialization. You will be asked to choose between Necromancer and Death Knight. Both are despised by the Powers of Light. Many quests and locations will be closed to you. If you still want to play for the above classes, we suggest you choose a Dark or neutral race. “No way!” I shouted at the interface. “Necro is my favorite toon since the day I was born! I don’t want to be the umpteenth Archer Elf. I don’t give a toss about your politically correct standards. ‘We advise, we suggest, you had better…’ Yeah, right. I’m going to screw your template. I’ll be the first Dark Elf among your cute-and-cuddly Paladins. Confirm!” Congratulations! You receive +1% class bonus to Intellect and +1 to Spirit at each level. Choose your starting characteristics. You have 25 points. Use them wisely. Once the character is created, no further changes are possible. The descriptions of the five basic attributes hovered before my eyes. Strength: increases attack power and the chances to block and parry. Controls the amount of weight a character can carry. Weight overload may lead to speed loss. Intellect: increases the character’s ability to learn non-combat and magic skills. Increases spell power and mana pool (1 Intellect point gives 10 mana points). Boosts mana regeneration. Agility: increases movement accuracy, improves evasion and chances to score a critical hit in both close and long-range combat. Spirit: boosts Life/mana regeneration. Constitution: gives hit points (1 Constitution point gives 10 Life points). A miserable chain of zeros glowed against all of the above characteristics. Oh well. Every junkie knows that the preparation process is just as sacred as the shooting up. Off we go, then. The dumb housewife solution would be to set all the parameters to five and enjoy the perfect balance. Won’t do. Specialization is the key. Better to be the best in one area than average in everything.
I much preferred a surgeon’s knife of specialization to the Jack-of-all-trades’ monkey wrench. So. What is our ultimate goal? Who is a Necro? He’s a caster: a character with the ability to cast spells as his preferred method of attack. He can also summon various forms of the undead, such as skeletons, zombies, demons and so on and so forth. Virtually a small group consisting of a mage and his pet tank. All the damage is done by casting spells at long range, no hand-to-hand combat, no risk of the opponent delivering direct blows. Which means that Strength, Agility and Constitution are secondary to the part. Now the Spirit is vital, even though you don’t regen much mana in the course of the combat. All the meditation only starts once it is over. Sure it’s a pain wasting three full minutes sitting on your backside, but not as bad as running out of mana in the middle of a fight. All right, that little was clear. Let’s start from the end: Agility, 0 I just hoped I wouldn’t be all thumbs. Zero agility wasn’t for that, anyway. It only meant that I wasn’t getting any racial bonuses. Strength, 3 I needed some to lug around my gear and the loot dropped by monsters. It wouldn’t be cool to rush to the store every time I got myself a dagger or some ore. Constitution, 5 I didn’t want them to blow me over with a feather. So I went for it, even though it meant having a hard time parting with every point. Spirit, 6 I needed every drop of mana I could get. My life would be hanging by a thread thousands of times, depending on whether I had enough mana for that one final spell. Intellect, 11 I splurged every remaining point on it. You just couldn’t have enough mana. It was either not enough or more than you could handle. Accept new characteristics. Are you sure? “Confirm.” Congratulations! Welcome to the character visualization menu. Choose your avatar’s appearance. The figure of an Elf turned slowly before my eyes. It was male by default which saved you a couple of unpleasant surprises in the process of virtual sex. I played with the scroll boxes choosing a build similar to my own. Okay, so I did add a bit of muscle here and there and made the six-pack more pronounced. Who wouldn’t? With any luck, I’d end up living in this body happily ever after. I turned to the facial options. The avatar had my face—also by default. These days even pocket calculators came with cameras so I shouldn’t have been surprised to have found one inside the capsule. The menu offered a lengthy choice of premade portraits in various stages of cuteness or brutality. I ticked a few and started clicking the randomizer. Surprisingly, I liked one of the resulting images. It was a rougher version of myself: a rugged soldier with a seen-it-all air about him. I pushed the slider closer to the virtual thirty years old, added a few gray strands for believability and saved the character. Choose a name. Good question. Wouldn’t be nice to walk around a fantasy world with Max as a moniker. I clicked through the name generator until I decided on Laith. In Elven, La stands for “night” and Ith means “a child”. Child of Night. I had to take my character seriously. The deeper the immersion, the higher the chances of going perma. “Laith.” Welcome to Desolate era, Laith. You’re facing an eternity’s worth of infinite possibilities. While I tried to fathom out that last bit, the virtuality faded, enveloping me in thick darkness. I waggled my head peering into nothing. Sounds came first. The trees rustled. A grasshopper chirped. A bird whistled. Then the world gained light and color, smothering me with its beauty. A forest breathed around me. No; not just any old forest: the forest. Have you ever been to an Elven forest? I hadn’t. But you’ll know it the moment you see it. A little brook murmured nearby; butterflies fluttered their wings amid sunrays dancing in the foliage.
The depth and intensity of the image left you speechless. I crouched and ran my hand across the carpet of flowers and grass. “Hi there, new world,” I whispered. “I’m afraid we’re stuck here together for a long time.” A long-eared hare sprang out into the opening. As I stared at it, a prompt popped up: A young rabbit. Level 1. Okay, a rabbit, not hare. Same difference. Enjoy your freedom, buddy, while I’m in a good mood and have better things to do with my time. Only then I noticed the game interface. Semi-transparent chat boxes; the life, mana and experience bars; the belt with quick spell access slots empty as yet. I played with the transparency levels and shuffled the icons around. I had plenty of time to adjust it all to suit my own needs. Talking about myself. My rags were just about that—rags. A light-colored canvas shirt and a pair of gray canvas pants. As far as Elves went, I was a bum. Never mind. Just give me some time to level up a bit, and I’ll be wearing Versace tights, or whatever they crave here. I opened the character menu and saw that my clothing was purely decorative. It didn’t offer any extra stats or even armor points. I opened my shoulder bag and discovered a water flask and a piece of bread. Another prompt popped up: Food plays an important role in the Desolate era territories. A hungry character’s ability to restore life and mana may dwindle to a stop. Keep an eye on your avatar’s satiety levels. Some food and drink may bring extra boost bonuses. In order to be able to make your own food, you need to practice the cooking skill. See Wiki for more details on bonuses and skills. For a second, I regretted letting the rabbit go unscathed. A roast is always better than a moldy roll. Never mind. There had to be more game out there. My eye was caught by a blinking FIVR connection icon. I opened the menu and grinned with delight. Ping: 3 milliseconds. Packet loss: 0%. Connection type: 3D. FIVR time restrictions: none.” Yess! It worked. Deep inside, I’d had a nagging feeling that either the chip or the patch would let me down despite all the testing, throwing me out of FIVR four hours later. That would be the end. Bye, world. Hello, tombstone. The next thing I saw was the lit-up pictogram of the quest tab. I switched over to it and discovered a new quest. Greetings, young Warlock! A long and hard road lies in front of you. Few have mastered it. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You’re about to make this first step. There is a cave not far from the place where you first arrived in this world. Old Grym lives there, a hermit. Local peasants think he’s mad and shy away from his company. But Grym is still the Fallen One’s faithful servant. He will help you. Follow the deer trail to go east. It will take you to your destination. Aquilum, The Dark Guild Master of the City of Light. A guild master without a guild. Okay. When I’d chosen the race, I’d also studied the city map. I could bet my bottom dollar there’d been no Dark Guild on it. Unfortunately, time was an issue so I had to leave Googling it till later. Shame. I had to play blind – no guides, no manuals or prompts. Just like in the good old days. Having said that, many an unexpected surprise could open to the newly initiated. We’d just have to see. In the meantime, all eyes east. Time to hop down the bunny trail. I checked the interface for its built-in compass and walked, unhurried, down the barely discernible trail. The total absence of weapons and spells worried me a little. Failing everything else, I could do with a stick but the forest was clean and neat like a parkland—not a broken branch in sight. I didn’t have to walk long. Another couple hundred paces, and the trees gave way revealing a gloomy opening. Gray grass crunched underfoot. Ancient trees rose skywards, their trunks silver with moss. The sun had disappeared behind some stray cloud. Yeah. Welcome to a Necro’s lifestyle. I squinted at the scene. And the worst was still to come: graveyards and zombies, and the tombs of the undead. I wondered if I’d jumped the gun with my character choice considering the local visualization levels. Should I exit while I still could and change my colors to some sort of daisy-picking, tree-hugging Druid? Deep in thought, I kicked a toadstool or some such mushroom and volleyed it right into the wide hollow of a gnarled oak tree. “Never mind,” I murmured, looking around. “No good changing horses midstream. I’m an evil warlock, and no mistake.
Where’s that cave of his? Come out, you old schemer! We’ve got business to discuss!” And there it was, his cave: a cliff green with age hiding in the shade of a straggling fir tree. The entrance was wide enough for me not to have to duck. I made a shaky step or two, guided by the fire gleaming within its bowels. Another step, and I entered a large room dimly lit by a single wax candle. The light played games with the shadows, not letting me see properly. Then a shadow stirred in the corner and stared at me with two odd-color eyes. “Grym the Hermit?” I asked, not quite sure, and stepped back, feeling the air around me for something heavy enough to pass for a weapon. The dark shape in the corner grumbled and stepped toward me. “You bastard,” my fingers finally closed around something handy by the wall. I raised the object and took a swing. “Name yourself, O monster! Which eye you’d prefer to keep, the blue one or the yellow one?” The shadow gave a skeptical chuckle and stepped into the light. A goblin, short and gray-haired, shook the cobwebs off his patched robes and looked over me. “Put the broom back, young warrior,” he said in a thin voice. Shuffling his worn-out sandals, he walked around me, shaking his head with disapproval. “So! The young Elf has decided to defect and follow the Fallen One? Are you craving adventures or something? What do you want to prove? Many an immortal has visited me here but few have reached true power. They’d hover around for a few weeks before disappearing from sight. They have no will – no passion.” I lowered my head to him. “Sir Grym, one does not choose one’s parents. It’s not my fault I was born an Elf. It was my own choice to follow the path of a warlock and with any luck, I shall prove it to you soon.” The goblin’s grim stare bored a hole in me. “It might happen sooner than you think, young clown,” he hissed in my face. He swung round, reached for a heap of old rags and produced a bundle, wrapped in purest white cloth. “In the name of the Fallen One who demands a sacrifice! Cut her heart out!” The goblin pulled the fabric away and the cave echoed with a baby’s cry. Tears welled in her bright blue eyes. I recoiled. Something clanged against the stone. I looked down at a curved dagger now gleaming in my hand. New quest alert! Demonstrate your loyalty to the Fallen One. Quest type: general Execution conditions: may vary Reward: unknown They were all raving mad here. Conditions may vary? My knuckles cracked as I squeezed the dagger. “How about a goblin’s heart instead? Will it do for my demonstration of loyalty?” I stepped forward and stabbed the sickening face. At least I tried to. The air around me thickened and I froze in the awkward pose of a dueling musketeer. You’ve been immobilized. Spell cast: Chains of Bone. The goblin sniggered and waved his hand. The baby bundle disappeared. I collapsed in a heap on the floor. The dagger clattered on the stone and skidded away. You’ve been knocked down. Damage sustained: 12 Life points. “Cool down, young Elf. It was naught but an illusion. You shouldn’t listen to everything your priests tell you. We need no butchers here. The Fallen One isn’t the dark side. He’s just one of the Pantheon who lost his battle for the right to have his place in the Temple of Heaven.” Quest completion alert: Demonstrate your loyalty to the Fallen One. Quest completed! Reward: Twilight Blade. Your relationship with the Dark Alliance has improved! Your relationship with Grym has improved! “Arise, Warlock,” Grym helped me back to my feet. “And pick up that dagger over there. It’s not an illusion. Don’t be scared: there’s no blood on it. I’m pleased with you. Haven’t been so pleased for a long time. And still you’ll have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
” New quest alert! Demonstrate your loyalty to the Fallen One II
Quest type: unusual
Execution conditions: may vary
I couldn’t believe it. The old fusspot just wouldn’t stop, would he? Should I try my new dagger out on him? Then again, he might come up with something better than the immobilization trick. I reached for the dagger and concentrated. Twilight Blade. Binds on Pickup. Thrust weapon. One-handed. Damage 1-8. Speed 1.8. Durability 80/80. Effects: 7% Tremble Hand debuff probability in attack slowing counterattack 24%. Not bad for a letter opener. Some newb rogue would pay a nice pile of gold for a sticker like this. A couple of them could have enough DpS to last me through the first ten or fifteen levels. The effect was a dream, stripping your opponent of a quarter of his power. Not that I really needed this sort of gizmo. I didn’t think I’d have to do much tanking, apart from possibly the first few levels when I might have to perform a bit of blade-rattling. After that, casters like myself with no armor and negligible life would come down after just five or six hits from average mobs, so I could forget close combat. I attached the dagger to my belt and lowered my head in a bow. “I thank you for your lesson and your gift, Sir Grym. What I would like to know is where could I study Warlocks’ magic skills?” The goblin cocked his head and rubbed his chin in thought. “I could help you as far as my knowledge goes. You do have a gift for magic and I could give you access to it. Come back when you gain some strength. Now go. I am tired.” The goblin turned his back while a mysterious force grabbed my elbows and dragged me along the passage before pushing me out. “Wait up! I need to ask you about the Guild…” I tried to shove my head back inside but the invisible taut wall pushed me away. Grym the Hermit is busy. He doesn’t want to see you. Come back when you reach Level 5. Bastard. I ignored the alert box but another one chimed in its place: Quest completion alert: Meet Grym the Hermit. Quest completed! Reward: Magic abilities unlocked. Skill Tree Available: Blood Magic Skill Tree Available: Summoning Skill Tree Available: Death You have 3 Talent points available! Much better. I slumped onto the grass and started opening the menu windows. Main growth options: raising the undead or summoning otherworldly monsters. The former started off as weaker and also called for summoning ingredients, but theoretically, had a higher leveling potential. The summoning line had a choice of skills on higher levels that would increase your raised monsters’ power. It also offered quite a few buffs and bonus items for your raised pets. Summoned creatures tended to be stronger than the raised ones until at a certain point they hit their limit. Not quickly, but somewhere in the area of level 200 things would come to a complete halt. Beyond the Archdemon there was nothing left to summon. Of course, he had his own buffs and skills but the statistics showed that a top master specializing in summoning showed a 6% higher win rate in combat. Which was nothing to sniff at. For me at least. The bulk of players lived online as they did in real life: I want it all and I want it now, and let tomorrow worry about itself. I made my choice, minus one Talent point. Congratulations! You’ve learned the spell: Summoning the Undead Cast time: 4.5 sec Mana expenditure: -30 (+15 for each caster level) Ingredient: The Soul Stone Properties: Raises the undead. See Wiki for more details. I followed the link. Never a bad idea to find out as much as you can about your main weapon. As it turned out, the only way to get hold of a Soul Stone was to have it dropped by a slain opponent. You couldn’t buy or steal it, nor trade it with another player: you could only get it by killing a monster – or have it killed by your group. In the latter case, the chances of the corpse dropping the stone shrank progressively, depending on the number of group members and, most importantly, their level gap. The power of the raised creature was relative to its level when still alive. Plus item bonuses, buff bonuses, minus a certain quotient depending on the player’s class and level. Mana expenditure, too, was related to the char’s growth. That was clear enough. The spell itself remained unchanged but what took 30 mana at level 1 demanded 1530 mana at level 100. Now the Blood Tree. This was where we were soon going to have a variety of DoTs, auras and debuffs. DoTs were a Necro’s second most powerful weapon. Unlike wizards or mages, a Necro couldn’t deal a large instant damage. But he could cast a bunch of spells which would reduce the target’s life fast enough. And the spells themselves, apart from dealing basic damage, could have some very nasty extras, from slowing life and mana to poisoning or even draining them. Lots of little tactics and combinations made it perfect for anyone clever enough both with his head and his hands. At the moment, I had two such spells available: a slowing one and a stronger poisoning one. The latter could deal more damage which was a good thing but still I was going to take the first one. As I leveled up, the slowing effect would grow, ultimately freezing the target 60-70%, and that could save my skin quite a few hundred times. Good thing. Congratulations! You’ve learned the spell: Thorny Grass. Cast time: 1.5 sec Mana expenditure: 15 The spell deals 5 points magic damage every 4 sec for 16 sec. Slows an enemy target 11%. See Wiki for more details. Excellent. I had one more Talent point left. Moving to the Death Tree. At the moment, I had two spells available and I was dying to get both. The first one was Life Absorption which, apart from damage, drained the target’s life. The damage wasn’t much but it ignored the player’s magic resistance and, most importantly, helped me heal. And you couldn’t underestimate the importance of healing for solo classes. The second one was Bone Shield. It created a magic shield capable of absorbing a certain amount of damage. I gave it a good thought and decided to go with the healing one. The shield I could still take a bit later on one of the next levels. From what I could remember from the official guidebook, I would receive 3 more talent points at level 5, and then one point for each level once I chose my specialization. Congratulations! You’ve learned the spell: Life Absorption. Cast time: 1.4 sec Mana expenditure: 14 The spell deals 8 points of magic damage to an enemy target simultaneously giving you 8 HP points. See Wiki for more details. I moved my newly acquired spells into quick access slots. Having finished, I jumped to my feet and shook the dirt off my pants. Great worldbuilding. The developers showed amazing attention to detail. The leaves rustled. The sound of footsteps came from the trail. In a moment, a beefcake Elf walked out into the open, his recognizable celebrity face distorted with fear, his childlike eyes wide open. He carried no arms and wore the same kind of sack shirt as myself. I took my hand off the dagger. “Be welcome, O young Warlock!” The Elf’s eyes opened wider. “Are you Grym the Hermit?” Can’t he read or what? “I’m his younger twin. Go in, be my guest,” I pointed at the cave. “He’s expecting you.” “TY,” the young Elf forced out sliding past me toward the entrance. I shook my head, unbelieving. How mature. I just hoped the developers took the players’ age into account. That way, he’d have to prove his loyalty by slaughtering a rabbit. Alternatively, he could get a snail and a hammer—all that snot and gore hitting the cave walls. Nah, I was going too far. Most likely, the FIVR capsule’s parental guidance was blocking out all gore, pain and erotic sensations and activating the profanity filter. Right. Time to get going. I’d been in the game already for an hour and a half and hadn’t risen beyond a level one newb. Not good. Judging by the map, the city’s East Gate was only ten minutes’ walk away. The new players’ starting locations were situated behind the city walls allowing endangered newbies to escape to the safety of the guards, if needed. I could do a bit of hunting while heading toward the city. These backwoods had to have more rabbits and other game to offer than the newbie-infested city limits.