In addition to all the new shooters that were seen at PAX, I had kind of lost track of how many MMORPGs are on the immediate horizon. It’s exciting to see so many MMOs being released at the same time. To me at least. MMOs are something that I’ve been engaged in since the late 90s, and it’s not generally a genre you see a lot of mobility in. Once people find an MMO, they generally tend to stay there for a while. I’m sure if you ask any World of Warcraft fans, many are going to tell you they’ve been playing for at least 5 years.
Having a dedicated playerbase for that amount of time is obviously an incentive for developers to get in on this game model, as it’s been seeing increased popularity for a number of years now. But what is there for the players themselves to get excited about? Since World of Warcraft blew previous records out of the water (EverQuest was considered a phenomenal success at 100,000 subs), we’ve seen clone after clone of the same gameplay. From Rift, to SW:TOR, MMO have seen very little in the way of gameplay innovation until quite recently. Almost every title showcased at PAX exemplified this recent surge towards “the next big thing”.
Not the first title I saw at the show. In fact it was probably the last. But Tera has been on the radar for a long time now, being shown at E3 for the last two years, it’s finally set to release in 2012.
Tera is a Korean MMORPG, developed by Bluehole Studio, it’s themes are going to seem pretty familiar to anyone who’s played asian MMOs before. Fancy outfits, crazy weapons, attractive women, and men without beards (seriously guys? What’s with this?). The game is given a standard (by asian standards) fantasy setting. Sword, magic, anthropomorphic animals. All the good classic stuff you’re used to.
It has a strong focus on group play, which is not as “given” in the asian market as it is here in western MMOs. With all the niche roles being fulfilled by specific classes.
So far, it basically sounds like I’m describing Aion, or Lineage. However, outside the games exquisite polish, the major draw is going to be a consistent factor among all the titles I’m talking about here, and that’s the Action RPG factor. This essentially boils down to targeting enemies, and the fact that it’s not a thing anymore. Instead of going through a rotation on your target, players will be aiming all of their abilities, and be responsible for dodging or actively blocking, the attacks of their enemies. The whole tag line the publishers are going with is: “Player skill is the new stat”.
This is what is going to really signify the shift from the “last generation of MMOs” to the “next generation of MMOs”. The combat will feel familiar to anyone who has played Dynasty Warriors. Basic attacks are done in combos, as you sweep enemies aside, and skills augment these combos. Skills are done extremely conveniently, as Tera utilizes a combo system. One skill will naturally lead into another, prompting the player to use the spacebar to automatically use the next skill in the chain for added bonuses. This simplifies the gameplay, a bit, but I’m sure it’s not necessary to optimally play your build.
The Action RPG approach to an MMO game world is simply more engaging than the previous “EverQuest Model”. Having to dodge, aim and block makes even standard enemies, ones not intended to pose a real threat to players, an entertaining experience. Tera is a great example of how this new system will overshadow its predecessors with the singular key innovation.
RaiderZ is a game being published by Perfect World Entertainment, a company responsible for many, many successful free two play MMOs, and this is one of the strengths it has over Tera. Its business model, like everything else PWE does, is based on microtransactions, not a subscription, and the game is free to download.
In the past players were able to distinguish between free to play games, and purchased games, based on quality. “Legitimately” published titles were usually far more polished than the free versions because they had more financial backing, so on and so forth. This however, is no longer the case. Free to play game publishers have discovered that microtransactions for cosmetic additions to their games not only allows them to construct a fundamentally sound gameplay experience, but it is also a tremendously successful business model.
What this means, is that RaiderZ looks to be a legitimate MMO experience, based around the same Action RPG fundamentals that Tera is, for the whopping price of zero dollars. This basically means that if the two games are comparable, RaiderZ will have an appeal advantage that Tera doesn’t. And make no mistake, the density of a player base has a large effect on the quality of an MMO experience.
As so far as the actual games compare, there are a few distinct differences between the two. RaiderZ does not have hard set classes like Tera does. Players will pick a starting class, of which there are only 4 (Tank, Healer, Melee damage, ranged damage), and after level 10, be able to train in skills that belong to other classes. Your beginning class will always determine your primary strengths, but this system seems to be far more customizable than the class system in Tera, something that might appeal to western players more.
Combat is more or less the same between the two, but RaiderZ does not have any combo system implemented. You can spam your spells all the same, but there won’t be any rewards for using particular spells or abilities in a specific order. To compensate for this though, there is an interesting “buff” system, where temporary bonuses can be scavaged off the corpses of dead enemies. Picking up a weapon of a defeated foe, to gain a new skill set of two or three attacks for 15 seconds. This seems like it will make leveling a bit more interesting, and has the potential to be really engaging (I know you all played WoW, think the Kael fight in Tempest Keep raid), or really bland (just giving stat bonuses).
Neverwinter is a second title being released by PWE, through their acquired studio Cryptic, the same guys that did City of Heroes, and the Star Trek MMO. Neverwinter shares some core differences from the previously mentioned titles. Namely, it’s the first western fantasy MMO seen at the show, and it’s based solidly in the Dungeons and Dragons Universe (specifically 4th edition, however you feel about that).
Neverwinter is also an Action RPG (see the trend here? gone are the days of locked targets and abilities based purely on proximity and orientation) where players will assign “at will” abilities to their mouse. At will abilities, for those unfamiliar with D&D, are basically your “use whenever you want” arsenal. The only abilities that actually have cool downs are your “encounter” abilities. D&D players will recognize these as your one-time-per-fight skills. They’ve relatively short cool downs in the land of MMOs, some as short as 10 seconds. They’re basically built to not be spammable.
Daily abilities also exist, but cannot be used at the player’s discretion. They must be charged up over time, and they’re extremely potent. Again, the combat is a bit different in that there is no distinction between spammable skills and standard attacks, like in the previous two titles. Your at-wills are essentially your auto attacks, and they can be changed and set as you see fit.
The story world seemed a bit darker, compared to the titles I’ve spoken about so far, and again, it will be much more familiar to western players than the Korean made games, simply because it’s made here in the US, by US developers.
Neverwinter’s main appeal, I think, is in the customizability of its combat. Being able to switch up your basic attacks to have a myriad of different functions will alter the core experience that the player is having. Players will also specialize their classes (and therefore what skills they have access to), for instance we played a Mage character, but specifically we played a Control Mage, where basic attacks could snare or root targets. In the end, it’s the moment to moment gameplay that usually determines the appeal of fast paced MMOs like these, and Neverwinter has a particularly intriguing system.
I’ve spoken about FireFall in other articles, and will be dedicating one to it, but to reiterate, it’s pretty amazing in my eyes. FireFall is set on a future Earth, where Aliens have covered the planet in a sort of miasma of radiation. Players are based out of a colony in Brazil, and as the last bastion of humanity, have banded together to save the human race.
The gameplay is the first that is not Action RPG based. It is, in fact, straight up shooter. Third or first person, FireFall gives the players a full MMO experience, with 5 base classes that all operate very differently. This, however, is coupled with a rigorous attention to competitive play. As in many shooters, FireFall players will be able to swap between classes (or loadouts) whenever they are in a town. This is not entirely innovative, it’s basically the same thing FFXI with class changing, but it’s not a commonly utilized feature, and definitely Separates FireFall from the crowd.
FireFall stands out from the rest of the titles by virtue of more than its flexibility in play but also by its emergent world. FireFall has a staggering number of features that both rely on player input and convey permanence in the world. The first of which is the random world events that take place. The Chosen, the game’s antagonists, will venture into player controlled territory and establish forward bases. These bases grow in strength if left unattended, and will eventually attack and conquer primary player cities. To reiterate, players must react to these changing world events or risk losing access to core content.
On the reverse, to venture into Chosen controlled territory, players will have to construct and establish mobile force field like apparati in order to clear away alien radiation. This means that in addition to having to actively maintain the content players have access to, they have to actively work as a group to gain access to new content. This notion of “the things you are doing matter”, or “permanence”, is going to do wonders for the enjoyability of FireFall.
Not to mention: FireFall is completely free to play.
The final MMO showcased at PAX this year was The Secret World. Narratively based in a dystopian future, The Secret World is the only MMO that sets its world up in recognizable locations (FireFall is waaaay in the future). Players will choose to play as a part of one of three possible factions.
The Secret World is also the only MMO at the show that hasn’t adopted a faster Action RPG style of combat. It still relies on targeting specific enemies and using abilities against these enemies. In comparison to the other options available the combat itself, which again, is a major component of the experience, lacks any notion of innovation. However, where The Secret World excels is in the preparation for combat.
There are no classes in The Secret World, rather there are sets of abilities, such as “shotguns”, or “psychic powers”. Players can utilize multiple abilities sets with no restrictions on which sets they wish to pair with other sets. This means that there is a tremendous amount of malleability in what tool kits players bring to the table.
The game is also very focused on its narrative, akin to what we’ve seen Star Wars: The Old Republic do recently. With voiced cut scenes in place for a number of mission segments, The Secret World has stated its desire to take MMOs in to the horror genre. An interesting notion indeed.
So while The Secret World sees its combat be fairly standard as far as what we’ve seen rehashed over the last several years, it’s innovative prowess comes into play in the atmosphere and its player customization.
In the end, I’m most excited about FireFall and Neverwinter as complete and engaging MMOs that are making some exciting additions to the genre. However, the stigma of free to play MMOs is not entirely abolished in this day and age, so some may see these titles as distinctly inferior simply because “They’re free, they can’t possibly be as good!”. As a result, I expect that Tera will also see a booming population and a dedicated following. However judging MMOs from a small demo is impossible. It’s all going to come down to how the game world is specifically crafted, and we’ll have to wait and see how that turns out. However, this new shift towards Action combat truly marks an exciting time for fans as it’s going to change the very basics of the gameplay we’ve come to know these last several (several) years.