Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Waiting for the Next Epoch: ArcheAge (review)

If you've read any of my impressions of some of the recent MMO launches you will have, no doubt, sensed the recurring theme of a lack of innovation. My complaint isn't so much that the likes of WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online haven't made advances in the genre, it's more that they haven't changed enough to make the stale mechanics of skill bars and level grinding feel new. I had a lot of hope for ArcheAge, and the sheer number of features Trion has built into it, but my experience from the horrendous server queues to the actual gameplay have left me disappointed.

The Short
+massive sandbox with lots of stuff to do
+huge potential for player-driven content
+decent visuals

-tired mechanics
-grind heavy
-lacklustre solo experience
-brutal server queues


The Long
Server queues are pretty standard for MMO launches, but Archeage has taken them to a new level. I get that developers don't want to invest in expensive hardware that will only be used to accommodate the unusually high demand at launch but there are ways to mitigate the pain felt by users. AFK kick timers and the use of mega-servers instead of shards could greatly ease the 5+ hour queues that crop up during peak times. Further, these queues are exacerbated by the development choice to have crafting tied directly to the amount of time a user is logged in. Trion has apologized to its paying subscribers (whose priority queues have been just as backed up as the free users) through a gratis month of premium 'patron' service but some players are taking to the forums indicating they have not yet seen this reflected on their account. In fairness, Trion has committed to installing extra infrastructure and fixing the account issues, but, as of writing, nightly queues on the European servers are still egregiously long. Fortunately, for those persistent enough to slog through the queue (or savvy enough to never log out in the first place), server stability has been pretty good with few unexpected reboots or emergency patches needed.

Server woes will sort themselves out in the long run, but it doesn't matter if the game past the login screen is garbage. In a word, ArcheAge is generic. Combat lacks the fluidity of recent titles such as WildStar and the overly-familiar skill bars will be a disappointment to anyone yearning for something new. Players can custom build their class by mixing and matching three trees from a set of ten (similar to Rifts) but only a handful of combinations are truly viable and the metagame is heavily favoured by ranged classes. As can be foreseen with so many combinations, balance is a problem that will unlikely ever be fully resolved. Quests are the sort of fetch, deliver, and kill fare that have been around forever and the lore does little to compel players to stop and read the quest text instead of clicking through. Further, loot is as average as it gets and amounts to spreadsheeting stats to optimize builds.

Where ArcheAge tries to leave its mark is through the creation of an open-world sandbox. Non-instanced player housing, tactical naval combat, and thieving with player run juries doling out punishment are just a few of the ways that players can interact with the world from launch. But each of these features caries a set of problems. Housing plots are allocated on a first-come first-served basis and just a few days in most of the best (read not in PvP areas) spots are taken. Naval combat can be epic when you have well organised groups of sizable numbers squaring off but more typically takes the form of a blob of ships overrunning lone skiffs. The thieving system is unique, complete with a pirate island for players that want to fully explore their criminal side, but it can be annoying for players who don't want to be constantly logged in to protect their assets. While none of these complaints highlight anything game breaking, they do indicate that the experience of much of what ArcheAge brings to the MMO genre will depend on the players to make engaging. Whether servers blossom into thriving communities with heroes and villains like Eve or feel like barren wastelands like Conan remains to be seen.

Given that the game was first popularized in Korea, players should not be surprised that many elements of progression are grind-intensive. For example, the economy is built around planting a seed, waiting about 20 minutes for it to grow, and then transporting it to the other side of the continent to make a profit. It gets a bit spicier when deliveries take you to PvP zones where getting ganked means that someone else is cashing in on your progress but rarely unshackles itself from tedium. Further, players are encouraged to level various crafting skills but progress is limited by a slowly regenerating resource pool that only builds when players are logged in. Some have estimated that it will take well over a thousand hours of play-time to max each skill. Also, each class tree can be leveled but lucrative quest experience will eventually run out and dailies feel tired quickly - fortunately almost every activity in the game grants some experience. Grinding isn't intrinsically bad, I see some appeal in the prospect of developing an uber character, but has proven to be less palatable to Western sentiments and players should be wary.

Graphically, ArcheAge aims for a realistic depiction of a fantasy world but won't be burning retinas even at maximum settings on a beefy rig. Stunning vistas of sun and water belie blotchy textures when seen up close and many superficial objects like rock outcrops seem to have low polygon counts. Detailed character models are showcased by cinematic zoom ins when dispensing quest dialogue but appear downscaled outside of this (I found no graphic option to remedy this). Animations and effects range from stiff jumps to mostly spectacular spells. Overall, it looks great by genre standards but it's not exactly Crysis the MMO. Tying everything together is an acceptably subdued ambient score of light strings and woodwinds that won't earn a place on anyone's iPod but also won't have you clambering for the mute button.

Ostensibly ArcheAge is free-to-play but a subscription will be necessary to fully experience it. Housing and the auction house are locked behind a pay wall and formulate the essentials of the economy. Trying to unlock everything without paying a cent is a Sisyphean effort although technically possible. In any case, I would highly recommend trying out the game first as the current promotions for early-backers and founders don't offer a lot of incentive to warrant their outright purchase unless you really are in it for the long haul. By the time most players reach the point where they can acquire housing and a subscription holds meaning (around level 15), they will have a pretty good idea of whether they can stomach the mechanics of combat and want to stick around.

I'm sure that many people will dismiss this review out-of-hand given how close to launch it has been written. I grant that I haven't had a chance to experience the most out of end-game content with an active server of maxed players but I haven't found the solo experience compelling enough to tide me over until everyone gets there. I'm personally done with grindy MMOs and static combat but appreciate that a huge swathe of players can't wait for more. So take my review for what it is, the feelings of a MMO veteran looking for something wholly novel and not finding it in ArcheAge.