Sometimes, a game sucks you in. When it happens to me, it’s like a spell has been cast, and I can’t seem to focus on anything except that game. I blow off social engagements, ignore Twitter, and even cash in PTO, all to feed the need. I’ve played a lot of MMO’s over the years, from silly anime romps to more immersive and challenging ones, and have recently found myself losing interest in new games within a few short days, or even a few hours. Albion Online achieved what no other MMO has done in a very long time: It dragged me in instantly and refused to let go.
Albion Online boldly breaks away from several staples long established within the MMO genre, and offers players a new kind of experience. Experience points and character stats do not exist with in the world of Albion, and all characters have the same base stats once they remove their gear (“get naked”), regardless of how long the character has been played. Instead of experience points, characters in Albion acquire fame, and the more fame a character has, the better equipment they can wear. Both stats and abilities are acquired by putting on gear, which has given rise to a unique “you are what you wear” system. This system is incredibly flexible and has resulted in all kinds of imaginative gear combinations. Mages in plates, Claymore wielders in leather armor, and crossbowmen with shields are not at all uncommon in the world of Albion.
Because of this system, there is no need to create two different characters in order play both a healer and a tank. Any character can play any number of roles, provided they have the right equipment, and enough fame to wear that equipment. Players use fame to advance through the Destiny Board, which is system similar to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, and ultimately determines what a character can and cannot do. Fighting while wearing leather armor will allow you to advance further on the leather armor branch of the destiny board, eventually unlocking the ability to wear higher tiers of leathers. Growing carrots will advance your farming proficiency, unlocking animal husbandry and more kinds of crops, while gathering resources will make you a more efficient gatherer, allowing you to harvest higher tiers of that resource, as well as increasing your gathering speed.
Because the economy of Albion Online is entirely player driven, resources are incredibly important. Sandbox Interactive is still seeking the right balance to keep resources scarce enough to be in high demand, while preventing gathering from being too high risk and time consuming. Because there are no NPCs who sell weapons or armor, all gear must be crafted by players, and there is a high demand for players who can provide the highest tier resources, as well as those who can craft those resources into the best armor, weapons and accessories. One of the more compelling features about Albion Online is that it has found a way to keep the resources beginners have access to relevant and valuable. Newcomers gather Tier II resources, which include fiber, wood, hides, ores and stone. In order to make a refined Tier III resource, you must combine a raw Tier III resource with a refined Tier II resource. Likewise, creating a refined Tier IV resource requires a refined Tier III, which requires a refined Tier II resource. This creates a perpetual demand for lower level resources, and while higher level players can still harvest Tier II resources, Tier II do not spawn in the Red and Black zones, the areas which more advanced players are most likely to call home. This calculated decision creates an environment where newcomers to the game are perpetually valuable, and in turn, provides new players a reliable way to earn silver.
Albion Online is, at its core, a PVP game, and is very much about risk vs reward. The world map is broken up into different zones, Green, Yellow, Red and Black, each color signifying the level of PVP allowed within that area. Green zones are completely safe, Yellow has limited PVP, anyone can fight anyone within the Red and Black zones, and any player can loot the gear, items and mounts from anyone they kill within these two zones. While Tier II and III resources are common in the Yellow and Green zones, players will have to risk the Red and Black zones if they want to find Tier V and VI resources. Higher tier resources may be more plentiful in Black, but you put your haul at serious risk, as any passing player can attempt to kill you and take all your resources and gear.
Magical chests known as Relic Chests spawn valuable resources and relics on regular intervals several times a day. The relics found within these chests can be used to upgrade your gear, often creating PVP hot spots as individuals, parties and guilds compete to claim their loot. The higher tier relics found within the Red and Black zones sell for good money in the nearby cities, but can be worth double or even triple that price if transported down to the Yellow or Green zones. Players must decide if they want to make the trek through full PVP territory while carrying such a valuable item, knowing that if they die to a hostile player, they will not only lose the item, their killer will be able to claim it.
Other players are a threat to keep in mind while in the Red and Black Zones, and caution and vigilance is forever required. It is a perfectly legitimate tactic to find another party running a dungeon, kill them while they are fighting a group of monsters, take their loot, and continue on to the dungeon boss. PVP is a major focus, and in the Red and Black zones, one should always be aware that a hostile could be be just off screen. However, it is possible to enjoy the game with minimal PVP action, as Albion provides plenty of ways to earn a decent living without constantly battling other players. I made a lovely bit of coin in one of the most hostile Black zone cities by raising and selling horses, gathering resources, cooking and farming. I even made an easy million off the Alibon Gold Market, a stock market system where players can use real money or in-game silver to buy and sell gold.
As exciting as the overall world of Albion is, it falls short when it comes to dungeons. All dungeons within a biome (climate region) have the same look and monsters, and these quickly become incredibly repetitive and boring. Running higher level solo dungeons with a medium to large group is a quick and effective way to grind up both silver and fame, but dungeon are so monotonous, filled with the same, small set of monsters, that runs can become boring after only a few times through. Fortunately, as explained above, Albion provides plenty of other ways to earn silver.
One way in which Albion truly shines is its simple beauty, and the loving attention it has paid to animations, sound effects and other small details. Despite being a low poly, top-down game, designed to work on mobile devices, the world of Albion is rich in small details, and the more you play, the more you begin to notice its subtle beauty. This causes the game to miraculously become more beautiful the more you play. At night, ponds and pools of water reflect a starry sky. At dusk, characters cast long, reaching shadows across prairies which turn gold in the sunset. Horses gallop smoothly when comfortable, but switch to a slower, shorter-stride canter when carrying too much weight. Oxen plod across the screen with slow, heavy strides and lumbering sound effects, lanterns and gear jangling with every step. There is real care put into this world, and this helps pull you into it, giving you a feel for the weight of an animal, the chill of the wind in the icy mountains, the life of the insects chirping within the marshes, and the realistic crackle of a distant thunderstorm.
The maps are large, especially compared to how many people play. This combines nicely with the beautifully rendered background audio, which is unique to each biome, to create a nice sense of isolation and, in PVP zones, a healthy dose of paranoia. Eve Online players will be familiar with the importance of trading routes in Albion Online. Some maps have limited exits, creating easily patrolled choke points, and finding ways to avoid a potential ambush is critical when it comes to transporting goods. Sound is incredibly important in the game, as turning up the sound effects and listening closely can alert you to the presence of another player on the map, fighting or harvesting nearby, long before you would be able to hear their approach, much less see them.
Guilds play a vital role in the game, and the attitude of a major guild or alliance can drastically change the feel of an entire region. Guilds are able to take over cities and use them as headquarters while also taking a silver tax from all sales within that city’s auction house. Some guilds want thriving economies within their home cities so they can reap the silver that comes with constant buying and selling. To encourage this, they will actively take on the role of PKK’ers, or “Player Killer-Killers,” protecting the gatherers and merchants who transport goods within their territory, but not all guilds are so philanthropic. This beta saw the rise of several guilds in the Black zone which took pride in taking over an area and driving out any players not in their guild. Any player gathering or transporting within their territory was seen as direct competition for their guild’s gatherers and crafters, and would be killed and looted on sight.
Guild presence and power can be incredibly fluid, as the early part of the final beta has shown. A Russian guild, the Red Army, had full control over the central island for the first month of the game. However, in just a few days, a new alliance migrated to the island and completely erased their presence. It took the Red Army a week to forge a new alliance and re-gear their best PVP’ers, but they quickly bounced back, reclaiming a good deal of their former territory. This fluidity comes from the Guild vs Guild system in Albion, which plays out like a MOBA.
In order to attack a territory or city, a guild must announce where and when they will invade, giving defenders a chance to gear up and defend their territory. Once the battle starts, guild representatives are teleported to a special battle zone, where they battle 5v5 or 20v20, depending on the contested territory. These battles usually play out slower than one would expect, largely due to the fact that each player has a limited number of skills, and cooldowns mean that they must to be wise about when and how they use their skills. These are high risk battles, as the winners not only take control of valuable guild territories and potentially city taxes, they can also loot their fallen opponents. Wearing your best gear into battle could give you the advantage necessary to win the fight, but one wrong move and your enemies could soon be using your prize weapon against you. The high stakes nature of these conflicts result in a lot of posturing and a lot of smack talking, before, during, and after guild battles. This can make for tremendous entertainment if you don’t have a dog in the fight, and it creates plenty of guild related gossip in any given city.
Albion is a cross platform game, and can be played on PC, Mac, Android and, once the game launches, iOS devices. I was able to play the game on all three available platforms, and found it to be incredibly stable all around. While crashes weren’t common, they did happen frequently enough while playing on an Android tablet that I would strongly recommend against using a tablet to play Albion inside any of the PVP zones, as a disconnect could result in the death of your character and the loss of all your gear. Albion recently announced that it will not be moving to the planned free-to-play model, but will instead have a one-time purchase fee, along with an optional subscription system, which will give subscribed accounts gold, boosted fame and other perks. While the initial cost of the game has not yet been specified, it will likely be comparable to the $30 Founders Pack, though Sandbox Interactive has stated that, after launch, the packs will not offer as much value as the current Founders Packs.
Albion is still making adjustments to find its perfect balance within the game, as well as its place in the world of MMO’s, but that’s what beats are for. Thus far, the dev team has been very open about changes they are making, which changes they are not making, and why these decisions are being made. While no official wipe or launch date has been announced, Sandbox Interactive has said that there will be at least one wipe before launch, and many players speculate this will happen November of this year. Albion is constantly being rebalanced and expanded, with features like fishing, forest biomes and improvements to dungeons on the horizon. The constant work and improvement by the development team combined with their utilization of fresh and unusual approaches to several MMO stables means that Albion Online is already carving out a unique identity for itself, and is well worth a look.