Honestly, I don’t hit the MMO genre as hard as I used to. Everquest, World of Warcraft, EVE-Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online… I’ve dumped a considerable amount of time into a wide variety of titles across various genres and systems. At this point it takes a serious amount of innovation to turn my head in the direction of a new MMO release, even if the title is free to play. Let’s be straight – Archeage has the innovation. It boasts a tremendously deep farming and crafting system with an economy so thoroughly player run, it approaches the virtual economy juggernaut that is EVE-Online in terms of depth and breadth. It offers PVP – not ‘go over to this hermetically sealed off zone where death doesn’t matter’ PVP, but full-blown “lose some of your items / gain some of your fallen foe’s loot” PVP. Not only that, it’s launching with ocean exploration and ship to ship combat – the sort of thing an MMO typically promises at some vague point in the future, then takes one or two years to get to. So with all this being promised, what’s the final verdict? Simple: Archeage’s innovation outshines the flaws it have, and is currently weighed down largely by server queues that can reach upwards of an hour of real-life time.
Now, let’s dig into the actual mechanics on offer.
Archeage’s world is fantasy-themed with an East-meets-West flavor, along with the smallest dash of steampunk. That’s a vague description, but really, that’s all there is to it. There’s a storyline going on in this world, but I didn’t really care about it when playing the game because it quickly became clear that the developers didn’t care all that much either. All you need to know is that there are two factions with (currently) two starting races per among them, they’re perpetually at war, and the outlaw take-no-prisoners pirate faction (which can and likely will freely attack anyone from the other two factions, and probably other pirates as well) serves as the all-important spoiler to keep any one side from getting too comfortable. The short of it is, if you want a tremendously deep world laden with fascinating lore and a compelling story, Archeage is not for you. This is a game where the players are meant to make their own stories, and most of them will involve tales of how they slammed a dagger in the eye-socket of the unsuspecting adventurer they came across five minutes ago.
Graphically, Archeage is very pretty indeed. It’s powered by CryEngine 3, providing a world of beautiful characters, lush vegetation and generally delightful images all around. So far I’ve really enjoyed just walking around and taking in a lot of the environmental sights of this game, and if you’ve got a thing for lush and somewhat realistic environments, you won’t be left disappointed by what’s going on in the game graphically. If anything the art style is a bit over the top at times, and more than once I went out to fight against what was called a ‘water buffalo’ and ended up facing down some kind of hideous, oversized dinosaur-monster that looked as much like a buffalo as Godzilla does. Aside from the mismatched expectation-versus-reality of the fauna, the graphics in Archeage aren’t tremendously head-turning – the environments are lovely and give off an aura of ‘come explore me!’, but otherwise the graphics are best called “serviceable.”
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Character creation is where some of the uniqueness of the game really begins to shine. There’s a good amount of customization present – a bit thin on races (western humans and elves on one side, eastern humans and cat-people on the other side), but the various selections for facial appearance are nicely numerous. Particularly appreciated is the fact that you can spend all your time carefully crafting your Adonis/Aphrodite, creating a near-mythical peak of physical beauty, and then slap your choice of some seriously massive and brutal-looking scars to undo all your hard work. Put simply, the true test of the flexibility of a character creation system is whether or not you’re able to create a completely horrific freak, and let me assure you – this is quite possible, so kudos to the developers.
Alongside the creation of your avatar’s physical form is your class selection, and here’s where we start to get into the more enticing side of Archeage. There are ten different ‘skill sets’ you can select from, three of which can be active on your character at any given time, allowing you to mix and match both the active and the passive abilities as you see fit (at least, once you have the skill points to unlock them.) It’s reminiscent of the Rifts game that’s also under Trion’s wing – if you want to create a lute-playing, shadow-stalking sniper, you can. How about a magic-using berserker? Also possible. Best of all, if you find out your mix of skills just isn’t what you were hoping for, you can eventually pay in-game cash to switch these skill-sets – perfect for someone like me, who really likes to stick with a single character if at all possible, yet who also loves to experiment with different playstyles than a permanent class tends to lock me into. This freedom to choose your own mix of skills and abilities likewise comes with the ability to choose your own equipment: no class is locked to any single equipment type, so if you want to try your hand at being a mage stomping around in full heavy armor, the opportunity is there. Just pay attention to the various bonuses said equipment offers (partial/full suits of light, medium and heavy armor each get their own set bonuses, so you’re encouraged to be consistent on this front.)
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But where does that equipment come from? The answer to that question is where Archeage truly shines. While the game has its share of desirable world drops (there has to be some reason to get out there and kill the monsters after all), this is a game with a ridiculously deep crafting system – reminiscent of EVE-Online, a game famously structured around a player-driven economy. Archeage features 21 different crafting professions, each typically coming with a considerable amount of depth. Construction, weaponcrafting, farming, fishing, leatherworking… whatever crafting profession you’d typically want to find in a fantasy MMO, Archeage not only has it, but it has the gathering occupations to go with it. There’s enough crafting depth for even the most hardcore fantasy-tradeskiller to completely lose themselves in, a veritable world of raw materials and finished goods, from the usual realms of weapons and armor (each piece of which features over ten levels of possible quality) to animal husbandry and more. All of this is in large part built around two things: the farming system, and the labor points system.
Labor points comprise a third resource pool for Archeage alongside hit points and mana – and it also is wrapped up in the pay side of the otherwise free-to-play game. Simply put, you need to spend resource points to do just about anything related to crafting – from planting and harvesting goods, to refining ore to otherwise. This is a resource that slowly restocks over time. You can subscribe to the game in order to increase your labor points pool, and accumulate points even while offline – a feature players don’t normally experience. For serious crafters, this will quickly become limiting. Considering how much Archeage gives away for free, it’s hard to complain about this – free to play games have to make their money somewhere.
Speaking of money, this tradeskill system also figures into the economy of the game in a straightforward way: the various goods you plant, gather and refine can be refined into tradeskill packs, which in turn can be transported to other towns in exchange for coin (the standard currency, or a ‘special’ currency favored by one particularly freaky race which also happens to have a monopoly on higher-end goods like house blueprints, etc.) Once a tradeskill pack is crafted, it’s immediately placed onto your character – and your character suddenly starts walking as if they’re suspended in molasses. Trade-goods are heavy! If you take said goods to another town and turn them in, you’ll be rewarded with currency. Naturally, the further away the town, the bigger the reward you’ll get – and there are some ways to hasten your trip, from the use of a donkey mount to public transportation to player ships. (Mounts, by the way, can be equipped with armor, can be leveled up, and often have combat-abilities – and they can also be harmed and require healing.) Of course, the most desirable locations of all will be the ones that are off in the lands of PVP, where other players can kill you and will certainly try to if they notice you’re around and carrying precious cargo. Frankly, they’ll probably try to have a go at you even if you’re not carrying much of anything.
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The game has barely launched, and already the blood is flowing. Honestly, I haven’t experienced much of it yet – I’ve gotten up to the mid-20s in a game where the maximum level is 50, but I’ve joined a guild and been able to listen in on some of the fun. People venturing out in the ocean, with fleets of ships travelling together to protect themselves, trying to fight their way past blockades of pirates. Surprise attacks by apparent allies are possible in these distant areas as well – after all, these are lawless areas, and criminals are known to prey on their own. There’s even a crime and judgment system in the game, with players able to accumulate infamy points from a variety of actions (from digging up people’s crops for their own use, to the expected murder charges), which can lead to their actually being imprisoned for a given length of time. Really: the game has a prison system, and even though there are jailbreaks, the criminal will still have a debuff on them which will severely hamper their ability to interact with the world. It’s a daring move by the developers, and highlights how truly unique Archeage is.
In fact, it’s so unique that, well… everyone is trying to play it. At once. There’s a reason I’ve only been able to get up to the mid-20s in Archeage: as with any popular MMO, an abundance of people playing leads to queues forming to get into a server. Couple that with the fact that any given account can only have two characters on it, along with Archeage being a much-anticipated title, and you’re looking at upwards of an hour just to be able to choose a character and play the game. This is not a situation that’s been experienced for a single day – it’s been taking place more or less since the launch of the game. It’s also a difficult problem to solve, as the obvious solution of ‘add more servers’ can easily lead to sparsely populated areas once the initial rush to play dies down. The problem has already been acknowledged and efforts to deal with it have been pledged, but as if this writing the issue remains. If you get eager to try out Archeage, prepare for a wait.
But this is a game where I can honestly say – tastes depending – the wait is worth it. If you’re a fan of PVP looking for a game which offers a rich, deep, player-driven economy, an ever-changing world to explore, Archeage is worth a look. There’s a reason people are virtually standing in line to play it.
While Archeage doesn't bring much to the table in terms of story, quest mechanics or even combat, the sheer depth of the PVP and tradeskill system promises to make it into the EVE-Online of the fantasy genre. The queue system is marring what would otherwise be an enticing game, at least for those players who have been looking for a fresh take on the fantasy PVP MMO genre - Ultima Online can only last so long.