It's hard to believe that in the current gaming landscape, publishers and developers are still willing to roll the dice on an MMORPG. And yet new ones are released on a regular basis. It must be a daunting proposition to find the concept that will hook enough gamers to carve out a sustainable niche. One of the newest products to enter the crowded market is Sandbox Interactive's Albion Online. The German developer has released a game that tries to distinguish itself through a number of mechanics and concepts, but they're potentially as much of a turn off as a selling point.
Let's make a list. Albion Online positions itself as a "sandbox MMO," which is code for the developer eschewing a crafted, story-driven campaign in favor of the player "creating his or her own" experience along the way. There are, of course, many dozens of generic task/quests given by NPCs. But these are bog standard fetch or kill assignments that are entirely forgettable and mind-numbingly repetetive. One of the complaints around many MMOs -- from World of Warcraft to Elder Scrolls Online -- is that one quickly loses the sensation of being on a unique, heroic quest when dozens of players are performing the same action. However, having little or no sense of real identity or purpose in the world is equally uninspiring. While there are three basic starting character classes -- warrior, wizard, ranger -- it's viable to create a mix and match avatar that is adept at a range of skills. Weapons and abilities level with use -- unless you simply buy your way to the head of the line: more on that later. Although there are several levels of gear to craft one's way through, in the end, there isn't much visual character variety. Not very appealing to MMO fashionistas who love to strut around in unique armor.
In lieu of a story arc are many hours of grinding in order to obtain crafting materials, XP or silver/gold, both to stimulate the player-driven economy and to raise player combat and armor stats and increase crafting skills. Recognizing that Albion Online was essentially about grinding, the developers introduced a couple of interesting wrinkles.
PvP is central to Albion Online, and is gated behind several zone types. At the lowest level, players can knock each other out, but not kill or loot. At the highest level, players can kill each other and permanently loot both gear and gold, including items and currency that were paid for with real world money. It would seem obvious, then, that all but the masochistic player would avoid the deadly "black" zones, but Albion Online jimmies the risk/reward equation by having the rarer materials spawn in those zones. In theory this encourages the player to join guilds and form raiding and protective parties, both for economic and survival reasons. Risk averse players will probably not get the appeal.
Besides PvP, crafting and the player-centric economy are the other major hooks of Albion Online, with a complex marketplace that is driven by supply and demand and that clearly wants to ape Eve Online's densely layered system. Indeed, it is certainly possible to play Albion Online's marketplace metagame and approach combat as a grindy necessity. Unfortunately, understanding the economy -- and crafting, beyond the basics -- will require some outside research as Albion Online doesn't explain its systems very well.
Albion Online is not a free-to-play MMO with microtransactions but a $30 product that then offers an additional monthly subscription/bonus plans as well as in-game purchases that essentially help bypass some of the odious grinding. This "pay to win" system will appeal to players just wanting to be a PvP powerhouse with the good stuff but is likely to discourage others.
Because it is a cross platform game developed for both PC and tablets, it's no surprise that Albion Online cuts some visual corners. Played from a top-down, isometric perspective, the game's generic fantasy world and primitive (at least by PC MMO standards) visuals are colorful, family friendly, but forgettable. From the title, I was hoping for a richly imagined dive into pre-Arthurian England, a setting that Mythic's MMO Dark Age of Camelot beautifully explored over 16 years ago.
Players have become used to MMORPGs that are essentially single player games that only rarely require cooperation for success and usually allow players to avoid PvP unless they enjoy it. Albion Online gives the player a choice between endless grinding through a world bereft of an engaging story, forced cooperation and/or combat in PvP, or spending real money to speed a bit faster through the game. You could kindly call Albion Online "old-school" or "hardcore," which might appeal to gamers with a nostalgia for the days of corpse runs, griefing, and ganking. Less graciously, you could say it is repetitive, cynical, uninspired, and opaque. In truth, MMORPGs that survive their infancy often grow into very different games than they were at launch. Patches and player input often have a way of shaping a game for the better, and given time, Albion Online may evolve as well.