So tell me, esteemed gamer, what do you do when your competition is an MMO with a worldwide user base of over ten million subscribers, unparalleled growth and a net income of 1.27 billion? Oh sure, you could attempt to be the next big thing and slay said beast with your own bare hands, but really, trying to be the next Warcraft killer is overrated; Especially when there's another way.
You copy the hell out of it.
Lazy? Maybe. Opportunistic? Definitely. But there is plenty to be said about riding the coat tails of another's success while raking in your own cash, and so what if it looks like half your realm map was lifted directly off the face of Azeroth? We won't tell if you don't, right? Even though such a description really doesn't do Frogster Interactive's new title justice, there is no mistaking the parallels between Runes of Magic and Blizzard's own behemoth. From environmental visuals to combat mechanics, it would be tragically easy to write this game off as a Warcraft clone. To stop there, however, would only overlook a promising new MMO unique in its own right.
If all Runes of Magic were was a free to play clone of Warcraft, it would still be more than enough reason for us here at MMORPG.com to take it for a test drive; and that's exactly what we did. Instead of finding a World of Warcraft proxy, we found something else... A World of Warcraft proxy with a bit of depth.
Runes starts out like WoW in nearly every aspect one would care to mention, featuring six classes and one race with more of both scheduled to roll out at regular intervals. At first, it's the minor details that differentiate the two; Character creation and customization is significantly deeper than that of Warcraft, allowing players to resize nearly every aspect of their avatar while other trivial items, such as personal housing, are available from the very first level. Accomplishment based titles can be obtained and mounts can be rented at low level, but it's not until level ten that you notice the first and most significant change to Blizzard's formula: Dual Classing.
Taking a page from AD&D, Runes of Magic not only allows you to select a primary class such a as a rogue, but a secondary class as well. This means you can quite literally play that Rogue-Priest you've always wanted to kick around, allowing you access to all of the skills of the primary class and a select few from the secondary. What's more is that you can swap these two classes at your convenience. You like your stealth ganking rogue, but your party needs a spot healer? Pay a visit to the requisite NPC and swap classes. You instantly gain all the skills of a priest and a limited set of rogue abilities with the switch.
Not only will players effectively need to juggle the stats and gear of two classes, but the management and dispersal of skill points also plays a major role in character advancement. Earned through kills, quests and leveling, these points allow players to customize their individual skill sets further for maximum effectiveness in whatever role they choose.
Styling similarities aside, everything is decently animated and even surpasses its contemporary in some areas. Melee combat effects, for example, are vastly superior to that of WoW and spells get similar treatment. Both execute quite impressive, but the observation inevitably leads one to wonder exactly how Warcraft missed something so simple for four straight years; especially given the meager hardware requirements. Runes' audio thankfully also stands on its own merits. The musical scores sit well above the usual f2p fare and combat audio effects compliment the visuals perfectly, helping to immerse players. I'm a sucker for audio and aside from a few tracks that sound like somebody let their three year old take a crack at the midi, I'm fairly satisfied.
Skills and crafting also borrow from the Warcraft template, though I was somewhat surprised when the quest chain guiding me through the process actually had me pick up every gathering skill available without limitation. Then came the obligatory harvesting quests, where I was once again in for a surprise. Runes supplies you with everything you need for resource harvesting without the use of a specialized tool to taking up inventory space. If you need to mine an ore node, it is already assumed you have a pick axe on you and ready for immediate use. Refinement hot spots are likewise denoted by large, glowing icons, making them all but impossible to miss. Frankly, I haven't decided whether this is actually good or bad, but it does alleviate considerable hassle, and that's normally a good thing.
Even though our beta testing has yet to turn up anything in the way of a catastrophic fault, Runes isn't without its wrinkles. The skill point system tends to be hit or miss in implementation and the game leans too heavily on the "kill X number of Y" and "fedex" variety of questing. Runes of Magic also makes skill advancement too easy for my tastes; namely in the fact that spells are automatically learned for you with no manual intervention whatsoever. Your only task concerning them is applying the skill points you earn towards their upgrade.
Then there is the leveling itself... Dual classing sounds all well and good until you realize how Runes of Magic handles experience; that is to say each class experience gain is completely separate from the other. Even though the game provides a few separate questing chains for your new second class, you are effectively grinding two characters up instead of one, and depending on your point of view, this can get old quickly. So far the most effective way I've found to counterbalance this tedium is to complete the quest objectives on the class best suited to grinding first, switch and turn said quest in on the other class. One class gets the XP from the kills, the other from the quest reward itself.
To be fair, Runes of Magic is leaning on a heavy dose of 20/20 hindsight from Warcraft when it's all said and done, but we have to ask, is that really such a bad thing? So far the answer is no. When Runes finally goes public, there will undoubtedly be considerable focus on its similarities to Warcraft, and justifiably so; but that could very well pale when compared to the fact that a free to play game is actively borrowing upon a billion dollar model for success. Proven game play, no subscription and the ability to control ones expenses without divorcing themselves from the game? Score. At the moment, Warcraft still has a decent edge on product quality when comparing the two, but it won't take that much for people's attention to wander one way or the other with a $15.00 monthly fee in play. The only question is whether Frogster can smooth out the rough beta edges without prostituting themselves to the cash shop alter in the process. Only time will tell on that one, but even in the worst case you may have yourself an alternate addiction to fill that dead air time on patch Tuesdays.