Reviewing a newly released persistent world poses an unusual problem. Given the time required to truly plumb the depths of most titles, and given the greater rewards offered to more highly developed characters, and given the fact that many MMORPGs don't stabilize and start to mature until a few months after release, it's almost unfair to offer a critique after a month of play. Additionally, the persistent online aspect of the games places them in a constant state of development, i.e. the criticisms offered today may be moot after the next patch. Regardless, it is the job of those tasked with reviewing a game to offer such a critique, even knowing all the aforementioned. As such, your humble reviewer has emerged from the world of Atys to report on Nevrax's new release, The Saga of Ryzom.
The Saga of Ryzom takes place on the planet Atys, a sort of interstellar root ball. Atys sprouts huge tree-like branches that find their provenance deep within the planet. Three generations ago, the Fyros journeyed into the depths, an area known as the Prime Roots, in search of a legendary dragon. Here they encountered spheres filled with fearsome insect-type creatures, the Kitin. Their attempt to kill these beasts unleashed a fury on the planet that nearly decimated all homin life on Atys. After a struggle of two years, the Kitin returned to the Prime Roots and the survivors came out of hiding to rebuild their world. It is at this time that the player finds himself.
Let's Start at the Very Beginning, a Very Good Place to Start
The four playable races of Atys (also known as hominkind), are the forest dwelling Matis, the jungle-borne Zorai, the Tryker of the lakes, and the Fyros, who make their home in the desert. Upon creation of his character, a player chooses the requisite characteristics such as race, sex, face and body customization (including bust size for women...nudge, nudge, squire!), but rather than force a player to choose a class per se, Ryzom allows the choice of up to three starting skill trees.
From there it's off to a race-specific newbie area where a player is greeted by a welcomer who sends him on a tour of his starting town. Each newbie land has five towns and each town has a set of trainers, merchants and quest-givers. The welcomer will also give skill-specific quests to young characters. Here the new player fights, casts, crafts and digs in the shadow of the giant Atysian branches, all in an effort to further his various skill trees. Once one of the skill sets hits 20, the welcomer stops giving quests and urges the player to seek passage to the mainland, although this is not required. In fact, many players are choosing to stay in the beginner area until some skills are up to 30 and beyond, since the move to the main gameworld is a significant jump in difficulty.
Although the game does not force evacuation of the starter world, the limits on available resources, quests, and mob levels will eventually drive a player to find his way to the real world. Atys consists of four lands (one homeland for each homin race) which adjoin the centrally located Prime Roots. A new arrival will find himself in one of the larger cities within his homeland. All of the features of the newbie area are available here, and then some, but what is most notable about the cities is how alive they are. The towns are teeming with NPCs walking everywhere. Guards patrol the streets as citizens bustle about. Marketplaces are full of homins and have a true feeling of being busy. Other areas, like training citadels, are less populated, but homins are always about. This aspect gives Ryzom a sense of life and immersion not seen in other games.
The cities are fascinating and fun to explore, but all the real action is outside the gates and it is here that a player goes to hone his skills. Animals, plants and brigands may be fought to build fighting or magic skills. Harvesters can prospect and mine within sight of the guards. Crafters need not venture outside, but will only have access to limited resources from city vendors, so either taking up harvesting or fighting beasts or working with a player who is training in these areas makes sense. By the time a player gets to this point, it is abundantly clear that this game is all about building skills.
I've Got Skills, They're Multiplying
The skill system is one of the features that sets Ryzom apart from other games. Breaking the tested paradigm of experience begetting levels begetting class-specific abilities, Ryzom allows all players to level any skill they choose individually. The skills selected at creation merely give the character a head start within the chosen skill trees. He is neither constrained by those choices nor precluded from exploring other skill trees should he choose to do so. This model puts the choice completely in the hands of the player, allowing him to build his avatar's skill set as he pleases.
The four primary skill sets are fighting, magic, harvesting, and crafting. A new character that puts all three initial disciplines in fighting will start much further down the fight tree than one who starts with three separate skill sets, but he will be less rounded. Each skill set must be leveled individually, and after a certain point each tree branches, giving the player an opportunity to specialize.
There are no limits as to which skill sets a player may further. Moreover, all four trees are always open to characters, regardless of their initial choices. A person can advance both magic and melee if he wishes without penalty. Skills do not degrade, so a swordsman can stop fighting and focus heavily on crafting without fear of losing his melee skills. The only real limiting factor here is time, as each level takes a little bit longer to complete.
Upon leveling a skill set, a player receives skill points in that discipline which he may redeem at a trainer for new skills or stat increases. As the tree branches, the player can pursue either one or multiple directions. For example, after level 20, the magic skill tree splits into offensive and defensive magic (each of which further splits after level 50). A player can cast mostly nukes and up his offensive magic skill set or he may choose to heal his teammates, enhancing his defensive magic skills. He may even choose to do both and progress in each specialty, albeit more slowly than if he were leveling one branch exclusively.
Greater than the Sum of its Parts
Each learned skill actually consists of a number of lesser pieces, known in Ryzom parlance as stanzas. These stanzas are building blocks that control different aspects of the larger ability. Fight styles, magic spells, harvesting techniques, crafting methodologies...all are seen as skills in Ryzom and all have varying stanzas to dictate their diverse characteristics. What makes this interesting is that a player can use the stanzas he has learned to build his own unique skills. Icons on the bar may be tailored to a player's liking, if he has learned all the right stanzas. Once a skill is trained, all the stanzas that make up that skill are at the player's disposal.
The Modular Action System, as it is called, provides the player with great ability to experiment and to customize his play style in any area. For example, a magic user can combine the power of a short range offensive spell with the longer distance of a healing spell to create a long range version of his nuke. There is some balancing required. More powerful stanzas will require stanzas that determine the usage of resources (e.g. stamina, focus) to strike a harmony. Fortunately, Nevrax has wisely decided to allow players the ability to experiment freely. There are no artificial barriers to limit experimentation, like tacking a cost of 500 dappers (the currency of Ryzom) onto each spell creation. As a player furthers his skills and has even more stanzas at his disposal, the customization options grow significantly. This feature alone puts The Saga of Ryzom in a unique place in the MMORPG genre.
No Static at All
The Saga of Ryzom boasts a dynamic world in which the mobs, NPCs and players all interact in ways that affect the overall world. Animals travel in packs and may assist others of their species that find themselves under attack. It is not uncommon to see animals fighting each other with no homin nearby. Non-aggressive animals will often spot a player and approach, just to sniff him out. Tribes of renegade homins roam the wilderness, protecting their turf and hunting animals. This is not a world of static spawns and camp spots. Just as the city has a living feel to it, so too does the untamed wild.
In keeping with the lore of a world decimated by Kitin attacks, the landscape of Atys is dotted with destroyed settlements. Player guilds have the opportunity to own these encampments through quests. Special NPCs give guild quests which will require the guilds to take ownership and perform tasks. Depending on the guild's reputation, it may assume control by negotiating with the local homin tribe or by overcoming them with force. Once control is established, the guild performs a series of tasks to gain guild experience. The Kitin still abound, as do other aggressive beasts, and the game engine is designed so that these creatures will foist organized attacks on settlements. Guilds may be called upon to defend against these attacks as well as attacks from the local homin tribe (if they chose to muscle their way in).