Content, Content, Who's Got the Content?
Visually, Atys is beautifully rendered. The graphics are very well done. The disparate environments are well presented. Jungles and forests are lush. Rolling hills and barren deserts look almost real. Water effects are some of the best in any MMORPG. The night sky is mesmerizing. Nevrax certainly pulled out all the stops here. One look at a storm rolling in over the desert, complete with lightning flashes in the distance, will give the player a true sense of location. Atys feels like a real world, and much of that may be attributed to the high quality of the graphics.
Unfortunately, there's not much more, at least as of this writing. The Saga of Ryzom is sorely lacking in content. After a bit of play, the bloom comes off the rose of the open skill tree when one realizes that it's all just the same old level grind in a different package. Instead of endeavoring to gain experience to get his avatar to the next level, the player is working on just one skill to get it to the next level. And while quick progression makes early leveling fun and compelling, it becomes a chore after about level 25 or so.
As the skill trees split, there are some interesting options, but what is the goal? Kill more beasts? Sew better clothes? Heal people faster? It seems apparent that all one will attain is a quicker, better, or more efficient way to do the same thing he was doing on the newbie island. In other words, a player who maxes out his harvesting skill is merely able to find better items faster and more easily than a new player...not the most driving of incentives.
There are no real quests to speak of. Some NPCs give missions, but they are along the lines of, "Go kill X animals," or "Make me X pair of quality 10 boots." These are nothing more than tasks and they get boring quickly. There is nothing as involved as visit NPC, journey to dungeon, kill named beast, return, take message to second NPC, receive magic cloak. It's all a bunch of kill tasks designed to garner the player a bit of money and a slight increase in reputation.
Even worse are messenger missions, where the player is given a note and told to take it to a certain player in a city, or even a region. That's all the help that is given. No other info is given about the recipient and no help is provided in locating him. The cities are full of people whose names all sound remarkably similar. The mission may be, "Deliver this message to Ba'caussey Dauper in Crystabell." Finding him is like looking for a needle in twenty haystacks, because there are scores of people wandering the city and each has a name that's a close match to the recipient. Imagine placing a Texan in Beijing and telling him to find the one person named Chen Xiang. Even if the entire population is wearing nametags it's a devil of a task. Then, to add insult to injury, the reward is often less than a player would get for killing a handful of low level mobs and selling their hides.
Nothing but Skin and Bones
There are no named mobs, quest mobs, or unique opponents. There may be some specific named creatures lurking deep within the Prime Roots, but do not expect to see them for some time. A new player can barely leave the safety of his city's gate without encountering an aggressive animal or a pack of such. So, for most all players new to the mainland, hours are spent hunting yubos (the sewer rats of Atys) or other low level mobs. Once suckling yubos become too easy, the player shifts to weanling yubos, then to some other yubo with a non-descript name. The only difference between them is how tough they are to kill, and the only loot they (and all animals on the planet) yield is a variety of body parts that may or may not be used in crafting.
It's always seemed a bit absurd that, in other games, a moss snake would be carrying 13 silver and a dagger, so Ryzom should be given points for giving hunting a dose of reality. However, quartering a carcass for the thousandth time to pick out a hide and 2 teeth is enough to make a player batty. Get used to it, though, because high level animals offer more of the same...higher quality and more valuable parts maybe, but still only parts for crafting or quests. (Homin opponents, such as desert brigands, also offer a few dappers as a reward.) Quest parts are worthless unless the player has an active quest that calls for those pieces. One may have 15 tufts of q20 gingo hair, but unless he acquired them after the quest was given, they're trash. Not surprisingly, most players leave them rotting on carcasses. It may not be particularly realistic, but it sure would be nice to kill a particularly tough mob and find a sword or gem or even a rare high quality material on it. This is not to be, however, as Ryzom beasts yield nothing beyond their own flesh and blood.
he Sound of Silence
In the movie, 24 Hour Party People, Tony Wilson drives into the countryside to find Martin Hannett with a microphone stuck in the air. When asked what he is doing, Hannett replies that he is, "recording silence." It appears that Nevrax optioned Hannett's recordings for the sound in The Saga of Ryzom, because outside of the grunts of a fighting homin or the roar of a Kipee, there is very little to hear. The strike of a weapon always sounds like a dull thud, whether mace or axe or sword is wielded. Weather effects have a realistic sound, but are not superb. When a Kipee bellows from behind, it comes across loud and clear and strikes a chord of dread in the player, but the roar is equally loud if the beast is 5 meters or 25 meters away.
There is no music at all, in spite of Nevrax's announced hiring of Bjørn Arve Lagim, the talent behind the soundtracks of such titles as Anarchy Online and The Longest Journey. There isn't even a theme song in the game (although an mp3 of the theme is available at the official website). Music is promised, along with a bunch of other things that are "coming" in the first major patch. Until then, it's all whistling wind and animal noises. It's probably just as well, because there is no in-game volume control.
While sound may be almost nonexistent, at least it works. There are other things that don't...crucial things, such as the indicator that tells whether an opponent is aggressive or not. Regardless of their nature, all animals con as friendly (walking up on a hostile beast that conned as passive is a nice Sunday surprise!) Guild quests reportedly are broken, preventing outposts from being occupied. There is a well-reported persistent bug that causes all the trainers in a town to just disappear. All these and more are still plaguing the game well over a month after release. These are the kinds of things that should have been hammered out in beta, but Nevrax is continuing a disturbing trend in the genre - that of getting it out now and patching it later.
Yes, it is true that persistent worlds can always be patched after release and it is also true that some bugs may not manifest themselves until the game gets into true live play conditions, but neither of these excuses releasing a game that contains so many problems and asking people to pay to effectively debug the code, especially after several beta tests which should have given the developers the opportunity to fix such things. This seems to have become the status quo among MMORPGs and it is done at the expense of the players. Nevrax is not alone here and should not have to bear the brunt of such criticism, but it would have been nice if Ryzom had bucked the trend and stayed in beta until it was really ready for prime time.
In game support is generally pretty responsive, but the answers are mostly along the lines of, "that's a known bug," or, "I'll pass that along, but I can't help you with that." A petition regarding a mysterious loss of two hours of experience from a previous play session was met with, "Hmmm...that's strange. I can't give you those levels back. Sorry!" Nevrax should be bending over backwards and erring heavily on the side of caution to keep its customer base happy, given that the players are regularly contending with a raft of problems. So what if a few people gain an undeserved level or two here on the front end? That's better than having a number of people who paid for the game leave because their hard work evaporated and the game masters could offer nothing more than a heartfelt apology. The staffers are extremely polite and responsive, and certainly they are dealing with a plethora of issues. Judging from the quick response both in-game and on the message boards, they have the potential to be a first rate response team, if only Nevrax will be allow them to truly fix problems rather than just pass them along.
Duty Now for the Future
Perhaps "potential" is the single best word to describe The Saga of Ryzom at this time. There are all sorts of promises and ideas that look exciting, but they're just not here yet. Given the state of the game, the bugs that hound players, and the lack of content, it is hard to conclude that Nevrax has released a complete game. It appears to be about 85% finished. To the credit of the developers, a lot of work has been done in the initial month of release, particularly in the area of lag. Although still a problem, lag has been mitigated tremendously and rubber-banding (running, freezing, then immediately finding oneself far down the road), which infected the servers at launch, has been almost completely eliminated. Bugs are being fixed, but several loom large and overshadow the efforts of the developers. Players are still hopeful for promised features (such as mounts) that have yet to be implemented. Patch 1 is coming soon, with Patch 2 to follow a few weeks later, so all is not lost. The momentum is still with Nevrax, but it may quickly wane if some major efforts aren't soon realized.
As stated in the opening, the issues that surround the release of a persistent world make it almost unfair to review it so soon after it goes live. Regardless, the game is available and the publisher has no compunction about charging consumers for the software and for the privilege of playing. That alone gives players the right to critique, criticize, and complain. And even though The Saga of Ryzom may be error free in six months, those behind it are not absolved of the transgression of pushing an incomplete product into the market. Their penance may well be to watch an exodus of paying players who have better things to do than wait for Nevrax's redemption. In a market that has a number of alternatives and some highly anticipated titles on the horizon, Nevrax's handling of the initial months of The Saga of Ryzom will certainly have more impact on the face of Atys than the actions of those playing could ever hope to. Here's hoping that impact is a positive one, for it would be a shame to see such a beautiful, promising game world shrink to insignificance before the massive branches of Atys are allowed to take proper root.