History is fraught with examples of determined underdogs surmounting all obstacles and beating the odds, but rarely does one see that in the world of massively multiplayer online games. Death tends to come quickly even to games that are quite good, but fail to maintain the delicate balance of playability, affordability and entertainment value. Some even fail despite that.
Enter Ryzom - the Rocky Balboa of MMOs.
Launched in 2004 by Nevrax (now a part of Gameforge) as the Saga of Ryzom, the original developers probably had no idea how prophetic the name would be. The story of Ryzom's past really IS a saga. For whatever reason, Nevrax simply wasn't able to make Ryzom a viable product. Drastic changes to the company's marketing strategy (including shortening the game's name to its present title) were implemented in August 2006, but it was too little, too late - the company and its assets ended up being sold off to Gameforge in December of that year and turned into Gameforge France SARL, which filed for bankruptcy less than a year later.
All the while, a sandbox game with great potential languished, caught in the economic struggle. Its playerbase, however, never gave up on the game world of Atys.
Eventually, a game publishing company in Cyprus called Winch Gate saw the game's potential, rescued it via purchase in 2009, put on the hard hats and set about reshaping the sandbox. A free 21-day trial period was implemented, then expanded to a no-time-limit "trial" period where a player can game to their heart's content until they reach level 125 in a given trade - essentially opening up half of the game to a player without them paying a single penny. The company incredibly then released much of the game's source code and artistic assets to open source in a partnership with the Free Software Foundation (which had previously been so impressed with the game itself that it pledged $60,000 in 2006 in an attempt to save the game from economic demise), created native Linux and Macintosh clients, and began marketing across all three platforms to resurrect this battle-scarred veteran of a game.
So far, it's worked, But it's still a work in progress. Let's review.
GENRE: MMORPG, Science-fiction/fantasy mix
COST: Free to play until a user reaches 125 in a given skill set; player then stops leveling. Monthly, quarterly and yearly subscriptions available
VERSION REVIEWED: 1.13
GAMEPLAY: The control scheme in Ryzom revolves around customizable commands called “stanzas”. These are relatively easy to learn in the game's “newbie section” of Silan by doing quests designed to familiarize a player with the concept. Once a player learns the basics of stanza building, they're ready to explore.
Interfacing with the world of Ryzom is pretty simple. Players are given a few simple options at setup to customize general movement, and the rest is handled with a number of customizable HUD windows similar to what one would see on World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons Online. Targeting and default actions can be performed with simple mouse clicks, and the in-game help file has a readily accessible list of key commands.
Instead of the more conventional “class” or “trade” system a number of other MMOs use in their leveling systems, Ryzom players are all given four main areas in which to gain experience – combat, magic, crafting and harvesting. Each area is important to level and maintain, but there's quite a bit of freedom involved in deciding what and how to level. It also helps to keep the experience fresh for the player, since one can always decide to go harvesting or crafting if they're bored with killing and looting and, at higher levels, the skill sets branch off into more specialized areas ensuring that there will likely always be something for a player to master.
If there were any playability issues, it would probably center around a hard-to-read font on some of the icons, particularly when it comes to the numbers used on some of the icons in the inventory and purchasing screens. Be sure to double-check the quality of what you're buying (and how much of it) at the marketplace. Score: 9.5/10
CONTENT: There's a lot to do in Ryzom.
The content itself is very well-written for the most part. The game world of Atys is not so much a planet as it is a massive tree – capable of sustaining ecosystems, an atmosphere, and a variety of lifeforms on its surface and beneath it. Most of the quests one can run in-game have at least a basic tie-in to an evolving storyline, but I was left feeling like many were hastily written (particularly after leaving the newbie area, which was exceptionally done) and put in the quest pool not so much for quality of the story, but quantity of different things to do. Lately, Winch Gate has been adding much longer, multi-part quests called "rite missions", but only some of them are currently complete. Those that ARE complete, however, are well-planned and highly rewarding from a storyline and loot standpoint.
And we all know shiny loot is important. Very important indeed.
There's also an option for player-created content through a feature called “Ryzom Ring”, which allows players to create scenarios of their own or join one that someone else created. It's not a feature that sees heavy use (at present, the feature is disabled), but the players that do create content for this aspect of the game have produced some quality work. As the playerbase grows and the Ring gets re-activated, it should be something to watch.
The game also has PvP areas where rival players can duke it out, guild-controlled resource-producing outposts that can be conquered via guild wars, and regularly has special in-game events like invasions and such. All told, there's plenty to do, but the questing side of it could use a bit more polish to be called truly “immersive”. Score: 7/10
USERBASE: Role-playing is encouraged but not required within the player community, which is generally friendly and mature if somewhat prone to fits of silence. I wasn't able to get hard statistics on playerbase numbers, but the common theme on the game's chat channels was that there could be more players. Still, there seemed to be a good amount of people online every time I played – not too many, not too few – and most are exceptionally helpful. Finding groups shouldn't be a problem unless a player is a complete jerk.
The existing players seem to be rather inclined to offering assistance to new players – some even making alternate characters dedicated to staying in the newbie area and shepherding players through the tougher quests that require strong teammates. (Wait until you see the Dominant Kirosta in the jungle. You'll know what I mean then.) There may not be as many players currently as one would see on the more mainstream MMOs, but they may possibly be the most human. They've earned a perfect score for their efforts, and should be proud of their maturity and friendliness. Score: 10/10
(***UPDATE ON THE PLAYERBASE SECTION*** New players may find that they run into some rather uptight players concerning usage of the "Universal" channel. Unless a player admonishing you has (CSR) next to their names, I HIGHLY recommend ignoring them. If it gets any worse, I'll come back and update the score for this particular section with a detailed explanation as to why. Simply put, though, other players are equals and their warnings do NOT carry any authority. Heed 'em at your own discretion.)
GRAPHICS: While this game isn't exactly on the cutting edge of graphics, it's still one of the prettiest-looking games around for Linux. And Linux doesn't have a lot of pretty native games – unless you're one of those that thought the Skeksis from “The Dark Crystal” were adorable. (They weren't.)
This game was reviewed on a six-year-old computer with basic motherboard graphics and ran just fine. The background scenes are very well done – I once stopped what I was doing in the deserts around Pyr just to watch the moon rise over its capital – and quite a bit of effort was put into environmental details. Little scorpions pop out of the sand, scuttle around for a bit, then pop back down like a real scorpion would. You almost wonder if it's going to attack you. (They don't.)
The only issue I had with my Intel graphics chipset is a known bug. The water in a certain lake didn't render, so it looked like I was flying above a valley instead of swimming in a lake. I just thought it was funny, but a purist might have a problem with that. This issue apparently isn't present in ATI or nVidia chipsets, though, and it was the only graphics issue I noted.
For those with a decent graphics card, you're in for a surprising treat. Fields of waving flowers, highly-detailed models, and well-coded wind patterns on the sand await you. But while very pretty eye candy, it's nothing that hasn't been done elsewhere a few years ago.
If you're looking for the very latest in MMO graphics, you won't find it here. What you will find, though, is more than good enough for the job – especially if you have a low-end or older computer with only basic graphic capabilities. Score: 8/10, and keep in mind I'm reviewing this from a Linux standpoint - seriously, we don't have many good-looking native games
CUSTOMER SUPPORT: This is a mixed bag. What Ryzom does well in this department, it does very, very well – but where it bombs it does so spectacularly.
In-game, customer support is exceptionally responsive. The in-game help file is easy to use (though the interface isn't exactly intuitive – kind of cramped and VERY dated-looking), and in-game problems tend to be resolved very quickly by professional representatives. (They can be denoted by the “CSR” they all have in their names.)
The game's website, unfortunately, is a bit of a nightmare. One that was probably dreamed before the turn of the century.
Simply put, it needs a complete overhaul – especially if Winch Gate expects to use the website as its subscription payment portal. For one thing, the subscription section still says it's processing payments by Bibit, which became WorldPay a LONG time ago. If a company says it's processing payments via a company called Bibit and then redirects them to the WorldPay website, that may cause trust issues.
Winch Gate also needs to offer more well-known payment options if it expects to be successful commercially in the United States. Here, we tend to use PayPal and Google Checkout. Not sure why Winch Gate doesn't. (The WorldPay option seems to have a PayPal gateway among its payment choices, but it was disabled when I attempted to use it and, as of the publishing of this article, has not been enabled.)
The site design is also horribly dated. This would have been a good-looking website in 1995, or possibly even 2000. (POSSIBLY.) But nowadays it reminds me a lot of some of the more horrid MySpace personalizations one used to see in abundance. The content itself is solid for the most part (there's some parts of the English section that seem stilted and broken), but it's not organized very well.
Overall, their web portal is as much a disaster as their in-game representatives and responses are immaculate. So much so that it drags down the score of the whole group, which is a shame. But if Ryzom has a fatal flaw, it's got to be its web service. Sorry, Winch Gate, but Americans simply aren't going to buy as many subscriptions as you'd like until better payment options are offered and a MUCH more professional-looking website is in place. Score:5/10, but only because the website is such a trainwreck
Bottom line? Ryzom is a top-notch game on Linux and certainly a solid free-to-play offering for other platforms. Gameplay is easy to learn while being complex enough to remain interesting. The player community overcomes its lack of size with its massive personality, and in-game customer service is nothing short of remarkable. The missions can get a little repetitive in certain spots and many of the good quests still need to be implemented, but overall there's more than enough to do and more than enough great company with whom to share the experience.
If you're into MMOs and don't want to fool with installing something in WINE, then give Ryzom a shot. You'll have quite a long time to decide if you want to subscribe – by which point hopefully Winch Gate will have constructed a suitable web portal with payment options more familiar to us Americans. Until then, Ryzom remains a great game on the cusp of Linux gaming excellence.
Overall Score: 7.9/10
| Possibly the best playerbase on the 'Net
Near-complete freedom to shape your character the way YOU want
Runs very well in Ubuntu (tested with 11.10)
Completely free-to-play until level one hundred twenty-freakin'-five
The ability to craft your own firearms for which to shoot gingos in the face
| The support website looks like it needs to be in a museum
Relative lack of story-driven quests
Game world can get a ghost-town feel sometimes
Not a game for those valuing eye candy above all else
A *SMALL* handful of players can be real jacktards concerning use of in-game chat channels