| Free to play
Permadeath staves off complacency
The targeting stays put except...
| Ho-hum plot and dialog
Unwieldy camera controls
It was a bad start. After much hype, Wizardry Online went live on a Wednesday, but it was Saturday before I could reliably even get into the game, let alone play it. SOE made, in my opinion, a series of missteps, not the least of which was a barely publicised, five hour maintenance lock-out right in the middle of their launch day. While connection issues had somewhat improved by the weekend, they hadn’t been (and have yet to be) corrected entirely. The threat of an unpredictable connection time, as of this writing, still looms.
The overall look isn’t bad, but it’s not much to write home about either. While I was pleased to see both female characters with some physical heft and male characters that look like they worked for their muscle, the limited customization was pretty disappointing. This means that customization only matters if you’re close up to a character, as most members of any particular race/gender look pretty much the same from a distance. More than once I’ve seen my own double run past.
Moreover, the game’s overall muted color scheme underwhelmed me. Everything from the landscape to the lighting to the people is tinted in a sort of aged broccoli overcast that had me longing for a Dorothy-arrives-in-Oz Technicolor makeover. Even a small change would do, anything to better distinguish the NPCs from the background. The music is pleasant enough, but during longer connections/loads, the short loop can, over time, become a little tedious.
When I finally got in to play, the first thing I noticed was the clunky camera-to-movement controls. Once again, we have a game wherein the camera doesn’t automatically follow behind your character, necessitating a coordinated left/right hand effort to keep it there manually, or risk running into things. While I’m perfectly comfortable moving with the W,A,S,D keys while steering with the mouse, I’m not comfortable fighting to keep the camera in place while I do it. Having to fight that constant battle not only adds a needless level of frustration to gameplay, it makes motion sickness not so much a possibility as a certainty. I don’t think I can overstate how distracting/nauseating an unlocked, non-tracking camera can be, or how much the game would be improved if that alone were corrected. Not only that, but something about the interface made it necessary sometimes to click an item (or press a key) two or three times before the game would respond. More than once, that lack of game response was the death of me. Talk about adding unnecessary difficulty.
A big mistake I made was in overestimating the narrative. During the trial, (where you learn about battle and dying and all that) there’s a plaque that tells you that only one of the corridors you face has traps in it. When you look, two corridors are clear, (but for a monster or two) while the third looks like an assassin’s playground. I assumed this must be a trick. I figured that the other corridors only looked safe, but were really full of traps. I mean, it seemed obvious, right? In a game that’s supposed to really challenge players, why would the devs spell things out so blandly? I chose the dangerous looking corridor and was dead two steps in.
I tried both a fighter and a mage. The first was pretty straightforward, but the second had some issues. If you run out of magic points, forget it. Both your staff and your little mage knife do puny damage, so don’t expect any help there. Until you can collect sufficient gold to visit a merchant and buy their stupidly overpriced weapons, it’s best to not let the monsters get near you in battle. That’s easier said than done though, because most close in quickly and do a lot of damage.
The idea of having a single soul for a bank of characters is a new one on me. It’s an interesting idea and allows certain experiences of one to be applied to all, (for example: you only need to go through the initial trial once, rather than with each character) and I certainly approve of removing tedious repetition from any game. However, since you can’t repeat the initial training dungeon with secondary characters, you get no chance to practice with different classes before venturing out into the actual game world. You also don’t get the gold and exp head start that going through the training dungeon gives.
Speaking of levelling up, in WO, depending on your class, some of your stats may go down as you gain levels. I have no idea what purpose my fighter getting stupid is supposed to serve, but I don’t like it.
I really like the idea of an eventual permadeath; a final, oops-you-blew-it-one-too-many-times point of no return. But I don’t know that it really works here, especially since you can basically bribe death with some of your inventory, to help better your chances at resurrection.
While the game talks about cooperation and has plenty of situations that absolutely require grouping, the overall atmosphere doesn’t encourage it. If you die and another player (or your own team) finds your body before you get back to a rez point, they can steal everything you have. The only items safe from theft are those you buy from the cash shop. That coupled with the fact that it’s a pretty hard slog to earn enough gold to buy decent equipment, especially early on, really gives the advantage to those willing (not to mention able) to shell out real money.
I was disappointed at the almost total lack of voiceovers, save for the odd sigh or grunt, there are none. The intro in particular was made tedious by being full of the plot expositional text and made-up place names. The whole thing was pretty anime-fantasy generic and I remember almost none of it.
A few details stood out in a good way; for example, the little resurrection cut scene is visually and musically pretty cool. Unfortunately, having the words, “chant, chant, chant, pray, pray, pray, invoke, invoke invoke” float across the scene is completely laughable. It ruins an otherwise effective and immersive moment.
I have difficulty with imports that don’t seem to have quite done their homework. The dialogue translations, while technically correct, were still pretty stilted and made all the more so during cut scenes when the text appears at a slow crawl across the screen. And while the “Kingdom of Dimento” might be an unremarkable place name in any other language, in English it’s going to generate some unintentional giggles. (Demented + pimento = Dimento, which is how I will forever think of it.)
In a console game, imported idioms and idiosyncrasies can not only be seen as forgivable, but even endearing outside its country of origin, but an MMO is another creature altogether. For an MMO to thrive, some concessions must be made to the broader local norms of players, server by server. I’m not saying rewrite the whole thing location by location, but a few tweaks would go a long way. One would think a company like Sony would have understood that.
It’s hard to say just how much staying power WO will have. While there are certainly some tricky issues, with a few corrections, (the camera/movement controls, seriously guys) I think this game might be able to go the distance. Even with the steeper learning curve, the built-in necessity for grinding, and the advantages given to those with cash shop items.
There’s a bog-standard chat system in place, but do we really need emote buttons in the UI? Like, just above the battle buttons? Look, I like to mix things up. I’m wacky like that. Sometimes I use the corresponding number keys for my attacks, sometimes I use a mouse-click, and dying because I accidentally hit “wave” instead of “shield bash” would be infuriating. (Though I admit, it would be hilarious in a Let’s Play video.)
Free is free, and for some that’s enough. My time is valuable, however, and from that perspective this game was too expensive to play for long. The unpredictably extended loadtimes alone were a pretty big price to pay for a game that already requires a good deal of time to learn, let alone master.
Sometimes getting in would only take a minute or two, but at least one time I waited the better part of an hour only to be unceremoniously punted from the server at the end.
When the opening credits for a game are more dramatic and compelling than the game itself, that’s a problem. With a company as large and well known as SOE, I have certain expectations, few of which were met in this game. Maybe they’ll improve WO in time with the help of developer Gamepot. They certainly seem to be working on it. Unfortunately, I’m just not inclined to wait around to find out.