There was a time when I was mildly obsessed with Hong Kong martial arts films, admiring the skill and athleticism of artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li in movies such as "The Young Master" (1980) and "Fong Sai-yuk II" (1993). Years later, I've become happily ensconced in the world of Japanese martial arts, but still hold a certain fondness for films, games, and other media that draw upon Chinese wuxia and martial traditions.
Age of Wushu feels like a love letter written to fans of the wuxia genre, and although the game is still in beta, two things about Snail Games' upcoming MMORPG have already become clear: that the game is one of the most feature-rich sandbox experiences on the market, and that it needs a good deal of polish before release. I've been playing a lot more of the beta since my first impressions a few weeks ago, and have several new thoughts about the game that are worth sharing as we lead up to launch.
There is a staggering number of different game systems at work in Age of Wushu. Along with the expected -- if evolved -- ones that pertain to the game's combat, crafting, quests, guilds, achievements, progression, PvP, and trading, there are also several innovative social and task systems that are part and parcel of Age of Wushu's overall sandbox experience. Most of these systems overlap in some way, and lend to the feeling that your character can go anywhere and be anything in Age of Wushu, although several issues exist that make the game feel like a disjointed collection of parts rather than a coherent gestalt.
Let's start with the stuff that's most familiar. Like most MMORPGs, Age of Wushu features different kinds of quests and tasks, which include story and side quests, missions and daily events, and a separate "gossip" system. The story and side quests are mostly standard MMO fare, but do tend to paint a nice picture of the world and lore behind Age of Wushu, with cinematic sequences and key characters that spice up the experience. There's a whole host of missions to tackle, which range from daily events to guild and faction tasks, with no shortage of things to do if you get bored with quests. Additionally, as you speak to NPCs around town, you can pick up gossip that gets stored in your quest tracker, and can lead you to other secrets and tasks to accomplish.
Although Age of Wushu has a full feature set outside of its combat system, many quests and tasks will require you to tango with some of the game's more unseemly denizens. Combat, as I wrote about in my earlier preview, is based on a rock-paper-scissors system of "overt," "block," and "feint" moves. Overt moves are your attack techniques that can be avoided by a timed block, while an appropriately executed feint can bring down a blocking opponent's guard. It's an initially simple system that provides for a lot of depth when you take into account just how many combat skills there are to acquire in Age of Wushu, as well as the strategies that such diversity affords. To be fair, I haven't found much use for all of my character's various skills just yet, and have been spamming attack and feint skills to build up my rage meter to perform cinematic combo attacks.
The process of developing new skills is where things start to move off the beaten path. You'll obtain books from quests, your "school" faction, and other tasks, which allow you to add skills to your repertoire. You'll still be a novice at those skills, though, and will have to convert the experience that you get from quests, combat, and other tasks to level them up. This conversion process is called "cultivation," for which there are three types: "internal cultivation," "practice martial arts," and "team practice." Internal cultivation is the basic form of converting experience into cultivation points, which happens at a passive set rate. You can assign one skill at a time to level up with internal cultivation, or instead choose "practice martial arts" to spend in-game items and speed up this process. You can also utilize "team practice" mode to cultivate skills in tandem with group members. Notably, only seventy percent of your experience points as a non-VIP player can be converted into cultivation points, while the other thirty percent will be stored as "potential cultivation" that is unlockable through spending gold.
Age of Wushu's offline function also incorporates cultivation, alongside a bunch of other interesting features. While offline, all players receive rewards in the forms of experience, cultivation points, renewed HP, and more, and have the potential to become in-game NPC workers. This means that while you're offline, your character will be roaming the village as a busker, beggar, gambling house assistant, or member of some other profession, earning you related items that will appear when you get back into the game. VIP subscriber members can also set up shop stalls and continue to cultivate their skills while offline. Beware that other players can "kidnap" your NPC character too, which will result in a reduction of offline profession options until you play the game for an additional amount of time or pay the requisite ransom fee.
Kidnapping player NPCs is not only a jerk move; it's also a good way to get into Age of Wushu's extensive social scene. Even in its beta stages, Snail Games' MMO encourages open player-vs-player combat, group quests, instances, guilds, and most intriguingly, factional warfare. Beyond the basic open world PvP and group content that you'd expect from an MMORPG, Age of Wushu's faction system provides a great amount of depth in terms of allegiance and intrigue. There are eight schools from which to choose, and each of these schools specialize in different forms of combat, from melee and ranged DPS to stuns, group damage, and healing. Although you'll be primarily focused on your own faction's style of combat, you can still obtain skills from other schools somehow, although I haven’t yet seen how this is accomplished. More interestingly, your school allegiance forms the core of your faction experience, which includes out-and-out school wars, spying on other schools, and jockeying for position in your own faction's political hierarchy.
It must be said that while each of these features that I've discussed so far seem to work and have a lot of potential, the game still has quite a ways to go to become greater than the sum of its disparate parts, and more polished besides. Although the factional and school stuff is very intriguing, for example, it nonetheless feels unrelated to the game's story content outside of early tutorial quests. This may change deeper in the game, but at least at this point, Age of Wushu feels like it has a lot of stuff to do without a centralized core experience that integrates all of the distinct game systems.
This lack of centralization may be due to the game's deficient localization, user interface, and general polish, which all need work before the game's release. Age of Wushu's early tutorial quests do their best to introduce you to the different game systems, and there's also a novice guide and in-game information database, but each of these features is either poorly written or bereft of the context necessary to be helpful. Suffice it to say that I've now played hours upon hours of Age of Wushu and feel competent at the game only through experimentation and reading what few commentaries exist about the game online. As more people play, I'm sure that guides and wikis will pop up that will help ameliorate the new user experience, but this task should rest squarely on the developers' shoulders, not those of the community.
The UI and lack of general polish also mar what would otherwise be a spectacular graphical presentation. Age of Wushu's environments are nothing short of stunning, with lovely, calming background music and dynamic, if sometimes stiff, combat animations. There's a staggering amount of detail in the game's open world, from vivid colors and carefully crafted architecture, to the way that plants and NPCs will sway and react to you as you speed past them. That's why Age of Wushu's collection of bland menus and incongruent user interfaces are such a blemish on the game. The school faction menu, for instance, looks mostly similar to the eyesore that is the guild information interface, but neither of these has the same graphical presentation as the martial arts skill book. Furthermore, none of these menus looks anything like the "My Jianghu" area, which details your character's profile in the greater world of Age of Wushu. This disparity engenders the possibly unfounded feeling that the game's systems were created by different teams, and adds to the disjointed experience.
The one thing that the different parts of the UI share with each other and the game in general is their insufficient localization and polish. As I've mentioned previously, most of the text is either poorly translated or doesn't wrap properly, and could use a more appealing and consistent font choice. In the case of in-game cinematics, which are generally nice-looking, the text is presented in the bottom corner so unobtrusively that you're likely to forget that it exists, and is sometimes paced awkwardly in relation to the action. Furthermore, while the game uses an interesting temporary phasing technique when you have to fight NPCs in the open world, you'll often find major story characters in locations where they shouldn't be in the course of your quests. You might, for example, go off the road to explore a building and find a story NPC, whom you just talked to in the main village and whom you shouldn't see again for another couple of quests, but just happened upon accidentally. I understand that there may be development reasons for this choice, but with the presence of phasing-type design in other places, it just feels anachronistic.
It may seem like I'm being overly harsh on the UI and polish for a game that's in beta, but these aspects are integral to the game experience, and if not addressed, have the potential to turn people away from an otherwise fun and well-designed MMORPG. A stellar tutorial experience, with proper localization and a thematically consistent user interface, could go a long way towards countering that feeling of de-centralization that the game's diverse systems seem to produce. Moreover, while this article isn't a review of the game, Age of Wushu is already taking money, and I'd like to give you some ideas of what to expect from the beta experience if you're considering shelling out some cash.
Stay tuned as we'll talk more about Age of Wushu's crafting, PvP, teleportation and trade systems, character profiles, item shop, and more in our next installment of beta impressions!
You can follow Som on Twitter and tell him that Fong Sai-yuk I is better than II @sominator.