Before I begin, I should qualify this preview: I am not a fan of hard-core sandbox games. I find them too punishing and time-intensive, particularly for someone with only twenty or so hours a week to spend on playing games. Of course there are aspects of the genre that I find appealing, but for the most part I am a themepark, or modified themepark guy, so take my opinions with at least a grain of salt. And please don't hammer me too hard when I am wrong about something.
Last week, at E3, I had the opportunity to meet with Vladimir Piskunov, the CEO of Bitbox and see Life is Feudal, for the first time. My goal was to see just what features and systems were featured in this pure sandbox game. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be something of an understatement. Vladimir is incredibly polite and passion for this project just exudes from him. He is also a realist and pretty insightful about games, sandbox games in particular. He knows that currently sandboxes are a bit of a niche genre, albeit a growing one, with many entrants coming in the next year or two.
Having said that, Vladimir seems to be positioning Life is Feudal to be as competitive as any of the other up-and-comers, his list of design features is impeccable, a full graphical overhaul is currently underway, moving the game from DX 9 to DX 11, and many of the game's systems are now being set in place. I was fortunate enough to watch the game, as played by Bill, an enthusiast who has a great deal of in-game experience. While I observed his play over his shoulder, he kindly talked me through everything he was doing, explaining the systems as he went.
One of the things I realized, as he explained the layout and construction of his guild's fort to me, was that this game is not for the flighty or uncommitted. The humble fort he was showing me was the result of several weeks of combined game play from his whole guild. First, a good plot of land had to be obtained, then all the ground that was intended for the fort had to be leveled. Materials for the actual construction then had to be gathered. Then the walls had to be constructed and fit together properly. Then buildings of various size had to be placed within. All-in-all, it was easy to imagine the hundreds of man-hours required by these guys to build themselves a home they could use as their base for their feudal adventures.
We also touched a little on the combat and alignment system. Bill explained that most players used blunt weapons in combat, and me, being a bit of a smart-ass, jumped right in with “That's because blunt weapons do well against the plate armor that PVPers love, right?”. No, he told me, it's mostly because the players don't want to kill anyone. Blunt weapons allow for opponents to be knocked out, but left alive, without the fear of them bleeding out, that you might get from a piercing or slashing weapon. That's important because once you actually kill someone, you are a murderer, and you can never go back. Alignment is difficult to improve, but easy to lose, and the penalties associated with negative alignment can really make life difficult for the player. Upon dying a player immediately suffers skill point loss, and the amount of this loss is directly related to the players alignment score.
It's hard to say where Life is Feudal will fall in the upcoming flock of MMORPG-sandboxes; it's systems appear to be very well thought out and deep, it's graphics are certainly much improved, and the dedication and passion of its creator are very infectious. However, with the upcoming influx of new entries to this formerly niche genre competition is going to, no doubt, be stiff, and I can't wait to see how this plays out.