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Hands-On with Snail's Steampunk MMO

Neilie Johnson Posted:
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Upon hearing about Black Gold Online, I immediately thought of the Syfy channel show “Opposite Worlds”. The show's premise pits two teams of people against one another—one team equipped with futuristic technology and the other with the trappings of the past. Black Gold Online has a similar premise. On a world split by a giant mountain range, two distinct cultures evolve: a Steampunk society that values technology and a tribal society that values sacred magic. Inevitably, they clash. It's an intriguing idea that serves as the foundation for what could be a very compelling PvP-oriented MMO.

Last week, I met with developer Snail Games so Community Manager Kevin Doyle could take me through the game. He explained that the “black gold” in Black Gold Online refers to the main resource of the divided continent of Montel. A rare energy crystal, it's considered a sacred source of magical power by the spiritual Erlandir faction, and as a valuable fuel source by the more practical Isenhorst. In gameplay terms, it's also used for crafting, and as currency. Unfortunately, the supply of black gold is dwindling, and this escalates the friction between Montel's two opposing sides. 

From what Doyle showed me, the aesthetics of the two factions make their philosophical differences clear. The Erlandir (made up of the humanoid Aurek, Yuton and Kosh) have a primitive high-fantasy sort of look that combines totemic Mayan or Pacific Islander-like wearables with items that would fit right into the Lord of the Rings. The Isenhorst (made up of the human Buvont, the dwarven Lokemean and the vampiric Upryian) on the other hand, exhibit a decidedly Victorian aspect and wear things like corsets, collared shirts and bowler hats. The two cultures' architecture reflects these distinct aesthetic preferences, with Erlandir cities made up of vaguely Mayan forms and Isenhorst burgs characterized by Victorian stone and brick.

Each race has its own starting area and the vast continent suggests there'll be plenty of PvE content to explore. The point of the game however, is open-world PvP, and the center of the map is where most of it takes place. Though there are twelve classes—Punisher, Assassin, Spectromancer, Occultist, Gunslinger, Dark Priest, Blademaster, Spellsword, Pyromancer, Geomancer, Beastmaster and Skycaller—each class will have access to melee, ranged and area effect abilities depending on the gear it has equipped.

During the demo, I was allowed to try a Kosh Spellsword in a brief two-on-two battle. The Kosh are an elegant people, vaguely elven, and my guy was decked out somewhat Final Fantasy-style. Doyle and I set out on a couple of dragonish mounts (called “Personal Carriers) to take on a couple of Isenhorst opponents. My mount allowed me a primary crossbow attack, a secondary wing-spinning melee attack, and enabled me to fight in third person view, first-person view or sniper view. Controls were easy: WASD to move and space/shift to go up and down. I was told Personal Carriers can be summoned at any time and (almost) anywhere and can be used for transport, for open-world combat or in organized 25 v 25 battles.

Mounts are one my favorite things about MMOs and the mounts in Black Gold Online reinforce the feeling. Not only can you have multiple Personal Carriers, you can also upgrade them up to level 7 by finding manuals (or training badges, if you're Erlandir). Unlike other MMOs, mounts must be maintained, fueled and repaired, and if they're killed more than once, must be bought all over again. Mounts come in five varieties: Aerial, Anti-Air, Assault, Raid and Siege and work against one another in a rock, paper, scissors kind of arrangement. Some have shields, others have bombs, still others can summon little creatures or 'bots to help them out—though I'm a bit wary of how often I'll have to re-buy them, I'll admit they (the mechanical ones in particular) look pretty cool.

Anyway, our two-on-two battle played out twice and consisted of a mounted phase and an on-foot phase. The mounted phase made me feel pretty powerful (though that could have totally been orchestrated to make me feel good) and was easier to contend with than the ground combat portion. Combat in Black Gold Online is action-based, meaning you can't auto-target an enemy and spam attacks at it one-handed. Once I hopped off my mount, I had a heck of a time chasing my opponent around, mousing frantically so my cross hairs would align with him and my melee attacks wouldn't go wild. The game allows for dodging and gives attack bonuses for attacking from behind; this made the whole exchange a dizzying affair that convinced me ranged is the only way to go.

After our brief little skirmish, Doyle talked about the game's Slaughter Mode which is a kind of toggleable open-world PvP that allows you to “turn into a jerk and kill basically anybody” above level 16. That kind of behavior doesn't appeal to me personally, and I was happy to hear that anyone who engages in it will have to accept the consequences. Killing raises your Wanted value and makes NPCs unfriendly—make it go high enough, and it can even cause you to be killed and taken to jail. The jail mechanic was a little bit sketchy to me, but as Doyle described it, you're kept there until your Wanted value drops sufficiently. (While you wait, you apparently have unrealistic missions you're asked to perform such as “kill 6,000 boars,” but you don't actually have to do them. We'll see how players enjoy the idea.)

More interesting than Slaughter Mode to me was talk of the game's Chambers of Greed. These represent open-world dungeons that anyone can enter or leave, depending on whether they can locate the dungeons' hidden doors. There are no consequences to doing the Chambers and you can do them either solo or in a group. Grouping could be a good idea since the Chambers are said to be full of booby traps, lethal mobs hidden by thick fog of war, and formidable bosses, however grouping brings with it the distinct possibility of losing all your hard-won loot to unethical group members. Still, the risk could be worth it since the Chambers contain specific item drops, the details of which Snail Games wasn't yet ready to divulge.

Other opportunities for fun rewards come in the form of randomly-appearing open-world instances called Outbreaks. These events might require you to do things like defend areas or collect resources and will reward you in valor points which can be exchanged for items sold by special merchants. You can also earn more significant rewards as the member of a guild by helping take and defend one of nine Energy Wells. These are scattered across the continent and grant their owners bonus black gold, access to special dungeons and merchants and exclusive high-level Personal Carriers. Once a week, the battle will rage between factions—with up to 100 people per side—for control of these Wells, and between battles, guilds within the controlling faction will duke it out to take personal ownership.

With black gold at the core of all this competition, I asked Doyle about crafting but he said Snail Games isn't quite ready to discuss it. All he would say is that every class crafts a specific resource and that the crafting system is designed to make all of the classes interdependent.

Even without details about crafting, Black Gold Online looks pretty interesting. Its aesthetic approach is unique and the mechanics on display at last week's demo: open-world PvP, Slaughter Mode, Chambers of Greed, Personal Carrier battles, Outbreaks and Energy Wells—indicate it could be a PvP-er's paradise. We'll find out when the game's closed beta begins May 15th, 2014.

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Neilie Johnson

Neilie Johnson / Neilie Johnson is a freelance contributor to MMORPG.com. She's been writing about games since 2005, developing games since 2002, and playing them since the dawn of time. OK not really, but she's pretty sure she's got controllers older than you. Witness her game-related OCD on Twitter @bmunchausen.