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Sandbox Done Right

Robin Baird Posted:
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Albion Online bills itself as a sandbox MMO where players can write their own story, and for the most part this is an accurate description. Everyone starts off the same; in their underwear with no possessions at all. There's the barest bit of a tutorial to show off the basics of the systems and how everything works, and then you are off to find your own adventure.

One of the first experiences in any MMO is creating a character and often these days the options presented can be quite daunting. This isn't the case with Albion, there's very basic options of what sex, hairstyle, hair color, and skin tone and that's about it. There's no different races to choose from or any fancy body settings to figure out. Just a limited set of options to get your character together. Which works well in the framework of the game. All the player characters are people who have set out from their home in search of a new land to call home.

Which brings me to the first part of Albion which was highly amusing to me... everyone starts off in naught but their smallclothes. Apparently while getting shipwrecked all your cloths and any gear you might have had is lost in the sea. My first reaction to this was utter confusion because I can't remember ever starting a MMO is such a sorry state, but Albion worked this into a brilliant tutorial. The barebones tutorial quickly taught me the basics of how to gather resources and craft gear. Aside from that, the tutorial system just pointed me towards areas to explore and adventure which really helped keep me from feeling lost as I often do in sandbox games.

One of the first issues I ran into was the resources are shared amongst all the players in an area which means competition for these can be quite stiff sometimes. Thankfully they do have a pretty quick respawn rate. One thing to note about this though is they come back slowly over time. For example, if a resource has a total of nine bits in it when it first respawns it will only have three. Not long after it will have six, and then after a bit again it will be full at nine. This not only helps to maintain some amount of rarity in resources but also isn't overly punishing. The huge competition for resources will probably ease up a bit over time as people move further into the game and the population spreads out a bit more.

Instead of a straight leveling system there are different tiers of resources and gear which must be unlocked by earning fame (essentially experience points). While the lowest tiers are quick to progress through the higher ones require a lot more fame to unlock. Unlocking these higher tiers is where Albion falters slightly as the grind can really be sort of grating. However, the grind is necessary for the long-term health of the game. The market is player driven and if it were too easy to learn how to do all the things it would crash and burn. With this set-up players can try various things out easily and then choose to specialize in whatever they want.

Albion Online has a bit of a reputation as being a hardcore game and this is partly due to the fact players can kill each other and when you die you drop everything you had on you. As I previously mentioned I was surprised to learn this even includes items which have been bought with real money from the site or cash shop. However, this helps to balance the game between players who spend money and those who don't by giving the later a way to directly get the items through gameplay. It will take a bit to see how well this system works for balancing things between players, but it is a smart system.

I was also hesitant about how PvP would work in game because it isn’t a game mode I generally seek out. Albion turned out to not be the crazy Wild West type of game I imagined. There are a variety of zone types in the world of Albion where PvP is either not allowed, optional, or a total free for all. However, the bigger risks yield the biggest rewards and if you want to have access to the best things without buying them off the market you'll need to venture into some dangerous territory. Another option is also to team up with people (be it friends, guildmates, or random people you are paying in some form) to protect you while you're out in the dangerous areas. As with every other aspect of Albion there's a lot of options depending on what it is you want to do and what your personal interests are.

One thing Albion does a brilliant job of is adequately warning you of the various aspects a player might not be aware of without a warning. There's no way anyone should find themselves in a PvP area without warning if you don't turn these warnings off and read them. Having played some other sandbox games where I often felt thrown out to the deep end, all the communication in game was spectacular at helping me to find my footing and figure out what I wanted to do.

One big thing to note is there aren't exactly classes in Albion. All abilities are determined by what gear you choose to wear and different gear types have different abilities available. This is one of my favorite aspects of the game because I've never really encountered an ability system quite like this before. There's three standard armor types: cloth, leather, and mail/plate. The abilities tied to each can be related to what most people would recognize as a wizard, rogue, or warrior. Again, there aren't really classes I'm just relating them to similar things to give a general idea about how all of this works out.

When a piece of gear is equipped the player is given the option to choose which abilities they want to activate from it. Higher tier gear has more options than lower tier and is one of the big reasons getting higher tier gear is handy. My favorite aspect of this is I could change things up any time I was out of combat. For example, when I was running around by myself I found it most useful to just take all the straight damage dealing abilities. However, when I was running around with a friend I found switching to having a taunt ability was more useful. It's this variability in playstyle I find to be the most interesting aspect of Albion so far.

Another big aspect of Albion Online is a MMO experience without many of the "conveniences" of most modern MMOs. For example, there is a bank in the towns where you can leave anything you don't want to carry around with you. However, the banks are local only and if you travel to a new town you'll find an empty bank instead of your stuff waiting for you. There are also local only quests. For example, every starter town will give you a quest which results in acquiring a mount, but you must turn it in to a specific guy in that town. Even though the quests are essentially identical (buy an item from the market give to guy) you can't travel to a different town to finish it off.

Carrying capacity is also a huge part of the game and something I really had to force myself to pay attention to when I gathering resources. If you try to carry too much stuff then your movement speed will slow substantially which can be a real problem in PvP areas. Mounts do increase your carrying capacity (different mount types help in various ways) but when you dismount there's an area you must stay in or else you lose the buff from your mount. As an example, I was riding around on my mount and at 63% of my capacity. When I wandered too far away from my mount that jumped up to 234% and I was literally moving at a snail's pace at that point.

There have been server issues throughout the first few weeks, some of which has been caused by the launch of Albion Online far exceeding expectations. This has caused some server outages and there is daily maintenance happening to try and address these issues. Add to this the latest round of DDoS attacks and logging into the game can be quite frustrating sometimes. Fortunately Sandbox Interactive does seem to be working hard to address these issues and has granted players a week of premium account status to compensate. Hopefully these issues settle soon because maintaining a healthy pool of active players is (obviously) the lifeblood of any MMO and it's especially important for sandbox MMOs.

Overall, I had a lot more fun in Albion Online than I would have expected because I generally don't enjoy sandbox games a whole lot. They seem to have struck a wonderful balance between pointing player towards activities and letting them wander and find adventures on their own. A lot of players can be turned off at the idea of losing their things on death but I'd say to not let it bother you too much since you can either avoid PvP or ease yourself into it. For anyone who is looking for an old school MMO Albion Online is a perfect fit.

8.0 Great
  • Huge, interesting world
  • Player-driven economy
  • Short but thorough tutorial
  • Leveling in higher tears is grindy
  • Server issues


Robin Baird

Robin loves RPGs, MMOs, JRPGs, Action, and Adventure games... also puzzle games... and platformers... and exploration games... there are very few games she isn't interested in. When it comes to MMOs she focuses on WoW and GW2 but will pick-up other games as they catch her fancy. She's a habitual returner to FFXIV because that game is an all-around great MMO.