With an increasingly crowded games market, it’s all about finding your particular niche. Why go after the first person shooter market when you’ll just butt heads with CoD or BF3? Whilst fantasy MMORPGs are still dominated by World of Warcraft, games like Guild Wars 2 still put in a strong showing. Finding your niche is all important, and with Age of Wulin I think we might have something really rather fresh.
That something is a free-to-play Wuxia MMORPG set in ancient China. For those who don’t know what Wuxia is, it’s from the same stable of flying, gravity defying martial arts as films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.
Set in 14th Century China, every aspect of the game has this authentic twist to it which brings it back logically to the setting and genre. As you set off on your first adventure, AoW’s equivalent to quests, you fall down into a cave and awake trapped. Your only course of action is to study a book to learn some of the basic Qinggong skills to allow you to double jump.
That’s the gravity defying stuff, and learning further Qinggong is what will lead you to eventually being able to run on water and balance on the tip of a tree branch. Learning it from a book isn’t just something that you do at the start of the game though, it’s how you learn every skill in the game. Even this simple twist on the skills and abilities system is fairly unique and fresh. Knowledge is power, and knowledge resides in books, so it only makes sense that you acquire books to learn new tricks, and can also pass those books on to other people to give them the same skills.[drop2]
Similarly, in order to level up your skills you can either have to sit and meditate in real time, or via the passive levelling up granted to you from just playing the game. Meditation is a fair bit faster but you can additionally visit some Feng Shui pleasing locations, such as a waterfall or temple, which give you a bonus to your rate of progress whilst you’re there.
All of this takes place in an recreation of huge swathes of China from the 14th Century. You can visit many of the landmarks of the period, such as historical Beijing, the original Shaolin temple, the Great Wall of China and Suzhou, the developers’ home city. They even recreated their favourite pub in the game, so I expect plenty people will be searching that one out at some point!
It’s also really rather pretty to look at. The graphics engine should be pretty scalable to allow for lower end machines going back a good 4 or 5 years, but if you can turn the settings up it’s quite something. Walking around the scenery stretches well off into the distance, buildings have a fairly intricate level of detail, and the game can support quite a hubbub of characters in one place. There’s a lot of variety added by the huge scope of the world, from deserts to hills and dense woodland, all depicted with a kind of stylised realism which feels true to the Wuxia roots.
All of the adventures that you’ll undertake are delivered in a narrative centric format, and the section I had the chance to play saw me going about my duties for a tea shop, when I came across an old man being beaten for trying to stop thugs take his daughter off to work in a brothel. Honourable chap that I am, I set off on a twisting plot to get an audience with the girl and rescue her; reclaiming debts, fighting goons, and so forth. I’d barely just rescued the girl when I rolled into the next little adventure, which saw me team up with another player to bust chops and right a wrong done to a local business.
None of this would any fun if the combat wasn’t suitable, and it works really quite well. It’s miles away from a fighter or a beat ‘em up and much more akin to other RPGs with attack cool downs and the like, but there can be a nice balletic aesthetic to a lot of the moves, and it feels well rooted in the genre.
There’s also the nifty ability to block and counter some attacks. The boss character encountered in my co-operative quest had a wide area attack which kept knocking me for six, but if I’d been a bit sharper and spotted the visual cues I’d have been able to jump and dodge the attack. I can see this adding a more visually pleasing and fluid sense to the combat, especially as players level up their Qinggong skills and dig deeper into the game.
Your particular fighting style is defined by which of the eight sects you choose to join. This is the rough equivalent to picking a class, but it all has a more martial arts stance, tied together with a strict loyalty to your sect versus the others. The Shaolin favour combat at arms length, with their telltale quarter-staffs, whilst the Wudang prefer to use double swords. However it’s not all good guys, there’s are also the Blissful Valley who are more cunning and stealthy in their business for example.
As a sect member you’ll often have duties and loyalties to keep up with as you try and rise through the ranks. At the home temple of each sect you get missions and quests, which could be anything from performing guard duty to infiltrating a rival sects’ temple and stealing secrets. You can also move up through the ranks via PvP combat, and one day you could even contend for the job of being overall sect leader. Be prepared for some campaigning in the 14th Century equivalent of Ohio to get the popular vote.[drop]
On the other hand, break the rules and you’ll earn minus points to your name. For example, the Shaolin must always wear their particular uniform, and not doing so gets you docked points. The various infractions may slow your progress, and you’ll want to work off as soon as you can, but there are also a few ways to get yourself thrown in prison. It will be in actual game time, but that won’t necessarily stop you from meditating and improving skills, or planning your post-jail life with fellow convicts.
There are 17 professions to choose from, such as being a blacksmith, tailor, policeman, or even begging (and there’s a beggar’s sect). Each has a particular purpose and progression all of their own, completely aside from your work for your sect. So you might start off as a waiter on your path to becoming a chef, and play little mini-games to level up.
What’s quite intriguing is what happens when you log off from AoW. Your character then becomes an NPC within the world, and goes about working in whatever monotonous job you picked for yourself. Naturally, this means that the character is unattended, and leads to one of the more amusing bits of gameplay I saw. Particularly devious players can just walk up to a logged-off NPC, sedate them, bundle them in a bag and sell them to slavers!
You can earn quite a bit of money from this, but it will go down as a black mark against your name and a whole bunch of minus points on your sect reputation, so it’s probably not a good idea to do this too often. On top of that, if someone spots you wandering around with a person in a bag, they can intervene, beat up the would-be kidnapper and free the NPC… or pick the bag up and go and get the money for themselves!
Don’t worry though, an enslaved player can fairly easily work off the de-buff which they get from being slaved, and eventually the kidnappers should see the long arm of the law cracking down on them with bounties put against their name, and policemen keeping a watchful eye. Unless it’s a policeman that’s offline, and his NPC gets kidnapped whilst walking his beat.
No MMO would be complete without a guild system, and Age of Wulin isn’t shying away from pushing boundaries here either. Guilds can grow up to 600 live players, which is pretty huge. You’ll have to engage in some similar activities to your sect duties, so there will be patrolling, sniffing out spies and even raiding other guilds. If you do so, you’d best bring all your friends along, and thankfully the game supports having well over a thousand players battling it out for supremacy.
There’s a lot to talk about with this game, as with any MMORPG, but being a free-to-play title there’s that “pay-to-win” elephant in the room. Unsurprisingly there won’t be a way to “pay-to-win” and rather than affecting the combat with super weapons, these paid elements are aimed at comfort and vanity.
Don’t like travelling around in real time by stage coach? Buy a horse. With a lot of the game playing out in real time, that should be quite a draw for people with bursting wallets. You can, of course, earn a horse in game, but if you pony up the cash then you can get a better looking horse.
There are a lot of layers to enjoy in Age of Wulin, and I think that the Wuxia angle to proceedings has been really nicely handled. It’s clear how it permeates every aspect from combat to levelling and the narrative focus to the questing. This mix of invention around MMORPG mechanics should hopefully find a nice following in both Europe and China.
Age of Wulin is currently ramping up its beta testing for the European localisations of the game, (the build I played had a lot of hilariously wrong translations, but they’re racing to fix them) with a wider open beta set for early 2013. There are quite a few ways to get in early, so if you fancy it head over to their site and look on their forums, where you’ll also be able to catch a lot more details about the game.