Although there's no shortage of massively-multiplayer online titles these days, Snail Games are hoping to draw in scores of new players with its new take on a traditional theme.
Set during China's Ming dynasty, and centred upon the expansive and ever-popular wuxia fantasy, Age of Wushu features a classless permanent PvP sandbox environment with a large PvE component. Much like real martial arts, character progression is achieved with complex sets of skills requiring substantial training and research to master, all of which is presented by an able game engine that manages to render the medieval environment with pleasing depth and attention to detail.
As can be expected from most Asian MMO titles, the landscapes and colour palettes in particular have had attention lavished upon them, with predictably pretty results. Waterways shimmer, flowers and plants sway realistically and ornately decorated townships are anything but dull.
It's a little more challenging to convey precisely how the game should be played, as most of the tutorials and tooltips are seriously lacking in clarity. The translation team employed by the Chinese developer appears to have given up at some point early in the process, as there's still extensive use of Chinese characters in lieu of English, and it's often necessary to do quite a bit of research online before making decisions around skill allocation.
The game may be still in beta, but the sheer complexity of the combat model can be overwhelming at times. Age of Wushu is a martial arts game, so anyone coming into the game hoping to spam a few fireballs and receive epic loot will likely quit after experiencing the technical and frequently tricky combat. Certainly those raised on World of Warcraft will slink back to Azeroth faster than they did after attempting The Secret World, and that's saying something.
As with most titles of this nature, players can progress through a multitude of quests, as well as daily events and activities such as painting, fishing and harvesting. There’s no shortage of content at all, and provided interaction is maintained with other players, most of the items required to progress can be acquired, even if some items require a ludicrous amount of time to find.
But unfortunately – and perhaps most troubling of all – is that Age of Wushu comes saddled with a free-to-play model supported by microtransactions. Players can contribute their own real-life funds towards advancing skills and purchasing new equipment, and although most who do this are likely in it for the PvP supremacy (as most of the PvE content isn’t quite as dependent on pouring money into the game) this is an active PvP world, meaning that sooner or later you’ll be ganked by someone with a bigger wallet.
In addition, and rather bafflingly, some items available for purchase have a limited shelf life, placing players in the unenviable position of losing their virtual purchases after a period of time. This isn’t even limited to game time – log out for any period and the countdown timer continues. Quite how this is able to encourage patronage rather than absolute derision in the eyes of gamers is a mystery.
Snail Games would do well to remember that this kind of pay-to-win model is something Western gamers have never tolerated from their MMOs.
Despite the obvious and numerous problems, it is wonderful to see a title so rich with possibility, and clearly one that has a keen development studio behind it, not to mention an active fanbase. It is important however for newcomers to approach this title carefully, with limited expectations, a truckload of spare time and the patience of a kung-fu master.
Certainly, Age of Wushu has the kind of expansive, colourful lore so necessary in this genre – it's also pretty and engaging – but without serious attention to the often baffling combat system, loose translations and frustratingly one-sided transaction model, it's unlikely that the North American hordes currently raiding in other MMO titles will last very long with it after its launch on April 10.