Do you like anime? Do you crave Kung-fu? Do you salivate over anything with "Naruto" in the title? If so, Zu Online might be a game for you. Zu Online is the latest free-to-play game to come from the Internet Gaming Gate (IGG), a prolific MMOG developer. It seems this crew launches a new MMO every month. What does that mean for the masses of players out there? Well ... good and bad news.
I decided to take a little tour of Zu Online by giving it a few hours of my time. What I found might surprise you.
In the beginning ...
After making an account at Zu Online's official site and downloading the 900+ mb installer, I was ready to get my Zu on. The intro movie covers the story behind Zu Online. To be honest, I have no idea what it was. It was the obligatory anime-inspired, convoluted tale of benevolent gods and malevolent demons all fighting for some ancient power and it just so happens that you, and a select few, have been chosen to participate in this epic conflict. Yeah. That about sums it up.
The first part of character creation asks that you pick a mascot. This is intriguing! I get a mascot? I picture a bevy of gorgeous beauties following me around with pom-poms cheering me on as I smite wicked and foul creatures. Alas, I get some strange flying worm thingy and I'm still not sure what he/she/it does. I can tell you want it doesn't do; cheer me on. Disappointing.
Next, we have to choose from the three factions of Zu Online: the Tai, Xun and Wu. Of course, when you pick one, the other two become your enemies or, as the website puts it, "the other two dimensions will become evil forces to disturb you from your inner training". That sounds pretty serious. I haven't even started and I have enemies trying to thwart my plans.
Now we get to pick our class, or as Zu Online calls it, our clan. We have five to choose from: Swordsman, Sun Warrior, Moonmaiden, Bead Fairy and Summoner. While the character creation doesn't have many options, it does have character. For example, there are different faces you can choose and each face is named. My favorite: the Haughty Swordsman! This means, you can make your avatar into a complete jerk before you even step foot in the game! This game is, however, true to the anime roots. While you'll only have a few faces and a few hair-styles to choose from, you can color your hair into any shade you like with the three color-sliders. Rad. I settled on a Hateful Summoner with spiky orange hair. I wonder if I'll get a Kamehameha spell?
The intro area gives us the obligatory tutorial windows showing us the control scheme. Here is where I found one of Zu Online's flaws. The controls are the typical W-S-A-D controls found almost everywhere. However, the A and D keys, normally for camera rotation, don't rotate the camera. The camera is controlled by a right-click and hold. So, if you want to go left, you have to turn the camera, not the avatar. If you don't turn the camera, your avatar will run lengthwise across the screen. However, even turning the camera does not change your avatar's direction. You have to tap the A or D keys to align your movement to the camera. Horrible? No. Clunky? Absolutely. You can also move by left-clicking on where you'd like to go. I've played other games with this mechanic, namely ArchLord, and I'm not a big fan of this kind of move mechanic. When you're trying to click around in your inventory screens or if you are trying to pick up some loot, be careful. You could send your dude running for the hills with an errant click of the mouse. It is an annoying mechanic that I would like to see go away. Let's move on.
We are transported to a newbie area where quests abound. However, these quests are more an exercise in patience and self-control than they are in enjoying the game. Many of the quests I obtained were "Go here and kill 5 creatures. Then go talk to the next guy." OK. What's next? "Go here and kill 7 creatures. Then talk to the next guy." Rinse and repeat. This goes on for quite some time, each quest asking you to dispatch more baddies than before and therefore pushing you down the trail to the next NPC on the map. I understand that this is a "newbie" area and its purpose is to serve as a learning zone but come on! A little variety wouldn't kill you. I stopped playing at level 24 and I was still doing the kill-X-monsters quests. Do you smell something? Oh, yes. That's my arse on the grinder!
At least the monsters are accommodating. They clump together in large groups making it easy to pick of ten or twelve without having to move. They must also really hate each other, probably due to the fact that they all look the same, because you can open fire on one without the other dozen really taking any notice. Oh, did I mention that they are lazy? They won't attack you unless you attack first. This comes in really handy for one aspect of Zu Online that, simply put, is awesome!
Watch me go!
As I said before, the movement mechanic in Zu Online is less than friendly. However, there are a few things that more than make up for the clunky interface. Zu Online uses a quick-travel system that is really handy. There are transportation NPC or "Riders". They can offer to either directly transport you to a larger city or, for a small fee, offer to fly you to another "Rider" somewhere on the map. The best part is that there are several of these "Riders" throughout one map making travel from one side, or one section, to another a breeze. And by breeze, I literally mean "breeze". See, at this point, for newbies, "ride" travel consists of flying across the map via a paper bird. This bird is either powered by my concentration or my tremendous flatulence. Flight by concentration: I tried that once. All I got was a broken arm and my father telling me not to jump off the roof again. It is far more rewarding in Zu Online. It makes rapid travel quick, easy, and cheap.
Zu Online also has a sort of autopilot for your avatar. If you open the map and simply click anywhere on the map, the game will plot out a course for you and start your avatar on his way. Remember how I said that monsters really don't take any notice of you? This comes in handy when you are running through the countryside on autopilot. The path may not seem to be as direct as it could be but I'm not complaining. This autopilot feature can also be implemented when you click in your mini-map! If you think the movement goodness stops there, you'd be terribly mistaken!
In the quest panel, certain names and place are underlined. Clicking on an underlined name sets that item, person, or place as your destination and once again sets you off on autopilot. This is great! When you have to track down some big, bad, boss in a large cavern, simply click on his name and run right to him. No pointless searching. No aimless wandering. Once you've dispatched the nasty boss, open the quest again and click on the NPC you have to talk to complete the quest and have the game run there for you! If you take away anything from Zu Online, it will be an appreciation of their quick travel methods.
The look and feel of anime
One of the bigger points IGG would like to point out to you is Zu Online's art direction. I have to say that the initial impact of the graphical style isn't all that bad ... if you like cel-shading. I had wondered how a cel-shaded MMO would work but it seems to be rather decent. The textures may seem a little flat and sparse at times but when Zu Online wants to convey detail, it is done quite well. In the very first room, there is a large demon-guy-thing strapped to a giant rock ball hanging over some massive pit. Sucks to be him, sure, but he looks cool. The animations aren't the best but they have character. For instance, if I stand still for more than a few seconds, my Summoner feels compelled to float off the ground for a moment or two.
The environments seem flat but are occasionally dotted with spots of interesting detail. The first area, for example, is apparently three giant, floating, islands of rock held together by gigantic chains. The areas on these islands are fairly sparse, however, so I guess it evens out. The cities and buildings have interesting detail and the NPCs are neat to look at, both in-game and in their NPC chat windows. However, if you're not a fan of anime, you might not be as impressed. To each his own.
Spending about 4 to 5 hours did get me to level 24. That is one quick burn. I'm not sure how much more time I will commit to it, though. While it wasn't a bad experience, it really didn't grab hold of me. The quick leveling and not-busted gameplay do offer that rather rapid gratification but beyond getting your "ding"-fix, there is not much that really grabs a hold of you. Was it a bad experience? No. I can't say it was. Was it great? Can't say that either. The big question: Will I uninstall the game? At this point ... no. I'll probably find myself back in there hunting down another few levels from time to time and who, knows, maybe something will grow from it and eventually take hold. Until then, Zu Online will find itself with RF Online, ArchLord and Dungeon Runners as a free-to-play back-up MMO.
So, if you're looking for something to do, go get your kung-fu on!