But that doesn't mean that there were no exciting little bits of information to be scrounged up here and there. In Cologne, we sat down for a chat with NCsoft's Stephen Levy as he spilled the beans on Korean martial arts MMO Blade & Soul, but we haven't been allowed to talk about it until today. The best part? Blade & Soul is headed west.
For those of you not yet familiar with Blade & Soul, let's start with a little introduction. Created by an internal development studio at NCsoft called Team Bloodlust, Blade & Soul saw the light of day in Korea earlier this year on June 30th. Its martial arts-inspired combat, attention to design, and Asian fantasy setting were some of its biggest selling points, and the game quickly accumulated a large fanbase. "It even trumped Diablo III and League of Legends as the number-one played game at internet cafes in Korea," Levy notes. "We currently have over 200,000 concurrent players."
"When you try to imagine what combat in Blade & Soul looks and feels like, think of typical Asian martial arts classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of the Flying Daggers," Levy explains, "and think of the player as Jet Li." The game's art design was created by popular artist Hyung-Tae Kim, who has worked on a number of games in the past, most notably the Magna Carta series, and is also known for his work on a variety of Korean comics. "If you're familiar with Hyung-Tae Kim's work, you'll quickly notice the master's hand in Blade & Soul."
The game features six classes, of which we saw five: the sneaky, stabby Assassin; the sturdy, sword-wielding Blade Master; the hand-to-hand-to-face Kung Fu Master; the "I like big axes" Destroyer; and the control-happy
Story remains the heart of every MMORPG, even though it's sometimes tacked on or clichéd. You live in a world of Orcs and Elves, and chopping off their heads without reason wouldn't feel quite the same. So we were unsurprised to learn that story in Blade & Soul plays a big role too. Still, Stephen Levy is sure that the game offers something new in terms of story and fills a gap that has yet to be filled. "Blade & Soul's story is heavily influenced by the Asian martial arts movies and stories we've come to know and love," he explains. "On the surface, there is this global, massive story line of good vs. evil, of dark vs. light. The world has been shattered after a thousand years of peace, and you are caught in the middle. But the heart of Blade & Soul is a very personal storyline, a tale of betrayal and revenge."
You start out as a nobody in a little village. You live there with your clan in harmonious peace; your daily tasks include scrubbing floors until a great martial arts Master takes you under his wing to train you as a martial artist. The local peace is violently disturbed when one of your Master's former students visits your village to sow death and destruction. You and your Master defend the village to the best of your abilities, to no avail. In a grand act of self sacrifice, your master is killed while saving your life, and you are left for dead. These are the events that set you on a quest for vengeance to kill the people responsible for your Master's death and the ruination of your village.
"We don't intend to stop there or end the story when you finally have your revenge," Levy says. "We plan on continuing personal storylines through episodic content, further expanding the game's solo content. It's important to us that players will experience an epic yet personal story."
Where story might be the heart of an MMORPG, combat surely is the soul. Those Orcs and Elves might have well-written soliloquies prepared to convince you why the other must die, but when wielding an axe feels like riding a bicycle trough mud, the appeal for combat quickly wanes. Levy believes his team has found something with Blade & Soul that's both intuitive and innovative. "Combat in Blade & Soul feels similar to combat in fighting games -- think Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter," he told us. "It's all about action and reaction; it's dynamic and real. If you're a button masher like I am, you'll do OK in those games, but if you really want to compete, you'll have to learn combos. These are much harder to master, but they are both more effective and gorgeous to behold."
The demo we were shown confirmed Levy's explanation. Repeatedly bashing one skill would kill a foe quickly enough, but combining skills into combos looked stunning and proved to be more effective in terms of damage and survivability. "We also have an active countering system in place that really shines in PvP," he says. "It's all about timing your counter-move right and knowing your enemy." That brings us to our next MMO pillar.
When you think of competitive gameplay, PvP or leaderboard systems most likely spring to mind, and Blade & Soul has both and more. "We have a whole range of PvP systems planned, ranging from one-on-one battles to tournaments in which players vie to be the best martial artist." Levy lifts a finger. "But we also have large-scale, faction vs. faction combat planned in which group combos really take center stage."
How many players? Levy says that's not yet been finalized. "But competiveness doesn't limit itself to combat," Levy adds. "People compete for the title of First to Level Cap, Best Crafter, and Quickest Dungeon Run in other MMOs already. We want to facilitate in that competition too." How that will play out is still unclear, but it seems that Blade & Soul is intended to appeal to a broad audience. Even if you don't like the hassle of PvP and hate being ganked, Blade & Soul seems to have a solution for you: "You can easily switch costumes to flag yourself on and off for world PvP. If you want to contribute to your faction but would rather not fight other players, you can do PvE tasks that will contribute to the faction vs. faction struggle."
Blade & Soul does not have any form of transportation like mounts or gryphon taxis. Instead, players use Qing Gong movement to get around in the gameworld. Activating Qing Gong gives your character increased movement speed and elevation, enabling her to travel places that seem impossible to reach at first glance. "Already, Korean players have reached places using Qing Gong that developers hadn't anticipated," chuckles Levy. After seeing Qing Gong in action, we are instantly reminded of what Levy said earlier: Asian martial arts movies. Floating through the air at high speed looks a lot like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and seems like a fun alternative to mounts.
So when the game launches in the west, how different will our version be from its Korean sibling? "We want to keep the game exactly as it is," Levy assures us. "What they play now will be what you will play." There is one exception: Mechanics like levelling curve, drop rates, and instance resets will be tweaked for western audiences, as NCsoft believes there lies the gap between the two worlds of gamers. Apart from that, Blade & Soul is a Korean game, and it seems we will be playing a translated Korean game when it comes out.
The North American and European release dates for Blade & Soul have yet to be announced.
Every summer, the gaming industry descends on Cologne, Germany, for Gamescom, the world's largest trade fair for interactive games and entertainment. Massively's on the scene in 2012, bringing you all the best scoops, impressions, and interviews from the MMOs at the show!