First Impressions from the Age of Wushu beta
When I first started playing the Age of Wushu beta, I had a lot of expectations. As I first started playing, the game felt ho-hum. It was clumsy, the translation wasn't very good, and the combat felt clunky. My friends saved an infamous IM conversation during which I expressed how the game was a let-down. I had heard a lot about the skill-based martial arts battles, but the combat and movement felt so clumsy. There were some interesting features for sure, but my expectations soon faded, and I mostly kept playing out of a sense of obligation, to see whether there was anything hidden beyond the awkward translation and uninspired gameplay.

Three days later, I was a believer. Age of Wushu's combat, while awkward at first, proved to be incredibly deep and allowed for endless variations of personal expression. Mastery of battle wasn't just about abusing a broken mechanic, and the foundations of the game's economy soon proved to threaten the hold that EVE Online currently has on the sandbox market. Open PVP with real consequences, horizontal character progression, a player-driven economy, and the best combat system in any MMO ever -- you'll find it all in Age of Wushu.

Everything is clumsy yet satisfying

If I were to sum Age of Wushu up in only a few words, they would be "EVE Online in China." Skill training is remarkably similar to what's found in EVE. Instead of continuous level progression followed by gear progression, Wushu features time-based leveling by which players quickly reach a basic mastery level then expand their characters horizontally by learning new skills and fighting styles. Also much as in EVE, the system is pretty clumsy and hard to negotiate, but that'll eventually be solved with guides and wikis.

Each school in Age of Wushu features "neigong," or internal cultivation art, which represents your character's level. In the beta, each school had only one neigong art, but in the final version of the game, we can expect to see at least three and as many as 10 (based on hints in the CN version) different neigong styles for each school. You can switch your neigong art whenever you want. Some schools have more tank-focused neigong arts, while others are geared more for DPS and others for mana sustenance or other cool features.

Each school also has several fighting styles. In the beta, there were three different styles for each school, and I'm told there will also be several neutral styles and a fourth fighting style available for each school. If you want to expand your arsenal, you can even learn another school's fighting arts or neigong by stealing them, though the caps for leveling other schools' styles are lower. While mastering your first neigong and fighting art will take only a couple of months at the most, mastering several will take a very long time.

First Impressions from the Age of Wushu beta
Interaction is everything

Although this may be a turn-off to some, almost everything in Age of Wushu encourages you to engage with other players. The economy is entirely player-driven, and each character can choose one of six different production professions and one of four art professions. One of the production professions is Chef, and a chef can perform a very important function: keep you from starving.

Players slowly grow hungry over time while logged in, and while you can function while starving by meditating to regain lost HP, it is anything but ideal. If you don't like starving, you can always take up farming, gather the materials to cook, and trade them to a chef for the finished product. You can also just pick up cooking yourself, though that will prevent you from being a tailor, herbalist, or other crafting profession. You might not starve, but you still need other professions for various things. All the best gear is player-crafted, and the best player-crafted gear takes multiple professions to perfect.

The game is more than just the economy, though. While you can still perform daily quests (there are thousands, so you will not run out), it is not a very efficient way of making money or getting experience (which is released into skills over time). The best experience and money in the game is generated through PvP.

However, the way the game implements this is insidious. Guild escort missions are simple escort tasks where a guild party guides a cart to a destination. There is no PvE opposition, but other players can ambush the cart. If the attackers win, they get a small amount of money and XP -- not a terrible amount, but enough to encourage a bit of mayhem. If the escorters make it to their destination, they get a large amount of money and XP as well as guild fame. It's unlikely for players to want to attack a well-armed escort (as the rewards are low), but thrill-seekers might just take on the challenge. You may do dozens of escorts without seeing a soul, but you also might get jumped at every step.

Spy missions are another way that players can interact. Players can take on the role of spy, stealing intelligence from another school. Spying gives huge rewards, so players are heavily encouraged to try. While spying, you can be outed as a spy if your skills fail to steal intelligence, but the real danger comes from player patrols.

Patols are given a skill that can be used to raise a spy's suspicion meter by 30%, but they have no idea who is a spy. Anyone from another school could be a spy, so you have to find people and follow them around, checking them out until you're sure they're legit. It's an interesting cat-and-mouse game. Patrols are rewarded continuously by given a slight boost to experience conversion rate, letting them level slightly more quickly. If they catch a spy, they get paid some silver and get a good chunk of XP. It's not as lucrative as spying, though.

This dynamic creates one of the most exciting elements of the game. Spies want to avoid anyone with the patrol icon above his head, and spies who have been revealed will have to weigh the options of aborting their missions, returning with the intel they have, or continuing on to 10. If a patrol spots a revealed spy (or reveals one himself), it leads to extraordinary martial arts fights and incredible chases.

First Impressions from the Age of Wushu beta
Involuntary PvP: Protecting the victim

Any open PvP game carries the risk of PKing. The question is, what kind of punishments are there? If you get PKed, you lose some money and get a painful stacking debuff that lowers your fighting power and movement speed.

PKers get a label called "slaughter value" that goes up steadily as they kill more players. A non-zero slaughter value changes a player's name to orange, letting everyone know he's a villain. Higher levels change it to red, then to pink. If a PKer is killed by police NPCs, he is sent to jail and must stay in jail until his slaughter value decays, which occurs only while he is online. A pink-named player will stay in jail for 24 hours (online or not) and then be beheaded, which doesn't actually kill the player but does hit him with a 24-hour debuff that dramatically reduces his combat stats.

If you've been griefed by a PKer, you also have a defense; you can put a bounty on his head. Any player with a bounty gains a glowing red icon that spins around him, and constables (player characters) can hunt him down and collect the bounty. In a way, putting a bounty on criminals encourages constables to be active and hunt criminals down because you're paying their wages. If a player with a bounty is killed by a constable, it's just like if he were killed by a police NPC, except the jail time is higher. However, police NPCs also aren't like EVE's Concord. Players are the police, so putting bounties on criminals is important.

You can also put a bounty on any player with a slaughter value, even if he didn't kill you. If a criminal is rampaging around killing your poorer friends, you can put some money down and make sure that criminal serves his time -- and he will, unless he quits the game.

Combat: clunky at first, but amazing

Age of Wushu's combat is probably the best in any MMORPG. There is a simple rock-paper-scissors in place; block beats attack, attack beats feint, feint beats block. In practice, it's far more complex.

Each style has unfair andvantages and uneven rewards for doing any particular action. Some styles have powerful super moves that reward blocking more (since blocking builds super meter faster), while other styles might have very weak super moves but a powerful meterless stun combo. Many styles have ranged attacks, but a couple have ranged feints to break guard at a distance. Some styles have party buffs or heals to help out in group PvP or PvE.

Everything comes down to timing and expectation. It's more about guessing what your opponent will try instead of blindly flailing on buttons. Knowing matchups and finding weaknesses in your opponent's style are also key elements of PvP. It's never simply a game of who is higher-level. While extremely high-level characters will always beat lower ones, getting to a respectable fighting level will only take a little time, and once you're there, you're a threat.

Even if you're weak, you're an asset in group PvP as well. Players can always stun, feint, or knock back, even if those attacks do weak damage. If you stun an opponent, a stronger ally can land a damaging combo or super move.

First Impressions from the Age of Wushu beta
Probably the best sandbox ever

The comparisons with EVE Online are inevitable. It's a game with open PvP (complete with consequences), guilds and guild territory that can be invaded, and a dynamic, player-driven economy. EVE definitely does the guild/alliance PvP metagame better, though I've heard of epic castle fights on the Chinese servers. Age of Wushu shines in its combat system; there is just so much depth. I don't think EVE even comes close in that respect.

If you're hungry for a sandbox with incredible depth and amazing combat, Age of Wushu is probably the game you're looking for. It might be a bit clumsy at first, but don't be discouraged. There's a real gem of a game beneath the rough exterior. The second beta begins on December 20th. I'll see you guys there!

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.