Age of Wushu is probably the greatest sandbox you'll never play

age of wushu impressions
MMOs are old hat at this point. I don't want to say they're boring, because then what are we all doing here? There's a certain sameness, though, and we know exactly what to expect, when and where to expect it, and in most cases we're firmly entrenched in a particular gameplay comfort zone.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down to play Age of Wushu last week and found something utterly unlike most of the genre in every way that matters. It's difficult to compare the sprawling martial arts saga to other titles, but if you're looking for AoW's closest MMO relative, it would have to be EVE Online.

Age of Wushu - horsey
House of the Flying Dragon Hidden Dagger Hero

If you take EVE and replace its cold steel spaceships with impossibly nimble martial artists or swap out its vast nebulae for vast lakes and willowy bamboo forests, you've got Snail Games' new Ming Dynasty MMO. The game drips with the historical fantasy atmosphere established in Wuxia flicks like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Real-world martial arts sects like the Shaolin and Wudang are present and accounted for, and the game's eight factions offer a dizzying array of skill-based gameplay choices, most of which involve PvP of one sort or another.

Unlike EVE, AoW offers a traditional (and substantial) PvE component, though, and if for some strange reason you feel the need to reduce AoW to a typical quest grinder, you can. The game's biggest asset is undeniably the sense of immersion it creates. This is a virtual world as opposed to a progression exercise set amongst a series of loading screens and lobbies, and while I don't know exactly how big AoW's landmasses are, I know that it took me a good 15 minutes to ride a coach from Yanyu Villa to the Scholar's headquarters nestled in the foothills of Divine Tree Mountain. And this was one tiny corner of the world, the starting area, as it were, for one of the game's eight schools.

Age of Wushu - View from the Scholar's perch
World vs. game

Most people won't use the coach, of course, as it takes precious time away from team cultivation or PvPing or whatever else it is that folks do to scratch their gameplay itches in Age of Wushu. Instead, they'll just teleport. The point, though, is that you can take a coach (or a boat), and you won't be crippled or hopelessly lacking in competitive capabilities if you do. Stopping to smell the virtual roses in most MMOs leaves you well behind the min-maxers who dominate the genre nowadays, but as in EVE, the grind in AoW is something that's largely done for you while you're playing around and doing things that are actually fun.

The game is far from perfect, though, and early bits of it are occasionally confounding, with a side of bewilderment and a dash of consternation thrown in for good measure. It is absolutely not the type of MMO that you can sit down and feel comfortable with in an hour. It's a new experience, with nods to older ones, and it requires time and a willingness to learn non-standard systems. The rewards for the extra effort are many, and whether it's painting and fishing minigames or heart-pounding spy and counterspy PvP, you'll be doing some stuff in Age of Wushu that you probably haven't done in an MMO before.

Crucially, the game feels alive, lived in, and world-like precisely because you don't know exactly what to do from the moment you log in. You don't follow the usual themepark script, even though there is a main story quest, and you don't put your nose to the grindstone, searching for the optimal path to level 80 or map completion or whatever. You don't immediately tab out and search for the one true talent tree build or the location of your class armor quest NPC. That stuff simply isn't very important, and "endgame" begins almost immediately. Did I mention that you can fish and paint?

All of this is not to say that there is no direction in AoW. There are actually quests -- hundreds of them in fact (probably thousands, given the eight factions). There are also dozens upon dozens of daily events including the escort missions that Patrick detailed in our first impressions piece, the aforementioned spy stuff, and plenty of harvesting, production, and life skill tasks (painting, chess playing, music, etc.).

At its core, though, AoW is about player interaction. So, no, you can't buy the bread you need to placate your ever-decaying hunger statistic from an NPC vendor. You'll have to get it from a player crafter (or a player who acquired it from a player crafter).

Age of Wushu - open PvP warning
Player vs. interface

Here I'll stop before I accidentally proclaim AoW as the next great sandbox. It's quite enjoyable, but it also features plenty of flaws, perhaps even a fatal one. Firstly, the English translation is an abject disaster. So is the UI and its complete lack of customization options. Both are functional in the most generous sense of the word, but the lack of polish in these departments will be more than enough to turn off time-poor players who aren't predisposed to liking sandboxes (and probably even some who are).

Let me put it to you this way. I played ArcheAge's Korean beta, which featured no English whatsoever, and I picked up its systems much more quickly than I'm picking up AoW's. Some of the mechanics are simply indecipherable sans a bit of internet research, and even then it's hit or miss because of loose translations and the fact that western players are still figuring out the title's considerable complexity. Long story short, the crowd that cut its MMO teeth on World of Warcraft and subsequent exercises in polish will uninstall this game faster than you can say fuggetaboutit.

Other potential players will put their hands up and back slowly away from the keyboard as soon as the "open PvP world" message pops up on their login screen. This is too bad because much as in EVE, it's very possible to avoid ganks altogether.

Age of Wushu - The 39 (thousand) steps
Cash shop catastrophe, part one

The single biggest hurdle to AoW's western acceptance, though, is its item shop. And if Snail doesn't alter its approach, and soon, it might as well rechristen the game Allods 2: Another Crappy Cash Shop Bugaloo.

Now look, I don't have a problem with free-to-play games in general, but Snail's monetization scheme makes the shady stylings of, say, Turbine, look pretty honest and forthright by comparison. The major malfunction is that AoW's shop is stuffed full of temporary items. Americans generally operate with the understanding that owning is awesome and renting sucks, and frankly many of them will probably find it morally offensive to pay $10 for an outfit that will up and disappear after three days (or 30, if they're big spenders).

So, yeah. Nickel-and-dime us all you want, Snail; we love to acquire inconsequential trinkets. But those trinkets are ours, dammit (at least as long as the servers stay on).

Age of Wushu - rare blue flower
Cash shop catastrophe, part deux

Age of Wushu features the ability to buy currency with real-world money and convert it to skill-training, in effect side-stepping what passes for the game's grind based on the power of your wallet. For players like yours truly who goof around roleplaying, crafting, and exploring the gameworld, it's probably much ado about nothing. For competitive PvPers, though, it is by definition pay-to-win since you can obtain a more powerful character faster than someone who spends less (or no) real-world money.

This is on top of the mandatory $9.99 monthly sub, too, and I say mandatory because unless you fancy the one hour per day limitation on the game's F2P offering, you'll want the VIP option. [Ed. note: The one-hour limitation will not be in effect when AoW officially launches.]

Age of Wushu - cave with green sparkly thingsNow, some might read all that and say, big deal, it's no different than EVE Online's PLEX. PLEX is bought with real money, which is then converted to ISK, which may be used to buy implants that speed up your skill training time and make you more powerful much faster than a player who earns it in the game. And that's all true.

For whatever reason, though, EVE's playerbase defends PLEX to the death, swearing up and down that it's not pay-to-win (usually with a variation on the newb-players-in-newb-ships-can-still-be-useful-in-a-battle argument). As a result, the game has thus far managed to dodge the dreaded pay-to-win stigma that dogs many cash shop titles and most Asian imports.

A game like AoW, though, which has neither longevity nor lots of expendable player goodwill, can't afford even a hint of pay-to-win baggage if it hopes to do well in America. The deck is already stacked against it due to the western bias regarding Asian MMOs, not to mention the horribad localization and the accessibility issues I mentioned earlier.

Don't blow it, Snail

Snail needs to hire a few consultants with western MMO experience because as it stands right now, the game's cash shop is a massive brain fart, and it absolutely will prevent the title from achieving mainstream success in these parts. That would be a real shame; the game is by far the most interesting sandbox MMO to come along in quite some time. It's very much like EVE was way back when, albeit with more gameplay wrinkles and considerably more bells and whistles (not to mention, you know, avatars and environments and stuff!).

Even if Snail does see the error of its item store ways, AoW will still face an uphill battle. The title is clearly a virtual world, with all of the demands on your time that that phrase entails. I suspect that some players who self-identify as sandbox fans may not have the patience for this style of gameplay anymore simply because they've gotten so comfortable with the genre landscape that EverQuest, WoW, and their collective offspring have created.

To sum up, Age of Wushu is a treat for fans of emergent MMO gameplay, with the huge caveat of an ill-considered cash shop mucking up the works. It's thrilling to know that there are some MMO devs out there who know how to make an actual MMORPG, but it's heartbreaking to see it hamstrung by the hamhandedness inherent in bad F2P models.

In any case, I'm unabashedly rooting for its success.

Age of Wushu - on the beach
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.