Massively exclusive Handson with ArcheAge's Japanese open beta
So Japan recently had it's ArcheAge open beta, and the Massively crew was kind enough to allow me to write a bit about my experience. As a close follower of the game and someone who played a little in the closed Korean beta, there is a lot I could write about, but I'm going to try to limit this primarily to Japanese localization and what that may mean for westerners.

While the game has gotten a lot of coverage for an imported MMO that only recently started western beta recruitment, I feel like some readers have missed important details about AA that I'd like to address. This may build or break hype, but I've thought long and hard about what I'm about to say, and I think it deserves mentioning: ArcheAge is to sandboxes what World of Warcraft was to themeparks.

Now, I don't mean that in terms of gaming revolutions, perceived "WoW killer" chops, or anything like that. What I mean is that ArcheAge takes things already available in the genre in multiple titles and combines some, simplifies others, and sometimes slightly improves them while also introducing a few features seen in other genres.

This is why AA is a sandpark and not a sandbox. It is a solid, well-made game aiming at a broad audience, but not specifically the WoW one in my opinion. This is not a game for raiders looking for a sense of predefined purpose or ladder matches. One thing that most good sandboxes do is create a living world that players can actually impact. If you want to see the world change because of your actions, own a non-instanced part of that world, and interact with other people doing the same thing, ArcheAge is not only something you might enjoy, but also a title that I think can be used to introduce people to non-themepark MMOs.

ArcheAge offers gameplay features that are similar to titles like Ultima Online or Darkfall, but AA is much easier to digest. No, the crafting isn't as complex as we might like, but the overall game features create a reasonably complex environment, one that even lets you import your own designs for cloaks and flags. Unless something big changes, AA will be the other starter MMO I point people to (or try to lure them into the genre with).

Massively exclusive Handson with ArcheAge's Japanese open betaThat summary may disappoint some people or hype others up, so if you have time for some homework, I suggest looking around ArcheAgeSource.com. It's pretty much the ArcheAge fansite, and I made sure to cross-check a few things with their community when comparing the Japanese game with the Korean version.

First things first. Here's the release info for the Japanese version of the game. There's 30-day, 90-day, and... one-day passes/subscription options. The one-day passes are aimed at people who can only play on weekends, if you're curious. Even with a subscription though, Japanese AA still has an item shop that sells things like transfers and additional character slots, and also a permanent resurrection spell.

GameOn is reportedly considering the sale of labor point recovery items in the Japanese version (as XL does in the Korean version), but if this happens, there will still be some sort of limitation involved (most likely an individual account cap). Just a guess here, but it could be based on weekly limits so that people who only play on weekends can still squeeze out the same amount of labor as people who play everyday. Finally, playing at a "net cafe" won't cost you anything extra, plus your labor recovery is doubled while playing.

Now, while AA Source has a nice summary of some other Japanese changes, perhaps my hands-on can help illuminate some of these differences more clearly. For example, I couldn't find PvP even when there was a warning that PvP was opening in a region. Even when it opened, unless I misunderstood something, it only lasted 20 minutes.

I'm not quite sure how it was supposed to work, but I only got killed by players on the open sea, and I was flagged as a criminal at the time. This is important because Japanese players aren't known for enjoying PvP, so while it may have been toned down for them, it's not gone. This brings me back to my comparisons with certain PvP sandbox games. ArcheAge gives you the freedom to impact the world for good or ill. I actually taught some Japanese people a few tricks and helped them with quests I had already cleared, but I also stole a whole lot of trees and potatoes.

Japanese ArcheAge Open Beta Hands On
Which brings me to another difference between ArcheAge Korea ArcheAge Japan: PvE difficulty. There's still an option to do parts of a quest (for parts of the XP/rewards), all of a quest (for all of the XP/rewards), or go overboard for various bonuses. However, combat is harder than the Korean version, both from what I remember and what others have told me. Adds have been a big problem, and taking on two mobs at once is dicey, even though my character was wearing heavy armor and could root adds.

Casters and ranged AI in general seem tougher since they're more likely to run to other mobs to get help, and the spawns seem a bit denser than the Korean version, so even solo quests sometimes feel like they were tuned for groups. I could still solo, but for some quests that were a level or two below me, I had to stay at the edge of the spawn and wait patiently to get at the right mobs/items if there was no one around to help. The picture below was pretty much instant death until myself and a few Japanese players were able to thin the spawn to kill that bald dwarf, the quest objective.

Massively exclusive Handson with ArcheAge's Japanese open beta
However, when there were a lot of people in the area, the spawn times got dramatically lower. There were a few times where a dead mob would literally respawn on the spot, and that was with maybe eight people in the immediate quest area. Maybe it was a bug, but it happened enough times where I knew that despite the fact that I was technically soloing, I could get overrun by the single mob constantly respawning while I tried to loot and catch a breather. It's a small change, but enough that it appeals more to the local audience.

While Korea may have had the "men who stare at goats," Japan seems to have lots of birds, trees, and fences. It's a step up in my opinion, but maybe the Japanese players are more decorative. It also highlights one issue with the scarecrows that I've heard about before: the land starts getting littered with personal effects.

On the one hand, yes, it sucks that it can make things look cluttered, like when people just throw down packs of wood on their lawn. However, it's also a place you have to keep going back to. It ties people to the land -- and not just their house -- so it gets people moving around the world a bit, which is something I miss in other MMOs. This also brings back stealing, such as from gardens that might not be protected by scarecrows. It happens, and it's no accident: there is a warning before you take a plant or animal that it belongs to another player.

Japanese ArcheAge Open Beta Hands On
Now, all this probably sounds somewhat familiar, and that's the point: core parts of the game probably won't be changed when Trion is ready to launch ArcheAge in the West. When I talked to Trion at E3, the company made it very obvious that they really like how AA is in Korea and have no desire to change it much. Expect tweaks, not overhauls.

However, I talked to Trion a bit about regionalization and how it effects their company, and was told that, "XL has been great about keeping [Trion] updated on things that are changing for other territories, and letting us decide on if we want to get those changes or not. We've found that many of the territories, including us, are asking for similar things, so it's easier to get those agreed to by XL because of the broader impact. We do have a few things that we are asking for that are Western-specific, and XL has been great in working with us to get those in where possible." This means that if Trion wanted, there could be a "light PvP" server with the Japanese rule set, but, say, adding the old beta crafting system is a bit harder.

There is so much more I wish I could talk about. Climbing trees players planted, raising pets, being sent to prison, adventures on the open sea, roleplay potential from all the interactive parts of the world... as an old school MMOer who has been feeling a bit jaded, this open beta brought back memories from some of the highlights of my gaming experience. The game is far from perfect, but even with things being simpler than hardcore sandboxes, the starter experience alone is a breath of fresh air. Like WoW, the experience isn't new, but once in awhile, the game takes me back to a time when discovering a game world meant more than leveling faster than other players, back to when I thought anything was possible in an MMO.

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.