Hands-on with Albion Online's alpha

Albion Gathering
Ever miss the old MMO days when crafting had meaning? When your friend could join up with you and on day one you could both go somewhere pretty cool, and just having that extra person could make things a smidge easier? Wish you could go back to those days without dealing with mindless grinds? Sandbox Interactive's Albion Online is perhaps something you should look into. In fact, those are the very reasons I signed up for the alpha back when I first heard about it. And now that I've played around with it a bit, I've been pleasantly surprised with my experience, though there are a few things newcomers will want to watch out for.

For starters, Albion's alpha is an actual alpha, not a retitled beta for marketing purposes. If you're going to play any future alpha phases, know that they'll be rough, unfinished, and non-functional in some areas. There's no actual character creation at the moment. Heck, there isn't even a female option (sorry ladies!). You can change your portrait, but that doesn't change the way your character looks. Because it's an alpha, I'm going to only lightly cover what I couldn't play and focus more heavily on those I could.

I wanted to try to play the game on my Latitude 10 tablet, but either my connection wouldn't support the game or the tablet can't hack it, which meant I was back to playing from my regular gaming machine. While the game can be played in a browser, the alpha build was a bit too buggy for that; several options and commands were non-functional, so I just moved on to the basic windows client, which was the most functional option I used.

The lack of levels and skill-ups is noticeable from the first time you start meeting veteran players (especially after they've died and lost their stuff). The idea that their health and energy levels are the same or sometimes less than your own (because of your gear) suggests that the game hopes to be inclusive and lacking in "endgame," making it easier for people to just jump right in. Now, that isn't to say that everyone is equal. Players gain "fame" based on what they have equipped, which unlocks the ability to craft new items.

Crafting is fun, too, even in the early levels. Heck, gathering and watching how my fellow players were decimating the countryside to make stuff was a bit entertaining, seeing as some of the other MMOs I've played either don't have trees as a gatherable resource or don't make resource nodes disappear when they're empty. One you've got your materials, it's time to head back to town to the correct crafting station and make your gear.

Albion CraftingAside from tools, everything had at least two "sockets" for magic abilities, each with three options on spell choices ranging from passive abilities to increase energy to reactive shields. Since items are lost on death and there is real item decay (sorry, you can't repair that sweet shield!), there's always a reason to gather and craft, which satisfies both my love of crafting and killing other players (or more often than not, running from them to keep my awesome load of ore). Buildings, however, can be repaired, but it takes materials to do so, not just money.

The gear you craft is basically how you customize your character. For example, adding bonus armor, heals, and regens to my gear made my character pretty tanky, able to solo elites one-on-one with relative ease. It took a while, though, so sometimes I'd go with more heavy-hitting moves and increased attack speed. Once you start unlocking more types of weapons and armor (or if you've got a friend pumping gear out for you), you'll see certain weapons get different moves. Axes, for example, can give you life steal; swords cannot. It makes it pretty easy to build your character, so you don't need to worry too much about having a healer or tank, just about the supplies needed to turn someone into the desired role.

The game's combat is fairly simple since you have only so many moves, but it was interesting enough to get me to keep crafting to see what else I could learn to make. You can also switch armor mid-fight, so that might add some depth as people cycle through different weapons and armor, though currently switching gear puts your active abilities from that item on a cooldown. In other words, you can't activate the heal on your helmet, switch to another healing helmet, and then heal again, spamming this cycle infinitely. It makes sense. However, at least in PvE, the limited abilities and simple combat were just entertaining enough, and I can see how soloing elites could get old pretty quickly.

Now, Albion is a PvP game, and that's going to turn some people off, but hear me out. First, the game's got a lot of safe zones. In fact, there are only two PvP areas in the alpha. You've got access to three tiers of loot from what I've seen in the safe zones, though obviously the higher stuff is rarer. It's very simple to make starter gear, and if you join a guild, the members can just give it to you -- that's what you're there for! Yes, you drop items on death, but that that is sort of the goal of the game: go out, gather materials, make gear, and use it, whether it's for killing or crafting. However, keep in mind that the game is more group-oriented. If you die to mobs, your body can be looted, even in safe areas, and having a friend who can get your stuff is invaluable. Even then, the "bank early, bank often" motto for these kinds of games still applies.

Albion reminds me of PlanetSide 2 in that the game has a lot of fighting for territory across the map, but it also allows for small, local battles. Albion is more about these than large, epic battles in a single area; a battle is big because a guild attacks several areas at once, rather than everyone zerging a single territory. In both games, these small, personal battles were more fun for me, but I'm sure as the game accrues more people, certain guilds will probably just take over until a counter "zerg" develops. As much as I love PS2, the lack of activities besides killing and capturing gets stale quickly. Territory does bring a cool addition to the FPS world, but having resources that need to be actively managed and manipulated into more permanent settlements helps me feel more invested in the world, as does something other than constant warfare. I also know that when I die, I have to get another set of gear, so I pick my battles more carefully because, well, I want to keep my stuff. The lack of this sense of ownership in many MMOs has been their great downfall in recent years.

This is also why I've loved more recent games like Darkfall, which Albion shares much in common with. Some systems, such the process of completing "achievements" in a tree to unlock abilities/recipes, feel very similar, and as in DF, when you first see the list of things to do, it can be quite overwhelming at the start. Being able to give and receive items of value without worrying about something being "bound" makes it easier to help someone out. Because it has full item drop on death, you'll often find other people looking to loot your body as soon as you're dead, even if you were killed in PvE. However, there are still good people out there, and you can play the game solo, which I did for most of my time, but after your first death, you'll really wish you were playing with other people. Still, even when I forgot to bank and lost everything of value for a few tiers (two times, sadly), I was able to bounce back pretty well.

Albion- a
While Darkfall: Unholy Wars seems more casual-friendly than the original game, it's certainly more daunting than Albion, not just because of its gameplay mechanics but because of its graphics, but that's the beauty of it. Casual gamers, even non-MMO gamers, are more likely to try Albion than most other games on the market. Albion is cute, even appearing kid-friendly, but it's still punishing enough. Having PvP, guilds wars for land, and a player-based economy still makes it possible for those with social, political, and economic skills to shine, and that really means something to me as a player. Albion has a relatively low barrier to entry, but it is still deep enough to allow people to invest in it and use actual player skills that go beyond twitch skills, learning boss dances, figuring out rotations, and visual/reading comprehension.

That isn't to say that these are necessarily bad things to ask of a player, but for me, an MMO is supposed to be a world, and worlds are more than simple killing. PvP should also be an opportunity to have meaningful interactions with others. After all, if I help you kill a mob, it means a lot more to you if I could have killed you instead, doesn't it? And when death means losing things you've tried to earn, a hero seems even more heroic. When a game focuses on just this -- not on chasing xp, not on learning mechanics, not on killing 10 rats and then six tails -- it feels much more like a world, and this is why gamers should at least give Albion a shot, even if they're unabashed "carebears." Aside from some rocks and twigs, what do you have to lose?

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.