From the very first moment you log into Silkroad Online, you know this title is a bit different. Captcha technology is in place at the login screen to dissuade botting; a real danger for any free-to-play/microtransaction-based title. Unfortunately, captchas such as these have been 'solved problems' for spammers and farmers for some time now. It's still a signpost along the road, a notice that things are going to be a bit different from the norm, here.
We primarily entered Silkroad Online to experience a tour arranged by the developers with some friendly players. The players were set to guide us through the game's primary form of entertainment: a trade run from city to city. Prior to that, we explored a bit of what newbie players would experience upon logging into the game.
One of the immediately-accessible options from the new player tutorial is the item sales store. On the Silkroad Online, a currency is purchasable that can be exchanged for in-game goods. Many items, like these featured pieces of wedding apparel, are simply for show. Others - like mounts or potions - have very specific in-game effects, boosting your speed or xp gain.
It's not long before you find your first questgivers and are sent out into the field to do battle. This floating ghost-girl is a great example of the variety of character they allow you just with the default creation options. SRO's early-game experience is very similar to other MMOs you've probably played - whack critters, try not to die, earn quest XP.
Waiting for the player tour to begin, we explored the town square of Hotan. Hotan is one of the main trading hubs in the game and is full of players actively trading items from their merchant stands.
It should be noted that - though it's hard to see in the chat window down there - there's a tremendous amount of gold farmer spam going on in-game. Joymax is constantly trying to crack down on spammers, but the game appeared to have a real problem with them during our time in the world of ancient China.
The game's appearance system is incredibly varied. Between in-game available items and the numerous purchasable options from the microtransaction store, players can tweak and enhance their character's appearance in numerous ways. There are very ways to modify you physical avatar at character creation, but clothing options compensate for this in-game.
Some of these character outfits are no longer available - the developers offer themed outfits and accessories at regular intervals. The Wedding-themed outfits at the moment are just the latest in a long line. Previous themed outfits have included Crusader-style clothing, and daemonic accoutrements.
Not only do these characters all have unique appearances, but they have unique 'builds'. Chinese characters (which all of these are) have unique mixes of martial and magical powers based on the elements. Cold, fire, lightning, and other more esoteric components combine with various bladed weapon skills to offer a very specific way to play the game.
European characters are the other option to choose at character creation, and those feature much more 'traditional' RPG concepts. Thieves, warriors, and mages are the options available for those characters. Both Chinese and European characters can respec their chosen professions - making the game's infinite customization even more of an explorable area.
PvP in the game is separated out from the main title activities. Aside from free PvP - which we'll quickly touch in in a moment, there are activities called Fortress Wars. These are massive guild vs. guild combats that take place on instanced seperate maps. Capture the flag is another diversion, offering players small skirmish gameplay on smaller instances. Both offer rewards in the form of coin and PvP scrolls.
Another PvP option is what they call 'role PvP', which pits traders and guards against player thieves. These roles are primarily used in the Trade Run game component (which is discussed in-depth in a moment), but this role-based pursuit allows for freeform PvP hunting.
Crafting is very much a sidebar pursuit during the game. While hunting and fighting monsters, players can find stones and dusts to enhance their existing armor and weapons. These are entirely luck-based drops, making the game's sole combination/crafting component dependent on the hunting community. Trading/PvP focused players trade with the hunters for goods in areas like Hotan square here.
This screenshot will hopefully give you an appreciation for just how many people were there in the Hotan Square. Players can't log off and still sell their goods, so each one of those names represents a PC running the Silk Road Online client - it's worth wondering how many are making this 'game' into a source of income. What was most surprising to us, as players new to the game, was just how many people were inhabiting this apparently thriving world. There are 30 servers just for the international players, and that number is growing every few months.
After hooking up with our player guides, we moved to the city of Don Wang to check out another component of the game: free PvP. Don Wang is one of preferred areas in the game to participate in this, because the 'capes' and 'suits' required to participate are sold here.
After donning a Prodigy Cape, your character's appearance changes to reflect your new nature. At this point anyone wearing a differently colored cape can attack the character, regardless of level or build. This free PvP is especially popular outside the gates of major cities, where players come to unwind after a lengthy time in the game's main pursuits. There's no benefit or penalty to engaging in this activity - it's just for fun.
If you had to describe one core component when talking about Silk Road Online, the Trade Run is almost certainly 'it.' There are a series of design systems associated with this one gameplay element, which pits groups of players against other players and NPCs in a unique blending of road show, PvP, and PvE gameplay.
Much like the 'capes' that allow players to participate in free PvP, players don special outfits to participate in Trade Runs. In the ultimate example of 'you are what you wear', these roles are totally dependent on the clothing you have onhand. One player becomes the merchant, the sap on the Rhino, carting his goods to market.
Here we see the interface for loading up on trade goods. Goods cost in-game currency, and loading up on trade goods increases the difficulty of your journey. The more you haul, the more 'stars' the run is going to be, and the harder the trip. Of course, the most difficult trips with also be the most lucrative. Players who don't wish to engage in the game's over PvP elements can do 'practice' trade runs against only the PvE opponents. The only requirement is that all players involved be under level 40, and that the run be 4 stars in difficulty or less.
The thieves are the ner-do-wells that attempt to stop the Merchant and his crew. NPC thieves spawn as you travel, forcing the merchant and his company to defend themselves every so often. PC thieves don 'thief clothing' just as the merchant and the guards do. The players noted that the thief role is very, very popular.
The merchant's guards attempt to see the thieves off, of course. Numerous allies can don hunter outfits, and will act as escorts and defenders to the slow-moving merchant and his cargo.
The role outfits also allow some degree of anonymity. In order to ensure to grudges are held, character names are changed (randomly) when the merchant, hunter, and thief suits are active. It's still possible to track a player through the game, of course, but in this way bullying outside of the Trade system itself is minimized.
The best PC thieves wait to strike. The group that took out our little party waited until we were engaged with their NPC counterparts, then swooped in for the kill. The resulting pile of loot was quite impressive, as they hauled the cargo up off the rhino's corpse.
In order to 'score', the thieves then have to transport the cargo back to a black-market city. If we were so inclined, the hunters and the merchant could go back and, in turn, hunt down the dogs that took our stuff. In this way the cargo becomes a ball in a sort of self-contained sporting match.
High end gameplay largely consists of self-contained missions within the overall game, like the trade runs. Capture the flag and Fortress battles are also very popular at the high end, as is 'unique hunting'. Similar to the Notorious Monster system in Final Fantasy XI, Silkroad Online offers special named monsters that can be hunted and killed for great rewards.
With our cargo stolen and our trade run ended, so too did our time in Silkroad Online. It was fascinating to interact with a game so unlike western MMOs in many ways, and yet of a quality sufficient to tempt even the most jaded subscription-payer. As a free-to-pay offering, SRO is well worth at least a look. We're certainly glad we gave it a chance.