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Massively Exclusive: The sweet and sour of ArcheAge's third closed beta

Jef Reahard

Forgive me for getting this out of the way up front: I frickin' hate betas. Loathe them. Avoid them like the plague, usually. Why then, did I find myself foregoing sleep for the better part of last week to log into XL Games' third closed beta test for ArcheAge?

Curiosity, for sure, and maybe just a hint of desperation. As the MMORPG genre moves farther and farther away from the types of games worlds that drew me in a decade ago, the chance to get a preview of what some fans are hoping is the next great AAA sandbox was enough to overwhelm my betaphobia.

It's been quite some time since I've glanced out my window to see the sun rise while playing an MMORPG through the night, and ArcheAge definitely has its claws in me at this point. Is it the next great sandbox, though? Is it even a sandbox at all? Can XL successfully meld two design philosophies (sandbox and themepark) that are, in many ways, polar opposites? Those questions are difficult to answer, but join me after the cut and I'll give it a shot.

The newbie experience

The first few hours of ArcheAge raise the question as to how sandboxy the game actually is. After all, the first thing a newb sees upon logging into the human lands is an NPC with a giant yellow exclamation point over his head. Yes, ArcheAge boasts its share of starter quests, but I'm happy to report that once you cross the level 15 summit and start to climb into your 20s, the true nature of the game becomes apparent.

Those of you fretting over the gameplay videos that show linear starting areas shouldn't spend too much time worrying. This game is vast, and once it's held your hand for a few levels to get you acclimated, you're free to discover that vastness in a number of different ways.

Even when you're toodling through the newbie areas, killing three boars here or avenging the spirit of a slain homesteader there, something about ArcheAge feels decidedly different in comparison to most contemporary titles. It's hard to put a finger on just what that something is. Certainly the presentation is as good as it gets. In fact, the only MMO that boasts a comparable world aesthetic (and by aesthetic, I mean textures, detail, and fantasy realism) is Age of Conan. Character visuals are well done, though customization options were somewhat limited (lots of greyed out choices on the creation screens) for this particular beta.

Animations are an ArcheAge strong point as well, as are smaller touches like the way your character adjusts his footing to stand on a slope (there's none of that one-foot-out-in-space stuff here) or the peerless water effects that flirt with realism to such a degree that you may want to pack a towel and a change of clothes if you're planning on exploring the game's oceans and lakes.


Performance was much better than I expected given the eye-candy on display and the fact that it's beta. I crashed twice over the course of a week, and though I experienced a fair bit of latency-related slowdowns when entering new areas (I was 13 hours and several time zones removed from the server), things smoothed out and ran nicely soon thereafter. I use the term "areas" here for lack of a better descriptor. I'm assuming the zone walls, if there are any, are masked in the code somehow since I didn't experience a single loading screen despite exploring much of the huge western continent and parts of the surrounding ocean.

I initially ran the game at 2560x1600 resolution, and when coupled with Fraps running in the background, this resulted in unacceptable frame rates. I won't bore you with system specs, but suffice it to say that my machine is OK. It is a year old, though, so I lowered the resolution a notch to 1920x1080 and got the smoothness I mentioned above (even with 20-odd players on screen).

The intangibles

All of this is incidental, though, and the feeling that a fantastic experience was just over the horizon kept me playing ArcheAge for far longer than I intended, even when I occasionally became frustrated due to the language barrier (the beta client is in Korean, meaning I couldn't read chat, quests, skill descriptions, and so on).

Mechanically, the newbie levels will feel familiar to you if you've played a themepark game at some point in the past. Kill this, deliver that -- we've all been there ad nauseam, and the language problem was no problem at all for these familiar trappings. What separates the ArcheAge wheat from the MMO chaff (apart from the visuals), though, is the nagging feeling that you're a small part of a much larger world. There's collision detection, for starters, and kicking about corpses is an amusing minigame in and of itself. You can also bump players -- and NPCs -- around to your liking. Trees fall and harvestable objects deteriorate with use (and more importantly, they don't immediately respawn).

Horses have their own character sheets, stats, and gear (and I got one at level 4!). They carry multiple riders too and have a mean hind leg kick that -- when timed properly -- makes mincemeat out of your average boar mob. Steeds don't disappear into thin air when you dismount but instead stay put and come dutifully to your side when you press the whistle button.

Getting back on your mount is fun as well and involves a decision as to whether you want to grab the scruff of his neck and swing yourself up from the side or do that cowboy/Zorro move and spring onto his back from the rear. Fluff? Maybe, but this is the part where I tell you that fluff is what makes an MMORPG an MMORPG as opposed to a mere multiplayer combat lobby. Thankfully XL Games seems to be one of the few dev outfits that agrees with me.


Speaking of combat, I can report that ArcheAge of course has it, and whether your taste runs to PvE and dungeoneering or no-holds barred FFA siege PvP, it's all here. I didn't get to experience the PvP this time around (the game sets aside an entire continent for those who want to PK and fight over castles), but I did put the PvE through its paces by creating a couple of different characters and fooling around with the convoluted skill system. I say convoluted because I couldn't read any of the descriptors in the character creator or as I was leveling up and acquiring new ones. I'm sure that I built the gimpiest melee-Ranger-Necro-with-a-healing-spell that has ever existed, but it was quite a lot of fun regardless.

The combat animations are nice in some places and rough in others. The spell effects are pretty slick, but some of the melee whirls and slashes seemed a bit stilted on occasion. The characters are always in motion, though, and are possessed of a certain heft and weight that makes the whole enterprise seem grounded in a kind of reality despite the fact that you're causing giant stone fists to erupt out of the earth or draining the health off an enemy with a mini-black-hole.

The combat features auto-attack and tab targeting, and our old friend the special ability shows up early and often. Keeping track of your character is done via a standard red/blue health/stamina bar, and the stamina (which powers special abilities) regens quite quickly out of combat.

Ship combat

Ordinarily I wouldn't give this its own section. Other games have ship combat, of course, but as with so many things about ArcheAge, the ambition on display makes one feel a bit sorry for said other games. In lieu of giving you specifics about ships, since I had neither the time nor the resources and coin to build one, I'll give you a little anecdote.

As I was exploring the environs surrounding one of the gigantic castles on ArcheAge's western continent, I glanced down toward the bay below the keep and saw two ships. That's cool, I thought, and headed down to the expansive dock for a closer look. As I approached, I saw the cannon balls flying back and forth and the desperate maneuvering of one ship as the other closed in from the stern and unleashed a devastating volley. The lead vessel caught fire and eventually exploded in a shower of splintered wood, smoke, and flames, and over the side went 15 to 20 players, all of them whooping and hollering (in Korean, unfortunately, so I don't know what they were saying -- but I can guess).

As the defeated crewmen swam for the dock, I went out to meet them and continued on to try to reach the victorious ship only to see it enter some sort of magical portal and slowly slide into the oblivion on the other side. If I'd had any doubts about playing ArcheAge at release, that unscripted holy sh*t vignette blew them out of the water right alongside that poor schooner.


So what about the crafting and the non-combat game? It's here that sandboxes are made, after all, and ArcheAge aspires to give people something to do other than repetitve whack-a-mole games with mobs or opposing players. Housing is in, gardening is in, and furniture and shipbuilding are in, though sadly I didn't get to partake of any of those activities (that pesky language barrier again; I simply couldn't figure these out in the time alotted).

Harvesting is quite enjoyable in its own right, and as it currently rewards a small amount of XP, it's fair to say that non-combat character advancement is a real (albeit slow) possibility. As I mentioned earlier, the act of harvesting itself is quite immersive due to falling trees, dwindling mining nodes, and sheared sheep, though I was interested to note that not all trees can be chopped nor all rocks plundered.

I was also unable to find a fishing rod and bait and tackle. I really hope that can be chalked up to my ignorance of all things Korean as it would be a travesty to miss out on an angling career given ArcheAge's stunning coastal areas and ridiculously beautiful open ocean.

From what I can tell at this point, the game's crafting system is hit and miss. Aesthetically it's a treat, and you'll see (and hear) players stirring the contents of cooking pots, sawing on lumber, and mixing potions much like you do in EverQuest II and Vanguard. Unlike systems in those two games, though, the fabrication process itself seems very simple. If you have the resources in your inventory and you're near the appropriate station, it's a matter of pressing the button.

I'm sure I'm missing something here in terms of item grades and possible rares or sub-components, and hopefully that will all become clear when the game is localized for the English-speaking world. Another thing (and unquestionably the most important thing) that's impossible to tell in a short beta test is the crafter's effect on the economy and the world at large. XL has stated that loot drops are in the game and has tip-toed around the question as to whether they're equal to or better than crafted gear.

Final thoughts

It's here that most of my misgivings about ArcheAge rear their ugly heads. While I appreciate that XL is trying to be original and meld the best parts of the sandbox and the themepark, my gut tells me that the result is going to be something of an acquired taste (and not, as it currently stands, something that will completely satisfy those looking for spiritual sequels to Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies). I hope I'm wrong here, but in many ways the ingredients of this slow-boiling sandpark stew stem from polar opposite design principles, and therefore, one flavor or the other will eventually rise to the top.

In taking something of a fence-sitter approach to the dev-controlled vs. player-controlled economy conundrum, XL is running the risk of failing to please either camp. In my opinion, it would be a shame to build a world such as this and then cheese it up by allowing players to become self-sufficient. XL's view on the matter will take many months to determine, though.

My other cause for concern is the sheer ambition on display from Jake Song and company. It's no exaggeration to say that reading an ArcheAge features list is like stepping inside the mind of a sandbox fan who's been given an unlimited budget. While it's great to see a big-name developer that actually wants to do all this stuff, I have to confess some doubts as to whether the team can do it. Perhaps it can, but one week is simply not enough time to know for sure.

At the end of my CBT3 experience, I find that I'm right back where I started. I spent a lot of time with ArcheAge this week, and I still don't have an answer to the question of whether the game can successfully blend sandbox and themepark. Certainly there are many great things about the game, and it already boasts a surprising amount of refinement. There are just as many things, though, that could turn out to be problematic. In spite of the awesome experiences I had, I feel the need to keep ArcheAge at arm's length until the sandbox elements have had time to mature. In the past, I've been guilty of referring to ArcheAge as the next great sandbox (or pessimistically, the only great sandbox aside from EVE). It might be just that, but it's too early to tell.

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