Yup, you're dead: Hands-on with Wizardry Online

Wizardry Online

Wizardry Online, an upcoming fantasy-based MMO from Sony Online Entertainment, is a "hardcore" MMO. I know this because the word "hardcore" shows up on the game's official beta sign-up page no fewer than three times (once in all caps). The website promises that thanks to Wizardry Online's "insane difficulty," my "greatest challenge" will be found somewhere in its universe. Perhaps in one of those "complex mazes" packed with "unrelenting mobs."

Now, I'm not one to back down from a challenge. In fact, I love a good fight, especially if it can potentially end in my suffering an embarrassing and expensive defeat. So I hopped into the brutal world of Wizardry Online to tempt fate and see just what this game was all about.

As it turns out, it's about dungeons, permadeath, and missed opportunities to make either worthwhile.

Hardcore frustration

Wizardry Online is marketed as a "hardcore" MMO, which means all the things you think it does: permadeath, open PvP, players looting your stuff and general fearing for your life. Gameplay relies mostly on traditional MMO mechanics but raises the stakes by making death a very serious thing and letting everyone attack everyone else at will. This "hardcore" layer is then tossed on top of a visually bland dungeon-related minigame collection in the guise of an MMO. The result is a hodgepodge of stellar ideas that are frustratingly under-delivered.

Wizardry Online Party

Here's an example: Wizardry Online changes up the overly familiar "run dungeons, get loot" mechanic by adding traps and puzzles to each dungeon. For instance, in order to proceed from one section of the dungeon to the next, you'll need to collect missing pieces of a switch or press hidden buttons. While doing this, you'll have to keep an eye out for dangerous traps such as falling rocks, noxious gas clouds, and exploding floors. If you're thinking this sounds pretty cool, you're right -- it does sound cool.

"You'll spend a lot of time staring at the floor and searching desperately for one last bolt or switch or gem or whatever."

The problem occurs in the execution. Puzzles, from what I can tell, are the same basic thing each time. You mostly run around completing random tasks until the switch works, then you repeat the process in the next area. It's the same as any other set of filler quests in any other MMO (go kill "X" number of these or gather "Y" number of these), except it's being given by a lifeless statue in a dungeon instead of an NPC with crops to protect from encroaching wildlife. Puzzles are fairly simple (at least, the ones I encountered), yet unexplainable design choices sometimes make them more of an anger-inducing hurdle than rewarding gameplay element. You'll spend a lot of time staring at the floor and searching desperately for one last bolt or switch or gem or whatever.

Puzzle Statue

The presence of traps is another promising concept that never quite takes off. The idea of dodging dangerous environmental hazards brings to mind images of Indiana Jones running from boulders and Link leaping over fire pits, but that's not how traps really work in Wizardry Online. Sure, there are grates that spew fire and jumping puzzles to navigate, and those are welcome distractions from all the doom and gloom. Unfortunately, the majority of traps work like this: Touch a glowing dot on the ground, then receive a punishment.

When you're near a trap, an exclamation point flashes over your character's head. This is your cue to examine the floor and find the tiny red orb that indicates a hazard. If you touch it, you blow up or get poisoned or are subjected to any number of other random things that otherwise have no visual representation in the environment. It's like stepping on a certain part of the sidewalk, one that looks exactly like the rest of the sidewalk, and having lava come spewing out in your face. It just doesn't make any sense, and it's definitely not something I would describe as "fun."

Wizardry Online Trap

Here's why these failings in design are so important: Nearly all of what you do in Wizardry Online occurs in dungeons. Dungeons are how you earn equipment, complete quests, and level up. SOE told me in my press tour that the main replay value of the game comes from repeatedly running dungeons for better loot. And while there's nothing particularly wrong with that as a design philosophy, it's not exactly good news if the two things you're listing as the unique selling points of your most important in-game activity are fundamentally flawed.

You are dead. For serious.

It's not all half-hearted execution and just-missed innovations, however. Wizardry Online does bring some exceptionally cool ideas to the table, mostly related to the "hardcore" layer I referenced above. Permadeath is implemented in a very intelligent way and adds an exciting sense of risk to the gameplay. If you are killed, there is a chance that your character will be reduced to ash (in other words, gone, forever). You can attempt to resurrect yourself, but it's not a guarantee. You can also increase your chances of a successful resurrection by offering some of your items as a sacrifice, which brings a neat level of strategy to what types of stuff you keep in your bag. Regardless, dying is something you very much want to avoid.

Wizardry Online Item Sacrifice

Even if you do die (I sure did), your soul lives on. The levels you've gained for your soul and the accomplishments you've earned stay intact. If you die forever, you must create a new character, but keeping your soul progress takes away some of the sting: Storyline stuff will already be completed, and dungeon puzzles will stay marked as "solved." If you don't like the concept of permadeath, this probably won't win you over, but it's an interesting take on the most hardcore element of "hardcore" MMOs and feels like a fair and smart way to handle the tricky business of killing off characters for good. The only thing that may cause a minor fracas here is SOE's plan to destroy cash shop items along with the character.

Class development is also very cool, thanks to the in-game class swap functionality. Every character is able to change from his primary class to a new class via an in-game quest. However, the character gets to keep some abilities during the transformation process, which in turn allows him to basically build whatever class he wants from scratch. Make a healer and turn him into a heal-thief. Create a mage and transform her into a flame-throwing, mob-bashing tank. This is, by far, my favorite thing about Wizardry Online, and it's something that I think players will find far more replay-positive than running through dungeons over and over again.

Wizardry Online Spellcasting

Finally, PvP is designed perfectly for this type of environment. After your soul reaches level 7, you are considered an open target. Other players can kill you anytime, anywhere (guards will react with hostility to violence in towns, but dungeons, which are not instanced, are essentially wide open). If you're killed in PvP or PvE combat, other players can loot your stuff, and the same permadeath rules apply to your resurrection. Wizardry Online is a dangerous place, and anyone playing it should know that in advance. Heck, you can even PvP accidentally; projectiles do not track targets, and stray fireballs can and will smash other players in the face. As for whether they retaliate, well, that's up to them.

"If you insist on murdering every person you see, you'll soon find yourself trapped in the 'outlaw' area of town. NPCs won't speak with you, and guards will attack you on sight."

The game stops itself from becoming a bloody free-for-all by implementing stiff penalties for killing other players. Those who steal and murder are flagged as criminals, and the more hostile they are to the world's players, the more hostile the world becomes toward them. If you insist on murdering every person you see, you'll soon find yourself trapped in the "outlaw" area of town, as other NPCs won't speak with you and guards will attack you on sight.

Your criminality rating, determined by your actions, affects how the world treats you; criminal penalties can be removed only by a countdown timer that operates on in-game time. The worse you act, the longer you'll have to sit logged in to fix the damage. Not to mention the fact that there's a bounty system in play for anyone that wants to use it for a little cold, hard revenge. Earn a reputation as a jerk who ganks lowbies and you may find your character permanently destroyed thanks to a high price on your head funded by the people you've wronged. Permadeath works both ways, after all.

Wizardry Online is a compelling experiment in "hardcore" MMO gaming with tons of promise. Sadly, the whole thing is tripped up by sub-par level design, gimmicks that confuse or bore more often than they surprise, and some of the most nondescript dungeons I think I've seen in a modern online game. In a title that seeks to make its bones by offering the pure, unfiltered danger of permadeath, there just doesn't seem to be reward on par with the risk.

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