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Block by block: Hands-on with the Cube World alpha


From an outsider's perspective, Picroma's Cube World might look like yet another Minecraft clone. It has the same blocky appearance and voxel design of Mojang's money-printing sandbox, and though the color palette is brighter and the graphics more crisp, it would be easy to dismiss the title as a "me-too" copycat. "If you've played one cube-based game," says the veteran gamer who lives in your brain, "you've played them all."

Despite the visual similarities, however, Cube World and Minecraft are extremely different games. Minecraft is a crafter's paradise, a world where you can build anything you can imagine. Cube World is an adventure game, and fans of MMOs will find it far closer to World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2 than it is to the game that threatens huts with Creepers and allows you to build full-scale replicas of pretend spaceships.

Cube World is unique, and even in alpha, it's something quite special.

Bright colors, big world

Cube World's aesthetics are charming and warm and will no doubt be the first thing you notice upon logging in. The voxel-block design creates a world that is simultaneously simple and complex. Characters range from adorable to downright ugly, and environments run the gamut from swamp to lava to forest. Perhaps the most impressive part of Cube World is how it manages to pack so much interesting visual data into so limited a package; you wouldn't think that clouds and trees made out of cubes could be pretty, but Cube World offers solid evidence to the contrary.

Cube World
The world of Cube World is procedurally generated. In other words, the environment in which you are adventuring is created on the fly. Worlds in Cube World are essentially endless; when you reach the border of your current zone, a new zone is generated from one of the game's biomes. There are no borders, no invisible walls, and no limitations on where you can go. In Cube World, if you can see a tree, mountain, ocean, or rooftop, you can explore it. Each world is packed with nooks and crannies. Towns, caves, castles, and other points of interest are there for you to investigate (at your own peril).

In Cube World, you will find a freedom that isn't readily available in many other RPGs.

Swim, climb, jump, run

The primary reason Cube World feels so free is the inclusion of what Picroma refers to as "adventure skills." Each adventure skill is situation-based and enables you to complete a deeper exploration of a particular part of the game world. Some will be familiar to MMO vets -- the ability to swim in rivers and lakes is nothing new -- but some provide a new avenue of movement that dramatically change the way you explore and access the environment.

Cube World
Perhaps the most important of these abilities is climbing. Tree trunks, castle walls, cliffs, and any other flat surface you find can be scaled with the climb ability. The better your climbing skill, the longer you can climb. Climbing completely knocks down any semblance of limitations when it comes to exploration. Instead of fighting a bunch of orcs guarding a castle entrance, you can climb the trees behind it and come in from the back. If you see a tall mountain you want to investigate, you can alternate walking and climbing to work your way to the top. It takes a little while for your mind to adjust to the fact that you don't have to walk around every obstacle you find, but once you start to effectively utilize climbing, you'll wish every game made it an option.

Stabbing and shooting

Combat is active and simple. Your abilities go on a hotbar, and your primary attacks are activated with left and right click. You attack wherever your mouse is pointed (just as in Guild Wars 2 or TERA), so you must actively face your opponent when fighting. You can also roll out of the way of danger and dodge projectiles if you're fast enough. Each of the game's four classes (Mage, Rogue, Warrior, Ranger) has a selection of special abilities that unlock as you level.

Cube World
It is in combat that Cube World's alpha status first becomes apparent. Danger levels are indicated by color-coding of enemy names but don't often ring true. You will get one-shotted -- often. Sometimes monsters that should be hard are easy and vice-versa. And some creatures, like squirrels and beetles, are surprisingly vicious. It could be payback for earning "critter" status in all other games, but Cube World's fauna really keeps you on your toes. Also problematic: Low-level enemies seem to be hard to find; Cube World starts hard and gets easier as you go. Everywhere you travel as a low-level adventurer, you will be trailed by monsters looking to end your trip.

Certain classes feel better than others. Tagging mobs with the Ranger's bow is pretty tough since you have to aim and account for travel time, and the Mage's nukes are very hard to land due to their oddball design. Rogues and Warriors, however, have simple-to-learn melee attacks that work just fine for the task of laying out bad guys. Enemies move frenetically as you try to avoid them, and sometimes the cube-y terrain makes it hard to line up hits as you go. Still, combat is functional enough to get the job done if you're willing to suffer through a slight learning curve.

Building the RPG

Cube World is a role-playing game, and the genre's influences are apparent at every turn. There are eight races from which to choose (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Undead, Frogmen, Orcs, Goblins, and Lizardmen), and the four classes fit directly into your basic RPG archetypes. Enemies killed reward you with experience points; earn enough experience points and you'll level up. Naturally, this results in the acquisition of talent points, which you can then spend to enhance your abilities as you see fit.

Cube World
As a hero in Cube World, you'll also have the option to tame a pet. Any class is capable of taming pets, but the hero must have the appropriate item for the specific beast. Most of the creatures you encounter in Cube World can be tamed, from dogs to turtles to bats. Some of these pets can even be used as mounts. Summoned pets assist you in battle by tanking, healing, or just adding to your total damage output.

Finally, there is crafting. No RPG would be complete without it, and Cube World has plenty of gathering nodes to pick at and skills to master. The crafting formulas fit into the same basic RPG archetypes as the characters. Weaponsmithing, armor crafting, cooking, alchemy, and jewelcrafting are all there. However, crafting items in Cube World currently seems like the best way to acquire them (or purchasing them from other players). You'll find items as you adventure, but crafting is the best path for fitting yourself with high quality gear.

Work in progress

Cube World is delightful in many ways, but is also very clearly still in alpha. While it runs very smoothly and suffers surprisingly little from glitches or bugs, there are problems with the game that stem mostly from its being in development rather than being finished. There's nothing game-breaking (though the only way I can exit it is to crash it), just a collection of niggling issues that leave Cube World feeling like something that needs a bit more time in the oven.

Cube World
The world, while populated with mobs and a few roaming NPCs, gives you very little in the way of guidance. And since leveling by killing things takes a considerable amount of time, Cube World quickly starts to feel a bit pointless and empty. You'll find the occasional town inhabitant who will send you on an adventure to faraway lands, but the bulk of the current game is spent running through endless biomes and fighting off whatever level-appropriate things you happen to encounter. Crafting is a fun distraction, but without clear indicators on what you need, where to get it, or what you should craft next, you may find yourself wondering whether it's worth the effort.

Additionally, functioning servers are hard to find. Most of the listed servers I could track down either functioned as special game modes (King of the Hill, PvP, etc.) or returned errors when I tried to connect. The few I was able to connect to offered lots in the way of friendly players and chaotic action, but they were also rife with cheaters who had hacked their way to impossible HP totals and exceptionally high levels. Because there are (as of yet) no public, official Cube World servers, the alpha leaves you out in the cold when it comes to playing with other people.

The official Cube World website expresses interest in experimenting with "the possibility of higher populated multiplayer servers," though these massively multiplayer servers have yet to surface.

The future, cubed

Cube World is an interesting concept with tons of potential. It will trigger that element of your brain that loves adventuring in new worlds and its beautiful design will inspire you to explore, level, craft, and fight. However, in its current unfinished state, it isn't likely to hold the extended interest of the large majority of MMO gamers. Without a server browser, cheat-proof tech, more narrative, and perhaps a few tutorials, Cube World may be too rough of a ride.

Cube World
That being said, Picroma is clearly on the right track. And while the game hasn't been updated since July, the two-person husband-and-wife team behind the game recently assured players that they're hard at work on backend improvements and other necessary upgrades.

The Cube World alpha is good. Let's hope the beta will be great.

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?

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