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The RPG Scrollbars: A Dip Into... Skyforge

God alrighty?

It takes quite a lot to get me to download a new MMO these days. When I hear good rumblings though, I listen, and so yesterday I decided to check out the Skyforge Open Beta. [official site]. This is not a review, so it's not intended as a sweeping look at all systems. Think of it as dipping a toe into the water - did it catch my attention, and was it at least worth the whopping client download?

Right from the start, I'll give Skyforge this - it's got a cool world. It's part fantasy and part SF, where evil sea nymphs assault futuristic ports and gods are dispatched from their metaphorical ivory tower to do tech support. I'm not kidding. The second mission features you being sent to save a factory whose systems have gone on the fritz, and there's no way to just stand on a nearby hill with a megaphone and boom "THOU SHALT TURN IT OFF AND ON AGAIN." Shame.

Actually, the whole god thing is a bit strange so far. Technically, you start out as merely an Immortal, and one of if not many, then at least 'loads'. The first gift sent to me by my worshippers? A... polo shirt. Thank you, mortals, but if you don't mind, I'll instead take your firstborn child and any oxen you have to spare. The fact that divinity and power come from being able to do the same thing that every other MMO character can do - come back to life after dying - does start to feel a little like these guys just lucked into a brilliant scam on their world. Kill ten boars? Fuck you, we're gods.

Though of course, it's not long before you are indeed killing ten boars.

There's a nice feel to it all though. While I can't say that I've seen any real flicker of Obsidian in the design, unless you count the horrible beards imported from Alpha Protocol, Skyforge certainly aims higher than main developers Allods Team's last game... uh... Allods. That was pretty stock World of Warcraft with pay to win bleeding out of its anus. Skyforge smacks more of a passion project, where there may be a sting in the tail later on, but either way, there's cool stuff to enjoy too. The world design in particular is lovely, with the opening futuristic area having a truly fine animated skybox, a clean UI, and a decent action combat engine that isn't enough to carry the game when compared to those with an all-out action focus, but still has a decent amount of oomph.

Playing as a Cryomancer, the damage-dealer of the three starter classes, Skyforge wastes no time handing out the cool powers - a basic ice shot, giant lances that you charge up and then impale enemies, and then a sprinkling of other tricks guaranteed to have Mortal Kombat's Sub-Zero going "Oi!" and calling his lawyer. Early areas include a port under siege by fish monsters, the aforementioned warehouse, and a cool series of floating platforms high above the ground full of ruins. It's not an open world, with the focus instead being on hanging out in what's basically the Treehouse of the Gods, where a giant sphere lets you drop into troublespots faster than you can yell "POWER XTREME!" They begin repeating almost immediately, as well as being available for return visits to earn upgrades, but are decently done and fun for sightseeing.

At least, they are on the first trip. My second to a map called Port Naori rather dampened my mood, both with its insistence that I re-fight battles I'd done the first time, throwing up force-fields to prevent me just waving to someone and moving on, and then by placing an invisible wall in front of a huge open corridor I needed to run down, which opened only after I smashed some eggs for no reason and then re-fought two bosses I'd already dealt with. I don't mind reusing levels, especially of this fidelity, but c'mon, at least make it a different path rather than just changing what's at the end of the one I just ran down about half an hour ago.

Even early on, there's a lot of Final Fantasy and other JRPG in Skyforge's lineage. It's one of those games which pretends not to care about levels, as if that just brushes aside all the other progression systems, with the main upgrade path being the "Ascension Atlas" - totally not just the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. Basically you earn points that go to unlocking nodes, which upgrade your classes. The Cryomancer's takes forever before you even get to sniff a choice to make, though the other two base classes (for those who haven't bought the Founder's Edition to get more) have a little more flexibility. Every character can level up every class though, and switch between them at will, with others unlocking after sufficient clambering down the tree.

That leads to one of the odder elements of the game - it caps your progress and earnings to prevent you just racing through. I tend to think that's pretty self-defeating, that players will always try to power through these things and if that's how they want to do it, then fine. But still, it's worth knowing about. I do love how the Premium membership option, which you can buy from between 3 and 180 days, opts to sell this as "Reach weekly limits sooner". Yes! Give us your money and you won't... have... to play our game as much. Hmm. On the plus side, I don't see anything in the game that screams problematic as far as the cash shop goes and Premium adds little but that progress boost.

Dipping in though as I was, it's a smooth introduction. I like it when MMOs feel like they're giving you quests worth your time from the start, and Skyforge pretty much does. Even if you're only fighting basic mobs, the wrapping of being a god helps you to be what City of Heroes originally pioneered - awesome from Level 1. The basic costumes start you out with a good range of styles, from classic armour and booby MMO ladies to full plate for everyone and futuristic battle armour, all of which sits comfortably alongside the magical stuff in the anachronistic fold. The shop continues that - you can run around in a full business suit, elegant dresses, something that Commander Shepard would be proud to wear and a few other styles too, with a whole wardrobe provided free at the start of the game. That plus powers plus being told you're awesome makes for a good start.

What doesn't, and the biggest disappointment, is that the writing and voicework is at best mundane and at worst... well, not bad, but decidedly meh. I tend to hook onto the personal stories in MMOs like an antisocial remora and so it's important to make those immediate connections with the main players. Here, they're pretty damn flat, with the story throwing around clumsy titles like "Reapers Of Death" and a villain called the "Gravedigger" and just generally not setting up an interesting struggle to suddenly be part of. There are so many great examples of MMOs doing this right now that there's really no excuse, and the flatness of it all is really disappointing when put against the awesome scenery. Maybe there are great characters later on, but at the moment, I'm not invested in the fight. Be intriguing, like The Secret World; be exciting like World of Warcraft; Christ, if you must, be funny like Scarlet Blade: but do something that gives a reason to care beyond 'Well, I downloaded it." I have too many games clamouring for attention for a few gigabytes of sunk bandwidth to cut it any more.

Really, my favourite thing about these scenes is the conversation system, which isn't so much half-baked as still flour and water awaiting being made into dough. To try and deal with the silent protagonist problem that plagued, say, Secret World, your character does get to chip into conversations. But choose what you say? Haha, no. You just get "Press Space to calm the captain and promise to clean up the port." I hope later quests run with this. "Press Space to express your cynicism with a small but notable eye-roll." "Press Space to query villain's plans in reference to Jungian psychology." Maybe even a section where you use a computer: "Press Space to press space." We can but dream, while running around the world in awesome looking power armour.

But anyway. Did Skyforge hook me in and make me want to spend hours and hours in its company? Not really, but it's one of the more pleasant F2P MMOs I've played of late, and worth a grab. It's at least trying a few things differently to most, from its hub world to the scattered way it handles quests in its more open areas, and there's a genuine sense of trying to be a good game first and a profitable one second, in the hope that one will lead to the other. As ever, that may prove to be a bluff in the later stages, but first impressions count and Skyforge left some pretty positive ones. I don't regret the download, even if I doubt I'll personally be with it much longer.

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Richard Cobbett