Free-to-play MMOs don't tend to get the time of day around RPS Towers, but I thought I'd had a look at this one because... well, it's pretty. Allods Online has some exquisite art, and as we all know, it's best to judge things by superficial appearances. Hell, if you don't judge a book by its cover then you tend to end up reading the wrong kind of literature. Anyway, here's Wot I Think.
It's pretty in a familiar way, of course. In the way that all the women in American teen dramas look identical - all primed with the same flawless teeth and watery eyes - so there's a certain kind MMO that looks very much like World Of Warcraft. And boy does Allods Online look a lot like World Of Warcraft. It's got that rounded cartoon friendliness that says "hey, I'm not going to kick your graphics card in the kidney, and I'll probably run on your mid-range laptop." It's got very much the the same kind of trees, similar fonts, and the cousins of the WoW UI windows are living in Allods' inventories and skill-tables. Yes, this, a free-to-play MMO, is one of handsomest-ever videogames to come out of the hot furnaces of the Russian games industry, and its aimed straight at the heart of the MMO world. The Warcraft-like visuals are clearly meant to entice in the millions of people in, the millions of people that this game will require to pay back to the reported $12m that was spent on its development. That's not a lot in the wider scheme of things, but when you are giving your game away for free then you'd better have some other idea for getting that cash back in your pocket. The idea here is micropayments, and seeing as only a tiny percentage of people seem to want to give up pennies for magic hats, Allods had better have a lot of people. Anyway, let's come back to that in a bit.
The millions of dollars seem to have been spent on the art design. I'd go as far as saying that it's better in places that WoW ever was: the world itself is ludicrous and pretty rich in its furnishings. The Arisen, my favourite race, looking like Aztec Necron, are basically super-stylish in every way. One of the nice little touches in the game - which I have seen somewhere before but can't quite pinpoint - is that you can cast some spells without having a target. This nuance means my Arisen mage can walk around with a fireball in his hand, particle effects streaming. It's lovely. The fantast hipness of the Arisen are counter-balanced by the kitsch furriness of the Gibberlings, which are a super-cute trio of creatures which are on the "good" side of the two factions, the Legon. The character creation process actually sees you naming and selecting the features of each one of the three creatures which then work together as you play in the world. It's really not much different to playing with a single character, but it's such a clever touch, and representative of the game as a whole: it might be aping MMOs immemorial, but it wants to be memorable. The same goes for the shamen, who wander around with his cigarette-smoking demon in tow.
Taking it further, the world at large is resplendent: a kind of Spelljammer-esque fantasy of flying ships. Apparently - and I haven't got this far so I can't actually have any objective thoughts about it - the end game allows you produce astral galleons of your own and fight other gangs of Pvpers. That sounds okay to me, even if the later game is a bit broken, as I'll explain in a moment. Those flying ships ply trade between various worlds - the titular Allods - which float in the astral plane. The astral is a big spacey nebulae of magical dust in which demons live, and the backdrop for the world at large. Those demons range from squig-like micro-horrors to giant spectral monstrosities the size of houses, and a couple of them are introduced to you in the action-packed tutorial mission. The Allods themselves contain a huge variety of fantasy worlds, from idyllic faerie forests to spooksome citadels. They're not all particularly great, and the world is certainly less interesting to explore than Azeroth, (the area you land in straight after the Imperial tutorial sequence is quite dull), but it has moments of genuine imaginative flair. In conclusion: Allods is mostly pretty, with some sporadic dullness.
As I was to discover in the course of playing Allods, however, there's other stuff to a game than how it looks. I know! It's amazing, but true. All the little numbers and icons actually add up to a complex system which determines your progress and ultimate success within the game world. At the core of the game you level up, and from there you can pour points into both numerous personal attributes such as luck, intelligence, strength, and about a dozen others. Then there's a talent tree, which basically allows you pick and choose across a wide selection of skills that are specific to your class. Some of these come in multiple tiers, such as the psionic Gibberlings being able to do a mind-meld thing where they access high powers if they prep themselves psychically before a fight.
All this looks good in theory, but in practice it seems that there's very little obvious consequence to your fiddling with stats, equipment, and skills. The changes in WoW, for example, are quite obvious and on the surface. You can see it right there in the numbers: the results of working hard to have the best loadout for your dwarf are clear. In Allods, however, it's rather more opaque, and it really seems to be down to little more than your level to determine your overall effectiveness. It just seems like a bit of a mess - something to fiddle with that is ultimately pointless.
But perhaps that's down to the shop. Ah, here is where Allods intends to make money: an online, in-game shop system that sells a range of the useful items for real world cash (neatly traded through a gold system). Perhaps the marked flatness of the standard experiences is intended to propel you toward virtual-item shopping so that you can feel that you make a real difference to your character? Maybe that's it? Hmm, then again maybe not. There's really not much in here other than random resources and potions. A bigger backpack might come in handy, but it's not exactly transformative.
As the game goes on, however, things do seem to lean more towards shopping. Assuming you keep playing into the level 20s, you're going to face PvP, and you're going to be crunching your resources to stay alive. You might not choose to flag yourself up for PvP, but that might not matter, because attacking opposing faction NPCs still flags you. Worse, there's an item - the War Banner - which allows players to attack enemy players of a similar level, even if they are unflagged. It's a step into a hostile territory that seems to be putting many players off.
I get the feeling that this PvP-horror issue is one of different cultures clashing. Lots of Allods players are going to get a kick out of a PvP-heavy game in the later stages, but it does seem to have baffled others who are acclimatised to getting on with the PvE in the game. When Allods is so relatively approachable - casual, even - it does seem a little odd to force players to suddenly jump off into a chasm of brutal PvP come level 25. Anyway, the grumble-heavy threads on the Allods forums suggests there might be some changes on the way there, and I'd expect lots of adjustments in the coming months. gPotato are rather open about this being a work in progress, and it clearly has a way to go.
Ultimately, of course, Allods is just another suspect in the lineup of MMOs that have whacked snakes and looted their corpses for year after year. The fact that it's pretty and available to anyone will certainly attract the eye, but I couldn't stick around, and I doubt many of you will, either. This game is going to draw a large crowd simply because it's free, but scratch the surface and things are both boringly familiar and not altogether satisfying. The fundamental physiology of the game, those moment-to-moment processes of fiddling with character builds and bashing enemies simply aren't meaty enough to sustain us.