"This is not your typical fantasy themed MMO."
Neal and I didn't quite know what to expect when we visited Snail Games USA to preview their upcoming wuxia
-themed MMO, Age of Wushu. Up to the time of our preview, it had been advertised as yet another free to play MMO that just happened to have an endorsement from Jet Li.
I'm happy to report we were both very, very pleasantly surprised.
The fastest way to describe Age of Wushu would be to call it Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the MMO. The wuxia inspiration is obvious right away. The character we saw in the playable demo ran up walls, ran lightly across water, and engaged in aerial combat maneuvers across rooftops. The game takes place in a universe based on the 15th century Ming Dynasty mixed with classic martial arts legends, and eight major martial arts schools are fighting for honor and supremacy. It's a civilized land, but a dangerous one, and the players/NPCs appear mostly human. This is not your typical fantasy themed MMO with elves and orcs, and that alone would probably be enough to set it apart in its highly competitive space.
However, there's much more going on here under the hood. First of all, this game does not look
anything like your typical free to play MMO. The graphics look absolutely outstanding, and even though the demo was obviously taking place under ideal conditions, this looks every bit like a AAA title that would be released by a much bigger company. We saw lush green forests, pink fields of cherry blossoms, beautiful waterfalls with astonishing effects – everything really looks outstanding. The animations are crisp and fluid, and motion capture with real master martial artists was used for all of the fighting moves.
Second, there are some unique new mechanics that appear to be in play. For starters, the ability to run up and down walls, across rooftops, or execute moves while in the air adds a whole new dimension to the combat. In your classic MMO, everything typically takes place on one plane – you either stand up close and activate your skills or stand at a distance and activate your skills, but higher ground and three dimensional space aren't really an issue. Not so with Age of Wushu – you will engage in aerial, wire-fu style combat both in PvE and PvP. It is a delicate balancing act, as you have only a limited amount of endurance, which allows you to execute the high flying moves. The characters we saw were super powered for the purposes of the demo, but although you have the ability to break your fall from a great height with the press of a button if you have the proper "float to the ground" ability, if you've blown all of your endurance, the ability is of no use – you'll go splat.
Your character's persistent existence even while you are logged out is another real interesting innovation. Prior to logging out, you can designate items you have collected as "for sale," and then your character will act as a merchant to other players with friendly intentions while you are away. However, sinister players could attempt to kidnap you, requiring you to pay a ransom when you log back in, so it is in your best interest to log off in a friendly, heavily populated, safe place. This is such a clever idea that reminds me of old dial up, BBS game days that I'm surprised nobody has implemented it before this, but it makes your character a living, breathing member of the universe even if you personally can't play 24/7.
There are not classes per se in Age of Wushu. I mentioned previously that there are 8 schools to choose from, each with their own unique martial arts style: Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, Beggar's Sect, Tangmen, Scholars, Royal Guards, and Wanderer's Valley. Once made, your choice of school appears permanent, but the skills you practice will still come in a wide variety.
Which brings us to another point – skills are increased through use, not through experience points. In fact, Age of Wushu is entirely
skill based. There is no leveling up in Age of Wushu. That is a bold decision for an MMO in particular, which typically tries to hook users in with fast level ups early in the experience.
This is an MMO, and as far as grouping goes, groups actually choose a "team captain" who can call for special group-based skills. A number of colored circles appear when the group leader calls for the group-based skill, and other members of the group must move to that spot to execute power attacks and abilities. It was unclear during our time with Snail Games how much focus was being made on grouping areas versus single player areas, so we're certainly curious to learn more about this system.
Open beta began in China last week for this game, and over 20.5 million people had signed up. Snail Games claims to have already made a quarter of a million dollars in item sales in the game. When pressed on how the pay model would work in North America, Snail Games said this was still being discussed – it may be that this product won't be free to play after all, with a Guild Wars style pay model being used instead. With a late summer beta being planned for North America, it will be interesting to see what direction Snail Games decides to go here, as they certainly have a very unique product on their hands. This was the biggest surprise of the year for me at E3, and I'll be interested to see more in the coming months.