"All of this makes for an exciting combat system that will most certainly require practice, timing and skill to truly master."
Nexon is proud to admit that it has played a key role in the popularity of free to play (FTP) RPGs, led of course by the venerable MapleStory. They believe that by removing an initial cost – the main barrier to entry – more gamers will try out their titles and be willing to spend money on them. Since this seems to be working out well for Nexon (not to mention many iOS and mobile developers), it's hard to argue the logic. For their next project, Nexon is working with developer Eyedentity Games to bring us Dragon Nest, a free to play action MMORPG. Not dissimilar in concept to En Masse's TERA, Dragon Nest forgoes the MMORPG convention of semi-turn-based auto attacks and instead gives you the level of control over their characters that you would find in an action or adventure title. The result is a game that aims to offer most of the social gaming and loot-grabbing benefits of an MMO but with more satisfying combat.
Unlike many other MMOs, Dragon Nest opts for a bright, anime-styled presentation. Upon starting the game, you are given a choice between four classes: Warrior, Archer, Cleric and Sorceress. This seems sparse for an MMO, but each of these four classes branches out into one of two specialty classes at level 15, and each of those branches out once again at level 45. So while there's little choice in class at the outset, this system allows you significant control over how your characters grow and specialize compared to other games.
I had a chance to take a warrior and archer out for a spin in both PvE (Player vs. Enemy) and PvP (Player vs. Player) scenarios. PvE dropped me in an outdoor ruins-like dungeon in control of an archer. It was immediately apparent that direction and aim is of vital importance in Dragon Nest. This isn't the kind of combat where you simply target an enemy and your attacks and spells magically land – you have to make sure your target reticule is pointed at your enemy if you intend that arrow to fly true. These are obvious facts by the rules of most action games, but it's not something often observed in an MMORPG. Its purpose is to make you more invested in the combat, rather than starting an auto-attack sequence and going off to get some Doritos. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you, but it's refreshing to see something different (even if games like SEGA's Phantasy Star Online may have done this first).
While your two standard attacks are mapped to the left and right mouse buttons, special attacks and magic are presented in typical MMO format by a row of icons along the bottom of the screen, each mapped to a keyboard button. Some moves are altered if executed in the air; warriors have a particularly devastating dive bomb move if button and key presses are timed properly. There are also recovery moves that, if you've been knocked down, allow you to leap to your feet and attack in one fell swoop, another staple of many modern action games. All of this makes for an exciting combat system that will most certainly require practice, timing and skill to truly master. If I doubted this after my dungeon run, it was proven once I dropped into a 2-on-2 PVP match, where some of my fellow gaming journalists certainly had their characters' skills down more than I did.
Since the E3 demos were set up to focus on the dungeon and PVP experience, I wasn't able to venture into one of the game's towns, interact with NPCs, shop, or check out the quest and crafting systems, but rest assured that all of these are in the game. With four starting classes, four modes of PVP (which scale from 2v2 up to 8v8) and four dungeon difficulty settings, one thing is clear: the developers really like the number four. Oh, also, they seem to want to provide players with plenty of variety to keep replay value high.
As of right now, the gameplay portions of Dragon Nest are quite polished, and I'm anxious to see if the other aspects of the game will meet the same standards. You beta testers out there should learn soon, and we'll all know when Dragon Nest is released later in 2011.