Anarchy Online's been in development for four years. The budget is reputedly in the range of $13 million dollars. It's been in testing for ages, it's beautiful, and it's beating the next wave of MMORPGs to market by several months.
So why is it so flawed?
Welcome to Rubi-Ka, wipe your feet at the door.
Approximately 30,000 years from now, on the far off planet of Rubi-Ka, the mega-corporation of Omni-Tek has set up mining operations. The planet, a great source of the substance Notum, is prized by Omni-Tek for helping them produce the nano-technology that keeps them powerful and wealthy. Their cruel methods, however, have angered a variety of people, who have split from the corporation. These rebels, forming a variety of Clans, have reached the strength and power needed to oppose Omni-Tek on their own turf. Caught between the conflict is a small band of neutrals, trying to life a peaceful life in the desert.
As of the writing of this review (August 2001), there is no real plot to speak of in game. Funcom is holding off until September and the European release of the game to begin the storyline, which is planned to span four years. The basic framework of Omni-Tek versus the Clans is in, but that's about it.
Whether Funcom can deliver an entertaining story to go along with the fighting remains to be seen.
The one thing Anarchy Online truly has going for it is the graphics. Quite simply, they're absolutely incredible by any standard, let alone for the MMORPG market (in which graphics have tended to be secondary concerns).
The landscapes are vast and varied - from forests with lush trees and grasses, to desert plains, to sprawling cities. The holdings of Omni-Tek tend to be dark, brooding cities, which properly convey a Blade-Runner type urban sprawl. Clan territory, to contrast, is much more primitive in nature, with tents and adobe style buildings.
There are all sorts of other graphical effects. Rain is common in some areas, as well as storms - complete with lightning bolts striking the ground with startling frequency at times. Occasionally a sandstorm will pop up, and visibility becomes incredibly limited, the whole area turns red, sand flies everywhere, and multiple lightning bolts strike per second - it's incredibly impressive.
The lighting effects are also nice, with portable lights brightening up small areas. The game becomes very, very dark at night, and tools like night vision goggles are highly useful to help find your way.
Character models look good - there are a variety of heights and shapes for characters, as well as faces. Clothing and armor worn by your character can be seen by all, whether it's a bikini, a trench coat, a set of mismatched armor, or even a full set of one particular brand of armor - some helmets even feature transparent faceplates, which is a nice effect. Monsters aren't as detailed as their humanoid counterparts, but still look passably good in the scheme of things.
The downside to all of the graphical splendor is the fact that it runs incredibly slow on just about any machine on the market, especially in crowded areas, as player textures are forced into memory. Whether this is a temporary issue or a problem deep-seeded in the graphical engine is unknown at this time, but it could be a long-term issue. You'll enjoy looking at the game, even though you'll see your fair share of slideshows. Words really can't describe how good AO looks, nor can screenshots - it's that good.
Music is generally quite good overall. While some areas (such as parts of Omni-1's Entertainment District) have constant background music, for the most part, the music is only sporadically heard. Often times it's played when switching areas, but other events seem to set it off, like a sunrise. While the compositions are short, they're a nice diversion. Battle music is decent, but like in most games, it does become a bit tiresome quickly - fortunately it can be toggled off separately from the rest of the music, which is a nice touch.
Sound effects are also pretty good. Monsters tend to have distinct sounds, especially the highly distinctive (and annoying) roller-rats. Nanoformulas tend to have a few sounds that do repeat often. Weapons also have a variety of sounds, ranging from the "thwack" of a crossbow to the many different types of energy weapons available. While you'll be hearing them often, at least there are a large variety of sounds to go along with the numerous weapon types.
I send you this Atrox in order to have your advice
Character creation and development plays a major role in Anarchy Online - it's a robust system with some nice potential.
To begin, you choose the breed for your character. There are four breeds. Atrox are androgynous brutes with immense strength and stamina. Opifex are sneaky, agile humans. Nano-mages are especially adept at controlling and using nano-technology, at the expense of their own physical strength. Lastly, Solitus are good all around characters. Breed choice determines the look of your character, their attributes, and sets some general strengths and weaknesses.
From there, you can customize your character - there are a variety of faces available, and there are three height and three weight settings to choose from.
The biggest choice during character creation is that of a class. There are twelve classes to choose from, each with their own skill proficiencies and unique nano-formulas. They tend to fit into several sub-groups, including combat specialists (soldiers, enforcers, martial artists), pet classes (bureaucrats, meta physicists, engineers), and other miscellaneous types (doctors, adventurers, traders, etc).
After choosing the above details, a unique call sign can be assigned (the name the world will know you by), and a first and last name are randomly assigned to flesh out your character a bit more. A side can finally be chosen - Omni-Tek, Clan, or Neutral.
The skill system is immediately prevalent when you get into the game. You start with a certain number of IP (improvement points). IP are used to raise your character's attributes and the dozens of skills available - they're a limited resource, only acquired as your character levels up. IP can be assigned into any skills you want - there are no limits as to how you can develop your character. However, each class and breed has different levels of proficiency with each skill.
For example, an Enforcer, a melee type character, has green skill in all of the melee weapon skills. Since they're green, they're very cheap to increase, and Enforcers won't have to spend too much IP keeping their weapon skills at a high level. To contrast, Enforcers also have blue/dark blue skills in the various nano-skill types. These are highly expensive to increase for Enforcers, and while it's possible to do this (and necessary at times), too many IP into blue skills will limit the amount of IP available to spend on other things.
As such, while there are certain skills that every class will be able to become good at, there is flexibility to choose exactly how you want to develop your character. Enforcers can become good with any sort of melee weapon, but if a player really wanted to, they could become skilled with ranged weapons instead (just not as good with them, and they'd have to sacrifice other skills).
As your character levels up, they'll be able to raise skills to higher levels. This allows better equipment to be used and better nanoformulas to be learned. Every item in the game has a Quality Level - from 1 to 200. While QL is a rough indicator of what level character should be using it, it's most useful in comparing identical types of equipment. While QL 50 Freedom Arms pistols are significantly better than QL 25 Freedom Arms, they require a much higher level of skill to be able to use them.
The effect of different Quality Levels is that there's a constant need to upgrade your equipment. Instead of having to go with different types of weapons, however, you can choose to use one particular type of equipment and simply replace it with higher quality versions as you progress. Seeing as how different items tend to use different combinations of skills, this may be needed - one pistol may have Burst capability and need IP in the Burst skill, whereas another doesn't need the IP placed into Burst to become effective. It's nice to have the flexibility, though finding one particular type of equipment that's a higher QL than you have can be difficult.
For the most part, you'll be leveling through combat, though it is possible to gain experience through trade skills. Combat can be very simple at times - a simple button press will initiate combat, and it'll progress in real-time without more input needed. Special attacks are available based on what you're equipped with - an assault rifle may be able to periodically use a full clip of ammunition, and a rifle may be able to take an aimed shot at an unwary opponent. Naturally, the more powerful the attack, the less often it's available. Nanoformulas can also be used in battle, but have recharge times between.
Combat can become very hectic in groups or with multiple targets - you'll need to monitor the status of your comrades, keep track of who's fighting what, who needs help, and if anything is coming to join the fray. It's in a group situation where you're barely able to keep alive that the game is at its most entertaining, and a good group can make all the difference (and likewise, a bad group will get you killed very quickly if the situation escalates). Grouping is very highly encouraged, with massive experience bonuses given to groups, as well as the simple fact that five or six people can kill monsters much more quickly than one person can.
Player versus player conflict is one of the biggest features of Anarchy Online. In a game about a war between two factions, it makes sense that it's going to be the players fighting each other where the game is focused.
To be honest, I really didn't like Anarchy Online's PVP combat, and I'm not sure if it's a personal dislike of PVP in general, or the implementation here. One example comes to mind - I was in a PVP area when a nano-technician hit me for 200 damage with a burst from his gun and then hit me with a 1000 damage nanoformula - I was dead before I could locate him on my screen, and the whole episode took less than ten seconds. Was it my fault for not being prepared (though I was buffed for combat, on the lookout, and at full health), or is the system just unbalanced? It's far too early to say, but it would appear that there are some PVP balance issues at play here, and only time will tell.
There are some nice features built into the system - PVP is only allowed in certain areas, and until level 75 (where anyone level 75 or above can attack you) you can only attack or be attacked by people in a small level range. Even so, I have to wonder how the PVP landscape is going to look in a few months, particularly with PVP seeming to be a huge part of Funcom's vision for the game.
Death is handled in a way that lets you decide how badly you're hurt. Every time you level up, your character is saved. From then on, when you die, you lose all experience since you've last saved - but you can spend some money at an insurance terminal at any point to save your character again. As such, do you want to try to get that 50K to level with your current group, or run back to town to save your progress?
Some players choose to risk it all to get that next level, while others are more cautious. It's nice to have the choice, but it's a fair assumption that peer pressure is going to cause many people to stay with a group instead of saving and suffer for it - especially those most integral to a group, like the healer or character keeping the monsters off of the others. I've lost track of the number of times while playing where someone around me has lost a large amount of experience because they hadn't gone to save. Again, you have the choice how often you can save, but only time will tell how people use it. Regardless of how much exp you lose, newly resurrected characters will have skill loss for a few minutes, but nothing major or permanent.
For those who don't want the hassle of trying to put together a group, or don't want to go into the wilderness to hunt, you can get a randomly generated mission. Different types of missions can be specified (item retrieval, assassination, etc), and unless you make a copy of the mission key for another player, are for you alone. No longer will you be forced to wait in a line in a dungeon for your shot at an item - missions can be taken as often as you'd like, and each mission dungeon is full of creatures to fight and items to find. Completing a mission will give you a cash bonus as well as some item as a reward.
Indeed, everyone basically requires missions, as money is extremely difficult to come by otherwise. The problem is that missions tend to be insanely boring and repetitive. You'll go to an area, find the mission entrance, and go in. The mission rooms will be random, but tend to follow the same patterns. Likewise, there's about a dozen or so different types of mission areas, but they're very similar to one another.
While it's initially great that you can go do a mission and not have to worry about others ruining your experience, after a few hours you'll realize that you're doing the exact same thing over and over again. Random generated missions are one of Anarchy Online's biggest features, but in their current form are simply too repetitive and tedious to be fun.
Danger, Philip Ross
The sad fact remains that, just like the missions, Anarchy Online is currently too repetitive and tedious to be fun.
For starters, while the storyline hasn't started yet, there are basically two distinct elements at play in AO - Player versus Monster conflict, and PVP. The PVP is, as mentioned above, of dubious entertainment value. The PVM portion of the game is highly repetitive. Every few levels you'll gain the next level of nanoformulas for your class, or be able to use a better weapon, but that's really it. The variety in monsters is typically lacking, and since you don't gain any experience for monsters several levels below you, it's generally the best option to find a good hunting ground with initially higher-level monsters, and stay there until it's no longer profitable.
My character reached level 50 in the time I played, out of a possible 200 levels. While I had gained some new abilities for my Adventurer (such as the ability to morph into a two headed wolf), had some more powerful healing nanos and better armor, my character was fundamentally the same as when I'd started. Most of my character's life was spent fighting mutants - when you outgrow one set of mutants, there's higher-level ones just waiting for you. If you tire of one type of enemy, you can go find others, but they're simply more powerful variations of those you've probably already faced countless times. The leveling process slows, but you're basically doing the same things as before.
At the moment, there are no quests to go on. There are no static dungeons to explore, and there may never be. There's nothing to do but watch a set of numbers gradually increase, and to know that your character's now got a nanoformula that does 500 damage instead of 100, or a heal that works on your whole team instead of just one character. That's pretty much it.
There's not even the satisfaction of truly interacting with others - for a game with thousands of people, they tend to be fairly antisocial. Conversations in towns are almost all of the "Level 20 soldier looking for group" variety, or complaints about the latest bug or the constant lag. There's no chat channel where people can just talk about stuff out of character. People asking questions are often ignored. It's almost frustrating, and while some of it can be attributed to the fact that the interface can be a bit arcane and difficult to learn, the AO player base isn't that social in game. It's not really Funcom's fault, but it's a factor anyway.
Buggier than an anthill
While it's not my place in a review to rant about the company making a product, I will say this much - given the events of the past month or two, and given historical trends, the ability of Funcom to stabilize their product is in question.
It's a lot of little things. For example, when the game was first released, people noticed that the server where players were to give their credit card information wasn't even encrypted. It took several days for a secure registration server to be put up, but not before thousands of people registered. It's unknown if any credit card numbers were intercepted, but complaints on the official Funcom boards (and other boards) have alleged that this indeed was the case.
It took over a month before many people (this reviewer included) to be able to access and change their account information - while the page originally worked for some, many others ran into an issue where their user-names and passwords were rejected by the server, leaving people unable to switch credit cards, change billing plans, or even cancel their accounts.
At one point Funcom claimed they wouldn't start the free month until the game was stable and working as intended. The free month (for those who registered when the game was released) ended on August 9th, and the game is currently not stable. Disconnections from the servers are still common. The game contains a multitude of bugs that range from annoying to game-stopping - items having to be re-equipped to show up properly, users with some video cards being unable to see at night (at all), players being unable to load new maps, and so forth.
Lag is absolutely tremendous, particularly in crowded areas, though common even in less populated areas. There are some memory leaks that are so bad that many people are forced to reboot their computers fairly often to be able to continue playing. The most recent patch broke some issues that had been fixed in the past, such as infrequent monster spawns, and many players have trouble with the game's auto-patcher and have had to reinstall several times.
The most disconcerting thing about these bugs is the fact that many of them have reportedly been around since early stages of beta, and still haven't been fixed. Is it due to lack of programmers, or other problems taking higher priority, or simply the inability of the team to fix these problems? It's hard to say, but it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Only time will tell when (and if) Anarchy Online is fixed, but it's hard to sit around and wait for Funcom to turn it around.
I really tried to like Anarchy Online. Indeed, through Beta 4, I was enthralled with it - I had a lot of fun running around, exploring, and trying new characters. I was able to forgive the crashes, the bugs, the lag - it was a beta, after all. I even gave it over a month of retail time, understanding that the volume of players trying to play was a factor.
As I went, though, I realized that once you get past the eye candy and the joy of exploring a new world, there's the harsh reality of Anarchy Online - crashes, lag, incomplete features, bugs, memory leaks, and worst of all - repetitive gameplay.
Anarchy Online was released at least six months early. Only time will tell if it'll be fixed in the future, and I hope for Funcom's sake that they are able to fix Anarchy Online - they've spent too much time on it. Sadly, though, the public may not be as forgiving, in a market with several dominant games already out (and working), and a variety of other MMORPGs on the way.
At this point, it's just not worth it, and I can't recommend it to any gamer at this point in time.