WORD PLAY: ALBION ONLINE ALPHA FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Albion Online is innovative, challenging, diverse, and frustrating, all at once. In my time in the alpha, I never lacked for something to do, and I felt like I’d only scratched the surface of what the game offered. Being an alpha, it’s still a little rough around the edges, but it offers a ton of freedom that can be both its greatest strength and a notable weakness.

At the start, you’ll be instructed in the ways of combat and, most importantly, crafting. Gathering materials and making your own gear seems to be the heart of the game. Guiding your progress is the Destiny Board, a wide-ranging grid of achievements that gives you light direction in all phases of the game. You can set goals for yourself, like achieving a certain amount of fame or crafting a certain number of items, or just play however you like – you’ll get somewhere, no matter what you do.

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The game plays somewhat like an ARPG, though with less of an emphasis on loot acquisition via monsters and more via gathering. Your skills come from your armor or weapons and are pickable when you craft them, offering plenty of customization options. Want to be a fast-moving, heavy-damage-dealing berserker? Make a sword with Dash and passive attack bonuses. Want to play more defensively? Choose health regen and enemy debuff abilities.

Just don’t plan on swapping between your weapons, to use a bow at long range and a sword up close, without opening up your inventory. That seems like it should be simple enough, and would allow for even more variety in combat, but the devs have chosen not to implement it for some reason. Swapping between weapons and gathering tools is also a pain.

As you might expect from a company called Sanbox Interactive, Albion Online offers lots of ways to advance. Eventually, you can build your own house, with its own crafting facilities and other conveniences. Not surprisingly, this requires a lot of resources and will require you spend a lot of time clicking on trees and rocks, with occasional forays into enemy territory to acquire silver. The game also boasts some intense PvP action, which unfortunately was a little beyond my level in the time I was able to spend in game. Patience is key. The game won’t tell you when you’re ready for a new challenge, except obliquely by noting your achievements via the Destiny Board, so it’s up to you to determine when you’re ready to progress.

This was my downfall. I poked my head into a dungeon/cave, and while I did have a little help along the way, I bit off more than I, and my temporary partner, could chew. And in Albion, when you die, everything you were carrying (except your silver) stays right where you fell. Fortunately, we were near the entrance, so re-acquiring our loot wasn’t difficult – though only being able to grab things one at a time is another inconvenient annoyance that I hope gets fixed.

However, after I left the cave, I found that all the enemies I’d killed on my way there had respawned. I foolishly tried running past a couple, thinking there couldn’t possibly be more lurking nearby; the viewing angle doesn’t give you much for long-range scouting of your immediate area. Needless to say, that didn’t work out so well. My corpse, with all my loot, was left stranded in bandit-infested territory. One half-hearted corpse run later, I accepted my fate and returned to the city, naked and alone, forced to start over in my gear acquisition.

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I suppose there’s a type of player who will like this kind of hardcore, consequence-laden gameplay, but I’m not one of them. Corpse runs seem so 2006, and just aren’t appealing, I think, to the vast majority of online gamers today. There was already a penalty for dying – the loot I recovered after that first death had taken a fair amount of damage – so is there a reason to punish me even further? I was only a couple of hours into the game, with relatively weak equipment, but I can’t imagine having the same thing happen after I’ve spent weeks or months getting fantastic gear, only to have it vanish after one mistake. Even at my low level of accomplishment, it seemed like an onerous hurdle to get back into the game.

My feelings from my first taste of Albion Online are a little mixed. On the one hand, I like the freedom the game gives, but the presentation might be a little too minimal. Maybe a story or some kind of other exposition that explains to me why I should bother with cutting down trees and cultists would make me feel more like a part of the world than just a simple “Here’s some very basic instruction, now go do stuff.” I don’t want point-to-point handholding, but a better concept of where I should go and what I should do might be nice. If you’re an experienced player, you’re free to ignore it all, but for a beginner, it would be helpful to make sure you don’t wind up in over your head. Maybe an expanded version of the mini-Destiny Board objectives, along the lines of a traditional quest log, would help. As it is, all that information – and there’s a lot of it – is a bit of a jumble. It’s alpha, so these are things that could definitely come later.

Albion Online is an ambitious project, and Sandbox Interactive has plans to take it to pretty much every gaming-capable platform out there. It needs some refinement, and I’m still skittish about the loot loss on death, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for.

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