Edit: Update! My “final” word on Atlantica Online is here:
I’ve been playing the Atlantica Online open beta for a week or so now. As a strategy/tactics nut, I’m quite enjoying it. As a casual player with limited time, I’m finding that it’s actually quite casual friendly. Some aspects of it still need work, though. As always, I want to look at what works and what doesn’t as a case study. Since it’s still in open beta, things may change, so perhaps this is more of a snapshot of the dev process, rather than a full-on review of a final game. Still, there are things that this game does that I haven’t seen elsewhere that I wanted to ramble about.
So far, the core game mechanics are similar to most MMOs; pick an avatar, fiddle with the appearance, get plopped in a 3D world and run around learning through tutorial quests. After that, wander the realm doing heroic deeds (quests) like fetching medicine and slaughtering rampaging wildlife. Combat is the place where Atlantica veers off into left field, and is the richer for it.
Combat is a tactical affair, a bit like Ogre Battle or Suikoden. Your avatar is one unit in a merry band of mercenaries. I chose an archer, since I like to play at range and use tactics (like a WoW Hunter) rather than wading into combat face first, relying on my gear and reflexes. There are three melee classes, three ranged classes and a healer class available to players at character generation. In either melee or ranged, classes are distinguished by how their attacks are targeted; there are single target attackers, those who attack a lateral line (an arc attack, effectively), and those who attack a depth line (a piercing attack). There are three rows and three columns for each band in combat, so it’s possible to have nine units. Melee units have to attack the units in “front”, while ranged units can typically attack any opponent. There are some variations, but that’s the general gist of things.
When battling an opponent, you take turns directing your units. Players typically start, but each combat action consumes action points (which regenerate each turn), so attacks are somewhat rationed. The first team to lose all of its units (or just the leader, in a few battles) loses. Monsters who die in combat must be looted in combat. This is a bit weird, especially since their carcasses disappear after three turns, but it does make for some tactical decisions at times… especially since some units can resurrect. It’s easy to play with just the mouse, but some keyboard shortcuts can make things faster and more efficient. (It’s also largely possible to play with just the mouse out of combat which is great for when I’m holding a sleeping child in my offhand.) Turns are limited to 30 seconds if you have a full party (which won’t be until level 50), or as little as 15 seconds with three units (your starting party). That keeps combat quick, but it’s still usually plenty of time to not feel like a twitch game.
The game plays like a great “peanut butter and chocolate” sort of unexpected mashup of the tactical genre and MMORPG conventions. Units level up and gain abilities, and proper army management goes a long way towards success in combat. Out of combat, things play like most other MMOs, at least as far as wandering the land killing stuff and fetching doodads go. That’s not bad, since it makes it easier for other MMO vets to make the conceptual transition.
Atlantica uses the “click to move” in addition to moving with arrows or the WASD convention. Surprisingly, this is one game where it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because critters don’t typically have an “aggro radius” that the click to move can inadvertently trigger. Combat is initiated by clicking on an enemy. You can stand in a field of baddies, and they blithely ignore you. True, this is like the very early areas of WoW, but even in the level 15 dungeon I’m playing in at the moment, bad guys ignore you unless you kick them in the shins. It’s even possible to sit down and rest and have bad guys walk right next to you, content to let you recharge. It’s absolutely not good for immersion or a sense of danger, but dagnabbit, I love it as a casual player. I can take a break almost any time to take care of my kids or something my wife wants me to do, without worrying that the mobs will grind me into paste while I’m doing something more important. I love that sense of freedom.
Another casual friendly mechanic is the AutoRun button. Clicking this button will take you to your next quest goal, whether it’s the target area for killing stuff, a town location, a person to talk to, or back to the quest giver when you’re done with your task. I’ve literally clicked the button and walked away for a few minutes while my characters travel to where they needed to be. On the one hand, this is absolutely brilliant for casual play, as I can do something else during the travel time. It’s also nice if the quest description is a bit obscure (as some still are, partly because of translation, partly just because they aren’t very verbose). On the other hand, it’s pretty lazy, it’s not really “old school” Exploration (but I did take some cool screenshots while autorunning), and it doesn’t really help players get to know the area. It places a big emphasis on getting into and playing the game, rather than exploring the world.
So… is it terrible? As an Explorer, I should be hating this thing, right? Actually, I love it. It’s great for my casual play, but even as an explorer, it means that I can set the team on autopilot and just mouse look around, screenshotting to my heart’s desire. Perhaps most importantly, it’s completely optional. If I feel like poking around in the world (and I do sometimes), I just go where I’d like to and totally ignore the autorun. Actually, I’d expand the autorun concept to letting me define a map location and then making my team autorun there, instead of only being able to autorun to quest hotspots (and only the current quest, at that).
Tutorials are given in the form of quests. It’s odd, really, being given a quest to do something in the interface and then get EXP and loot for it, but I didn’t mind it all that much. The timing is a little suspect, though. Fairly early on, you will find plenty of loot and “enchanting” crystals. These crystals allow you to combine low-level weapons and armor to boost their stats. It’s a pretty cool system, making vendor trash runs less common, but the tutorial for it comes by long after the items themselves are introduced. I figured out how to use the items on my own (so the item descriptions worked fine), but if they are going to keep that tutorial, it should be much earlier.
The crafting tutorial also comes later than I’d have liked. I’m at level 15, and am just now learning to craft stuff. To be fair, the crafting system can get pretty complex, apparently, but I’d have liked to hear of it earlier, mostly to get a jump on crafting, but also to figure out what is and isn’t vendor trash when it comes to random stuff that sort of looks like ingredients to recipes, like metals and woods.
Which brings me to my biggest beef with the game so far. I’m stuck on a quest that requires me to craft ten health potions, but I don’t have the materials for it, nor do I know where to get them. The Autorun takes me into a dungeon where I can’t find those materials no matter how many baddies I slaughter. I’ll look around, but so far, it seems like a failure of the autorun system. As an Explorer, I don’t mind so much, but it’s jarringly inconsistent with the game to this point.
I’d like to see something like the shopkeeper ingredient list from Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. In that game, shopkeepers “craft” stuff for you out of items looted from enemies. Shops have lists on the wall that tell what enemies to get ingredients from. It doesn’t completely hold your hand, as actually getting those items requires finding those enemies and beating them properly (item collection depends partially on how you beat enemies). Still, knowing what critters to target is a huge step in the right direction, especially since there are several items that you might never see in the game unless you make a concerted effort to grind away for many hours, experimenting on beasties. (Considering that some are only fought once in the whole game, requiring reloads if you must have an item from them, it could get significantly… stupid.)
If the quest givers in Atlantica would tell me what critters to hunt to get items, that would be nice. There’s a precedent for that already in WoW, so it baffles me a little bit that this particular quest in Atlantica would be so… obscure. In the end, though, this is a relatively minor quibble. More annoying to me is that the quest chain won’t continue if I don’t finish this one. I want to tell the old medicine man to shove off and keep the chain going, but it looks like I have to go through the hoops. That’s annoyingly restrictive.
The minimap is good, and scrolls and zooms well. The clickable map is nice, as it shows points of interest clearly and looks pretty in the meantime. The UI is decent, though some buttons that are described in the tutorials aren’t actually present, and other functions are non-intuitive. It looks good and is pretty clean, though, and what functions I’ve found are pretty easy to work with.
Loot boxes seem to be something common to Asian MMOs. Critters sometimes drop boxes that may hold different items, but you don’t know what they hold until you open them. Opening a box does a little slot machine roll bit to show that the item could be one of several potential items before you actually get the item. It’s an interesting way to consolidate backpack space, since the boxes stay in their Schroedinger state indefinitely, whereas if you open all boxes immediately, you might wind up with several different items in your pockets. I like that part of it. I’m just impatient with the whole “slot machine roll” bit, as well as the fact that you can’t open more than one box at once. (Say, to have something else to do while the box rolls through its quantum states.) You can run and walk around while crafting and opening boxes, so that’s nice… but the slot machine mechanism and being limited to opening one box at a time seems really clunky compared to the rest of the system.
The world lore is interesting, what little of it I’ve read. There is some Engrish trouble that suggests players can be masters of three near-goddesses… which is a little puerile in its implications. Other translations are equally strange, but in the end, at least I understand most of what people are getting at. The translation is certainly much better than 4Story. Characters have personality that makes sense, and quest stories are appropriate and interesting, hinting at larger wheels and wheels within wheels of an overarching storyline. If nothing else, the real-world history interspersed with the myth of Atlantis makes for some good potential. I look forward to learning more about the world. The world is also heavily Eastern, which I like, since the publishers don’t seem to be afraid to embrace their cultural heritage. It doesn’t always translate to English well, but I greatly appreciate that thus far, it’s not blandly whitewashed to make things look and feel more “Western” for a worldwide audience. There are almost certainly differences for localization, but I like the distinct Asian feel that I’ve seen so far.
Grinding is a vilified activity, but sometimes it’s nice, in a Zen sort of way. Wizard101 (and maybe others) makes grinding mostly ineffective, since the experience granted by random critters or even boss farming is a pittance compared to questing. Atlantica Online seems to stike a decent balance. Experience is granted each time your characters hit something in combat (healers get exp for healing). Bonus experience is granted for killing strokes. (Which is another tactical concern; keep your team close in levels by carefully picking targets.) I’d actually like more experience, but that’s because I’ve got so many other things to do. The leveling curve seems good, as it’s not required to grind (quests give good experience), but grinding seems to have a discernable effect. It’s a nice balance, despite my wish for slightly faster leveling. (That’s more a matter of tuning and preference, rather than a fundamentally broken system.)
The visuals are great. Cherry blossoms and festival lanterns decorate a small town, while crazy architecture pokes up in the Forest of Spirits. Sapporo and Beijing look fantastic. It’s fun to just look around. Character avatars look nice and animate well, even though they don’t have many customization options. (Since it’s more about the team anyways, I don’t mind.) Mercenaries look good and animate well, and there are apparently quite a variety of units that show up later in the game. Monsters look appropriately weird and interesting. There’s a good sense of atmosphere, with good lighting in most places, great color schemes, and nice spatial layout. There are places where lighting tricks (baking color values into dungeon geometry) would have made places look more interesting, but for the most part, the world looks really good.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the game. Apparently, the “Stamina” mechanic was added after the first closed beta, and there are those in the community who are disgusted with the change. Every fight you engage in takes a Stamina point, and you’re limited to so much stamina per day. It’s effectively a limit on how much fighting you can do. I’ve never run into trouble, but those with gobs of playtime have run into the limit and aren’t happy about it. I tend to think that it’s a good reminder to go do something else for a while, rather than game all day. I can empathize with the desire to avoid arbitrary limits, but I do think that in the end, not only is this good for the players (go out and exercise!), but it’s good for world balance, as the hardcore can’t get too far ahead of other players. I suppose time will tell if it works out that way, but so far, I really don’t mind it, and actually like it.
The game is in open beta right now, so it’s free to test out. It looks like there will be a microtransaction system in place, since there are several things to buy that might help players, like extra mercenary “stables” and “autorun licenses” that will naturally decay with time or with use. I’m hesitantly optimistic about this, so long as they don’t break the game balance with the purchaseable items.
As with any beta game, we’ll see how it turns out, but for now, I would heartily recommend the game to anyone who wants to try something a little different from the MMO mainstream. It’s free at the moment, so you don’t have much to lose. You do, however, have plenty to find, and there’s a lot going on here.
*I haven’t written about the guild-level gaming, where you can control towns and even countries, even going to war… mostly because I haven’t tried them. Those extra metagaming shells sound interesting, providing high-level strategic gaming. They are probably beyond my depth as a casual gamer, but it’s nice to see them thinking about these things.