I’ve not written much on Atlantica Online lately, but even so, almost a third of the hits on this site are still looking at my AO commentary. That’s awesome, as I think it’s a great game, and deserves all the positive publicity that it can get.
That said, I haven’t played the game for a month or so now, hence the dearth of new commentary. I’m not sure that I will be playing it again, but at the same time, I’m not uninstalling it. I like the game a lot, I just don’t have the time to do everything I’d like to do. I’ve moved on to Guild Wars and a handful of other games. That’s the terrible thing about living in a finite world; there’s never enough time to do everything I’d like to do.
Even so, I did want to summarize what I’ve written about before, and plug the game again. If you’ve not tried it, please do so; it’s free to play, a bargain at twice as much, and an absolute blast to play. OK, math hijinks aside (here I am, idly wondering who can tell what that meant), I think this game compares favorably to the giants of the MMO genre. It’s not the same sort of game as WoW or WAR, and it’s not a quantum leap beyond EQ2 or its ilk, but for what it is, it’s every bit as enjoyable as any of those venerable games.
First and foremost, AO uses a “microtransaction” model to monetize their hard work. This will be a sticking (whining) point for many, so I figure it’s best to get that out there first. I find that, like Puzzle Pirates, it’s a fantastic game to play completely free of charge, and the purchasable items are just conveniences. I’ve never bothered with one, and never felt like a second class citizen or hamstrung in any way as a result. To be fair, I have read a few complaints online about the exact nature of how AO sells their “gCoins”, and how item pricing and batch purchasing don’t really line up, creating an impulse to purchase more coins or leave some on the table as wasted money. I do think that a little shopper’s due diligence would compensate for that to a large degree, but just know that, like any microtransaction game, players will benefit from doing their homework before spending money, and exercising good judgment and self control. Pay attention; it’s your money.
The game world is a beautiful place, filled with nice high end textures, excellent coloring, interesting landscapes and architecture, weird critters and cool characters, complete with well-crafted animation where appropriate. The world is a fantasy riff on the real world, and it’s very interesting to see literary or historical figures deftly woven into the quest to find the lost city of Atlantis. Nice touches, like Stonehenge on the British Isles, make the game world seem more “real”, as well as giving geography-savvy players a leg up on understanding where things are and how to get around. Local flavor, from the Japanese paper lamps to Count Dracula’s eerie gothic lair, accent the “alternate Earth” feel while presenting some great eye candy. Like any game, it has a few alpha sorting issues on occasion, and you can occasionally move the camera to some strange spots, but that’s not really a bother. Overall and overwhelmingly, the presentation is smooth and attractive.
On the other hand, there are relatively few options for character avatar customization. There isn’t nearly the diversity of gear that you see in WoW. Characters in an area wind up looking much like each other, since gear is visible. Typically, people in a town are there because questing and critter levels in the area are similar to theirs, so each town will typically have a bunch of level 30s or something wearing the same gear from the local loot drops. This never really bothered me, since I don’t really care about preening, but for someone who loves to fiddle endlessly with their Sim, er, avatar, it could be a bit disappointing. Also, considering the demand for customization inherent in MMOs as a genre, and the natural fit that would have with a microtransaction business model, it is a bit surprising that AO doesn’t offer more in that vein. Each character class has unique armor after about level 20, but the “tiers” of armor are all obviously kin, and you can tell a character’s gear level at a glance with a bit of practice. This can be useful information for tactical nuts, so it’s not all bad, just disappointing from a customization standpoint.
Some of this alleviated by the fact that you don’t typically just control a single character. Rather, players are put in charge of a merry band of adventurers, out to find Atlantica. This might be thought of as your “build” in AO, since the units you use and their tactical positions are highly relevant to how you address combat. If you’re an old hand at tactical games like Suikoden or Ogre Battle, this will feel right at home. If you’re one of the new generation of gamers, raised on WoW, it may take some time to learn. Wherever you are coming from, the combat is one of the strengths of AO. The variety in tactics and the strength of your build will be a huge factor in how much you enjoy the game. For an old tactics nut like me, the combat in AO is a breath of fresh air in a single-avatar heavy MMO world.
The variety in units and their abilities isn’t as deep as I’d prefer, coming from a relatively strong tactics background, and some units come way too late in the game, so it’s not a perfect system. Also, new recruits join at level 1, so you’ve got to find a way to get them up to speed. Enemies that are too distant in level, whether above or below, don’t grant significant experience, so don’t expect to grab a new recruit and fight a few high level fights to get them running. You have to use experience-granting consumables on them or go putter around in low level areas. Moreover, only units who actually do damage (or healing) get experience, so you can’t baby recruits by letting your heavy hitters do the work for them. Actually, you can earn bonus experience for all units in your party (just for being there) if you’re grouped with someone else. It’s one of the perks for grouping, but since other people aren’t reliable, you may still wind up grinding through old areas just to get new units up to a functional state.
In another quirky facet, your units apparently age as you play, and can even get old and die (or get married and have kids, then retire, whatever). I’ve not played enough to come across that sort of mechanic, but that it’s even there shows that the devs are trying new things, and I applaud that.
Speaking of things that I haven’t yet run into, there are layers of the game that only guilds have access to. Guilds can take control of towns in the game, and at sufficiently high levels, guilds can even wager interguild warfare between towns. Again, I’m not quite sure how that works, but it’s heartening that they are providing some high level content and mechanics that aren’t just “more of the same” treadmill raiding dungeons. There is even guild-level crafting where every active guildmate chips in to craft something for the guild. (Or, more likely, some uberweapon for the guild leader, but since it doesn’t take priority over your own crafting, it’s effectively a way for the giuld leaders to earn a little something off of guildmates’ combat. Since running a guild can get expensive, what with monthly maintenance costs, I can’t begrudge them the little crafting progress they glean from times when I’m not crafting, but I am killing monsters, which generates crafting work.)
The economy of the game is almost entirely based around the crafting system. As near as I can tell, every item that drops from enemies is a component to a crafting recipe. There are no vendor trash drops. You can sell things to vendors, but they pay very little. There is an auction house in every town, and the huge interlinked system allows for blind sales and market valuations that reward the savvy marketeer. Every player can learn every sort of crafting, creating a much more diffuse market than the constrained nature of most economies. This means that players have more choices, which I like very much.
Crafting itself is a bit of a grind, since there are 100 levels of proficiency in each crafting skill, and crafting experience is fairly slow and expensive. This actually wound up being more of a grind than character leveling. I’d have appreciated a bit more streamlining (I detest grind), but in the end, I still like AO’s crafting, since it’s so inclusive. (I’d also appreciate freeform crafting allowing for player creativity, but since I haven’t seen anyone do that right, I’ll settle for AO’s baby steps in this regard.)
Bottom line, the game is fun to play, and free to play. It’s one that I’ve enjoyed playing, and highly recommend to anyone who wants to see a good “RMT/microtransaction/FreeToPlay” game with some excellent and unique combat and a great economy and crafting system.