Age of Wushu Preview (PC)

With the sheer amount of free-to-play games over in the Chinese market (they’ve been doing it far longer than we have, and more successfully), it should really be taken as a sign to sit up and pay attention if one of them is considered interesting enough to make it over here. Age of Wulin, whilst still in development and going through beta tests in China, has made it across the waters and is being converted for a release upon western shores.

For the Americans among you, look out for ‘Age of Wushu’ as that’s what the game is being called in North America. In short, it’s an MMO set in Ancient China that really embodies everything about wuxia, or Chinese martial arts fantasy, that you could find in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden IMMA GOING TO CUT YOU!

The thing with eastern martial arts content, especially wuxia and Chinese Fantasy, is that really us westerners are only really in it for the action. Even watching the high-budget martial arts films with western audiences in mind, the plots still don’t make a lot of sense (or if they do, are full of holes), so really all we care about is seeing dudes beat each other up with style.

The action in Age of Wulin then is going to be key – especially the one-on-one and small group encounters. Unlike most MMO’s (and in the vein of The Old Republic) Age of Wulin actually tries to have proper hit/reaction mechanics and animations. Out of combat, this is represented by pushing past someone in the street, but in combat you can see people react like they would if in real life to certain blows (although granted it doesn’t work for all the attack animations), and if you manage to pull off a special move the game will temporarily go into a cutscene mode where your avatar unleashes all his or her wushu with all the flash and style of any film.

Its little things like these that really make or break a game, as they really help distinguish why this MMO is different from that MMO. Age of Wulin may already have an advantage by the setting and culture it’s wrapped up in, but there’s plenty of other subtle things that help this game stand out. When you log-out your character still ‘works’ and exists within the game world, doing a set of limited pre-defined tasks depending on your choices, to get you experience and money whilst offline.

This has given rise to the bizarre introduction of a kidnapping mechanic, where you can stuff offline players in a bag and then sell them. Also, if you stray too far in the eyes of the law you’ll have to serve in-game time in prison (or break yourself out). Skills and abilities are learned in several ways – over time a bit like EVE, but also through co-operative mini-games that can only be described as public displays.

There aren’t any ‘classes’ per say, only eight martial arts schools you can join that each have their own specific fight-style, move-set, even rules of behaviour. Within that, you can conform to some of the usual class archetypes depending on what moves you learn and how you equip yourself, although others aren’t possible because there’s no such thing as ‘magic’ in Age of Wulin – they don’t even try to use ‘Chi’ or anything as a flimsy cover. You can also choose from 17 professions that all feed into each other in some way (there’s actually a hunger mechanic for avatars, so you’ll need to it), one of which is a beggar.

There’s also transportation – mounts serving as an obvious mode for travel, but you can also just hop onto a horse drawn cart and admire the countryside. As far as a central story goes, you choose from one of four that are available, which forms the centre piece of your journey through ancient china.

This is just a simple village. OR IS IT.

Of course, when talking about any free-to-play game you have to spend some time covering what the monetisation element is going to be like. So far, all we’ve been told is that it’s going to be vanity and comfort items only. For example, you don’t need to pay for any of the skills and moves that you can learn in the game, but if you want, you can buy better animations for your avatar when they perform them. You can also buy better skins for things like horses (but you can’t buy a faster horse than what’s available normally).

There’s nothing particular surprising here – a lot of companies try this approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how commercially viable it turns out to be, and whether there are any hidden surprises. At the moment, there is talk of a ‘VIP’ mode, whereby users pay for a package of comfort & Vanity items that lasts you for an entire month, which you will need to top up every month if you want to continue using them. So far, there’s nothing that smacks of “pay-to-win” that we can see, so we’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

This is but a snapshot. There’s so much more to talk about in Age of Wulin (large scale PvP and Guild Castles, for example), but I think we’ll leave it for a later date. It is still very much a work in progress – for one thing the localisation needs doing properly, but there’s a couple of other potentially interesting systems that still need some work, like team cultivation for learning skills. But so far, there’s potential here for Wulin to become a force to be reckoned with in the free-to-play space. It won’t be easy – not with everyone else going free-to-play as well, but there’s not many decent games that fall within Wulin’s specific setting, so perhaps it’ll be able to carve out a little empire of its own. Age of Wulin is expected to release in Europe and North America “early” 2013, possibly around March.

Most Anticipated Feature: I’ll admit, I’m looking forward to mastering the ‘Beggar’ profession.

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