Hooboy. Let me tell you about my new favorite game “Brand New Sandbox MMORPG 2017”. Officially, I believe it’s called Albion Online, but the game’s website has the name backwards, I suppose for SEO reasons.
Albion Online (AO) is a “sandbox” MMORPG developed by a small German studio called Sandbox Interactive (SBI). It’s the first NEW RPG I’ve played for longer than an hour since Final Fantasy XIV and it marries together some of the best old-school MMO experiences (Ultima Online, Nexon/KRU’s Dark Ages) with sandbox worlds like EVE Online. Before I get into the review, we must look to the past.
We all have that game from the past that consumed a large amount of our life. For me, it was Nexon / KRU’s Dark Ages (not to be confused with Dark Ages of Camelot). Following the success of NexusTK, Kingdom of the Winds, South Korean game developer, Nexon, developed a game that was mechanically deeper with better graphics. Ultima Online had shown that a player-driven world with high consequences for dying could be deeply immersive.
Built on top of Nexon’s DOOMVAS engine, Dark Ages was released in 1999. It featured what we would call today a Full Loot, Sandbox-sih MMORPG. While there were a few quests in the game, a majority of the game focused on leveling through actions. Players had levels for their main class and could learn a subclass after mastering their main profession. Skills had to be used in order to level up. The most interesting aspect of Dark Ages was its political and lore focused mechanics. The world was written by the players and each city had politicians, churches, and guards. These were player characters that were voted for by other players. Each played a unique role in the city, leading to a deep world and interesting economy.
Death was brutal. Dying made you drop a pile. Some items were immediately lost on death (usually the most expensive ones) and returning to retrieve your pile was often too dangerous. Dying also left a scar on your character. Similar to losing experience in FFXI, a scar made it so you would gain less experience. Only certain priests could remove scars – and it cost an in-game currency called Labor. Labor was allotted daily and used to do things such as vote, pray, and other community driven events. Labor was precious.
PVP was limited to arenas and outlands. I’m not entirely certain the state of the game. I was banned for packet hacking in 2002, around Deoch 40. Every few years, I try to get my account back, but I don’t think it will ever happen. A foolish mistake that I regret…because one of the more interesting aspects to the game was the player legend. Each player had a publicly displayable legend. It told the date of “birth” and any major achievements. Truly a great way to gauge e-peen. I haven’t found a game that’s drawn me in so deeply since.
The Sandbox as a Mechanism
I don’t honestly know what “sandbox” means. I suppose it means a box of sand that can be shaped into whatever the player wants it to be. The sandbox genre is often less sandbox-y than marketing appears. A true sandbox would provide mechanics and nothing else. The more guardrails and restrictions in a sandbox the less of a sandbox it becomes. Vanilla World of Warcraft is looked at with rose-tinted glasses – often because it felt like a sandbox. The end-game was the end of the game, with a few major bosses to fight, but more about showing off, helping new players, and engaging it marketplace manipulation. The game itself was leveling to that point. As WoW grew, and I’ve talked about this before, it became refocused to allow players to enjoy and consume content faster – and less about the grind of getting to max-level. These types of MMO’s are now known as theme park MMO’s. Idling in cities while waiting for instanced content. It appeals to a large swathe of people, but theme parks lack immersion. Instanced content removes people from the world.
EVE Online is a pretty popular sandbox. Driven by resources and corporations, the players drive the narrative in the EVE world. I could never truly invest the time into EVE because I am an idiot and didn’t understand the complexity. Dedicated EVE players love it though, and invest time and money into it that I can’t begin to fathom. I believe SBI is trying to make a more accessible EVE in a medieval setting with Albion Online. So, what’s the sandbox?
Albion Online – A Rundown
Like all good game journalists, I’m reviewing a game before even getting that far into it. I’ve been playing AO for roughly a week and a half. I started because I was watching an anime about this woman who quit her job to play an MMORPG. I though to myself “Gee, wish I could do that.” Just like in the anime, I typed in “best new mmorpg”. Albion and a few others popped up. I watched a video that begins “In Albion, Everyone Matters.”
Everyone matters? I’ve never felt like I mattered anywhere. I was sold. I dropped $100 on the Legendary Starter Pack and began my life in Albion. SBI’s pricing model is unique. The game is not free to play. It is buy-to-play. You can’t get started without paying for the game and that’s totally cool in my book. Part of this cuts out gold sellers and scammers. The game offers gold as a tool to generate more revenue, and gold can be used to trade for silver with other players or buy premium. This means once you’ve started the game, get cozy in the markets, you could feasibly never pay for premium again with fiat. If you’re lazy, you can buy more gold or a subscription – but effectively this model removes gold farmers from the world.
The game includes two entire quests. The tutorial quest and the second tutorial quest. This may confuse the hell out of theme park players, but it’s great for people like me. I started the game determined. I’m going to be a master political manipulator and build a great trade route and take advantage of the bitching in the forums (we’ll talk about this soon), to take “worthless” territories. I don’t need quests to do this. I had my goal laid out before I even began and in a sandbox, setting your own goals is important.
The game does not have levels, but instead has tiers. Every action you do gives fame. Every action you make ‘levels’ that action. Each piece of gear has unique abilities and you can mix and match armor and weapons to build unique classes. There are no “classes” in a traditional sense and this is both good and bad. Because of this build system, the games controls feel similar to an RTS or MOBA. Skills are limited to Q,W,E,R,D,1,2. Luckily, there’s tons of weapons and combos, so it is possible to feel fresh.
There are also no graphics in the game. Okay, I think there are some graphics and for what it’s worth – they are stylized. I believe they chose the game style because it’s compatible on PC, Mac OS, Ubuntu/SteamOS, Android, and iOS. Some people seem to like it because RUNESCAPE. I don’t mind simple graphics, but AO needs more character customization.
The lore is something that was made up in a fever dream. Albion was a magical island that had magic. Once upon a time Merlin got really old and Morgana too. And then Merlin tricked people into suiciding to get rid of hell and Morgana had a baby and now a billion years later that baby had kids and became king. They left Albion, and the mainland has no magic, but the baby king now says “Go back to Albion, criminals”. So, it was like Australia, but then they sent normal people. Now there are skeletons and crazy people and giants and frogs. Don’t forget to pay your taxes.
I think the end-game is holding territories in PVP but I’m not there yet. What follows for the rest of my Albion Online review is Albion according to the forums.
Albion Online – The Sadomasochism of a Playerbase
“Albion Online is a dead game. There may or may not be anywhere between 20,000 or 44,000 concurrent players online. SBI has no idea what they’re doing because they are listening to a roundtable of themepark loving retards. The beta was better because the dungeons were open and the map was larger. Now everyone just idles in Caerleon because the game is dead. No one wants to wear good gear out to grind, because if they get ganked they lose it. There’s literally no reason to leave Caerleon because it takes you to the outlands where the big guilds that got lucky early control all of the territories.
A few whales control the economy. They have millions of dollars that they are spending on the game every day to manipulate the silver markets. They will always win fights because they can afford to lose gear in PVP. SBI is going to go bankrupt though, even though I just said whales are spending millions of dollars. No one needs to buy a subscription so they are literally bleeding money. And did I mention there is only one quest in the game? LOL. That’s all they had time to program in.
Instead of developing more in-world content, SBI is focused on trying to attract theme park players and are literally removing the features that made the game. As a founder, I spent 100’s of hours on this game, but wasted $100 and I’m quitting. No you can’t have my gear. Instead of leaving gracefully, I’m going to make sure I remind you every day that this game is dead. It’s a dead game. I’ll be on the forums daily and on the subreddit just to make sure you don’t forget how lifeless this game is.
I mean, holy shit, KORN – no one wants to play arena. Please stop focusing on balancing consensual PVP. My guild is trash and I only like ganking people in red-zones. Good luck if you fucked up and built your guild island in Martlock. All the content is in Caerleon, so instead of doing GVG for territory surrounding the other Royal Cities and creating a dynamic political struggle and a market monopoly, I’m going to bitch on the forums.
What the hell were you thinking. Free trials? “Free” trials?? I have to spend 1000 gold to let a friend play for 7 days. LMAO. That’s not free. Just clearly another money grab from the greedy developers at SBI. Never mind the fact I just said you don’t need to pay for a subscription because you can easily exchange silver for gold for premium – spending 1,000 gold is just a way to swindle players and breathe life support into this dead game. At this point, you’re basically playing an early access game.
In conclusion, Albion Online could have been great. But instead of making the game they wanted, Sandbox Interactive listened to an incompetent player-base and made changes the players asked for. Now players are forced to play in a game where their bad decisions and constant bitching ruined their beta experience. SBI will most likely realize their mistake when it hits a saddle-point of 100 concurrent players, but by that time I’ll be long gone.”
I actually enjoy the game. However, in my limited time in game, there are many things I really hope come in the future. More sand, mostly. More reasons to explore. More open-world content. Less of a focus on consensual PVP and less punishment for reputation. I think there are valid points to be made about driving people back into the open-world. I want a game like Dark Ages. I want to build lore, vote, and play politics – and if the sand in my sandbox is pre-constructed, how do I do this? Giving the players tools to do more than grind resources will go a very long way.
But, I also think the community needs to understand that the constraints to their experience are partly self-inflicted. Demanding change on philosophy may end up making the entire box concrete.
I have several plans to dominate the market. I hope to accomplish them, probably won’t. Nothing really matters.
Anyways, I have to go collect some stones for the next 9 hours.
Also published on Medium.