Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Blessed are the Koreans for they will inherit the digital earth.
If you haven't heard of developer Neowiz, don't feel too ignorant. I didn't either. Despite being relatively unknown in America, though, Neowiz comfortably fits within the same company as the other two Korean MMORPG developers that begin with 'N', Nexon and NCSoft, which both have made headway here in the States with the likes of Vindictus, City of Heroes, and Guild Wars 2.
Korean developers, as implied by the G Star game convention I attended in Korea, don't tend to produce games beyond the MMORPG and mobile genres. However, that narrowed focus has made them specialists in the field and that has now begun to pay dividends in Western shores. Neowiz, unsurpisingly, now wants a piece of this delicious pie as well with their upcoming fantasy MMORPG simply entitled Bless.
What stands out immediately about Bless, even in its preliminary alpha state, is its graphical power. Some journalists and potential players who have viewed the game's trailers (one posted above) have complained about the over-reliance on CG cut-scenes, but were soon relieved when they discovered that the trailers were cut from actual in-game footage. This isn't to say that Bless won't have cutscenes or story events, but the environments are all rendered on the fly and extend beautifully across the kingdom, created with Unreal Engine 3 heavily modified with the assistance of Epic Games and the painstaking technical work of the in-house development team. Seeing the rays of light cast in real-time, as the sun rises and falls from day to night and back again, is astounding.
Taking inspiration from on-location excursions, the artists have crafted cities and dilapidated ruins which will remind players of real-world landmarks. One in particular has a broken castle that looks like the shadow of the Taj Majal, majestically and ominously casting over the network of pinched streets below. These aren't just art pieces, either; the developers have touted the fact that players can reach everything they can see in the game's expansive open world. Let's hope this feature remains intact through production.
The world of Bless is one inherently rife with conflict, between the monarchial nation of Hieron and the more "individualistic nation" of Unión (yes, with an accent). Whether it's due to opposing ideologies or disputed territorial claims, these two factions have continued their costly war for nearly a decade. Despite these tumultuous times, many heroes have risen to the call, lending poets to call the era "The Blessed Days," on which the game is named. As such, players on both sides can battle each other in small or massive "realm vs. realm" battles that will determine the outcome of the war.
Apart from choosing a faction, players can choose from among eight character classes and ten races, all of which are right on par with the current standard in MMORPGs. The Pantera races, well-muscled beast-like humanoids, tend to serve better in power-based classes like the Guardian or Berserker. The nimbler Aqua Elves have an uncanny ability for archery and assassinations, whereas the more human Amistad is more well-rounded and flexible in their builds. Certainly, you're free to mix and match between the range of options. Each race has their own starting area before eventually coming together in the various city hubs.
Neowiz was more cautious in their pitch when it came to the gameplay, in part because they didn't want to scare off the Korean public with a combat system that felt too foreign for them. Specifically, this meant parrying and dodging, two mechanics not normally found in MMORPGs and thus weren't in the particular build that I played at their booth on G Star's show floor.
However the developers choose to include these more action-oriented elements, the core gameplay works fine enough. Playing as the rough and tumble Pantera Guardian, I easily dispatched goblins with a series of standard strikes and the occasional special skill where I dived my two-handed axe into their guts or juggled them into the air for extra hits. The giant trolls offered a more hearty challenge, but they were no match for a deadly combination of skills, which regenerate quickly over time and are easily shortcuted on the number keys. Characters, while in the midst of battle, also build Rage which generally reduces the time needed for an ability to recover. Oh, and you can ride a wyvern. How awesome is that?!
Running away to fight another day is nothing to be ashamed about, either. As long as you're able to lose track of your enemies—be they spiders, skeletons, treefolk, or evil unicorns (don't mess with them lightly)—your character's health will eventually regenerate. Within the short 30-minute demo I experienced, I only died once near the end, due to a lack of a party; hence, the importance of working with others to bring down bosses.
Though the majority of the quests I received during my playtime were of the traditional "kill X enemies" variety, there are well-conceived plans to make sure that these quests become much more complex and inviting as players reach end-game content. In particular, royal quests require both level 50 and lower level players to work in tandem. Level-capped players can also be knighted to influence local politics and accept advanced missions that may involve stealth and assassination of prominent figures.
With the proper finishing touches, Bless may just catapult Neowiz into a recognizable name in the US market. The graphics alone will set itself apart from the rest of the pack, but it also has the content and action to match the expectations of MMORPG veterans. If they're able to introduce dodging and parrying in their combat system seamlessly, there's no reason why Bless can't be the next holy grail from Korea.