Where do I begin?
And where do I end? Massively multiplayer online RPGs drop you into the middle of an epic, weak and newborn on a strange new world. You spend your time, you make your own stories. Unlike other games, the world was there before you arrived and it will go on after you leave.
These new worlds are varied, complex, deep, variable, imaginative, difficult, disorienting, evolving, engrossing, addicting, revolutionary and a big pain in the ass to review. This particular world is known as Rubi-Ka, a distant mining planet in the distant future and the setting of Anarchy Online.
The problem (and the beauty) is that games like this are simply so huge that it's difficult to really get a grip on them without playing for a period of time usually reserved for deep emotional or religious commitments. When I started playing Ultima Online (which eventually became an unholy obsession) it was probably at least a year before I really got the hang of the game and had explored the world(s) fully with a variety of different character types. And in that time the world of Ultima changed a lot.
As part of a demented GR experiment, we decided to hold off a bit before reviewing this game. We wanted to let the world and community develop, hoping that this would also give the developers time to iron out the bugs (more on that later). So with no further ado...
Anarchy Online, despite its futuristic setting and slick 3D graphics, really reminds me of those early days of UO. Both games were very difficult and confusing to start, with inadequate instructions and unbelievably complex controls. Both games were so intriguing and had so much depth (depth you could sense, even if you couldn't quite experience it yet) that they sucked me in for marathon gaming sessions until I finally had to move or risk becoming fused to my computer chair. And when they started, both games were buggy, really buggy. But let's start with the good stuff - there's plenty of it.
The world of Rubi-Ka is as well fleshed out as any role-player could hope for. The planet is in turmoil as the Omni-Tek Corporation vies for power with rebelling Clans. Pity the poor Neutrals, trapped between the two and trusted by none. You can ally yourself with any of these three sides - just be careful which neighborhoods you travel to or you might get jumped by inhabitants who don't share your political viewpoints. Shotgun (or laser rifle) diplomacy at it's finest.
And who are you? Well, it's pretty much your call. You can be one of three strains of humanoid, each of which has particular strengths and weaknesses. More impressive is the choice of careers: 12 in all. From a soldier or enforcer to a meta-psychic or doctor, the variety is terrific. You can even be a bureaucrat, a first for any game (I think).
I was entranced by the idea of building super-robots to follow me around and fight for me, so I started as an engineer, a tall, lanky, dark-haired lass named Wednesday working for Omni-Tek. For balance, I also played as a short, pudgy, bearded soldier named Brob.
The physical appearance and variety of your characters and the world of Rubi-Ka itself is simply spectacular. The environments have to be seen to be believed. The designers spared no effort creating a planet full of polluted cities, barren wastelands, steaming swamps, utopian villages, mountains, forests and everything in between. The weather can change suddenly as gossamer clouds drift overhead, obscuring the twin suns of Rubi-Ka. The game is just gorgeous.
Backing up the visuals is some truly impressive sound. The environmental noises and the orchestral score are top-notch. I haven't even had the urge to turn off the music yet (and I always turn off video game music), because the theme changes in different areas of the game and I still have a lot of exploring left to do. You never realize how bad most game music is until you hear the good stuff.
Geographically the world is enormous, but the real complexity lies in the intricate details. Think there are a lot of items and options in Everquest? Anarchy is a whole new level. On top of all the character classes and the dozens of skills, there are literally thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of weapons, armor, bio-implants, nano-tech programs, clothes, food, tools and ammo. Plus, you can combine items and upgrades in so many ways it makes Final Fantasy VII's 'materia' system look like a kid's game.
Once you get a grip on the myriad options, gameplay is more straightforward. The game plays almost exactly like its rival Everquest. You hit or shoot things, gain experience, and increase levels and skills.
The folks at Funcom have improved on Everquest's system in two ways. First, every item in the game requires certain skill levels to use, so a level 2 nano-technician can't equip a +30 hyper-mega-blaster that his friend gave him and clean up (in Everquest, this is called "twinking").
The second innovation is more interesting. Everquest "spawn points" are clogged with 'campers' just toasting monsters as soon as they appear. Anarchy features a revolutionary new mission system. Once you collect a mission, you get a mission key, and if it is a group mission, you can give copies of the key to your teammates. The mission will take you to a location, like a laboratory or a cave or an apartment building or an abandoned mine. Once you get there (which may be dangerous in itself) only you and your teammates can enter. It's your own personal mission in your own personal "dungeon" with no fear of crowds or player killers. Of course, you still may not succeed.
And if you fail, your body is reconstructed from your data the last time you got scanned at an "insurance station." At the lower levels, you can even get your items back. Very nifty.
Of course, it's still frustrating if you die due to one of the many game bugs. I'm a little more forgiving about game bugs in massively multiplayer games because unlike single player games, you never really know how well it is going to work until you release the unwashed masses upon it. But considering that this review is written a good solid month after the game went retail, the excuses only go so far.
Some objects are missing from the game. When you find one of them, you'll just see a question mark on a blue blob instead of the item itself. Oddly enough, the primordial Ultima Online had the exact same bug. There are some graphical clipping errors, and targeting problems, and the killer protector robot I built turned out to be slightly dumber than a rock. With friends like these...
Once I fell through the floor of a building and ended up stuck. After waiting for a Game Master to help for an hour, I finally just had to kill myself to get out. I thought suicide was NOT the answer?
But the worst problem is the lag. The game locks up and skips a lot. When you get to an area with a lot of people, the game practically halts; you can freeze for 10 to 20 seconds at a time. It's like trying to play the game by looking at a series of postcards.
It's hard to say exactly how this game will evolve. Again, we waited before posting this review to see if the initial problems would iron themselves out. Currently, there are still enough bugs here to warrant concern. If they eventually fix the bugs (like the other online games have), AO will definitely be a winner and more than just "Everquest in space." Right now, however, it can be frustrating to play. Still, if you don't mind doing a little beta testing for the designers, Anarchy Online is your ticket.