Albion Online Brings Back the Best Qualities of Classic MMOs

During the past two decades I’ve watched MMOs evolve into something much different than they once were. What was once a time-consuming genre enjoyed by a small population of people has grown into a billion dollar industry that has commanded the attention of some of the biggest gaming publishers.

Modern conveniences have played a big role in this development. Recent MMOs can be enjoyed with limited investment, delivering quick reward loops that hook players whether or not they’ve been acclimated to the depth of the genre.

As a fan of Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft, I’ve admittedly grown to enjoy this new design language, especially as I grow older and have less time to devote to MMO progression. Yet, many of these qualities that have made the genre more immediately satisfying have been at odds of what originally made them so great.

Sometimes it’s nice to head back to the medieval times of the genre, back when games were more punishing and left you on your own with minimal instruction. Thanks to Albion Online, I’ve been able to experience that within the context of a new release.

Albion Online arrived this week in thunderous fashion, becoming a top streamed game on Twitch, and earning incredible attention on places like Reddit and Twitter. At first inspection, you’ll likely wonder how it achieved this, with archaic visuals and simplistic gameplay. Don’t let its presentation fool you, underneath its presentation, Albion Online is a very deep MMO with sophisticated systems.

At the forefront is an open-ended progression system. From the onset of your adventure you don’t have to spend weeks grinding levels to be able to participate in endgame events. Instead, after just a couple hours of earning the bare necessities you can jump right into the core content of the game, in a way that reminds me of Ultima Online.

This style of progression is overwhelming for a lot of players, particularly because the game doesn’t guide you beyond a barebones tutorial. Within minutes players are given control of their destiny, tasked with coming up with objectives to work toward; there is no clear point A to point B here.

You don’t have to spend weeks grinding levels to be able to participate in endgame events.

This sense of freedom is something that was common among early MMOs. In these games you had to put a lot more effort into the hour-by-hour experience, but in return you felt as though you were in a large, open world that had great things to discover. That same feeling is here in full-force with Albion Online, and is why it immediately captured my attention.

There are a handful of activities that demand the full-time attention of players, most notably the PvP environment. In Albion Online, you can join a guild, battle with others for territory, build structures, and engage in social politics. As guilds show face in encounters, they earn a reputation among others. Alliance and bounties are formed over time, and there’s even a backdrop of subterfuge that guilds must be aware of at all times.

Albiongameplay2

This side of the game garners the most attention, particularly because PvP-focused MMOs don’t come around often. What’s here is deeply competitive, driving players to work hard to prepare in anticipation of PvP battles.

Once you find yourself in good company, it’s easy to find things to do, each with risk and reward. For example, often players will head out to gather resources in higher tier areas. When doing this, it’s a good idea to bring along some friends. Players are able to kill one another on-sight in more than half the regions of the game, and when they die they drop their inventory in a way Lineage fans will be familiar with; one simple mistake and you could lose hours of hard work.

This type of PvP-focused sandbox hasn’t really been done well since EVE Online, which released more than 14 years ago. Many developers choose to stay away from designing games in this way since it’s extremely punishing for newer players, potentially harming to the bottom line. Yet, EVE Online has thrived by capturing the long-term interest of hardcore players. Albion Online could have a similar destiny.

EVE Online has thrived by capturing the long-term interest of hardcore players. Albion Online could have a similar destiny.

Albion Online‘s PvP structure benefits all other aspects of the game. For traders and crafters, gathering rare materials requires heading into dangerous areas where you can be slaughtered by other players if you aren’t careful. Tensions are often high, and roaming in groups is the status quo for safety reasons. Risk assessment is a constant consideration when traveling, and ultimately this helps make the world feel more alive.

Tying this all together is the Destiny Board, a system where you naturally unlock new perks by engaging in various activities. You don’t level up per-se, but do become incrementally more efficient at your favorite activities as you spend time doing them. It’s a natural style of progression that is an incredible breath of fresh air for MMO veterans like myself who have spent thousands of hours mindlessly grinding levels.

Albiongameplay3

Perhaps the biggest success of Albion Online is its social environment. The PvP and crafting systems invite communication, to a point where players are generally outgoing. Communities arise from the necessity to rely on others for safety, leading to classic MMO interactions that have largely been lost in recent years.

This is all within an environment that isn’t necessarily visually striking, but does just enough to be pleasant. The top-down camera gives it a Ragnarok Online-esque structure that is most similar to modern MOBAs, while making it accessible on Android and iPhone. And, on that note, the game’s multiplatform cross-play has resulted in accessibility that is sure to make outdoor PvP encounters plentiful for the months to come.

This is surprising given the game has no mandatory monthly fee. Guild Wars 2 was the last game to have a similar pay structure, and as good as that was, it had arguably less play value than Albion Online.

I don’t know how long I’ll be playing Albion Online, especially with all the great games coming out this Fall. At the very least it’s been nice to play a game that considers what made MMOs so great before the World of Warcraft era. Cheers to Sandbox Interactive for taking a chance.