In his never-ending search for innovative takes on the MMORPG genre, Chris "Pwyff" Tom checked out Sword of the New World, a unique game that puts RTS combat in an MMO world.
I pointed out previously that I had gotten into a little bit of a funk with MMORPGs. Too many times I'd eagerly install a game, hoping it would really be as 'innovative' and 'ground-breaking' as advertised; only to discover that it was just another imitation of everyone's favourite juggernaut. However, in an effort to break away from all of this MMOnotony (zing!), I decided to check out some of the games that not only advertised they were innovative and ground-breaking, but actually had some kind of proof to lure me in. In reality, the majority of my MMO adventures have turned out pretty darned positive, but today I learned that even when dealing with incredibly unique 'remixes' of the MMO genre, there's plenty of space to settle into the same old groove.
The game that I managed to do some serious exploring in is called Sword of the New World: Granado Espada. Launched in Korea in the Summer of '07, developed by IMC Games Co., and published in North America by the K2 Network, SOTNW (that's a mouthful!) is the very first game to incorporate an RTS style of combat (think Starcraft, but reduce it to three zerglings) with the MMO genre. While the game was originally slated to be subscription based, it has since gone the way of most Korean MMOs - free to play, but with lots of items that can be purchased in the cash shop.
I first heard of Sword of the New World when I was spelunking about in Atlantica Online and I asked the community there if they could think of any games that were at least on par with AO's innovative fusion of Turn Based Combat in a Massively Multiplayer Platform. In a way, SOTNW reminds me a lot of Atlantica Online, actually - both sport unique combat systems, both of them focus on building proper teams, and both have a distinctive steampunk feel that I so love (although Wikipedia tells me that SOTNW is a 'Baroque' themed game, but I really don't think anyone understands that).
The first thing that surprised me about SOTNW was the fact that you don't really have a 'main' character. Yes, players will create a unit and name it carefully (first and last name), believing that this will be their 'main' character to represent them throughout the game, but that's actually not the case.
Players are initially offered the choice between five 'stock' units; the Elementalist, the Fighter, the Wizard, the Musketeer and the Scout. After choosing one of these five as their first character, they are then told to make another two characters from the same pool to round their party out to three. From then on, players simply advance through the game with three characters that all share the last name (you can name them all). If this sounds confusing, it is.
In reality, the fact that players can completely replace their starting group with choices from the huge range of 'unique' playable characters (UPCs) already makes the player feel less of a participant and more of an observer. I particularly enjoy having one single unit represent my own character, even if I have a bunch of other mercenaries that 'follow' me. On the other hand, it's fairly understandable to see why SOTNW does not restrict players to a 'main' class, because a large amount of party customization would go out the window as players strove to organize their remaining two spots around a static 'main' class. Instead, SOTNW offers something like 40+ Unique Playable Units, and players can mix and match them all to create unique 3-unit parties.
Another unique aspect of SOTNW's combat is the concept of the 'stance.' All units have a few 'stances' to choose from, and each stance grants access to specific bonuses and abilities. In the middle of fights, players can alternate between these stances to give themselves larger advantages - as well, you can gain 'stance' experience points when you kill monsters in a specific stance, thereby allowing you to specify which stances you want to become more powerful in. When you combine this surprisingly deep stance system with the 40+ UPCs you can throw together to create your 3-man party, it's easy to appreciate just how deep this game can get.
SOTNW's combat is remarkably similar to classic RTS games like Starcraft and DotA - players can simply hold CTRL and click around so that their units will automatically attack anything they see, or you can individually manage your characters to give yourself a greater feeling of control.
Unfortunately, however, despite the incredible amount of depth SOTNW has invested within its unique combat system, the game is ridiculously 'normal,' as a typical F2P grinding MMO. Peppered with awkward translations and 'kill-me-25-alligator' quests, the game rarely meanders out of the 'comfort zone' of most MMOs. Not only that, but some zones can have ridiculous respawn rates - even worse than Vanguard! At one point I had monsters respawn right on top of me because I took two seconds to pick up my loot. Veterans of the game will point out that a lot of 'grinding' can actually be done AFK, as players can set their units to hold a single position and monsters will continually respawn as they slaughter them endlessly.
My other qualm with this game is the real lack of intuitive controls. Maybe playing games like DotA and Starcraft have really spoiled me, but SOTNW's UI is clunky and difficult to manage, making it tough to execute any form of smooth micro-management. The one time I really had fun with the game was when I was fighting a boss who would throw grenades on the floor, so I had to make sure each of my three units wouldn't walk onto a grenade while still participating in the battle - although part of the challenge came from wrestling with the in-game controls, rather than anything the boss actually did.
Finally, SOTNW suffers from what pretty much every F2P MMO suffers from, in that it really snuffs itself out as players get to the end game and discover it's very much like the earlier game, except dungeons have more monsters and faster respawn rates, and players have more units to choose from. Outside of that, there really is nothing left to do but set yourself to AFK grind some more.
In the end, while SOTNW shows a lot of potential to become a fantastic game, its lack of depth in all other aspects makes it a weaker contender than I originally thought. Not only that, but if the game could somehow make gameplay smoother while still retaining that great amount of depth, I know that this would be something I could really sink my teeth into.
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom