Free-to-play MMO 'Runes of Magic' a little too WoW-like for its own good.
One of the great gaming traditions is the mad scramble to ride the coattails of a popular title. We saw it with the explosion in first-person shooters post-Wolfenstein and the relentless march of real-time strategy clones that followed Warcraft and Command and Conquer. Even the free mod Counter-Strike got professional competition.
While this clone proliferation certainly satisfied people’s needs for newly discovered genres, they were almost always a pale comparison to the original. In fact, most of the time, it wasn’t until someone put a totally different spin on things that truly successful games were born. Think Half-Life for shooters, Homeworld for real-time strategy, and Battlefield for online shooters.
PC gaming is going through an interesting phase, where budgets and piracy meet to make big titles an afterthought on the platform. This has ended the trend towards big publishers risking funding on straight clones, which has removed just a little of the joy from PC gaming. Thankfully, the MMO market tends to duck these issues, and while a big name title like Warhammer Online is in its own way a clone of the game built upon a clone of the Warhammer IP, we haven’t seen that good ol’ shameless rip-off level of exploitation come in World of Warcraft’s (WoW) wake.
The free-to-play MMO Runes of Magic is the facsimile we didn’t realise we were waiting for. Like Dungeon Siege did to Diablo II, it takes concepts that a lot of gamers are familiar with and tries to improve upon them. Also like Dungeon Siege, it manages to introduce new frustrations and the lessons learned by Blizzard in its design.
For example, Dungeon Siege attempted to combat limited inventory space by adding a mule to the player’s party. This bag-ass was supposed to make life easier by acting as a mobile bank. In reality, it was an artificial intelligence nightmare, with huge pathing issues making movement through convoluted dungeons an exercise in frustration. Runes of Magic does the same thing with the quest system, allowing the quests to just pile up. Unfortunately, while there are plenty of starting zone quests, there is also an incredibly annoying tendency to send one back to the same location to kill the same animals, time and time again – “I’ve killed those newts you asked me to kill.” “Excellent, now I just need 12 newt saliva from the newts.”
This, frankly, doesn’t matter too much, because like a lot of MMOs, the early quests are irrelevant speed humps on the road to becoming powerful. Having gotten my mage/priest (more on that later) to mid teens, I have yet to find a quest line that is engaging or even interesting. If anything, it all just gets confusing trying to work out what you have already killed, what you need to kill, and what you have already killed but need to kill again for its toenails.
There are a few innovations to be found. First, the dual class system that allows a player to customise how they play and even be able to switch between primary classes. This manifests itself in the skill trees, which give access to secondary skills for the other class, while focusing on powering up one’s primary skills. It is a relatively straightforward, old-school role-playing game system that doesn’t rely on the trainers used in WoW.
Overall, though, innovation is rare, and while the game is enjoyable enough to keep one playing, there is nothing to suck one in. Kill boars, level up, and hope that things get better later on. Sometimes the nods to WoW get sickening, like being sent to kill kobolds in Barrens Cave – but on the plus side, if you are ever in doubt as to how to do something, the WoW hotkey will invariably work. My character is still young, and I’ll probably spend some more time in the game, if only to see what happens.
But even with it being free-to-play, the generic fantasy and generally unpolished nature of the game works against it. It’s worth a try if you can afford the 4GB or so of downloading required to get it running, and being new, the game is well populated at the low levels, which is refreshing. Lower your expectations and you may be pleasantly surprised.