What’s This? Blade and Soul

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Blade and Soul is an action MMORPG released by NCsoft that launched in Korea on June 30th, 2012 and just recently made the jump to the west being released January 19th, 2016. The game is free to play and offers a cash shop. The game is heavily influenced by Asian martial arts and this is a dominate theme throughout the game I do believe. The game has the action of TERA, with graphics equivalent to it or Guild Wars 2, and features a story that seems a bit like Jade Empire. Like Guild Wars 2 and many other current MMOs it features progressing through a single player story-line while also taking on additional quests in the areas you venture to. Because this game didn’t seem to offer anything outside of real-time combat, it never really caught my eye and is one of the few major releases I didn’t bother buying a founders package for. At release I attempted to try it, but the servers were simply too full to get on. Within a few days they increased performance and launched new servers and I was finally able to try it out.

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Starting off, the character customization is above par with what you would expect in this day and age. It features four races, three of which are pretty much humans (though the Yun are a female only race), and the Lyn which appear to be fox like perhaps? Each race can only select certain classes. The Blade Dancer class for example is only available to the Lyn. Plenty of color options for hair, eyes, tattoos, plenty of pre-built models, and able to customize the size of every limb. The avatars seem to have a great deal of detail, and you will most likely take your time crafting them.

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There is an intro section which explains the controls and also lays the back story for your characters motivation. The main quests are voice acted, but there are no dialogue options. This felt slightly disappointing with the existence of Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, but being realistic, not every game can obtain that. The world was very detailed, the graphics pleasurable, and great contrast of bright and colorful environments and dark and dim ones.

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The dialogue focuses in on whatever character you’re talking too, and while reading the dialogue little bubbles sometimes appear reflecting the characters actual thoughts. I found this enjoyable as they are often humorous, and gives the game a light hearted feel. Given the setting, character designs, and loading screens, it also nearly has an anime feel to it.

The game does have a unique method of movement, and that is gliding on the air. This is activated merely by double tapping the jump button. While there is a sprint, there is no dodge mechanics. Instead of portals or hearthstones, players utilize “windstriding” to quick travel.

I was also happy to see that it keeps track of all the screenshots I was taking! Granted, I use dropbox to keep my shots sorted, but seeing the tool and effort there was nice. They also have periodic surveys you can do for rewards (a feature I’m only used to seeing during betas), and even a great screen when you’re logging out that shows you everything you achieved during that play session!

Changing the topic to the game play, the combat was quick, fun, and fluid. I had elected to go with the Blade Master class and can only assume I was a bit of a DPS type character? At this point I am unsure if it uses the holy trinity (dps/tank/healer), but from what I saw in character creation, I don’t believe this to be the case. In my three hours I didn’t get to anything that required a party. I also stumbled upon the weapon upgrade system, in which I was able to take weapons I didn’t need or couldn’t use, and use them to upgrade my starting weapon. I found this to be an interesting feature, and it made me quite the killing machine.

Armor on the other hand appears to not be a thing. At least what we normally consider armor. I was given a chest piece with no stats, and later received another one with no stats, it merely changed the cosmetics of my avatar.

While leveling up, your class trainer keeps having you meet them in various locations to show you new skills. Each time I had reached them though I was already quite familiar with the skills and how to use them. The experience may be different for someone less familiar with MMOs though, and perhaps more useful for them. Considering it was always done along your path and not out of the way, it wasn’t an annoyance really.

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So what do I think after 3 hours of play? I think you should try it! I myself am going to have to try it out more to see what else it holds, but I was certainly impressed enough with the start that I am very optimistic. Though I don’t believe it features my normal preferences like Player Housing and an economic side game that exist in sandbox games, it did seem like a solid theme-park MMO.

What’s This? A New form of post

So with this post I am introducing  a new process where I take on MMOs I haven’t played recently, or ever, and give a basic introduction of them via 3 hours of game time. Why 3 hours? Well, I originally wanted to do one hour, but for most MMOs that’s really only enough to MAYBE complete the introduction/tutorial. So three hours seemed like the next logical jump. Plus in this time constrained world, I thought three hours was a good amount of time to give a video game to see if it was worth holding your attention. The drawback is this amount of time likely won’t actually get you any real time experience with the “Multiplayer” content in an MMO, but since these are MMOs I wouldn’t normally come across, I guess we’re not at a loss anyway. And of course that leaves us with the bright side, if they’re actually good, then I will of course have to delve deeper and write more material on it!

The Flings…

So. We all have those relationships we form just to get by… Ya know, the filler in-between the main story quests. As my time with the MMOs I’m about to list was always brief, I’m including them all under one post, in the order that I played them (or at least think I did). As with my World of Warcraft post I acknowledged there were MMOs in-between my stints with WoW, its slightly out of chronological order in regards to World of Warcraft, but they all happened before the next main MMO for me which was Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Age of Conan

Aion

Rift

TERA

 

TERA

TERA was an MMO that had me quite excited for a couple of reasons. First off, it was done by a team led by former Lineage 2 developers. Secondly, it featured and active combat system. Unlike most MMOs where you simply hit the Tab key to target creatures and then mash key numbers on your keyboard to do your attacks, TERA had you actively using your mouse to aim your attacks, choosing when to strike, and when to block by using left and right clicks respectively. This gave combat a much deeper dynamic, and you had to actually pay attention to what was happening on the screen instead of just staring at your keyboard and pressing numbers in rhythm based on cooldown.

TERA Launched on May 1st, 2012. It was developed by Bluehole Studio and published by En Masse Entertainment in NA. I had gone out and bought a collector’s edition as I had high hopes. It featured amazing graphics, refreshing combat, and BAMs (Big Ass Monsters).

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The game featured seven races and 8 classes (now 11 as of posting date). The graphics were a mix of realistic with a unique art style as hands and chests were a bit more bulked up than what you could consider “real”. TERA also became well known for it’s “Elins” race, which was a small female only race that could have animal tails and ears and is the root of many jokes. There was also the “fury” race, Popori. We also had the options for Humans, Aman (draconian humanoids), Baraka (giant, males only), Castanics (elves with demon horns?), and High Elves. The character avatars looked great, though customization was a bit limited.


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TERA's Elin race, for those into that sort of thing...
TERA’s Elin race, for those into that sort of thing…

 

The combat was indeed amazing. I have never had more fun playing as a tank and healer in a game. As the Tank I had to keep on my feet, remain moving, and know when the block the big attacks. Failure to pay attention would result in all our deaths. This was so refreshing compared to games like World of Warcraft where blocks were handled automatically. Timing a block just right could cause your opponent to clash their weapon into your shield, knocking them backward as they were thrown off balance, leaving you the perfect opportunity for you to strike with your spear. As a Healer, I was constantly moving. The bosses were more often than not the previously mentioned BAMs, giant bosses capable of striking across large areas, and taking up good portions of your screen. Because heals actually had to be aimed, you had to make sure your line of sight was clear so you could throw that critical heal when they needed it. To account for this, they had an ability they could use while running to generate mana, adding a whole new dynamic to resource management while in combat. Combine that with back flip, jumping, and dodging abilities, and every battle was a pleasure.

I never made it to max level. Actually I never made it past the free month. I made a tank character, didn’t align with any guilds, and didn’t really make any friends. Grinding through the quests was uninspiring. Sure the combat was fun, but having to run from spot to spot to kill dozens upon dozens of random creatures just wasn’t thrilling. The dungeons were fun and the bosses amazing, but you’d have to run one a dozen times to gain a level. The grind was steep, common for Korean MMOs, and I just wasn’t feeling it.

My friends and I.
My friends and I.

In February 2013, the game adopted a freemium model. This is when my friends adopted it and began to play and I started my role as a healer. It was fun for a bit, but I was unable to keep up with them as I had classes and they quickly advanced to the max level. A few months later we played again during an XP event which made the game progress at a much more acceptable rate, I even paid for a month. However once the event ended, so did my interest. The game did have crafting mechanics, but nothing that interested me. I am sure I am wrong with this statement, but it just didn’t seem to have much to offer. TERA falls into the realm of being just one of the MMOs I hopped to and never stuck with as I searched for the next great MMO of my life. The game also launched on Steam and has actually seen moderate success in its free-to-play model.

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Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 was an extremely anticipated game. Released on August 28th, 2012, it had many features which had gamers drooling from the start.

Guild Wars 2 was of course the sequel to Guild Wars, a MMO-esque game that I only briefly touched upon myself. It was called an MMO, however there were 2 major things about it that made it quite different. First off, it had no monthly subscription. You bought it once, and you could play it from that point without paying another dime. The game did have several expansions which unlocked more areas, classes, and quests, but they were not required. The other difference, and a major one, was that the game was only really an MMO in the sense that cities acted as player hubs. As soon as you left a city, the only people you could see were those in your party. This seemed akin to chat room lobbies in Diablo 2 to me, and was the reason I called it ‘MMO-esque’. The game was also oddly limited to a max level of 20, with a clear vision of player ability and gear dictating the character, and not a lengthy XP grind. It gained acclaim for its quality and lack of subscription fee. When the sequel was announced, it caught the attention of many players and non-players alike as Arena Net had developed a reputation behind Guild Wars (also worth nothing NCsoft actually owns Arena Net).

During development many wondered just how Guild Wars 2 would be set up. Would it actually be an MMO this time or town lobbies again? Would it have a high or low level cap? All we knew for sure approaching the launch was that it would have stunning graphics, use the same buy to play model supported by an in-game store, and players were meant to be able to have an impact on the game world.

I was able to get into the beta, and I was pleasantly surprised with my first impressions. The character creation was really interesting. You had the usual selecting the class, sex, and class of your avatar, but you also selected their personality test like questions. The game featured a good deal of avatar customization, as well as selecting the base colors of your gear from the get go. You could also change this at any time utilizing dyes, which you received in the game or bought from the cash shop.

The beta (and game) guided you through the intro quest to the game where a village is under attack. Short story even shorter, you help people out, are alarmed by a bad guy, and you faint, because, that’s just what heroes do. It’s actually a bit hard to remember it actually, maybe I hit my head when my character fainted? So let’s just get to the game.

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Quatre’s character creation

The game had a relatively stable launch. The game would be a true MMO setting, with players able to see and interact with each other outside of just towns, unlike the previous title. The level cap had been raised from 20 to 80. Skills were based not only on class, but what weapons the character had equipped. And of course, there were “guild wars”. Three faction battles (which were actually server vs. server, as the game didn’t actually have factions) that were fought on a massive map involving of course PVP, and even siege warfare.

Being guided through the story quest took you from location to location all of which had their own quest chains. You of course started in your races own area, but could travel freely and quest wherever you so choose. Traveling through the world was unlocked by accessing quick travel points that you could move to at any time for a fee. Making it to the central city of Lion’s Arc also made it so you could quickly access the other starter towns. All of which were magnificent to gaze upon, the graphics were bright, wonderful and colorful.

There were 5 races in the world of Guild Wars 2.  There was the races of Humans, Sylvari (plant humanoids), Asura (little grey humanoids with an affinity for technology), the Charr (beast like humanoids that run on all 4s), and the Norn (a northern/cold based race of humanoids that were a bit taller and bulkier than your standard every day human).

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Before playing I was on a Game of Thrones kick and a big fan of the Starks. While 90% of the time I chose humans if available (I’m so creative, I know), I decided to go with the Norn’s, as they looked human, but were basically the starks. Guild Wars 2 also had the class of Hunter, which meant I could have a pet, specifically a Wolf (Dire Wolves anyone?). The problem I had though was that you couldn’t change the body mass of the avatars all that much. The Norns were simply big and bulky, and in my mind that does not make a good hunter who should be slender and quick. I was torn between making a Human Guardian (tank class) like I always do, or an unattractive hunter. But then I came up with a fix, I made a female Norn hunter, Relina Stark.

I advanced through the story and made it all the way to the level cap at the time of 80. The game had several innovations that made it very enjoyable. One of which was your skills were based on the weapon you had equipped. Sword, shield, long bow, short bow, staff, etc., they all had their own skills that you had to develop through use (this was quickly accomplished), and then were also able to swtich to another weapon on the fly to use its set of skills. You class also developed skill points which you would invest into skills to also use on the skill bar. This preset weapon skills and limited options for active class skills (5 at a time I believe) made it so you focused less on your skill bar, and more on the task at hand. This contributed to the roll mechanics which allowed you to roll out of danger with a double tap in any direction. This allowed you to quickly dodge a Giant’s club or a dragon’s fire breath. It also kept you focused on the action, and not that bottom bar across your screen.

Another great feature was one of an absurdly simple concept. Whenever you walked into a quest zone, the quest immediately popped up and you could start the progression in it. You didn’t have to first go hunt down quest givers. Upon completion, you could then go hand in the quest. Guild Wars 2 also had active events constantly happen in the form of invasions or wild animal attacks, much like the rifts from Rifts. Players could actively participate (or ignore) these events, and were credited based on their contribution. There also were no penalties for assisting someone killing a mob, so there was no need to worry about griefing or losing XP. This encouraged players to help each other instead of fear each other, a huge step forward for MMOs when all the leading MMOs had players playing with their heads down, ignoring the community at large as you were too preoccupied for your own progression.

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Relina assaulting a dragon with dozens of players.

Yet another great feature was the way they handled their cash shop. Normally a blight upon most games as they offer unique features to those willing to shell out the cash, or gouge players by placing key features of the game behind pay walls, ArenaNet took a different approach. Firstly, the store was nearly purely cosmetics, those boosts for XP and other rates were offered. The other key aspect was that you could purchase gems (the currency to use in the cash shop) with in-game gold. Players in need of gold, sold gems, players in need of gems, bought them with their gold. You never actually had to spend any real life money on Guild Wars 2 aside from your initial purchase of the game! This was brilliant! I had used my gold to purchase a pirate costume and some pets.

The game also featured underwater combat, which required you to use underwater weapons. By default, all characters had an underwater breathing apparatus, and these sections of the game were also beautifully done. They stood out right alongside the northern lands cased in ice, the jungles, the deserts, and your typical temperate zones. Everything stood out and came to life on the screen. NPCs would move, have dialogue, and interesting stories and circumstances. With the live events thrown into the mix, another layer of dynamic interaction was added. The world truly felt “alive” for its time, and still surpasses many MMOs today. To further create this sensation, there are many server-wide events that the developers call “Living Story” that happen throughout the year and actually have impacts on the game world, continuing the story-line and changing the landscape. One such example was the capital city of Lions Arch being attacked and destroyed, leaving it in ruins from that point forward. These events would take place over a week or two, and the results permanent. I myself took part in one of the early ones that involved battle creatures on an island. This event only happened once, and could not be redone. A once in a lifetime experience.

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Relina participating in a Living Worlds server event.

Because you could go to any zone and quests were automatically distributed upon walking into an area, all you had to worry about was your level. I reached level 80, but never actually finished my storyline completely. I was still in undergrad and Guild Wars 2 was being used for one of my research projects. I always meant to go back, but have yet to. Guild Wars 2’s first official expansion launches next month, and with I they have announced the game going free to play! ArenaNet has made magnificent strides in the realm of MMOs, and still are not pulling any punches. It will be exciting seeing how the game will continue to develop, and I hope to return to it someday soon!

This article was originally written prior to the launch of their expansion, but actually posted much later.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR was a huge MMORPG being led by EA and Bioware, the creators of the Knights of the Old Republic franchise (though, rather a sub-team of Bioware, it’s just the name that matters, right?). Released on December 20th, 2011 SWTOR was one of the most developmentally expensive games ever made, with estimates putting it at $200 million. The amount of hype for this game was incredible as not only was it Star Wars (Need I say more?) but Bioware had a huge reputation in the gaming RPG market with some of the best story-telling gamers had experienced to date (Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Dragon Age). The game launched with a $60 price tag, a $150 collector’s edition, and a $15 monthly subscription fee.

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With Bioware came some highly sought after innovation in the MMORPG market. Bioware RPGs were known for storylines that allowed players to make choices throughout the story and alter the course of conversations, and ultimately the ending. They often were morally based, boiling down to good and evil. This made it a perfect for the Light Side and Dark Side choices that Star Wars was well known for. So, as a Jedi, you could chose to save people or let them die, and the choices would earn you light side or dark side points. The more a player favored the dark side, the more their appearance would become more “sith-like”, or however you want to phrase the darker, vienier look of evil Star Wars characters.

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My character Neliel, though her darkside level isn’t as far as it could be.

The game featured the Republic versus the Empire, so a two faction system many MMOs use. Despite the Republic often being associated with Good, and the Empire with Evil, either side could make the choice for light side or dark side affiliation. Each side featured 4 class archetypes, which each had 2 classes of their own. Naturally you could pick a Jedi and the Sith equivalent. Force users made up 2 selections for both factions, featuring 1 archetype that focused on melee, and the other on using the force (so fighters and mages). On the public side we then have Troopers (the good ones, like the Clone Troopers, ya know, before they killed all the Jedi) and Smuggler(Han Solo). To complete the Empire’s roster we have Imperial Agents and Bounty Hunters.  These are all pretty self-explanatory. Their roles of course fall into categories of DPS, Tank, and Healer. Each class is capable of all 3 roles before making their specialization decision.

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Off on a slight tangent here, being able to have a moral choices alter your characters appearance and thus give your avatars a new dynamic. This was one of the main reasons I chose to use SWTOR for my undergraduate research project on looking at how we craft our avatars and how we see them. That can be viewed under my works section on this site.

Each class has its own distinct story line that unfolds, resulting in 8 different stories if you were to do all 8 classes. I only ever completed the Jedi Knight story line, which involved taking on the Emperor himself. The stories are actually a great part of the game, keeping you invested in your character. The main story had you running from planet to planet, chasing some enemy, doing planet specific quests along the way. It also featured dungeons called “flash points”.

SWTOR also had another Bioware mainstay, and that was companions. Your avatar would collect several companions throughout his journeys, and you were always able to have one summoned with you to aid you in combat. You could also form relationships with these companions, and they had an affection rating towards you based on your interactions with them, but also your choices through the game. To go with this, you also receive your own ship which you can use to quick travel through the galaxy.

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As I mentioned, I started my journey into SWTOR as a Jedi Knight. I knew from the get go that I would want to make my main in this game a tank. So I sacrificed the cool look of being a Jedi Sentinel with duel lightsabers, and chose the Guardian specialization. I was happy to have choices like this, reminded me of Lineage 2’s class system. I completed my Padawan missions on Tython and eventual earned the right to craft my very own lightsaber, and intense moment indeed. And then my friends all got the game and started on another server and I had to restart.

After completing our intro missions we finally united (classes start on different planets). We formed a unit and took on the world. It was actually a great time really. The game most certainly had a Star Wars feel to it. I was enthusiastically enjoying traveling the universe as a Jedi. We were able to quest together, and during all of the cut scenes any player involved in the conversation could make a selection for a response, and the game would randomly select whose avatar spoke and we’d all have to deal with those results. In dungeons this was particularly important because if you were light side and your friends were dark side, the course of the dungeon could be altered randomly based on who the game chose, making it intriguing (you weren’t penalized for your party member’s choices, but you still had to deal with what happened as a result). One of the first examples you come across is a bunch of men stuck on the other side of a locked down chamber. You need to open the air lock for some reason, and doing so will result in their death. Or you can take the longer route and manually discharge some vents or something. Dark side you open it and kill them in the process, light side you go the roundabout way. Regardless of the choices made, it was always enjoyable and even tense at times.

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The leveling felt a decent pace, and honestly as I write this I’m having trouble remembering what my issues with the game. In fact, as I write this on 1/8/2016, I’m currently playing the this MMO going through the Revan content before experiencing the new expansion they just launched, but more on those later.

My friends dropped off one by one, but I continued playing. Upon reaching max level (50 at the time) I joined another guild to continue my research and gameplay. I became a main/secondary tank and we completed the majority of the end game content. SWTOR set a record for quickest growing MMO reaching 1 million subscribers in just a few days. Sadly, it failed to maintain this and the numbers fell nearly as quickly, following in the footsteps of Age of Conan. With their numbers dropping and EA having fears of losing money, they announced that they would be transitioning to a free-to-play model a mere 10 months later, though I had quit playing prior to this.

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My friends and I, trying to get through a hard quest. They stripped their gear to stop it from losing endurance while I drew all the mobs to me. Only one of us had to survive to get credit for the quest.

One last thing I must mention is the PvP. It would randomly put you into various PvP match types. You had your standard hold the position type, the assault type which involved completing objectives in a better time than your opponents, and then my favorite, HUTT BALL!  My friends dreaded Hutt Ball, but it was by far one of the most fun PvP match types I’ve played, though this might be due to my class. You would spawn in an Arena, hosted by the Hutts of course. The objective was to run to the center of the arena, grab the ball, and bring it to the opponent’s side. To go alongside with having to do this while preventing the other team from trying to do the same, there were ramps and traps to avoid in the arena. To stop the ball movement, you had to kill the player, and then you would pick up the ball. Being a Tank, I was naturally well built to carry out this task. I also had the force leap ability, which I could use to jump to players at a distance, so those ranged players trying to pick me off from afar only ended up aiding me in getting closer to their goal.

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After doing the end game raiding, there just wasn’t much to do. There were promises of lots of intriguing features in the future, but at most the content in place only lasted you 3-6 months. They also introduced game play updates that simplified how you did things. They took a page from World of Warcraft’s book and made it so you could use “group finder” to do dungeons. This made it so 5 random people could be placed in a dungeon and complete it together, removing the need for players to really interact. You could join a group and not have to say another word to another player as it was made that easy. This is a problem I have with many MMOs on the market, I believe it degrades the community and cripples the player interactions. By July, the subscription fell under one million. This can also be blamed on Guild Wars 2 that launched in August. My guild jumped ship, and I followed them and continued my research project within Guild Wars 2 as it also featured unique Avatar options.

As I noted though, I have returned to this MMORPG as of late, and will be making a part two to this that goes over some of the changes.

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“Shards Online: Play by your rules”

Yet another successful Kickstart MMO Campaign that began November 14th, 2014. Shards Online was funded for $105,717, with a promise of the developers that they would match the donation. The former leads of Ultima Online are looking to create innovation in the long running (and crumbling) MMO genre.

“We aren’t just building a world. We’re giving you the keys to the universe.”

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The developers have come up with an interesting concept to be the driving force behind their MMORPG. Instead of focusing on graphics, they are providing you with a toolset to mold the world as you see fit. In what seems to be a note taken straight from the anime Sword Art Online, players can host their own worlds known as “Shards”, from which the game derives its namesake. Players can connect and explore these Shards with their avatars, representing different stories and settings, and featuring different rulesets all determined by the world’s creator.

They can jump between worlds as they see fit as long as they share the same ruleset. Each Shard represents a map, an area like a region. You are able to customize what is in it, the NPCs, the skill sets, the placement of objects, and basically everything within it, even customizing the maps and models. People hosting these shards can then connect other regions, forming a “Cluster” of shards. While passing from 1 region to the next seems to make simple enough sense, in my head this translates nicely to Diablo and going from Act I to Act II and so on.

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From the screenshots you can see the Perspective and combat even are also similar to Diablo. While at first I regarding it as weighing graphical detail versus world customization, I see it as more of a throwback to the classic MMOs and RPGs. Considering the leads of UO are on this, I guess that should of clicked sooner. What’s more surprising is they aren’t the only ones adopting this trend, as even big names in the MMO world such as NCsoft are also adopting this perspective with their upcoming MMO Lineage Eternal.

I pledged $100 to this kickstarter myself. I am excited at the opportunity to develop custom MMO shards that are a bit akin to Diablo. I, like many, lack programming skills, but the developers are making it so that everything can be edited through the in-game UI. I have always been a big fan of creating my own world and sharing them with others. Having people experience something that I crafted for them. Hopefully I find enough people to form a small team to go on this endeavor with me. Luckily I have time, as it’s been over a year now and we still have a year to go before this game hits Beta. Alas, that is the downside of pledging to kickstarter projects, having patience.

I should also note, pledge packages are still available at the Kickstarter rates, a rare thing to do as most groups try to reward their early adopters but making kickstarter rewards exclusive.

www.shardsonline.com

Shards Online Kickstarer video: