Cheating on WoW: Skyforge Beta

As regular readers may recall, Skyforge is a game I’ve been curious about for some time, though I also have serious reservations. Thanks to our friends at Massively Overpowered, I managed to snag a key for the latest closed beta test, though due to the hectic circumstances of my life as of late, I only managed to play for the last two days of the test.

A boss fight in Skyforge's tutorialEven after playing the game, I remain somewhat on the fence about Skyforge.

A class act:

There are two main things that I very much enjoy about Skyforge. Well, more like three, but I’m going to lump classes and combat together.

As one would expect from an action combat game, Skyforge’s battles are quite visceral and enjoyable. It does lack the hilarious rag doll physics of Neverwinter and doesn’t have quite the visceral punch of TERA and Dragon’s Prophet, but it’s still pretty good.

Like TERA, Skyforge gives each class a surprisingly large number of skills for an action combat game, in stark contrast to the very limited action bars of games like Neverwinter or The Secret World.

And here’s where it gets really interesting, because I found Skyforge’s classes to be surprisingly complex. There’s a strong emphasis on combos — especially for melee classes — and unusual or inventive ability interactions.

A dungeon boss battle in Skyforge's betaI spent much of the weekend playing the alchemist class,* and I could get different results by combining chemicals on enemies in different orders. One combination creates an AoE explosion, another does massive single target damage.

*(A thoroughly enjoyable class that nails the mad scientist feel excellently. I spent much of the weekend giggling maniacally and randomly shouting “BLINDED WITH SCIENCE!”)

Which brings me to the next point: Skyforge has some really excellent class design. The game is launching with a whopping twelve classes, and thanks to a training room that you lets you try them all on for size (something every RPG should have), I found that each has a pretty distinct feel and their own interesting mechanics.

The classes are a good mix of traditional archetypes — archer, cryomancer, paladin, etc. — and some far more unusual concepts, such as the aforementioned alchemist and the kinetic, which manipulates gravity and magnetism to hurl boulders and generally impose its will on enemies.

And of course, you can swap between any classes you’ve unlocked easily at any time, granting a tremendous amount of versatility and doing a lot to help stave off boredom. Starting to feel the grind? Swap classes for a few fights and have a totally different experience.

My alchemist in Skyforge's betaThanks to a speedy and efficient group-finder, I also found that Skyforge is a bit like Neverwinter in that it does have the trinity of group roles — sort of; supports don’t have direct healing, and tanks don’t seem to have any taunts or special threat-building abilities — but isn’t too serious about it. Only once did I have a group with all three roles represented, but less balanced compositions didn’t cause any problems.

This also feels like a good time to mention that many dungeons can be done either solo or in a group. Aside from being a great way to cater to different playstyles, this allows players to learn the mechanics before joining a group, which should cut down on drama.

Speaking of lacking drama, Skyforge doesn’t have any loot competition, either. Drops seem to be unique to each player — as in Diablo III — and the open world areas feature open-tapping, creating a wonderfully chaotic slaughterfest such as you’d see in Guild Wars 2.

But I’m getting sidetracked. There is one glaring flaw with the class system: You can’t pick any class out of the gate. In fact, at launch, people will only be able to start out as a lightbinder, paladin, or cryomancer — three classes I found to be among the least interesting.

I never understand what goes through the minds of developers when they intentionally hobble a core selling feature of their game. Is this a ploy to sell more XP boosters? A misguided attempt to avoid overwhelming newbies? I don’t know, but it does the game no favours.

The capitol city of Aelinar in Skyforge's betaI didn’t play long enough to get a clear idea of how long it would take to unlock another class, but the impression I got was that it’s not an enormous grind, but not trivial either. Long enough to be unpleasant if you don’t like your starting classes, I think.

The world of Aelion:

The other thing that grabbed me about Skyforge was its setting, a very unique blending of sci-fi and fantasy elements. It’s a bit reminiscent of Star Wars, but also has a lot of its own personality.

The environments are stunningly beautiful and often wonderfully alien. Too often, MMOs worlds are an endless procession of generic high fantasy realms, but Aelion is a place that instantly strikes you with its own distinct personality. That counts for a lot with someone like me.

On a related note, I was pleased to discover that Skyforge is like The Secret World in that your stats gear and the clothes your character wears are totally unconnected, though the options aren’t as robust as in TSW. And while the game does have a significant case of “female armour,” there are several options for more practical gear on female avatars, as well.

A stellar soundtrack also helps fill the world with feeling. When it comes to aesthetics, Skyforge is a complete home run.

A rare open world zone in SkyforgeOn the downside, the world is heavily instanced and lobby-based, so you don’t get to explore much of this world. Open world zones are few and far between, and those that do exist are still fairly small.

The story is a bit of a mixed bag.

The tutorial/intro sequence was of a surprisingly high quality — aside from the distracting fact that your character is assumed to be male until you get to character creation, which only occurs after you achieve immortality. It features some excellently choreographed cutscenes that do a great job of providing your character with a strong origin story.

The tutorial shows an attention to detail most MMOs lack. For instance, after rescuing a group of civilians, I noticed one of them ran up to embrace one of my NPC comrades, showing some sort of relationship between them. Makes the world feel alive.

But after exiting the tutorial and creating your character, the story becomes much more of a mixed bag.

On the one hand, they do deserve credit for creating an over-arching storyline as opposed to the scattershot randomness you see in a lot of MMOs. The voice acting isn’t terrible — though the dialogue is a bit stilted, likely due to being originally written in Russian — and I’ve certainly seen far worse attempts at story in MMOs.

My alchemist in Skyforge's betaBut it’s not terribly compelling, either. It is a bit rambly, there’s not a lot of emotional investment, and there’s almost no attempt to explain any history or backstory.

Aelion is such a strange and unique setting. I want to learn everything there is to know about it, but the game doesn’t afford that opportunity. I don’t even know how or why my character became immortal.

Something else worrisome is that it seems the story tends to send you back to the same dungeons and regions repeatedly, which is generally viewed as a cardinal sin of MMO quest design.

I like revisiting old regions if it involves new encounters or otherwise refreshed content, but in this case it’s just doing the same exact thing over again. Not a good sign.

Is it worth it?

If you enjoy lobby-based grinders like Vindictus or Neverwinter, I’d definitely check out Skyforge. If you’d like a world with more depth or a game that isn’t quite so transparent in its grinding, I’d move on.

A shot from Skyforge's beta. PrettyBefore I go, I should also mention that it doesn’t look like Skyforge is going to be a particularly good example of free to play. The monetization systems aren’t fully implemented yet, but I did notice that you get reduced rewards for everything if you’re not a premium member — a la SW:TOR — and the game constantly reminds you of the fact. Again, this is not encouraging.

Myself, I’m still not sure. There’s a lot I like about Skyforge, but I fear it may struggle to hold my interest long term, as Neverwinter did. I mostly enjoyed my time in the beta, but at no point was I blown away.

Review: Ancient Space

One day while browsing Steam, I encountered a game called Ancient Space that sold itself as an RTS focused on a story-driven single-player campaign.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceI pretty much started manically smashing the “buy” button.

And I’m not sorry I did. Ancient Space is not without flaws, but overall I found it a solid and enjoyable experience.

The story for Ancient Space focuses on an enigmatic region of space known as the Black Zone, so called because of anomalies and rifts in space that block communication and sensor signals, rendering ships within it deaf and blind. The Black Zone is home to a race of hostile aliens called the Scythe, and rumours swirl of vast alien beings known as Balaethans lurking in the cold voids.

Worse still, the Black Zone is expanding, swallowing entire star systems as it encroaches on human space. Years ago, the human government dispatched the starship Ulysses to find the source of the expansion.

A cutscene from Ancient SpaceIt was never heard from again.

Ancient Space follows passionate scientist Dr. Willow Burke as she commands a new expedition into the Black Zone aboard the Ulysses II to uncover the truth of what happened to her predecessors, unlock the mysteries of the Black Zone, and halt its expansion.

The story is pretty strong, with good pacing and plenty of alien mysteries, political intrigue, and twists. It does suffer a little bit due to the technical limitations of the game — all story is delivered through in-mission dialogue, short mission briefings, or sparse flavour text — but considering that, the writers do an admirable job of working with what they’re given.

Something that appealed to me is that this game seems to have been designed as an homage to Star Trek: Enterprise. The Black Zone is eerily reminiscent of the Delphic Expanse from season three, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the main characters is voiced by John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox), especially considering he even references one of Phlox’s more famous lines at one point.

The story of Ancient Space is helped along by a strong sense of ambiance enforced by the game’s graphics and audio.

Scythe ships in Ancient SpaceThe soundtrack for Ancient Space is one of the best I’ve heard in a video game. Seeming like a combination of Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica’s soundtracks, it’s an eclectic mix of synth sounds, orchestras, and exotic instruments. The action tracks are thrilling, and the more ambient songs fill one with a sense of mystery — and maybe a little dread — reinforcing the alien nature of the Black Zone.

Unfortunately, the sound effects are not of such a high quality. Weapon hits and explosions are almost inaudible, which tends to make the battles feel rather sterile.

While not quite top of the line, the visuals in Ancient Space are quite impressive, depicting a variety of surreal and hauntingly alien deep space environments.

My one complaint about the graphics is that the units are incredibly tiny and covered by obnoxious icons. Try as I might, I could not find a way to turn these off.

On the plus side, the miniscule units are another thing that hammers home the feeling of isolation that runs throughout Ancient Space. Ambiance is not an easy thing to create in an RTS, but Ancient Space does a very good job of communicating the feeling of being lost and alone in a vast and often hostile universe.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceWhen it comes to gameplay, Ancient Space is for the most part a very traditional RTS. I found it reminiscent of old school games like the Dune series and the original StarCraft.

It doesn’t cling to the past too much, though. While it’s not wildly innovative, it has enough modern ideas to feel somewhat fresh. There are between mission progression systems that allow you to upgrade your units and customize the capabilities of the Ulysses II. Your choice of senior officers for each mission grants you access to a variety of powerful (if fairly uncreative) abilities similar to the god powers in Age of Mythology. While the mission design isn’t as wildly creative as in StarCraft II, it’s got enough variety to stay interesting.

However, the one major issue with Ancient Space’s gameplay — and my biggest complaint with the game — is that it is quite hard. Even playing on the lowest difficulty setting, I often found it challenging to the point of frustration, and more than once, I found myself having to restart a mission because I got slaughtered.

And I’m an experienced RTS player who’s beaten StarCraft II on brutal. Someone without a lot of skill and experience in the genre would probably have a miserable time.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceHowever, if you’re already an RTS fan, then I definitely recommend Ancient Space.

Overall rating: 7.5/10 I’m hoping for a sequel.