Release Date: February 21, 2006
As a wee lad, I stumbled across a cartoon that instantly resonated with my latent genetic lust for cyberpunk science-fiction. Although I wasn't aware of this desire at the time (at least not in any way that could be named), it was present all the same, and from the moment I first saw a Robotech Valkerie transforming into a towering mech as it went to war on the Zentraedi, I was hooked. I must admit that my love of anime has never become as furious as many of the true devotees of the genre, but I still appreciate it. With that in mind, the upcoming anime-themed persistent world RPG called Rising Force Online immediately caught my eye. It's not every day you're offered the option of playable mecha in a massively multiplayer game.
In a nutshell, RF Online is a fantasy/science-fiction hybrid in 3D with a PvP-focus that offers three playable factions battling over a deep-space sector and/or planet called Novus. These three sides all have their own motivations for fighting, as well as exceptionally individualistic aesthetic flavors. Running down the list alphabetically, we start with the Accretia Empire, a "race" of militaristic cyborgs whose culture is centered on conquest and domination. The Accretia are not native to Novus; they just want to possess it. Of course, to do so, they must overcome the other forces living there. The Cora is a race of mystics that favor heavy magic use. They could be thought of as fanatical nature-warriors, ruthless in their protection of Novus. Of course, when "defense" spills over into "offense," things become more complicated and alliances become hard to maintain. Thus, the Cora hasn't had much luck joining with the third and final race involved in this epic struggle, the Bellato Union. These elf-like fighters have an affinity for tinkered "steampunk" technologies. Their willingness to exploit industrialized research angers the Cora, and their haughty defiance of the Accretia expansionism has failed to endear them to the cybrids. So the Bellato Union soldiers on, fighting off both sides.
The differences need to be learned well before even launching into this game, as you're not allowed multiple races on the same server. Once you've chosen Accretia, Cora, or Bellato, that's all you get to play unless you delete all avatars and start fresh or switch to a different server. While I'm certain this is a mechanism designed to avoid turn-coat spying, it has a side-effect: reinforced loyalty to your faction. As for classes, the Cora and Bellato have four each, while the Accretia only have three. They break down as Fighter, Ranger, Spiritualist, and Specialist. The Accretia have no flesh, no souls, and thus no sense of spiritualism or magic. Fighters and Rangers are fairly self-explanatory; you kill stuff hand-to-hand, or you shoot it over long range. Spiritualists aren't too hard to figure out either; they're a blanket "magic user" class that covers all auspices of that genre. Specialists tend to be the least generic, being tailored to their faction. An example would be the Bellato Union war-walker "MAU" mecha pilots, which are specialist class characters.
The first impression one is given upon loading into Novus is how achingly beautiful it is. Even if anime isn't really your bag, one cannot deny the artistic flair the developers have packed into the world and its denizens. The greatest care has been put into the cities and the players; everything carries an exaggerated sense of excess. Even at level one, you'll look cool. The mood isn't a million miles removed from the stylized approach Blizzard used with World of Warcraft, with lots of rich primary colors taken from a bold palette. The only graphical subtlety lies in how all of this manages to keep from blending into one big generic mass. The distinct aesthetic approach helps, but the design skill cannot be overlooked. This is just a gorgeous game, period.
RF Online has no first-person W-A-S-D controls at all, only third-person point-and-click. The skills system is based on hotkeys, F1 through F12. I am hoping that somewhere between this phase of beta and launch, the ability to re-map these hotkeys is implemented, but for the moment, it's locked. All of the skills rely on force points (other games call it "mana"): your life is measured in health points, and all running movement eats up stamina points. So long as you're moving, you don't regenerate health, force, or stamina and even when standing still, you're only regaining a point of each per tick/second. What this means is that to maintain any play momentum, you'll need potions. These come in stacks of 100 or more from vendors in most outposts and all home cities. You'll find yourself spending a great deal of in-game currency on keeping liquid replenishment supplies in stock. In all honesty, I'm surprised at how potion-dependent the gameplay actually is. It is possible that the run speeds and regeneration ratios may be altered or sped up before launch; I know that many of the testers seem unhappy with how slow the downtime is.
While there is "player-versus-enemy" play in RF Online, it mostly serves as a side mechanic to grind one up to effective "player-versus-player" action. The NPC opponents are largely inconsequential, usually won't attack unless provoked, and aren't even given a script to simulate a reason for being. They just stand around until killed, re-spawning from the ether in a flash of light to repeat the process. Quests seem to be along the same lines as those in Star Wars Galaxies: "Kill X number of these monsters. Now kill X number of those monsters. Later, rinse, repeat." In the end, NPCs are just punching-bag piñatas designed to provide loot and experience so that you can hop into the more epic battles against other people. RF Online (like its most obvious contemporary, Lineage 2) has no restrictions in PvP whatsoever. Theoretically, a level 50 Cora warrior could make the run to the Accretia home city and lay waste to as many newbies as he/she saw fit. Expect to see plenty of griefing in this game.
In development under the auspices of a Korean online firm called CCR, RF Online will be offered to North American fans by the stalwart Codemasters crew. (Remember the much-anticipated Dragon Empires? It's the same group.) CCR initially specializes in corporate network solutions, which is a good base for a game designed around online play. I must admit, I didn't personally see any serious latency issues during my time in Novus. Combined with the smooth graphics, the end result is a more stable sensation than most other beta MMo games I've partaken of. Of course, the surge of players that will slam into RF Online at launch may alter things somewhat.
To be perfectly honest, once my sense of awe over the graphics and style subsided, I was less than impressed with what I experienced playing this beta build. The things that bothered me most weren't issues of balance, but rather elements of design. The list goes something like this: There is freeform PvP that seems to invite grief players, the developers have opted to use experience loss as a death penalty (even when you're killed by another player regardless of level, once again a nod to griefers), there is a decided lack of immersive stories in the quest system, and finally, there is an excess of experience grinding at the core of the RF Online experience. In short, it's identical to Lineage 2; it's just set in a futuristic world instead of medieval fantasy. All of the elements that made the original EverQuest such a misery over time seem to have been embraced as features in this game.
Regardless, RF Online will absolutely be the first post-World of Warcraft success story. Codemasters have a glittering goldmine on their hands, simply because there is a huge market of players out there who love all the things I just listed as drawbacks. Also, there are just as many anime fans willing to eat up any chance at all to play in a persistent manga-themed world. Mix those two elements together, and you have a recipe for a huge army of players. In short, just because this didn't quite turn out to be the cup of tea I was hoping for doesn't mean it's a title to pass by. Watch out for this game, it's going to be huge. RF Online is the answer to many people's prayers.
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