Release Date: February 21, 2006
I recall reading about Codemasters' acquisition of Rising Force Online, and actually having some interest in the title. With the standard fanfare and marketing enthusiasm, the press releases touted the game as the pinnacle of the genre, with innovative gameplay and so on and so forth. Having read nearly the same press release from nearly every other announced MMO, I was aptly skeptical but I still kept an open mind. I added the game to the mental list of titles I follow, and did a little more digging. What I found at that time was enough for me to get a little excited about the game. Unfortunately for Codemasters, that excitement was in no way justified, and they have a bit of a lemon on their hands.
Imagine my disappointment when I actually installed the game and fired it up for the first time. RF Online is Codemasters' first successful foray into the genre of massively multiplayer online games, and the title clearly shows their inexperience. To be fair, I believe that I, like so many other players of persistent world games, have been spoiled by the 800-pound gorilla of the genre (you know the one I'm talking about), so my take on online games is colored by that experience.
However, even without my experiences with one of the best of the genre, it is easy to see the glaring flaws and poor decisions that were made by CCR when creating RF Online. That bad taste in my mouth as I wandered around the game world didn't come from comparing RF Online to any other MMO; it came from comparing it to any other game that has a modicum of good design, and seeing exactly how badly this game turned out.
A bit of background on RF Online: the planet inhabited by the players, Novus, is in the midst of a struggle being waged by the three races. The Accretia Empire is a race of sentient machines, with a strict imperial society where contribution to the greater good is everything. The Bellato Union are a race of engineers, inventors, and traders; they go into battle with huge battle mechs. Finally, the Holy Alliance Cora are an elfin race of spiritualists and magicians. The three races fight for control of the main continent of Novus, in an attempt to harvest resources to further their cause.
That's about as much story as you're going to get, period. Beyond that loose framework of backstory, the game is nothing but a level grind. Quests do not convey anything near an ongoing storyline; they merely point the player in the right direction for what monsters they should be grinding through. In a further effort to cripple the game and prevent any kind of replayability, the quests themselves are nearly identical for each of the three races played. Unlike other titles in the genre, there is no real difference in playing through any of the factions other than skills. So the question arises: What motivation does the player have to try anything new, or to continue playing past the first month, when they will probably grind to the maximum level?
Aside from the lack of engaging content to keep a player interested, there are some very definite technical issues with RF Online. It's not that any part of the game appears to be broken; sadly, it appears that everything works as CCR intended, only their design is extraordinarily flawed. These are not innovative or new components to the genre, but staples such as chat, trade, and map functions. The chat interface, what there is of it, is clunky and extremely difficult to use. Text wrapping is non-existent, and words are broken up to fit them into the very small and unattractive chat window. Switching channels is nearly impossible if you don't know the right slash command; the channels that do exist are poorly organized and labeled. Trade with vendors is fairly straightforward, but trade with other players was awkward and, frankly, just not worth the effort. Maps were adequate but unappealing, and the radar that inhabits the upper right-hand corner does not display the player's location on the map, but merely what PCs and NPCs surround the player. To top it all off, there are some serious pathing issues for player movement, making movement awkward at best and downright difficult at worst.
What frustrated me the most was that one of the most important aspects of the game, the tutorial, was not helpful in the least bit. In many ways, it left me more confused, when a tutorial should be helping the player through the learning curve that inevitably exists with this type of game. I pity the gamers who decide to try RF Online as their first MMO; not only will they not have the benefit of experience and familiarity with some of the genre conventions, but they may assume that RF Online is indicative of the genre as a whole and abandon MMOs outright. The tutorial only covered the very basics before disappearing from view, and there is little to no mention of what to do past hunting your first monsters, little detail on unlocking new skills or advancing your character or skills you do have, and absolutely no information on other aspects of the game, such as crafting (what little crafting and tradeskills are made available – almost none, by the way).
So you may be asking, "Is there anything to RF Online worth checking out?" Artistically, the game is quite nice. It has a definite bias towards anime and that style, and many of the character and monster designs and architecture were quite nice. The graphics engine, however, detracts from the talent of the art team, with noticeable tearing, collision detection issues, and some serious framerate problems. The audio is good, with some nice music and good sound effects.
The community of players is, overall, friendly and helpful; this is partly out of necessity, as there are so few of them. Some servers were downright "ghost towns" where, at times, I was the only player in an area for significant chunks of time. Unfortunately, the community does not extend to resources for helping players. There is a severe shortage of player sites dedicated to this title, and considering the veritable tomes of information, guides, and strategies generated by many game communities, this is another indication of the lack of success of RF Online.
RF Online is clearly a game designed by, and for, an Asian audience, but for some unknown reason, marketed and released to a Western audience. This is by no means a slight against MMOs designed for Asian audiences. I have played some that are solid titles, well-designed, and quite fun; the Lineage titles come immediately to mind. It's difficult to deny that cultural differences have, to date, led to very different design principles in titles that share the same genre; the differences, in my mind, come down to story versus grind. Either type will have some amount of each, but the primary focus seems to be different.
There is some good in RF Online. It falls under the sci-fi category of the genre, a category that is seriously lacking (if the game were to be set in a fantasy world, it most likely would have collapsed and shut down by now). It has good art assets, visual design, and sound. However, I cannot recommend this title to veteran MMO players or to those seeking to get into the genre. With the availability of so many other quality titles and communities, better candidates exist out there.
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