Lineage 2 Review: Truly, Truly Free to Play?
By Matt Stoolman (Esrin), OnRPG Journalist
Allow me to set the scene...
The game I am about to review hails from a forgotten time when men were men, subscriptions were not an option, MMOs were an arduous lifestyle decision, and “the grind” was not something to be ashamed of but instead used as a kind of devilish and twisted marketing scheme by a few eager developers of a relatively youthful and misunderstood genre in an attempt to separate ever growing numbers of gamers/addicts from their hard earned cash.
Okay, so things haven't changed that much, but it cannot be denied that NCSoft's Lineage 2 is a creature from a bygone era. While the game is not yet old enough to be considered one of the grandparents of the MMO industry (unlike its predecessor) it has at least reached the stage where it can now be considered something of an eerily androgynous uncle. Released way back in 2003 in South Korea and subsequently to the rest of the world in 2004, Lineage 2 has lived a long and fruitful life. Having seen the addition of no less than 10 major content expansions, it has weathered the storm of time remarkably well, maintaining strong player numbers and a fiercely loyal fanbase (largely in the Asian market) as well as surviving the release of its younger and sexier cousin Aion. Only in November of last year did the game finally abandon its old monthly subscription fees, joining many younger games in the ever more popular free to play market with its most recent and largest expansion to date, Goddess of Destruction.
First though, let me get one thing out of the way before going any further.
I really did not enjoy playing Lineage 2. There, I said it.
It's a conclusion I have come to after spending the last month or so pouring over all that the game in its latest form has to offer, and it's an odd realisation when put alongside the fond memories I have of the game in its hay day all those moons ago.
This isn't to say that I think the game is bad. I actually think the game remains very strong in many aspects, though it is certainly not without its flaws, some of which I shall elaborate on later.
Simply put, Lineage 2 fills a niche role, one that I no longer enjoy but one that is no less valid (or in fact popular) than it was back in 2003.
Now before I get caught up in all that, let me for the moment go over one thing that Lineage 2 has done very, very right with its latest and greatest content release.
With Goddess of Destruction came NCSoft's “Truly Free to Play” slogan for the game's F2P business model, and while that may at first sound like marketing hyperbole, many of you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that it does actually seem to live up to its name. In going F2P, NCSoft have opened up every single aspect of the game to non-paying accounts. Every dungeon, every character class and race, every level of progression. When you consider that this is a 9 year old game we're talking about, with 9 years worth of frequent expansion and a level cap of 99, you can probably start to appreciate just how much content that represents. It seems as if Lineage 2's shift to F2P has shone out as a beacon of hope to fans of the MMO genre. A beacon that tells us developers can on rare occasions avoid the lure of unnecessary and often self-defeating greed in favour of a well-reasoned (and in many cases very successful) method of F2P gaming that is not a shameless attempt at squeezing the last drops of blood from a dwindling playerbase before allowing it to die.
Alongside this mass of content was made free to all players, NCSoft created many quality-of-life and aesthetics based items available for purchase via a microtransaction marketplace. These include several items and bundles that can speed up character progression and power, though thankfully do not seem to unbalance PvP in the later levels. The end result is something akin to what players have come to expect from games like League of Legends, providing an entirely optional monetary sink to quicken up progression or decorate your character as you wish. It's my resounding hope that this decision proves to be a success for NCSoft and Lineage 2 and that it may therefore encourage other developers to head in a similar direction.
In addition to all the existing content becoming freely available, Goddess of Destruction brings with it many new enhancements and additions to the game. To name but a few, the new “Awakening” system brings in 8 new character classes and more varied skill customization choices into high level gameplay as well as raising the old 85 level cap up by 14. The game's combat system has also had a bit of a revamp in an effort to bring it more in line with its younger competitors, adding a more dynamic, faster paced feel to its gameplay. For the most part these combat changes seem largely cosmetic though entirely welcome. Several new zones and raids have also been added in the patch, and as you might expect for a game getting on in years, most of this content focuses on the end game from level 85 upward.
Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, as well as a little bit of well-deserved praise for NCSoft's F2P model, let me try and expand on my own reactions and experience with the game since picking it back up for the re-review.
I'm going to break this down the only way I know how; Clint Eastwood style.
So with no further ado...
Despite being nearly a decade old, Lineage 2 remains a remarkably pretty game. While this is partly due to the tried and tested Unreal technology powering the base engine (Lineage 2 sports the now outdated Unreal 2 or 2.5 engine), it is also largely due to the very clearly defined and spectacularly executed art direction that the game has maintained throughout its many iterations. In fact it is fair to say that Lineage 2 and its predecessor's aesthetics - from the heavily asian-influenced (and often scarily androgynous) character and clothing designs, to the high fantasy glitz of its spell effects and epic (uh... frequently floating) landscapes, dungeons and cities - have played a very strong role in designing the look of its genre for many generations to come. The fact is that while the technology beneath it all has clearly aged, Lineage 2 can still stand next to many far younger games today and proudly declare itself to be beautiful. That is a very rare and impressive thing and perhaps the strongest testament to the talent of its artists and designers that I can think of.
We all know however that looks alone do not make a great game and Lineage 2, despite not pushing my own personal buttons, is certainly a game that keeps people coming back for more even as newer competitors spring up left, right, and centre.
Part of this may well be due to the fact that as the years have passed, the game's developers have not sat idly by. At launch, Lineage 2 lacked many of the standard features we would now associate with our daily MMO bread and butter. Many of these have since been added as the game has progressed, keeping it in line with expectations. Some of these most simple of necessities include quest map markers and waypoints pointing the way to the nearest objectives and some much needed tutorials and new, better designed starter areas to ease players into the often very complex game.
Individually all of the little improvements that NCSoft brought to the game over time may seem trivial, but in the grand scheme of things they have made the game vastly more playable for new players and veterans alike. Gone are the baffling launch-day predicaments of where to go, who to speak to for your quest reward or how to train up your newest skills and abilities. Overall the game has vastly improved in terms of GUI responsiveness and ease of use.
Which is fortunate, as this leads me on to...
Despite all of the little improvements to keep the game in line with present day expectations, the game has aged. Lineage 2 plays like an old game, and this does not help its chances when trying to maintain a following in the western market, as many of its core gameplay mechanics have always been those more traditionally associated with Asian MMOs. Quests in the game are simple and lifeless affairs that are solely aimed at progressing the grind for XP through hours of somewhat dated and lifeless number bashing combat. Despite Goddess of Destruction's revamps to many of the core systems, most encounters - like many games of its type - still come down to nothing more than a mathematical equation. Learn the most optimal combination of skills, deliver them as quickly as possible, as frequently as possible, win, rinse and repeat.
This isn't a problem unique to Lineage 2 and it is by no means an issue solved in many newer games, but it is a personal gripe. Most excitement to be found in the game comes at the highest level ranges, meaning that until reaching such a point the game plays more like a job than a form of entertainment as you desperately strive to reach that goal.
As a final note, which may not be all that bad depending on your point of view, playing Goddess of Destruction as a fresh and uninitiated player brings to light a probably wise choice of development direction that NCSoft have clearly chosen for the most recent updates to Lineage 2 in consideration of its age and playerbase. It is obvious that Lineage 2 is now geared (sensibly) towards maintaining its current veteran players as well as attempting to entice back some of those who may have fallen by the wayside during its time as a subscription paying game. Character progression, especially in the early levels, has been increased to such a high rate that the first 10 levels may pass you by before you've even finished typing “Ding!” in the chat box, leading to a confusing rush of new skills and abilities at a rate that makes it difficult for new players to keep track. In addition, the game does not hold your hand with regards to the lore of the setting or where you fall within it. Generally speaking, it seems safe to say that you either know the world of Lineage 2 by now, or you probably never will.
Okay, I'm really nit-picking now, and I know I stated this one as part of “The Good” just moments ago, but no one ever said that the good couldn't also be ugly. The aforementioned quest tracking, way points and on-screen helpers that have been added since launch (making the task of questing considerably easier) have led to a situation where I actually had to disable part of an otherwise very useful GUI function purely due to sheer horror at just how intrusively ugly it was.
I bring you, the arrow.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. My somewhat erratic take on Lineage 2 in all its glory boiled down into a thematically inappropriate play on a spaghetti western film title.
Lineage 2 is a quintessential Asian MMO and fails to really break out of that mould in any way. If that's your style then you're in luck, as you can now enjoy a trip down nostalgia lane, though in my opinion unless you are a die-hard fan you will probably soon find yourself returning to the more modern Aion.
As well as being a little dated, the game is slightly less suited to the tastes of the western market and the numbers speak for themselves in that regard.
However, Lineage 2 is a game packed full of such a wealth of content (now completely free to play to your hearts delight!) that in my opinion you would be doing yourself an injustice if you didn't at least dabble in what it has to offer.
While its charms elude me on a personal level, it cannot be denied that Lineage 2 remains one of the most persistently popular MMOs in recent years. I can therefore only assume that so many people cannot be entirely wrong. At least not all at the same time.
- Beautiful visuals
- Gargantuan amounts of free content
- Increased progression rate perfect for returning veterans or for rolling up alts
- Dedicated and active playerbase
- Very little guidance for new players
- Early level content now passes by too quickly to take in
- Complex skill system learning curve
- Many core gameplay mechanics now feel dated and cumbersome