By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW) GM IRL
You may remember we broke the news a few years ago on the ultimate realization of the Sword Art Online MMO being developed by Gamepot with publishing rights for North America and Europe offered by Aeria Games. After two years of silence we too were beginning to think we had covered yet another vaporware attempt at realizing the anime. Needless to say I was shocked when last week an embargoed press kit arrived at my door offering an alpha access code and prototype headset (if you can call it that) to hop in and test things out!
The headset consists of a metallic brainwave reading technology known as the Neurosky Mindwave interconnected with bluetooth to a pair of visors with a focus camera that tracks eye movement in-game. Between the two, you can supposedly amp up your abilities, increase your agility, and even focus in on vital points through a combination of mouse clicks and focused mental determination. But more on that later.
This didn’t disappoint, let me tell you. Though if you’re as anxious as I was to hop in game to see how real the gameplay works, it might drive you mad. If you’ve ever been through a dating website or done a Briggs Myers based personality test, it will feel like familiar ground. Essentially the game asks some incredibly personal questions about yourself to gain an understanding of your soon to be character’s personality and special abilities. It even details your profession at one point to see what special skills you have in real life that can transfer into the game!
This is where the first hick-up in the system occurred however. Towards the end of the sixteen page ‘interview’ I was asked to scan a passport or driver’s license to expedite character creation. This seemed a bit too personal, but what the heck. I’m in game journalism, and this is cutting edge gameplay so I figured I owed it to the developers to test it out. It’s not like every MMO game publisher didn’t already have my passport photos on file anyway after four years of traveling to press events. However during the scan, the whole game errored out and crashed. Yup, I was stuck redoing the dang personality test from scratch. My impatient inner nerd screamed at the realization.
Yet all things seem to happen for a reason. As I began cutting through the test a second time in rapid fire, I started to notice new questions popping up. It seems there is some variation in the personality profile, perhaps to avoid players making guides on how to create their ideal character by making the options different every time. Certainly a level of detail I was not expecting in this game.
The second time through I tried my driver’s license instead of passport and found better success. It appeared on screen before highlighting my ethnicity, height, weight, gender, and photo. This slowly faded out as a custom character formed on screen as an anime replica of myself! He was a little bit fatter than I would have preferred, but the game mentioned special passive bonuses if I didn’t adjust the visuals on him, so I let it ride as is. Though from the slight glimpse on the creation UI, it seems you have about as much control over your facial and body adjustments as Black Desert, only the visuals aren’t nearly as realistic looking. I suppose you’d have to considering how close to reality my character was when automatically generated by their tools.
By the time I was done messing with character customization, there was already a notice thanking players for participating in the initial alpha phase. Considering the headsets had to be mailed, I imagined I was on the tail end of those to receive access. The first element that immediately caught my attention was three curved bars on my screen that constantly fluctuated up and down in the colors of red, blue, and green. Unfortunately the game wasn’t fully VR immersing like say Elite: Dangerous, but the glasses did offer a bit of three dimensional feel to the anime visuals.
In the in-game wiki set-up with UI straight out of a Megaman X games, I found that these bars weren’t the expected health, mana, and stamina I had initially expected. Instead they represent calm, focus, and critical eye. Utilizing the brainwave reading technology of the Neurosky, the game constantly scans your focus and calm to provide you with ability boons based on the skill. Focusing your eyesight on an enemy’s weak point provides extra strength in the critical eye department, allowing veteran players that discover an enemy’s weak point to zoom in on their target for powerful critical strikes. It’s not easy considering the feel of combat is most relatable to Phantasy Star Online, though a bit slower and more methodical like Wizardry Online. Perhaps that was because I was tall and a bit chunky, or just low level though? I only saw two other players who, like most gaming press, were as anti-social as they get, so I wasn’t able to confirm if gameplay ever speeds up.
After talking to a few NPCs, I was directed to the training hall where an old bearded master sized me up before offering me one of three starter weapons. I was essentially pegged as vanguard based on my automated stat distribution, with the options of a tower shield and lance, bowstaff, and broadsword and shield as my three options. The limited freedom in choosing class was a bit off-putting, until the grand master joked that perhaps I’d be better off going the route of a wizard or cleric. I say he joked because his next line was that they could always use more slow large robed targets to fill the mass graves of perma-death characters. I wasn’t amused, but it was the first time I could confirm that the show’s perma-death function was in solid effect here.
Snagging the tower shield and spear, I went into the sparring room where I was pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness of controls. While utilizing a basic action combat scenario with mouse and keyboard, the addition of the calm, focus, and critical eye elements had me more focused on hitting training dummies than typical MMORPGs’ raid boss scenarios. A couple predictable holograms of monsters were also available for me to practice my shielding techniques, which are quite unique when forced into the first person perspective. Raising my tower shield often blocked out more than half of my visible screen, leaving my vulnerable to strafing foes. Luckily the game incorporates sound impressive surround sound built directly into the visual glasses, so you can pick up on queues of enemy movement, even if you don’t see it happening.
Shielding attacks was also the first time I noticed the calm and focus meters taking effect. Having a higher calm meter when shielding attacks reduced my total damage (I think?), while attempting to block attacks while low on focus tended to result in my character staggering from power strikes. I’m a bit hesitant to confirm the damage statement though as your character doesn’t actually utilize standard health and mana bars. I found this out when taking on one too many corrupted rabbits just outside of town.
When surrounded by rabbits, my tower shield became more a hinderance than a blessing. The rabbits hits seemed weak, but as the damage started to build up, my character’s vision began to blur. My focus and calm bars started to become watery in appearance as the sound of my heartbeat began to beat faster and faster directly into my ears from the built-in audio on the glasses. This did me no favors as the blurring vision made it harder to lock onto the tiny rabbit targets, making my spear thrusts miss more than half the time. Not to mention my calm meter was in dangerous levels as the first time you find yourself in this position is especially jarring.
“If I die here, I’ll have to redo a personality test. Nooooooo…”
Thankfully before leaving town, the grand master taught me a class specific ‘Clutch’ ability, the first of many you’re able to unlock based on your questions answered in character creation plus the weapon chosen at the start. My character’s Clutch automatically actives (with a long cooldown) when hp drops below 15%, called ‘I Can’t Die Here.’ My vision went totally on the fritz as the bottom and top of the screen began to collect shades of blood, yet the critical eye bar filled to maximum no matter where I looked on the screen. My agility and attack speed received a noticeable boost, and the rabbits’ attacks seemed to have no effect on me for the duration. Again its hard to confirm that as the health system is difficult to judge, but it at least gave me enough of a defense boon to be able to absorb the weak rapid attacks of a few rabbits. Overall the experience can only be comparable to a close near death experience in Bethesda’s Battlecry.
As I was finishing off the final rabbit, another member of the press approached to do his due diligence, which seemed to involve killing me to report on the PvP. He was an archer who had clearly upgraded from the intial starter bow, as he landed a shot through my back that stunned me despite my ‘I Can’t Die Here’ aura still being in effect. With my screen blurring to black, the button for my Clutch ability flashed into a new active called “Final Charge.” Hitting it, my character yelled, blowing the follow up arrow off course, before I slammed my shield down and began to stomp my feet.
In the next moment my character was in a full bullrush towards the hilltop member of the press that tried to assassinate me. My adrenaline was flowing as I doubted my character could take a single hit and survive, and my calm meter was at over 80% allowing me to deflect each follow up arrow at minimal damage. My focus meter on the other hand was peaking at over 95% as cartoony sparks began spraying off it. Focusing my eyes on the archer’s neck, I lined up my lance like a jouster. Realizing his arrows were having almost no impact on me, the archer turned to run at the last minute, but not before my lance rammed through the back of his neck, pinning his lifeless avatar to the tree.
The character suddenly exploded into a wooden log as the archer reappeared a great distance ahead, still running for his life. My character collapsed on the spot, and couldn’t move for a number of minutes until one of the wandering priest NPCs of the starter town happened by to revive me.
With my armor trashed and character suffering some sort of stagger step from the ordeal, I was in no shape to continue fighting. So I returned to town hoping to delve into some of the social aspects in the fifteen minutes I had left before the test servers came down. That’s when a vocal NPC called me over to the guild registration hall where I discovered how a persistent MMO world could capture the appeal of the 100 story climb that made the show stand out so distinctly.
Apparently rather than a serverwide unification to scale the tower, Swort Art MMO offers the experience on a guild level, allowing each guild to tackle instanced challenges to climb the tower as a whole. As your guild advances through the floors, powerful new passives or special active skills can be unlocked to show others that your faction doesn’t mess around. Guilds can also take part in faction castle PvP on a weekly basis, allowing an opportunity to go all out in mortal combat without risking permadeath. There’s also a PvE ranking showing the leading factions that have climbed the furthest in the tower, with a powerful boon promised to the first guild to reach the top floor.
An interesting note on the guild system here though is that if a character joins and remains in a guild for more than five days, they are marked with a profile tattoo showing this association. I saw no way at this time to remove that tatoo, meaning your character’s legacy is going to stick with you.
Considering the open world PvP nature in Sword Art MMO, this could permanently brand you as an outlaw considering the social interaction that typically goes on between KOS factions. Unfortunately my killing thrust on that archer activated his Clutch escape ability so I didn’t get a chance to see if any other markings occur to label you as an outlaw for killing other players. Nor am I sure if towns are safe from PK, though the rather nasty NPC guards would probably make you think twice either way.
While my time in Sword Art MMO was brief, it lived up to the expectations. Gameplay takes what is done well in existing action MMOs and adds the new focus elements to push it into the next generation. Having both permadeath and an uncertain health bar hanging over your head and making you question whether you truly want to push yourself further or run in retreat. Overall I haven’t felt that kind of exhilaration or character attachment in quite some time, and can only imagine what secrets await, and what amazing Clutch skills I’ll find as I advance to the higher levels. With open world PvP, a Ragnarok style dungeon system, and shop locations available for players to purchase and manage, Sword Art MMO has just enough elements of the popular Anime to wow fans. The game is surprisingly hardcore though, and the price on the headsets are likely to be a detriment to the playerbase.
But if there was ever a franchise that could motivate people to jump on board the tech train to revolutionary MMO gameplay, this is the one. Be sure to check out our game profile for more information on Sword Art MMO!