We know mother said never to talk to strangers. But what if those strangers are offering fabulous bargains?
All it takes is a visit to the Allods Online website to notice the eerie similarities between it and World of Warcraft, and this likeness gets even more suspect when you start playing. It's a bit like looking into a mirror and seeing somebody else wearing a cardboard cutout of your face. Everything in Allods, from the combat, stylised art and quest structure, down to the hotkeys and talent trees, will be as familiar to anyone who's played WOW as the back of... well, if not their own hand then one that looks a lot like it.
And yet Allods is far more than a cynical clone. Honestly! The team behind it clearly has too many ideas and too much funding for that, because there's evidence everywhere of them trying to improve WOW's framework. The crafting professions might be similar, but creating an item now involves a mini-game unique to each profession. There's a small, cute race, but rather than being represented by a single character they travel in adorable packs of three.
That talent tree becomes secondary to a more complex talent 'grid' at level 10. Players can still look forward to their own mode of transport at higher levels, but instead of an animal they'll own an enormous floating ship capable of carrying themselves and their friends off into astral space. Even the dance animations are longer. Sold? You don't have to be. Allods Online will be completely free, with no initial purchase and no subscription fee.
Where Allods will be getting its hands on your money is through an unobtrusive item shop you open via a little treasure chest in the bottom left of the screen. It's disabled in the beta, but headers show you'll be able to buy potions, 'style' items, 'rare' items and 'services'.
It's the kind of business model that hints at Allods being a grind, but there's very little of that to be seen. It's the WOW model - a content-heavy mix of quests, crafting, exploration and the unfurling of a plot to do with a war between two alliances of races, in this case the League (vaguely good guys with a fairytale feel) and the Empire (vaguely evil guys with an interesting Soviet-steampunk look).
Allods' initial generosity might even be unparalleled among the wretched ranks of free-to-play MMOs. Following an explosive, set-piece-heavy tutorial which drops you right into the war and practically flings loot and new stat points at you, the game takes a good four hours to slow down to a more traditional pace.
This is to do with the way Allods treats quests. Despite the fact that each task is accompanied by a mass of introductory text from the quest-giver that at least 90 per cent of players will learn to skip straight past, these quests are initially insubstantial things containing less of a challenge and less of a reward for less work. It's an odd system, fixable by taking every quest you find and meandering methodically through the wilderness, but that won't be to everyone's taste. This lack of anything to sink your teeth into also makes group questing a little harder.
A more serious criticism of Allods' early game is that at the moment it seems bizarrely easy, which is never something you'd expect from a game which plans to make part of its money from selling combat aids. Yet as an Animist (one of Allods' interpretations of the damage-focused Hunter class) it isn't just that I have no trouble defeating bosses by myself, it's that there is no threat of death, no need to carefully manage my abilities and no danger, and therefore no excitement. The only time things ever get difficult is when a mass of players swamp a rare monster spawn. I try to speed things up by heading into higher-level areas, but even as a DPS character I find that once monsters start getting dangerous the time it takes to kill them makes progress tedious.
That said, by level 8 harder mobs, serious group quests and instanced dungeons are starting to make a very welcome appearance. And in any case, Allods' gorgeous art means questing is never quite a chore, and the engine allows the kind of detail WOW can only dream about.
The visual design here is fantastic and enjoyably Russian - elves float on glittering wings in the shadow of a castle boasting the onion domes of an Orthodox church, and orcs wear odd medieval interpretations of WW2 secret service uniforms. The Arisen, Allods' re-imagining of the Undead, deserve a special mention. Imagine the dead brought back to life not by magic but by fantastical steampunk Egyptian technology and you're there.
It's this same almost out-of-place tech that powers the Astral Ships which are Allods Online's most interesting feature. Allods, specifically, are islands which float in a huge, purple nothingness known as astral space (falling off an Allod and into astral space being the number one cause of death among new players who get careless with the autorun toggle). There's an assortment of public ships and teleporters you can use to jump between these islands, but travelling to distant, high-level Allods mean you're going to need either your own ship or a friend with one.
How this is going to work isn't totally clear at the minute, but the tutorials for both factions consider giving you the chance to run around one of these huge vessels very important, and it's confirmed that dozens of players will be able to travel on the same ship.
But this isn't EVE. The specific phrase from the developer is that Allods Online "won't be about the ships, but the people on them". The idea is that you log on, get some friends together or put the word out to your guild, form a crew for the evening, pick a captain, then go soaring off into the deep, dark astral unknown in search of loot and adventure.
That adventure might take the form of reaching a distant Allod and completing a quest on it, battling with some giant monster right there in Astral space or engaging in PvP with an enemy ship and even boarding it. If the Astral Ships in this game are done well, and players are given a real sense of this ship being theirs, this could be absolutely spectacular.
To think Allods Online might make a dent in WOW's 11 million subscribers after years of watching other MMOs fail would be a feat of truly heroic optimism, but this game could be something special nonetheless. There's an awful lot of people on this planet who'll play bad MMOs if they're free, and it makes you wonder: what on Earth happens when they're offered something that's not just good, but this good?
Allods Online is currently in closed beta. Check out the official website for more.