Do you want to know what a really expensive Russian-made MMO might play like? If Allods Online is any indication, the answer is that it might play a lot like one of its more typical Western counterparts. Developer Astrum Nival has spent $12 million on its lavish free-to-play title so far, and with a financial model based entirely around micro-transactions, the design team can't afford to take too many risks setting out their stall. Allods' UI is reminiscent of many of its competitors, its population is divided into (largely) familiar factions, archetypes, and classes, and its lush vistas, filled with dark forests, sun-scored deserts and pretty cobbled villages, are covered in quest-givers who wouldn't look that out of place dropped into Azeroth, if you could ignore the sudden upgrade in visual fidelity.
If you want to know what this particular Russian-made MMO looks like, however, the answer is very different, because, initially at least, Astrum Nival's game bears a striking resemblance to SEGA's under-selling Dreamcast favourite Skies of Arcadia, its lifts so fundamental and undisguised that it's almost slightly shocking. Set in a fantasy universe already explored in a handful of isometric strategy games, Allods thrusts you into a world that's been blown into pieces, resulting in various islands of rock suspended in the sky. If that isn't already calling to mind the adventures of Vyse and Fina, the next part will: inhabitants of this shattered planet pick their way between the islands - known as Allods - travelling in vast flying galleons, complete with walls of cannons, huge glass-fronted bridges, and towering masts and sails.
But, strange as it may seem, the similarities cease to be of any importance the more you see the game in motion. Despite its borrowings from the East, and its careful courting of the West, Allods has its own sense of character, from its lushly decorated interiors and a couple of clever design quirks (if you choose to play as a Gibberling, you'll find yourself in charge of three separate teddy bears, who move as one and split all duties between themselves) to the world itself, built out of textures that could almost have been created with watercolours, and riddled with swaying grass and fluttering butterflies.
Allods is a technically advanced game for an MMO, with complex geometry and large, detailed avatars - although the game's Western publisher, the brilliantly named free-to-play MMO portal gPotato, is suggesting it won't push specs as much as you might think - but beautiful technology has been used to make ugly games before, and, thankfully, Allods has an excellent sense of style to go along with its grunt: an alluring blend of magic, space travel and romanticism, with vast, dramatic skies, epic beasts, and races as varied as the Arisen, ancient corpses reanimated with nasty, steampunk technology, and the Elvens, dainty folk with luminous wings that shimmer thinly in the sun. It's a strange mixture, both delicate and confident, and it gives the game its own identity from the word go. (Incidentally, although a series of discrete islands may seem like a recipe for plentiful loading screens, in reality, Allods' areas are surprisingly large, with a huge draw distance, and minimal - and brief - interruptions.)
On the surface of an Allod, the game progresses as you might expect. Driving the engine are six races, 28 classes, and two (promisingly morally ambiguous) factions, League and Empire, with both PvE and PvP combat options promised. The central mystery of the narrative appears to revolve around investigating why the planet chose to blow itself into pretty fragments, and your path to that eventual discovery plays out predictably - by levelling, exploring, and accepting tasks.