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.
Choosing to tell its story largely through its in-game activities alone, and hoping to avoid the heavy grinding of a lot of the Korean MMOs gPotato might be more known for, Allods comes packed with over 1500 quests at the start, which see you traipsing from one island to the next, engaging with a varied ecosystem, and fighting the traditional range of beasts. On our brief demo, wandering through a section of forest, we saw everything from diminutive adders to earth-shaking Astral Demons, horned monsters that burst up out of the ground, taking up a huge chunk of the horizon. Combat has yet to be revealed, but it should fall along traditional melee, ranged, and magic lines, and there's currently a level cap of forty planned.
That's the traditional half of the game covered at least. The second, and more ambitious part of Allods' destiny lies on those giant galleons cruising through the sky, picking their way through the distant rubble before disappearing into the mist.
And it's an exciting prospect: the first time we see one of these huge wooden beasts slip silently past, we're stood on a jetty dangling over empty space, on the outer edge of the wooded Allods we've just hacked our way across, and you can't help but wonder how the game is going to handle such a magnificent delight. "Disappointingly", might suggest itself as the most likely answer, the developer either treating ships as glorified loading screens, or telescoping you out to a fiddly tactical view, firing you through space with a single click of the mouse, and entirely losing the grandeur of the entire prospect.
The truth is far more promising. Firstly, you'll have to earn your own galleon, a lengthy quest chain seeing you piece your ship together one part at a time, over a matter of weeks. Once it's finally finished, however, it should be worth the wait. Allods' crafts are treated as just another virtual space within the game. They take a crew of at least five players to operate - steering, working the canons, and other seafaring standards making up the jobs - and each activity behaves just as you'd hope it would: pilots making their way to the bridge and manipulating the huge steering wheel, while the twitchier crew members scuttle about on the canon deck, operating the massive wooden plasma guns.
There's a real sense of Master and Commander (even with only a single developer on hand to give us a quick overview), with crew members racing around the bridge and back into the cramped bowels of the ship, everyone with a task to perform. It's daunting to imagine what it will be like with up to 25 clan members occupying the same space.
With a battle underway, it's even more hectic. Attacking ships lurk grimly on the other sides of the hatchways, and flames and fallen spars clog the interiors, forcing you to divide your time between returning fire and getting other members of the crew to think about repairs. Then there are the boarders to fight, enemy players teleporting in either to steal your treasure or blow the central generator to pieces (which will cause you to warp safely to a dock, where you'll need to repair your crippled vessel). Then, just when things couldn't get any worse, a huge Astral Demon might appear off the bow, floating against the sky, towering over both ships, and uniting them, briefly, under a common threat.
It's devastating to watch, but there's no doubting that it's a bit risky, too. In fact, Allods is filled with risks, one of the reasons you can't help but root for it: prettier than many subscription MMOs, it's giving a lot away for free, and betting a great deal on players' willingness to spend money beautifying their ships, and that's even before you get to the simple matter of getting them working in disciplined teams of at least five to make their way through a lot of the content.
Despite such worries, Allods looks thoughtful and polished enough to give you hope. With a rich universe filled with lore stretching out in front of you, the creak of a flying boat beneath your feet, and nothing crucial to pay for between here and the horizon, Allods Online may well justify the $12 million price-tag, and help quietly redefine the free MMO experience in the process.