Let me tell you about the digital Vietnam this free-to-play MMORPG put me through. Let me tell you about XAES.
XAES is a low-level instanced dungeon, the first one lots of Allods players will get the chance to attack. It's some kind of magical power plant filled with traitorous engineers. Making the decision to do a run of XAES is pretty dramatic, partly because XAES is a level 10 instance sat in the middle of a city containing the game's only quests for levels four to 10. So, the 14 or so hours you spend reaching level 10 are also spent being battered black and blue by 'Looking For Group To Run XAES!!!!!!!' messages in area chat.
Deciding it was my time to hit XAES felt like a coming of age. I didn't care that it took 20 minutes camped in front of the portal to get a six-strong group together. This was it!
"It" turned out to be a featureless trudge through the uninspiring grounds around the building for two hours, wrestling plain-looking enemies with ferocious stats. Even for our balanced team of two tanks, a healer and three damage-dealing classes, defeating each one was like tipping a car.
There were no set-pieces, no enemies requiring special treatment, no surprises and nothing pretty to look at. There was just eroding hard numbers with the same series of hot-key presses over and over, with each death on our side (there were lots of deaths on our side) acting like a rope wall in a mental obstacle course. If this was a coming of age, it was one of the ones practised by tribes in the middle of nowhere, involving nudity and pain.
And you know what our reward was for the two whole hours we spent pressing past enemies in these dismal, building-site surroundings? The discovery that we couldn't beat the instance's final boss. His stats were too high. We took him on three times, got flattened three times, and ran all the way back to him three times like drunks sprinting into a glass door.
"It's not happening," I typed from the metal gantry overlooking this horrible mage. My group either fell silent or swore with grubby net illiteracy.
XAES exemplifies the only real problem with Allods Online. Outside of moments like this, everything else is pretty, in place and as it should be, designed with intelligence and a touch of charm. Squint, and Allods is perfectly poised to achieve its mission: lure people in by offering them something similar to World of Warcraft, except for free, and then reap their money back with straightforward micro-transactions.
In the bottom left corner of your screen in Allods is a tiny, unobtrusive treasure chest, and clicking on it brings up a dirty great item shop of things you can buy with your real-world money. This is actually implemented really well, in that it's perfectly possible to play Allods without ever handing over your credit card details (the item shop's even been disabled for most of the beta), but the fabulous bargains on sale appeal anyway.
For instance, you can buy Bags of Crystal Chips used in combining runes, or a special Pick for removing runes after you've used them - runes being used in Allods to boost your equipment, or they being placed on chests before you open them to increase the chance of them containing a certain type of item.
You can also buy Deposit Boxes from the item shop to increase your bank storage, waters of Life or Death that let you respec your stats or talents, fancy backpacks, powerful buffing potions and so on, and judging by all the tabs in the item shop which are currently empty ('Style', 'Holiday Items') this is only a taste of what's to come.
Allods is a competent piece of work outside of its sales showroom, too. Starting with a hugely bombastic tutorial, new players find themselves controlling fledgling soldiers working either for the goody-two-shoes League, operating out of its squint-and-it's-Stormwind capital, or the more modern Empire, who are best described as Soviet Steampunk. Think mages wrestling with red tape and orcs carrying riot shields beneath gigantic statues of heroes of the People and you're half-way there. Almost needless to say, each side is a coalition of different races and they are at War with one another, which manifests itself as lone players beating one another up at every opportunity.
But there's more, a great deal more for the zero monies you pay for Allods. The game's engine is pretty and smooth, the writing's fun, character development is relatively complex and the art is gorgeous. And while Allods blatantly takes all of its cues from WOW, neatly aping not just the combat and structure but also the art's colourful, animated tone (right down to the golden question marks of quest-givers), it's also fairly rich in ideas, just as long as those ideas can be implemented without snapping bits off Blizzard's holy foundation.
For example, your character gets a talent tree, but also a talent grid reminiscent of recent Final Fantasy games; placing a new ruby at each level, you spread across three boards unique to your class, getting a buff here and a new skill there. Certain trade professions are given a shot in the arm with mini-games, and there's a new "Disassembling" profession which lets you retrieve components from magical items, crafted or otherwise.
While all the character classes you'd recognise from WOW are here (albeit with different names), there's also the invention of the Psionicist, which is half a damage class and half a debilitating class, with powers of confusion and paralysis. Psionicists are all about creating a Mental Link with a single opponent and then ruining their life, making them particularly hateful in player-versus-player.
Finally, there's Allods Online's dirty great selling point. Allods' world is made up of disconnected islands (allods) floating in endless astral space, and the highest level allods are only accessible via your very own enormous astral ship. Endgame raiding involves forming a crew to man one of these ships, and potentially engaging in ship-versus-ship PvP on your way to an instanced allod. Ship combat is probably less interesting than it sounds - ships are basically floating bits of level, and manning the guns consists of 'using' a cannon like you would a door or treasure chest to make it fire along a fixed horizontal line.
The astral ships are made more irrelevant by the fact that you can only build your private galleon at level 35, just in time to hit the cap of level 40, and so only the most dedicated players are going to see them. Let's go back to that problem I mentioned before.
This game's budget of $12 million (the largest in the history of Russian games development) covered everything, from visuals to music to ideas to writing to the technical side of things, making this not just the most competent free MMORPG in existence, but the biggest free game I've ever played. The only thing the developers of Allods didn't quite execute with the same skill, the one thing they forget to sink money into (and this is pretty critical if you're designing a game) is... the game.
Allods' polished structure alone nudges you through the earliest levels. You're bumping up stats, slotting items into all those different equipment slots, getting skills, talents, professions, teleportation crystals, potions, confetti, hats and so on, and it's impossible to tell what's superficial and what's not. A dozen hours later, all of it seems superficial, even the stuff which isn't.
You have all these stats and items, but you so rarely get a feel that they're changing combat. You have seven or eight different powers, but you use them in the same order for every fight. You're amassing vendor trash and levelling your crafting profession, but nothing has a sense of worth. This game is a million miles away from WOW's beautiful feeling of progress - that sense that you're growing as a warrior and amassing hard cash.
Allods says: Kill 12 Giant Termites? OK. But after a while it doesn't even feel like combat any more because there's no adapting, no punch and little thrill. You're not fighting, you're digging, and sometimes getting buried by a high-level monster that attacks like a landslide. As for Allods' 1500 quests, after level eight I actually encountered a dearth of content. Just to reach level 10 and do my run of XAES, I was soloing level 12 quests.
You know what Allods Online feels like? I don't mean this as a slur on the team behind it, who clearly worked enormously hard, but it feels like a game made by very intelligent businessmen. It's a design document brought to life.
That's why XAES plays like the epitome of everything that's wrong with Allods. WOW's instances are arguably the most involving and emotional part of the game. They're designed with an eye for pacing and spark, and force players to demonstrate a mastery of WOW's well thought-out combat. They are everything that Allods, with its check-box design, doesn't have. A corridor filled with powerful monsters doesn't make a for a good instance any more than putting down loot, vendors, professions and auction houses makes for an addictive virtual economy.
There are reasons to play Allods: the visuals, the lore, the grab-bag of clever features, the astral ships, and the dim satisfaction that automatically comes from levelling up - for free! It's just that none of these are very good reasons, because this isn't a very good game. Pull back the curtain of Allods' 12 million dollars' worth of content and you'll find nothing at all besides a bumpy ride along an uneven difficulty curve. And eventually, you'll find your own personal XAES.
6 / 10