As a doctor, it would be inadvisable for me to drink. I could operate badly, get my anaesthetic quantities wrong or puckishly prescribe laxatives for every ailment. But, as my comrades in the medical profession (or indeed anyone currently undergoing a lengthy medical tribunal process) will know, access to medicinal alcohol is regular, tempting and often. Along with the barbiturates, amphetamines and those funny blue pills that make the world go jellyfishish.
Those who stay off the ethanol often observe that your perception of the world is positively changed by said drug; not a revolutionary assertion by any means. Indeed, it's another commonplace that in the half-light of, say, a greasy nightclub at four in the morning where rancid sweat is dripping off the walls and what's flowing in your veins could be bottled as Cap'n Egon's Red Rum, even the most repulsive mass of warty flesh takes on an unduly ambrosiac air.
In that sultry half-light, after an evening on the tiles, and with my eyes bloodshot and half-blind, Archlord's not looking half-bad. A goer, one might say.
Admittedly, players of Lineage II or any other Korean MMO might get a sense of déjà vu here. In many ways Archlord is that game again, that ugly lo-tech grindfest with little or no explanation of what you are meant to do or where you are meant to go or indeed who the hell you are. But lying behind this is a fiendishly fantastical (in the sense that it's fantasy and it involves fiends) back-story. Centuries ago, a powerful wizard created five elemental Archons to allow him to rule the world, but was foiled in his dastardly plan; he was presumed killed and the Archons scattered back to the dust. Five millennia later, rumours of the Archons resurfacing emerge and a stranger appears to be trying to collect them. The good guys (Orcs, Elves and Humans) bind together to drive him off, before falling out over the the Archons, driven by the power on offer. As Lord Acton would say, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
So you're one of these three races, Orcs, Moon Elves and Humans, each of which has two or three classes, making for a total of eight different character types taking the usual forms; ranger, warrior, sorcerer and so on. Character creation is about as flexible as a stick, with you able to change very little about your characters, so most people look fairly similar. (Admittedly, combat isn't much better either; at first we were killing spiders, then we upgraded to bats and the animations are hardly inspired.) Overall, what's there doesn't impress; but perhaps the ambition of the developers can allay our fears over the current state of the game?
The ultimate, overarching aim, is to band together with other players to help one of you become the Archlord. The lucky punter then grows to three times his normal size, gets nearly-indestructible armour, a rock-solid retinue of troops and an extra-special mount (possibly a dragon!) Not what we'd call ultimate power, to be honest, but we'll let it pass. His real powers are in the sphere of finance, controlling tremendous revenues, which he passes on to his guild and faction, and certain castles (which we assume will be useful in the PvP sections.) Oh, and he can change the weather and call down meteor showers. Essentially, this lucky person has been turned into a boss.
To get to this point, players will have to bind together in guilds to take on, first, an enormous fire demon when they hit level sixty. Defeating him (which will take at least thirty players to slowly wear him down), will allow access to three more Archons in their own castles. Once your guild has nobbled all of them, you've got to press on to the Archlord's castle where you must besiege it. The guilds that do best at besieging it will be invited in to the castle, where one of their members will be chosen to be Archlord. He'll then hold the position for at least three weeks, cackling madly all the time no doubt, before having to defend his position against other wannabes. Being a boss, he's sure to lose soon enough.
There are other attention-grabbing elements in the game, beyond the Archlord; certain players can shape-shift using potions, changing into any of the creatures they encounter in the world for a limited period. The music is pretty astounding, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and consisting of airy string tunes. And there's apparently a large amount of post-launch material lined up to keep people playing past those initial sixty levels (the game maxes out at 100).
Yet, at the moment, Archlord appears to be in a pretty poor state. Combat animations weren't always in place at different resolutions, it's not massively stable and the communication system is about as sophisticated as that of a U-boat. As your characters have no pathfinding, they get stuck on posts, walls, and doors and, though we've seen some beautiful screenshots, the game we played hardly came near to resembling them on maximum settings. Finally, the massive lack of originality depressed us more than we can possibly say; surely the Koreans, the world's most ardent gaming nation, must play something that's halfway original?
Also, Codemasters' announcement that there will be three subscription rates to the game worries us just a little. Players will be able to pay to be a Squire (£6.99), a Knight (£13.49) or Lord (£27.49) each of which comes with a progressively bigger amount of in-game bonus credits each month (1,500, 3,400 and 8,000 respectively) - but surely not enough to justify such a ridiculously large outlay at the high end. These credits will buy players increased defensive buffs, increased XP and exemption from the XP penalty for dying. So now equality of opportunity's even been removed in videogames? The socialist in me balks at this. This wasn't the sort of class system we were expecting, to be frank.
At the moment, we're going to restrict our comments and just say that, hopefully Archlord's innovative features will overthrow its godawful familiarity and, in the light of the morning, when the booze abates, AL won't turn out to be a complete dog. We can but hope.