I am standing, once again, in an unfamiliar city. Colourful ramparts rise to a blue sky, and architecture that wouldn't look out of place in Lego Land - all primary colours and bold shapes - surrounds me, while at ground level, people scurry to and fro purposefully. I have absolutely no idea where I am, only the vaguest sense of what I'm meant to be doing, and yet the whole sensation is comfortingly familiar - like slipping back into a well worn pair of shoes.
I've just started life in a new massively multiplayer game. Cast to earth in the thriving city that serves as headquarters for the Bellato Union in RF Online, I'm a typical clueless n00b, lost in the rush of people who scurry to and fro with purposeful intent. Like so many times before when starting out in an MMORPG, I'm reminded of the start of each episode of Mr Bean, where the hapless fool is thrown to earth fully formed and expected to find his way.
RF Online is a game in which finding your way is trickier than perhaps it should be. Although it's only in beta at the moment and allowances must be made for the lack of decent translation in many places, it's still a confusing game for newcomers. First you must choose your race, then your character class, then your weapon, with little indication of what impact each of those decisions will have - then it's off out to the hunt with you, without much in the way of guidance or assistance from the game other than the occasional new quest to push you gently along the levelling path.
At first, this lack of hand-holding can seem like a step back into the dark ages compared to the finely implemented and quest-centric mechanisms used by the likes of World of Warcraft - a game to which RF Online is inevitably going to be compared, and therefore I'll make no excuses for doing so repeatedly. The first few levels you gain in the game, foraying further and further outside the toytown environments of your starting city as you take on tougher beasts, are an unashamed grind. So are the next few, and the next few, with the quests serving more as an excuse to reward new players for their progress occasionally than as any kind of mechanism to provide structure to the gameplay experience.
In The Grinder
For many players, that's probably going to be their lasting impression of RF Online. It's a Korean MMORPG, and Korean games have a tendency to focus on keeping the players' noses to the levelling grindstone in order to progress. Kill creatures, level up, kill tougher creatures, level up, kill tougher creatures again - ad infinitum, or at least until you hit a reasonably high level in the game. RF Online, on the surface, appears to break few of those conventions which are beloved of the countless thousands of players who flock to Korea's "PC Baang" gaming cafes on a nightly basis, but which leave a significant majority of western gamers utterly cold.
Scratch the surface, however, and there seems to be significantly more going on in RF Online than meets the eye. The game is heavily focused on the PVP (player versus player) element, pitching three warring factions against each other for control of a planet, and it's this part of the game that is likely to keep people playing regardless of the level grind - because the developers at CCR, for all that they may have created something shamelessly generic in the basic "PvE" MMORPG sense, have built a fascinating system to allow entire races to go to war with each other.
I won't attempt to describe how battles work at a high level in the game, because I'm not at a high level - I'm writing about RF Online as someone struggling towards the point where he'll actually be useful in battles against opposing races, as opposed to running around among giants hoping none of them decide to backhand me into next week. However, it's clear that once a player reaches level 30 in the game, the whole experience evolves to a level beyond the grinding they've experienced so far. Each race in the game is very unique, from the mechanical Accretia to the spiritual Cora and the military/human themed Bellato, and when each race evolves to a certain point they become even more distinct. The Cora, for example, develop the ability to drag immensely powerful summoned creatures into battle; the Bellato gain access to powerful mechs.
From the point of view of someone at the lower end of the level spectrum, CCR has done a fantastic job of making sure that those high end rewards are displayed tantalisingly close to you - and of involving everyone in the race in the battle for planetary superiority. Even the most low-level players can get involved in mining for resources in the Core, the main control point for which the different races battle, but to do so will involve being shepherded by the high level players of your race, and ducking around ferocious battles between your top players and the top players of other races. Mining resources yields gold, gold boosts your economy and drops the price of items, lower priced items mean a more powerful race. It's a simple equation, but one which means that it's in the interest of high level players to protect and support low level players in their mining endeavours, and which brings those low level players in contact with the incredibly impressive and powerful forms that will eventually open up to them.
Other elements of the game also impress; I was taken with the concept of a special chat channel, accessible only to the top-ranked players of your race, which allows them to address the entire race, and of a "race leader", which alternates on a regular basis, whose powers I'm still not quite clear on but which sounds like a nice title nonetheless. Competition to enter the top ten slots of a race is high, and the idea of "server celebrities" appeals to me as being something genuinely interesting for players to aim at, rather than just farming creatures for that final piece of epic armour.
The strong PvP element also serves to bring players at lower levels together. Hunting a specific type of creature for a quest last night, a race-mate and I ran into an Accretia warrior clearly on a similar quest, who immediately attacked us. PvP in these numbers, and at this level, is a tough proposition; the game provides low level players with the option of remaining well-stocked with healing potions, so it can be tough to grind an enemy down if he's also got a nice full nosebag. Eventually, we recognised that neither side could win, and when the Accretia ran off briefly, I resumed hunting. He came back a moment later, and sidled past me on the other side of the valley. I watched him suspiciously, swinging my camera to keep him in view; I'm sure he did likewise. Minutes later, though, my attention was diverted and he decided to take another pop. "Look out for the toaster!" came the warning from my race-mate, just in time for me to heal up before his spiky mace came crashing down on my skull. Excellent; not only a helpful chap, but a Battlestar Galactica fan to boot! Said toaster was swiftly dispatched, tail between legs, by our combined arms - and while I confess that we ran away bloody fast in case he came back with his mates, it still struck me as exactly the kind of bonding experience that PvP is meant to introduce to MMORPGs, but so often fails to.
However, anyone considering taking a pop at RF Online needs to bear in mind that these interesting elements of the game are still tempered by a somewhat frustrating levelling grind, which will leave anyone who has played the likes of World of Warcraft cold. The interface is also a bit tricky to get the hang of, not least because it appears to have been designed for low-resolution screens and at higher resolutions, interface elements can be very small on your screen. One area which is particularly badly flawed is the chat interface, which is restricted to a tiny block on-screen - even when it's in focus and expanded vertically, it's still only able to accommodate a few words horizontally, and can't be stretched out. The chat interface in general is awful, in fact, and desperately needs an overhaul in a game which places to much emphasis on working with your allies to secure victory.
Graphically, also, the game has a few bugs and flaws - with by far the most serious problem being the incredibly short draw distance it displays. This is most likely simply a symptom of being a relatively old game in Korea, but if Final Fantasy XI can boost its draw distance despite the handicap of starting life on the PS2, you'd rather hope that RF Online could do likewise. It would certainly make the game significantly more enjoyable. By and large, however, the graphics are decent enough, with a varied selection of characters and monsters, and an art style reminiscent of Phantasy Star Online which will keep the anime fans in the audience very happy indeed - although it's rather disappointing that the game doesn't offer a range of character customisation options even remotely as detailed as Phantasy Star Online did all those years ago.
The current main flaw with RF Online, however, is none of these factors; it's the dreadful translation of the text in the game, and the vast amounts of content which appear to be missing, presumably because of the text being untranslated as yet. If Codemasters can clear up this issue before release, the game will be a far better experience than it is in beta at the moment, but even right now, RF Online is an interesting game that manages to rise beyond the initial impressions of a soul-less grind and bring something genuinely fun to the MMORPG stage. It may not have the polish that World of Warcraft or its ilk can summon, but early impressions are that it could just have what it takes to get its hooks firmly into a pretty significant number of players.