Bloke with axe is tough, bloke with magic is weak. So goes the stereotype, anyway. So you stand axe-bloke at the front chopping away merrily, and you stick magic-bloke at the back dealing out enormo-damage from afar without ever getting in harm's way. Thus has it ever been.
Free-to-play, Diablo-esque MMO Mythos disagrees. I'd resisted playing its magic class - the Pyromancer - at first, because frankly I dig hitting monsters with big axes. Eventually, I figured I'd better give it a look, so I created a new character - a lady Gremlin (cuter than it sounds) Pyromancer. Thanks to the game's no-time-wasted immediacy, I was off killing goblins and spiders within seconds. I'd expected to cough out of a few lame fireballs or a pathetic electro-zap. That's what RPG magicky types do, right? Instead, flames poured from my hands, like a lit match held in the path of a petrol spray. Enemies died in droves, popping brutally like bugs in a microwave. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed - more pyromaniac than Pyromancer. And this was while my character was just Level 1. By level 2 I was raining lava on my foes; by level 3 summoning insects made of fire to help me. I'd already suspected Mythos was going to be a success. When I realised how it made even the most basic MMO actions so powerful and so rewarding, I became sure it'd be huge.
"Mythos is free, Mythos is fun, Mythos is an MMORPG," goes the game's tagline. As well as being catchy, each of those statements is heavy with meaning. So, free? Yep, absolutely. Your account creation and subscription don't cost a penny, and you can access all of the game's areas and enemies. Money is, of course, involved - micropayments, to use that insidious term, buy bonus gear. The claim is that these paid-for items won't grant significant buffs to those that indulge, but rather be something decorative or entertaining. It's a bold and crazy plan - albeit it one that's worked very well in other markets for the likes of Maple Story - and we can only wait and see if it pays off. But right now let's go with the definite positive - Mythos is free.
Mythos is fun? Well, the Flaming Fist example above is a pretty good paradigm of this. Mythos isn't terribly interested in being original. In simple terms, it's a straight mix of Diablo, World of Warcraft and Fate, the freebie, super-cute action-RPG to which it's a spiritual sequel. You meet a lot of monsters, and you hammer the mouse button to kill them. You collect a lot of loot, and you equip it to become steadily more powerful or flog it to buy better trinkets. You develop sleepless nights obsessing over finding rare drops. That's really it, though of course here you have the option to partner up with other players, known or random, for your dungeoneering. There's also crafting, but again that's more a matter of collecting drops for parts and recipes by killing lots and lots and lots and lots of monsters, not by faffing around looking for bits of rock to mine.
It's a familiar formula, but the approach is one of speed and constant reward. There's not a lot of waiting around, and while many - in fact most - of the game's actions could be described as traditional MMO grinding, it's all so quick and cheerful that you're onto the next task before the ennui hits.
Mythos rips out the downtime to focus on the raw, action fun of role-playing games. It's really only about killing monsters and collecting loot. This makes it shallow as all hell - but very deliberately so, and hugely entertainingly so. Again, it shows in the three character classes - much as the Pyromancer's almost a melee character on the quiet, the real melee character, the Bloodletter, can also summon a horde of demon thingies to fight for him. You're not boxed into the traditional single-purpose existence, but rather given a stuffed box of very different toys to play with. The combat itself is ridiculously fast and sparky compared to the invisible dice-rolls of WOW, Lord of the Rings Online et al - you're out there definably smacking stuff down yourself, utterly involved in the fight. Mythos is fun.
Mythos is an MMORPG? Well, in many ways it's not. It's focused a lot more on the Diablo experience - one character carving a path of destruction through a series of linked outdoor areas and instanced dungeons - than on WOW-style roaming and grouping. You're allowed to be selfish. You're all but encouraged to be so, really. Until the most recent major beta update, you'd barely even bump into anyone. There'd be a few folk lurking around the quest-and-shop hubs, and constant chatter over the chat channel, but generally you'd be carving up imps and skeletons on your tod. It was fun, but a little disconnected.
Just recently, however, there's been a change. The hubs have been replaced with the Overworld, a large, massively multiplayer bunch of landmass that links all the instanced dungeons. And yes, it's got monsters in it. So, you can carve up beasties with other players, group with random helpful folk or, if you're on the player-versus-player server, kill anyone on sight. Or even, if you're on the Hardcore PVP server, perma-kill anyone on sight.
Yep, Mythos panders to the fiercely dedicated player as much as it does to the casual. Final Death, and the total loot loss that goes with it, is a frankly terrifying prospect, but it's likely to add real gravitas to each and every fight. While most players will stick to the infinite magical resurrections of the standard servers, it's nevertheless a reflection of the pop nature of Mythos. Your character isn't necessarily a lifetime contract. They're there for a spot of fun - when you're bored, move on. Or, as the case may be, if you're brutally murdered by another player, move on.
So, is it Diablo but massively multiplayer, or World of Warcraft without the boring bits? It's both, and it's going to be huge. The looming threat of potential Diablo III announcement at the Blizzard invitational weekend this weekend might put a crimp in Mythos' plans - but there's still that crucial Free thing...