There's no getting around the fact that the very name Runes of Magic sounds generic. And indeed, once you're past the character creation screen of this free-to-play MMORPG - where female avatars appear, primed to go into battle in metal panties and armoured stockings - the game itself doesn't refute this impression. However, games are generic, by and large, and to be considered thus isn't that much of a slur.
One ostensible slur that's been doing the rounds about Runes of Magic is that it's basically a World of Warcraft clone, but this misses the point. WOW was a success because of how well it built on MMO conventions, how it refined them. It's no surprise it's influential, but conversely it's got no great claim on gameworlds defined by cod-medievalism and pick-and-mix mythology (John Ronald Reuel plays a key role in such things), interfaces featuring text boxes, hotbars, mini-maps and health bars, and questing based on killing, collecting, delivering. Runes of Magic certainly features all these aspects. Indeed, it's so familiar that it's appreciably comfortable to pick up and play, if you've any experience with recent big MMORPGs. Okay, one in particular.
John and Tony Tang, the key players in Runewaker Entertainment Ltd, the Taiwanese company behind Runes of Magic and its Asian forebear Radiant Arcana, make no bones about being fans of Ultima Online, EverQuest and WOW. The look and feel of Runes of Magic are so closely comparable with Blizzard's game that Tauren somehow seem to have escaped Azeroth and made it to Runes of Magic's gameworld of Taborea. (I've yet to meet one, but I've met plenty of Kobolds, who, as in WOW, are rat-like and have a thing for candles.)
Thus far in closed beta, the only playable race is the humans, but the old fave elves are being readied for the launch early next year. And, thus far, there are only six fairly basic classes. However, one of the promising things about Runes of Magic is a pledge from Runewalker and Frogster (the German company handling the release of extensively reworked German and English versions of the game) is for new content - classes, races, quests and zones - every three or four months. This may sound like mere patching, but it's a substantial promise for a free-to-play game.
Free-to-play MMOs are nothing new, but Runes of Magic has the potential to really push the boundaries of this fast-growing sector. This is a game that's free to download and has no subscription, but in terms of grandeur, sophistication and depth, it migth almost be able to compete with the big boys. The starter area, where you begin grinding away on ambulatory mushrooms and wolves whose voices haven't broken yet, is nothing terribly special, but at level 10 you'll take your first jaunt to the city of Varanas, a vast, airy citadel of cathedral-like buildings looming over smaller timber-frame houses and shops that's like Stormwind's big brother.
Level 10 isn't just significant for the virtual tourism opportunities it opens up. It's when the game currently introduces what may be its trump card: dual classes. Your avatar will start as one of the six classes: warrior (weapon-specialist melee fighter); knight (tank and the only plate wearer); priest; mage; scout (the bow-user); and rogue. At level 10, however, you can choose a secondary class.
In principle, this sounds fantastic, a means of compensating for the game's lack of hybrid classes, and mixing things up Guild Wars-style. It has some problems as it currently stands, but is due to be completely reworked for the open beta in December.
Currently, you can swap between your primary and secondary classes by visiting either a class administrator or kinky French maid, sorry, "house fairy" (who very kindly, distractingly, hangs out in the private housing every player has). While in your primary class, you can use your secondary class's "general" abilities, but not their class-specific abilities. So, a knight-mage can throw a few of the latter class's fireballs and lightning bolts, then in mage-knight form, it can utilise some of the latter's Paladin-like seals, while also taking advantage of the knight's heavier armour. However, it's with the question of armour, and weapons, that the peculiarities of the system as it stands emerge.
When you first switch to your secondary class, you suddenly find a lot of your gear is useless, temporarily at least. And not only that, your primary and secondary classes level separately, so you'll have to backtrack to grind some more. Fortunately, Runes of Magic is packed with quests (more than 600 at launch, and loads of dailies), so there's no shortage of means to garner that XP.
It's just, well, a bit odd to keep backtracking to level up your alternate class. Never mind having to keep sorting your inventory, and storing your other class' gear in your bank or the storage chests in your house (which you can furnish). It's unlike Oblivion, where you can, say, train up your nominally leather-wearing class to handle heavy armour; here you're stuck with certain fundamental attributes.
The dual class system is intriguing, and has a lot of promise, but initially it feels lacking in integration, like some sort of dual-personality disorder. It's not so much about hybridisation as about two distinct classes in one character. Here's hoping some or all of these concerns will be addressed in the revision to it before the end of the year.
The game world you can explore with your schizo avatar is impressive, especially for a free-to-play game. Runes of Magic boasts an involved background mythology, with the legacy of former epochs in the titular runes, stones that allow the stats of one piece of gear to be transferred to another, allowing you to keep the look of your armour while changing its attributes - or vice versa.
To date, Taborea has five large regions to explore, with suitably involved eco-systems of aimless mobs, raw materials for crafting (you can do all six skills, then choose one mastery), towns (with auctioneers, traders and crafting facilities), strongholds and dungeons. You can even hire a mount from the start to shorten those journey times, or simply teleport between nodes. The dungeons are another promising area of the game, with the prospect of both static and "tile-based" examples where the instance is randomly reconfigured between visits. Again, for a free game, the sheer variety on offer in Runes of Magic promises is impressive. There's even player-versus-player, in the form of duelling, arenas, open-world PVP and, eventually, server-versus-sever combat.
Axel Schmidt of Frogster believes "that the free-2-play model will be the future in its different forms, particularly for the MMO genre". He's said before that "we really have the ambition to bridge or even surmount the gap between subscription-based and free titles." On the strength of Runes of Magic, that's an increasingly credible prospect. Like many nominally free games, Runes of Magic will at some stage introduce paid-for elements, with Schmidt saying they plan an item shop, but he also says that "we will take care that this system won't harm the balance in the game. All players who don't buy items should be able to enjoy the game alike without constraints."
Even at this early stage, Runes of Magic is a notable new MMO on its own merit, but as a freebie, it's remarkable. It may not be WOW, but this could be the first free MMO to lure considerable numbers of gamers away from their subscriptions.