In the West, the perception of free-to-play games can be that they're poorer quality, or more rudimentary, or feature basic browser-based graphics, or are for younger audiences - or are simply off-putting for the two-tier culture that accompanies the sale of game items for real currency, real-money trading (RMT). Runes of Magic, however, could bridge the gap between such games and the fully-fledged MMOs in the West. It may be free to download, but it's also a deep, complex game with all the features you'd expect from a modern MMORPG.
In fact, as I discussed in our preview, the game - developed by Taiwan's Runewaker Entertainment and published by Germany's Frogster Interactive - is clearly influenced by World of Warcraft, and gunning for some of its market. But will Western gamers, who've traditionally been happy with buying a boxed game then paying a sub, embrace the free model?
When you first enter Runes of Magic, you start at the Pioneers' Colony, where you level to 10-ish bopping sundry fungi, wolves and bears. The gathering skills (mining, woodcutting, and herbalism) also have their trainers located here. If you want to use any of the game's six production skills – alchemy, amour-crafting, blacksmithing, carpentry, cooking or tailoring – it pays to get cracking with your gathering and processing straight away.
Although you can in principle do all six production skills, levelling them is demanding. They require a lot of time, and a lot of materials, and even then you're unlikely to be able to make über bits of kit. Even blue recipes are generally none too special; what makes kit special in RoM is what you do with it subsequently – specifically, what you do with it with a little device called the Arcane Transmutor.
This doohickey is at the heart of Runes of Magic, and something that helps it stand out from other MMOs. Each region in Runes of Magic features daily quests. Doing the maximum ten a day rewards you with Phirius Tokens, which can be exchanged for charges for the Transmutor (they also act as currency for other items). You can also buy charges with Diamonds - credits paid for with real money. You can use the Transmutor to strip stat bonuses from armour and weapons to transfer to other pieces of kit. There are also jewels you can buy – some with game gold, but the better ones with Diamonds – to level up kit. It's all a tad boggling, though of course many MMORPG players will love the statistical spreadsheeting.
Equipment augmentation and modification is one of Runes of Magic's main selling points, and while it'll be significant on normal servers, it'll potentially be even more important on player-versus-player servers. The PVP culture in Runes of Magic as it stands might seem a little odd to veterans of WOW or Warhammer Online, where you can choose to take a side in an ongoing war, and only fight your allies in duels. However, plans are afoot to introduce-guild versus-guild wars in RoM, where enemy guilds can attack each others' castles.
This is probably a long way off, though. Currently, new content players had been hoping to see at the end of open beta - specifically a new coastal region with sun, sea and pirates as well as long-mooted extra classes and a new playable race - has failed to materialise. This has met with a certain cynicism, as all that really did change between open beta and last week's launch was the introduction of yet more novel items to buy with Diamonds. It's understandable that the publishers need revenues, but it's also important to make sure a balance is achieved between keeping players happy with new content, and merely spamming them with new cash shop clobber. Sure, that's a funky new permanent mount for 299 diamonds (about EUR 14 / GBP 13), but where's the new region of Ravenfell? It's officially "not ready".
Bitching aside, let's talk a little more about PVP. Until those guild wars are implemented, a culture of player-killing, and ensuing hunting of the PKer is emerging (on the PVP servers; PVP is limited to flagged duelling on the PvE servers). Killing players can result in them dropping lootable items. It's perhaps a little more harsh than you'd expect, given how cuddly and helpful much of the game is (it even has an in-game World Search and "Follow" function with a big arrow to help you find quest locations, mobs and NPCs).
Arguably, the PVP is more in line with some of WOW's predecessors or more hardcore rivals, like Ultima Online or Asheron's Call. The bottom line is that if you play on a PVP server, you will be PK'd – or indeed, you can have fun PKing yourself, and earn yourself an "Evil" or "Good" status through reputation point changes. If you want to be the best of the best at PVP, you will have to invest more time, effort and money (both real and virtual) into augmenting your kit, as the level and stat bonuses will make all the difference.
Conversely, if you just want a more casual experience, the only things you may feel the need to spend real world money on are more storage space and mounts (much of the other items for sale with Diamonds are either cosmetic, like furniture for your house, or to do with augmentation, transport, or bonuses, like pots to double your XP gain). Is this fair? It's a thorny question, but arguably playing less, paying less and playing hardcore, paying more has a certain logic compared to the flat rate of a subscription-based game.
Many play MMORPGs for the more straightforward experience of having a laugh with guild-mates, getting mesmerized by grinding, and exploring a new world. The accessible parts of Taborea, as it stands, probably cover an area a little smaller than WOW's Kalimdor. It's not a bad size for the game's current 50 levels of adventuring, offering a varied selection quests, regions and instances. Beyond the Pioneers Colony, there are the Howling Mountains, then Silverspring, where the majestic city of Varanas is located. It features administrators, trainers, vendors and even a novel solo instance, Malatina's Dungeon, based around a grid of squares with randomised spawns.
Alternatively, you can port over to Reifort in Sascilia Steppes. This is a nicely designed region, where you work your way around quests, levelling up in an anticlockwise direction around a central gorge, The Scar of Despair. Progress takes you through forest, snowy wastes and desert (Dustdevil Canyon, where the Obsidian Stronghold is located, with its PVP arena and facilities).
Runes of Magic also has a dual class system. At 10, you visit Varanas where you can choose your secondary class. After choosing your primary, this is the toughest decision you'll have to face in the game, as each class combination has advantages and disadvantages.
As mentioned in the preview, when you're in your primary class, you can only use the general abilities of your secondary class, and vice-versa. You change class by visiting your sex-doll "house fairy", or an administrator. Every time you swap between primary and secondary, you level separately, in effect. So for example, when I chose a secondary rogue for my primary warrior at 10, the rogue was only at level 1, and while she's level 1, so is my warrior. When I then level my rogue up to 12 say and swap back to my warrior, it is still at 10. This is a situation that will leave some scratching their heads, even Guild Wars veterans who had a similar situation with secondary class abilities, but not literal dual-class characters.
The upshot of the dual class system is a fascinating selection of hybrids, but there are issues, ranging from the basic matter of a warrior-rogue having to have maintain outfits in both chain and leather, or a knight-mage in plate and cloth, to the more involved considerations of how you invest your talent points for the most efficient dual-class builds. Again, spreadsheet gamers will love the possibilities.
There's also the matter of the energies and weapons different classes use. Warriors rely on rage; scouts use focus; rogues use energy; and mages, priests and knights use mana. One of the most popular combinations is the mage/priest, as both are cloth-wearing mana-users. Oh, and if you go priest/mage, you'd better like playing the healer - in a perennial MMORPG issue, there's a shortage of dedicated healers. This may change with the possible introduction of a new druid class.
Runes of Magic can seem a little rough round the edges. Some things still aren't fully implemented; the job of localising the game from its Taiwanese origins is inconsistent in places, and even things like the soundtrack can be a bit shaky (while it has nice touches, like the atmospheric background noises of crowd babble and children playing when you visit villages, it also has bad habits, like the orchestral score lurching in and out seemingly at random).
But Runes of Magic is by and large a robust, enjoyable game. As a free-to-play title, it's impressive. Although Western gamers will still have their reservations about amorphous RMT versus those nice straightforward subs, Runes of Magic is something of a landmark: it won't dislodge the subscription-based model in the West by any stretch of the imagination, but it does demonstrate that free-to-play doesn't necessarily mean rudimentary, shallow, cheap or totally brutal in the integration of RMT. Runes of Magic is a reasonable-quality MMO that, despite its derivative aspects, offers proper graphics, proper classes and an involved, involving world.
6 / 10