Ryzom's had a difficult life; launched in the same year as WOW, the French science-fantasy MMO went ignored, except in reviews that tipped the thermostat somewhere between tepid and lukewarm. Since then, it's been killed, resurrected, gone from subscription-based to free, and the single server is now populated by a bunch of dedicated players and - if the chat is anything to go by - lots of people who come for a couple of weeks before leaving.
These are my first few hours in Ryzom, and first impressions of a game that not many people have played. Currently available to download and play for free, complete with expansion, there's enough that's done uniquely in Ryzom to warrant the download; whether you'll be one of the two-week wonders is entirely down to the way your mind works.
Hour Zero: Setting Up
First, you have a choice of four races. This would be easy if that choice was four recognisable characters, like Elf, Dwarf, Jedi and Toilet Duck. But part of Ryzom's appeal to the die-hard fanbase is its unique lore.
So we have Civilisations, not races. There's the Fyros, a tanned desert Fighting race, or you might try the Matic, a paler, leaner race who see life in everything - even gloves. The Tryker are a playful-looking feline race, and the Zorai are grey-skinned creatures who wear masks to demonstrate their spirituality.
Class selection is even less traditional. You select a group of "actions", within the four independently-levelling specialisations of Fight, Magic, Foraging and Crafting. There's some overlap in the options, and a pro-tip I learn from chatting is not to waste your crafting points in other areas; you'll need them all.
Although the help screens are full of prosaic descriptions of what my race does and doesn't feel about truth, life and whether it's rude to leave the toilet seat up, it feels more like a personality test than a concrete matter of racial benefits and drawbacks. It all means nothing to a first-time roller. I begin to suspect that this is a game where role-playing might have a more substantial role than setting up a character in the opposing team's capital city and shouting "OH MY GOD YOU GUYS ALL SUCK SO BAD".
Hour 1: Class Training
Quote of the hour:
"Damn, that's some bad emoting"
If life were the opening hour of an MMO, then we'd all be dead from excitement. No other genre has to create that sense of progress so urgently, to give you extra powers and to introduce you so steadily to the gameplay elements. In Ryzom, thanks to the four crafts that level individually, you can barely move for progress.
Unless you're dogmatic about attacking with either your dagger or your acid spell, you'll find yourself levelling up in both Fight and Magic - experience is apportioned between your skills depending on how much you use them. What's going on is immediately obvious and fair, and maintaining a balanced approach will save you having to go for a catch-up grind at a later point.
But that's not all - there's no penalty for buying skills outside of your initial specialisation. No "I cannot train you, [incompatible class]". No higher point cost for crafters training outside their class. Beyond spending more time improving your skills (which can be tedious with Foraging), it feels like the character selection screen was almost entirely cosmetic. Ryzom really is a classless society.
The first mission for fighters and magicians is to kill some docile Yoba, and the combat system is instinctive for anyone who's played a comparable game. The Yobas, though. It's heartbreaking, slaughtering such a docile and friendly mob; while you're killing one, the others come up and snuffle at your shin pads, registering only curiosity at the wholesale butchery of their pack. I had to kill all the witnesses, just to get that look of serene sadness off their faces. Also to complete the mission.
So, what's the point of having classes in a world where everyone can be the same? Won't that render the game bizarrely even? Well, the first mind-bending trick Ryzom has up its sleeve is Stanzas.
Hour 2: Stanzas
Region chat quote of the hour:
"Looking for active players to recruit, with no aspirations of grasping any knowledge of any Ryzom mechanics, just powerlevel and quit after 2 weeks. Please contact me."
As most reading this will know, every attack in an MMO has its upside and its downside. A powerful move will often have a long cooldown, or have its effects spread over a length of time, or be prone to counter or cancellation. Some moves only become available to you after certain other events - a parry or a critical strike, for example. Balance dictates that potency has to come with a price.
Ryzom dissects this into the Stanza system. On one level, it's a work of gameplay genius; you don't just buy moves, you buy credits and options. Options are the good effects of a spell: fear, slowing down, damage. Credits are the penalties that justify them. Say, a magic spell will generally drain your sap (Ryzom's mana), and a physical attack will drain your stamina.
Once you've levelled up your crafts, you can buy credits and options separately, and use them to make your own moves. You can trade in the cost to stamina for a health penalty. You can trade in the cost to sap for the condition that you can only cast the spell after a critical hit, or take extra damage to the item's durability. You can't afford all of them, so you're forced to specialise, and this is where Ryzom makes up for the otherwise level playing field.
There's a downside to this, and that's transparency. The visual clues that allow you to learn and react to events quickly in more established MMOs are gone. Its easy to tell you're fighting, say, a Shadow Priest in WOW, and WAR has visually distinct classes. Here, you can't tell what options your enemy has, or what their actions might be doing to them. It's unique, impressive, and terrifying. You can see why people who've managed to get their head around it declare their love for this system. You can also see why PVP isn't so popular.
Hour 3: Grouping Up
Region chat quote of the hour:
"The trick with Ryzom is knowing when to hide like a coward and when to run like a sissy."
Combat isn't easy, and creatures have an eBay-style coloured stars system, replacing the more common red-for-hard, green-for-easy. 3 Green Stars will always mean Level 21-30. As a result, you generally discover which creatures are beyond your abilities by getting killed by them, and if no-one resurrects you, there's a substantial penalty on your future experience.
So, you learn quite quickly that it's useful to team up. As I came to the end of my training mission chain, I'd been told to kill some "Goo Heads". These guys roam in teams of four - any attempt I'd made to melee attack them had been met with immediate death. My pleas for a group in the Region channel were answered quickly - more quickly that the fairly slow-paced chat would suggest.
Soon, I was standing with a new friend, and getting taught how to solo groups as a fighter. The taunt ability is the key. Not just a tank device for pulling enemies off a friend, it also gets people to chase you further. My friend ran off, pulled a Goo Head (and this suddenly feels like I'm talking about a clumsy sex act), and we killed him together. So, it was my turn - I snuck up to within 20 metres, taunted my quarry, and ran like a flailing, motorised idiot. Problem: I got killed.
Simply put, it's hard. And a lot of your time will be spent avoiding combat. In response to this, I decide to avoid combat and try my hand at making some boots.
Hour 4: Crafting
Advice of the hour:
"Don't try to learn everything all at once. Some people do that, and they only last two weeks. It's too much."
Checking my levels, I notice that I'm completely lacking in one area - crafting. The manual says it's vital to the game, and yet it's the one thing without any visual clues to draw you into it. Use a dagger, gain Fight. Use acid, gain Magic. Double-click on a glowing mound, and you're Foraging. But Crafting is arcane, tucked away behind a slightly unfriendly menu, and fairly unintuitive.
This is easily the least friendly aspect of the game. It's the opposite of fun to pore through player auctions and NPC wares in the same list, looking for a mission item. And even after the training quest chain in the start area, there's a powerful stink of mystery about the whole thing. It'll take considerably longer than the time I have here to become anything other than inept at Crafting. For now, I'm going to have to move on, on the advice of the kindly passer-by who's helping me out.
That's one thing Ryzom still has in its favour - the small-town mentality makes it a much friendlier place than most MMOs. And making its players welcome - a feeling enhanced by the fact that it's currently free - is one thing that'll earn a game some loyalty. The crafting system could take a tip from its excellent players.
Hour 5: Guilding Up
Guild message of the hour:
"Christmas Party on the 21st"
As I reach Level 20 (Fighting) and unlock another item from my skill trainer, I accidentally unlock a new title. This acts as a substitute for a class, allowing me to label myself based on the skills I've earned. Obviously, someone calling themselves a healer could well whip my ass as a Fighter, too - but I'd probably get a couple of cheap shots in first.
I'm testing out the friendliness of the Universe Chat, a place that's designed for newcomers to ask questions, and experienced folk to answer. I ask a question: my client crashes. This isn't common enough to worry about, but it's badly timed. Now I look rude.
Logging in as my camp character, Ooello, I ask my question again, and a private chat window immediately pops up. Simply by talking in full sentences, and being apologetic and amiable, I end up with a new sword and set of boots. I say how much I'm enjoying the early stages, he says that he's been playing for three years. I check that my impressions of the game aren't entirely ignorant. He's happy to indulge me - "I'm bored of levelling at the moment," he explains. The idea that he's still levelling, three years in, makes me feel a hot flush of mortality.
After half an hour of chat, gift-crafting and general pleasantries, I'm invited to join the Atys Ghosts, one of the largest and oldest Guilds of Ryzom, according to my guide. It's not bad progress. I've not been here long, and I've got a support network. Just by not being an idiot.
Of course, it took me longer than five hours of pure gameplay to get this far. I set up a number of characters to make sure everything was as I imagined it, and had dozens of conversations with people, and read baker's dozens of FAQs, to go some way towards making sure I didn't make a slathering tit of myself. I might still have done, and this being the internet, I hope you'll let me know if I have.
Ryzom is an accomplished and ambitious game. From talking to people who played in the early days, there was a real feeling of incompletion, unplayability and bugginess back then. I saw very little evidence of that - although the interface isn't immediately welcoming or intuitive. For example, a couple of times, a party invite was hidden under a chat window. The experienced player knew what had happened, and told me to move my chat window. But if it's that common a problem, it's a fault.
You can't rely on the clich that it's the people that make the game. If Albert Einstein and Gary Kasparov started punching each other in the dick, no-one would suggest it was the new chess. At the moment, I'm undecided. There's a lot to like, and a fair amount to dislike about Ryzom.
You can ignore the lore, leave the crafting until later, and suck up the unfair deaths and XP penalties. You'll find it easier - but you're also left with a game without the deepest rewards. The unapproachable stuff is the most compelling; you'll just get into it a lot faster if your father is a spreadsheet.
The unfriendliness of Ryzom is more than counterbalanced by the friendliness of the players. People are keen to help, or share your confusion. And if combining stuff to make more impressive stuff gets you a bit thrilled, then Ryzom will launch your brain towards the moon.