As a child brought up with a good old-fashioned Catholic education, one of my fondest memories of school is of a harassed teacher desperately attempting to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to a class of confused, bored and surprisingly cynical ten-year-olds. It all just sounded so awkward, having three aspects to one divine being; practical concerns were raised involving such matters as privacy when going to the toilet (also a common theme when the question of omnipotence was addressed shortly afterwards) or remembering who was meant to be doing what. Having one body per being, our ten year old minds reasoned, simply made a lot more sense, and that was that.
In retrospect, acting as a ringleader in such matters probably explained why I was never popular with religion teachers at any point in my ill-fated academic career.
I was reminded of this pivotal moment in my education when the mechanism by which a Holy Trinity might work was finally explained to me, over a decade and a half later, by the helpful chaps behind upcoming MMORPG Sword of the New World. In hindsight, it's all so obvious; if you have three aspects to one persona, all you really need is direct control of one of them, a good system for giving orders to the others, and some shortcut keys for quick commands you need to fire off in the heat of battle (or, I don't know, miracle-doing). If only they'd explained it so simply at school!
Flagrant blasphemy which would have my long-suffering primary school teachers reaching for the smelling salts aside, Sword of the New World is a massively multiplayer game with a twist - a proper twist, mind, none of your "it's World of Warcraft but with differently named stuff!" nonsense. This twist, as you've probably gathered, is that you don't play as a single character; instead, you control a mini-party of three characters throughout the game.
Enough to pique your interest? It should be, because the change which this makes to the basic minute to minute gameplay is massive; and we're only just getting our heads around the difference it will make to the social dynamics of the whole thing.
An MMORPG with an actual, honest to god difference from anything else on the market; will wonders never cease?
Just the Three of Us
When you first load up Sword of the New World (or Granado Espada, as it was known in Korea and is now subtitled in the west), you are presented with your "Barracks" - an opulent room decorated in a 17th century Baroque style, around which the various characters you have created lounge, stand, sit or generally bum about. As you click on the characters you want to bring with you today, they straighten up and walk forwards to wait in front of you; you can pick any three characters you like to join your party, or create a new one if you so desire.
In game terms, the characters populating your barracks are the "Family" you control; they all share a surname, and are essentially a big clan of adventurers, heroes, mavericks, warriors and the what have you, from which you choose three party members each time you start the game. This is a game in which having loads of different characters will be practically a requirement - and the family concept is extended throughout the game, with even one of the core PvP elements being the idea of rivalries which develop between clans, and escalate into wars.
Once you're dropped into the world, you essentially control one of the characters directly, and the other two run around behind you. It's the same system which is used in console titles like Final Fantasy XII, so it will be immediately familiar to many players - and the party system brings with it a few other elements of those console RPGs which turn well-established conventions of the fantasy MMOG on their head.
First, and most obviously; this spells an end to the countless hours most MMOG fans have spent looking for a Healer class to join their party so that they can take on a dungeon or boss. Instead, you just pop your own healer into your party, and off you go; there are five base classes, so in fact a party of just two players can have one of each with a slot to spare, and even one player alone will be able to manage a tank, a healer and a damage dealer or support class.
Secondly, because you are controlling all three characters at once, there's an element of AI involved in the control of player characters which would be almost unthinkable in other MMOGs - but seems to work perfectly well in Sword of the New World. While you always have the option of direct control over all of your characters, and there are shortcuts to the key attacks, spells and so on at your fingertips for all three, in many cases you'll be happy just to, for example, leave your healer (called a "Scout" in Sword of the New World parlance) on a competent auto-heal setting, and focus on pulling things and retaining enemy focus with your tank character.
If that all seems a bit complex or fiddly, then don't worry; according to the team behind the game, the way you use the interface scales really well with your level of competence. Just as your interface in World of Warcraft grows all manner of buttons, bars and ding-dongs as you progress in the game, Sword of the New World is designed so that new players can focus on one character for movement and largely just set the others up to act automatically - but later in the game you'll find it useful to position characters individually, and exercise a larger degree of control over what they're all doing.
Seeking a Sword
In typically condescending games writer fashion, I will now pretend that I know what you're all thinking. "Aha," you're almost certainly not thinking, because you're not Alan Partridge, "that's all very well Rob, but it's still a Korean MMO, isn't it? Grindy grindy grind? Grind grind grind? Then grind some more?"
Well, yes, it's a Korean MMO - so the progression system definitely deserves some attention. The standard formula for Korean MMOs is one which many western players find it difficult to get absorbed in; as a rule, they have great Player vs Player systems, but the actual progression in terms of levelling up your character is utterly, utterly tedious. The kind of interesting quests and opportunities for solo play you get in the likes of World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online are alien to most Korean games; instead, they are indeed all grindy grindy grind until such time as you're big and strong enough to start blatting the other players about, at which point they become interesting.
Thankfully, Sword of the New World looks like it will avoid the worst of this problem, thanks to a number of factors. For a start, the minute to minute play when you're roaming through a dungeon (many of which are solo play friendly, thanks to the whole three-character system) is extremely fast compared to most MMOGs; you'll routinely be fighting multiple monsters at the same time, and hacking through several foes in the space of a minute, which gives the game a certain flair compared to other, rather more ponderous MMOGs. Combined with the complexity introduced by controlling three character classes at once, it looks like this will take much of the sting out of the grind.
However, the other element of good news on this front is that Sword of the New World won't be quite the same game when it launches over here - with the developer (incidentally, it's the same chap who created the incredibly cute and surprisingly compelling Ragnarok Online) making a number of changes for the western release. Striking what's described as a delicate balance between cutting grind and not trivialising the time taken to progress through the game's 100 levels, they have added more quests and more story elements to the mix - making Sword of the New World into a game more in line with western expectations of what an MMOG should do, which sounds good to us.
Speaking of those 100 levels, the game also offers a fairly interesting take on character progression which should yield a vast variety of differently specced characters in the end-game (which is a massive PvP-fest, filled with interesting objectives and large-scale battles). Each character has dozens of "stances" to learn and level up, with each stance granting certain abilities - either in terms of actual spells and moves, or in terms of buffs or stat boosts. You customise your character by changing the set of stances they have loaded, and character progression past level 100 will be by means of levelling up new stances - and, of course, by means of finding shiny new armour items to wear.
Oh yes - armour. In an unusual move, Sword of the New World doesn't have visible armour on your characters; instead, you choose your character's clothing on the creation screen, and they continue looking broadly the same throughout the entire game. According to the developers, this is down to a desire to make sure that characters look fairly unique from one another. In the Korean version of the game, which had visible armour, every character at the same level tended to look the same; in the western version, ongoing customisation will be provided only by weapons (which do look mighty cool, in some cases), haircuts and hats. We have to confess to being not entirely sold on this aspect of the game - after all, finding new armour to make your character look cooler is a key motivation for playing an MMOG. Still, questing for hats isn't all bad.
The final interesting element of customisation is that Sword of the New World allows you to earn "unlockable characters" - effectively, unique character classes which can be added to your barracks and brought out in your parties. There are 32 of these unlockable characters, some of which combine various traits from the five base classes, while others are more exotic and have abilities not available elsewhere in the game. In a sense, it looks like having the high-end unlockable characters will be Sword of the New World's answer to shiny epic armour; you'll show off with cool characters, rather than glowing breastplates.
Brave New World
In other regards, too, Sword of the New World also represents a departure from the MMOG norm - much of it very welcome. The need to walk tediously from place to place is replaced with a comprehensive system of warp points, for example, and you can carry warp scrolls with you into dungeons which will bring you back to points you've already visited. Less time wandering around, more time playing the game; that sounds like a good deal to us.
PvP, you'll probably be pleased to hear, is opt-in - so you won't be constantly killed as you make your way through the game. The servers, by the way, hold around 6000 players each, so it's unlikely that the game world will get lonely - although it's worth noting that the environments in Sword of the New World are pretty damn huge, not to mention gorgeous looking. The graphical styles all revolve around a certain "Old Europe" aesthetic (apparently, the inspiration for much of the game comes from London architecture glimpsed during a press trip here for Ragnarok Online), and this common source leads to a certain character and environment style which echoes the likes of Final Fantasy XII. In a good way.
Finally, some really good news; Sword of the New World is free. Well, sort of. The game plans to use the Korean business model for MMOGs, rather than shoe-horning itself into a game box and onto shelves. It will be entirely free to download, and you can play it for free up to level 20 - with subscription fees only kicking in if you want to take your characters past that level. Like a good drug dealer, Sword of the New World is providing the first hit for free - so you can decide for yourself whether this is, at last, the Korean MMO that will entice you into the massively multiplayer world, when the game launches in June.