"He likes liquor. He never made a friend throughout his entire life. In his life crazed about martial arts, only one thing he considers to be his friend is the liquor. People say, you can find him pouring liquor in his mouth on days he killed another."
Such is the way of liquor-soaked MMO Hero Online "a masterpiece created by three generations of distinguished martial art novelists" that boasts a "complex combination of story content and plot twists, free from prearranged paths, that brings a whole new gaming experience" written by first generation martial arts novelist, Kum Kang.
Set in ancient China, the premise is that the 12 demons of legend, that slaughtered ten-thousand-strong armies before the hero known as the Great Dragon banished them, might have returned. The Great Dragon has been murdered, apparently by his wife. A new hero is needed to drive the enemies of China back and confront the demons, should they exist. But where shall we find such a hero?
Oh! Ten thousand identical volunteers! Isn't that lucky?
Having chosen your avatar and logged in, there are few worrying signs. For example, there isn't a mystical sage waiting to greet and guide you step by step through the initiation. Nor is there a helpful voice explaining step-by-step what you are to do, where you are to go, and what all those buttons are on the bottom of the screen. Nor good and bad spirits, nor an effective manual on the website... instead you are dropped into a world already full of other beta testers running around, sure of themselves. It's a disorientating experience, to be honest.
After a while, like with all MMOs, you try talking to all the curiously static NPCs , Though relatively well-scripted and characterful for this brand of MMO, they still aren't going to provide more than a passing interest - and they're most certainly not up to the level of World of Warcraft's or EverQuest II's. Most of them can't communicate about quests unless you reach a certain "Kyu", a subsection of Dan, the game's levelling system. After much searching I found one, surely not called Grand Ornamenteer Wang, who recommended I abandon all the principles of Nintendogs and just go and "beat up on some prairie dogs".
Duly wandering out of the fortified city area, your ninja correspondent duly went and beat up on some "wolf pups" - the prairie dogs must have scarpered when they heard of my unreasoning loathing of Meer cats. Luckily the combat seemed straightforward; otherwise we would have been truly lost. Once you've gone into your inventory, equipped some suitably large weapon and hit the combat mode button (to protect you from being attacked in cities you can go non-com), you can kill most equal-level enemies in two or three blows. If you die, you can simply respawn where you died thirty seconds down the line or return to the nearest city. If injured, you can meditate for a bit and you're right as rain. It's a recipe for grinding and we ground our first level out in a couple of hours of Canine Genocide. Hmm, good name for a band.
Having ground puppy flesh for a goodly period of time, we returned to town to sell all the unusable crap we'd accumulated, take up our first quests and level up. Let's explain the character system. There are three characteristics, strength (how much you carry, your health, how hard you hit), dexterity (your defence and speed of attack) and intelligence (which governs your Chi). There's also an Internal Injury characteristic, which lowers your ability points, though the game doesn't explain how you get injured or how you heal yourself afterwards.
As you level your Kyu, you are given points to increase your characteristics. We were too low-level to make effective use of Chi and we didn't have any books to learn new moves to use our Chi, so we poured our new found experience points into increasing our strength and dexterity, which increase very rapidly even in the first few Kyu. Like in many foreign RPGS, lower level characters in Hero will have no chance against higher level opponents if PVP is planned.
To be frank, we have played this type of MMO many, many times and we're mystified by the continued appeal of the grind. The first few levels, the lack of explanation of what to do and the "kill this many of this" quests left us more than a little disheartened. There is no pretence at reality in this game and, as dogs, boars and bandits pop back into existence to be pounced on by XP-hungry noobs, you worry a little about the spirit of a martial arts game being somewhat lost, in an uninspired MMO.
To its credit, it has a clean graphical style about it that sometimes really captures that spirit, that mystical China that probably never existed, all flowing robes, gravity-defying hair and implausibly-toned bodies. The animations of the characters, the way they artfully vary their blows, are reminiscent of City of Heroes, and combat really flows beautifully, short though it normally is. Every style has a different form to it and sometimes it does feel like you're dancing through your enemies. This serves to balance the potential tedium of other bits of the game.
Promised at higher levels are a range of skills and forms allowing characters to adapt their behaviour and movement to new situations. We expect all the different forms of martial art will feature from the many unarmed disciplines to those involving staves, axes and swords. Also, like City of Heroes, transport powers are promised, allowing heroes to dance over rooftops and run across water, in scenes reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Players are expected to take on pets, which will be a large part of the game, whether as steeds or fighting partners, ranging from horses to pets tamed from the wild and doubtless a few from Chinese myth and legend.
At the moment Hero is looking beautifully choreographed, but a little reliant on the old uberviolence, much like the martial arts movies it seeks to emulate. There are signs of hope though, the prospects of flowing martial arts and strange transport powers at higher levels to float characters into sky-bound battles could redeem it. Until then we'll be holding out for a real Hero.
Hero Online is currently in testing. An open beta launches on June 30th, and you can find more information about that on the official website.