Disclaimer: This will probably read somewhat like a review. And some might say that reviewing a pre-release beta of a game is unfair. But this NDA lift comes only five days before Alganon's planned release date, and I am confident that version 1.0.3, which I have been testing, is not going to be far removed from what they are selling next week.
The first I heard of Alganon was when Tobold was giving away some beta keys over on his blog. I didn't win one from him, but I did win one from Massively a few days later.
Alganon bills itself as "A Unique Fantasy MMORPG," but in reality there is little unique about it, it's a very standard DikuMUD-influenced race/class/level/quest fantasy MMORPG. It is being developed by Quest Online, a company formed by David Allen, the original designer of Horizons: Empire of Istaria, after he was rolled out of Artifact Entertainment. It has a strong following amongst the loyalists who will tell you even now that Horizons would have been the best MMO ever (instead of, as it is widely regarded, perhaps the worst), if only Allen's vision for the game had come to fruition.
Pretty standard looking stuff. There are two races in game at launch, which also seem to represent two factions - Asharr humans (human-looking humans) and Talrok Kujix (funny-coloured tattooed humans). Four classes are available - soldier, ranger, healer and magus. I go for a ranger - the description talks about their animal companions but apparently that design has been abandoned and they are basically just archers now, I think. Appearance customization is minimal, and cycling through the face, hair, etc. options takes several seconds per click, making it an exercise in frustration. I hit "randomize" and accept my bald greybeard.
Entering the game
First thing I tried to do for this article is take a screenshot upon entering the game. It threw a LUA error. Luckily I was able to get a shot by switching to windowed mode and using standard Windows "alt-printscreen and paste".
Pretty standard looking interface. But.. wow, so ugly. Yes, that font really is Arial. Yes, that bottom bar is WoW's apart from the startling innovation of putting the backpacks on the left. That key icon on the far left? It's only there because WoW has a keyring with that button. Alganon doesn't have a keyring but they forgot to remove the icon when they copied the UI design.
I speak to Woss Jordan, the obligatory first questgiver. He gives me a quest to.. talk to his brother Tass Jordan, standing all of three feet away. The reward, +100 Ardonya Guard rep. Nice! Let's see how much rep I need to go up in the estimation of the Ardonya Guard!
Whoops looks like they haven't implemented the rep pane yet.
Tass Jordan puts me to work, demanding 8 Andar Wolf Pelts, and offering the princely sum of five copper pieces.. and another +100 Ardonya Guard rep! So off to kill the wolves I go.
But how does it feel?
Combat is dire even for a genre not exactly known for its interactivity, especially for level one characters. It involves lobbing off a "Power Shot" (a 10-second cooldown shot that seems to do roughly 1 more damage than my autoshot), maybe one or two autoshots, and then trading poorly-animated blows with my axe for fifteen seconds or so, watching the enormous Arial text float above us, until the wolf lies dead - and I'm on 80/80 health because he was doing less damage to me than I could naturally recover.
It's some ugly stuff, too. My arrow shots are slow-moving brightly-coloured blobs. Animations are very poor, not surprising for a low-budget title. Good-looking human animations are about the hardest thing for artists to get right. It's not helped by some seriously jerky movement. Mobs don't react immediately when you attack them, and when they did come for me, they often went straight through me and then rubberbanded back. Other times, my character would start swinging his axe (and, according to the combat log, connecting) when the target still seemed about twenty feet away.
Between the general quality of the graphics, the horribly ugly UI, and poor animations, I'm struggling to think of the last time I saw a game this unattractive. We'd definitely be going back to early this decade, to the days before WoW and EQ2 really raised the bar, in two very different styles.
The strangely familiar
Unlike WoW, where you don't get your first talent point to customize your character until level 10, Alganon starts you off with one talent, sorry, "ability" point, and you earn one more a level right from the start. Only problem is, what to spend it on? Seven of the nine lowest tier talents available provide boosts to abilities I don't have yet. I decide that 1% reduction in the cost of Power Shot sounds pretty minor, and go for +1% parry instead. The parry chance on my character sheet remains obstinately stuck on 5% despite my talent.
But speaking of talents, let's take a look at the talent window, comparing it to WoW.
..and the skills window..
OK, come on. I've heard a lot of excuses about how all fantasy games have various tropes in common, about how all MMOs have similar UIs, and so on. This is not a similar UI. This is outright plagiarism. Already I've seen mutterings about how Quest Online could be setting themselves up for a lawsuit with such rampant copy'n'pasting - my favourite comment from the beta forums:
“this Alganon interface is so close to the WoW interface that either it has been somehow sublicensed from WoW, or else it truly opens itself to massive lawsuits (if WoW should think it's worth it, but the way it look Alganon would be dying a quick death if it were to face the reviewers next week, and so it would hardly be worth the cost of Blizzard's lawyers).”
Some game mechanics are frighteningly derivative, too, like the warrior (sorry, "soldier") and his rage (sorry, "anger") bar that grows during combat, and is spent to use combat moves. I'm much more inclined to give this a pass, though, since duplicated game mechanics do fall rather more into the "everyone does it" area.
Crafting is, as far as I can see, entirely derivative of WoW also. You can learn all tradeskills in the beta, but for release, apparently the limit is two. Same as WoW. Tradeskills are mining, blacksmithing, herbalism, alchemy, skinning, leatherworking, tailoring and.. salvaging? What's this? One of the eight tradeskills is not the same as in WoW? "Salvaging allows players to break down crafted and enchanted items into raw materials. An increased skill in Salvaging allows the breakdown of more powerful items." Aha, so it's disenchanting.
The actual mechanics are also appear identical. Fixed recipes, difficulties starting at orange for guaranteed skillups, then becoming yellow. I'm guessing green and then grey will follow, but I didn't have the stamina to grind that far.
What makes Alganon unique?
Alganon's "About Alganon" and "Features" pages talk about a lot of unique features which supposedly make the game stand out from the crowd. Just one problem: virtually none of these features have actually yet been implemented in game. A community rep has stated on the beta testers' forum that the website should be updated "soon," but it hasn't happened yet, and to my mind it is just unethical to be soliciting pre-orders whilst advertising these features in such a way as to make it seem that they are already implemented and will be in-game at launch time.
The kudos system, the consignment system, deities and crusades, custom dynamic quests, pets, appearance changing as you level up, instances, UI customization, battlegrounds, indeed PvP of any sort: all of these features are described on those two pages with no mention whatsoever of the fact that they are not yet in game.
About the only distinguishing feature which is present is the "studies" system. This can best be described as the skill training system from Eve Online, bolted on top of the class/level system. Various studies - some combat related, some magical, some crafting related, etc. - can be queued up to train real-time. The intention being that all players, regardless of whether they can dedicate heavy or light amounts of time to playing, will advance at the same rate in at least this area of character development.
My initial dabblings found studies taking times ranging from 10 minutes to 1 day to complete. There are combat-related ones which do things like "increases your accuracy when using swords and daggers", stat-boosting ones, and crafting ones which apparently grant access to new recipes.
They're not massively interesting, and I have to wonder how well the real-time advancement is going to interact with Quest Online's decision to cut all but two races and four classes from the initial launch. Assuming more races and classes are added at a later date, anyone who wants to play one of them is going to be put in a position where they have to abandon all of their study advancement and start from scratch to do so.
So much missing
Interestingly, a lot of elements not yet in game are able to be accessed through the keybindings menu. Some, like Kudos and Pets, bring up mostly laid-out windows with placeholder text. Others simply throw LUA errors. The "achievements" window keybind brings up an empty window. I haven't seen any mention of achievements on the website, so this was interesting, almost an easter egg!
One does wonder when they plan to clean out all this half-finished stuff, though, given that the game is supposed to officially launch in five days time, and headstart access for people who pre-order is supposed to start in three days!
What's the conclusion?
Alganon, as it stands now, is unattractive, unoriginal, uninspired and unfinished. It is being plugged as some sort of niche title, but I'll be damned if I can figure what niche it is trying to target. To me, a niche game is something like Eve Online or Darkfall which very consciously features design decisions that will only appeal to a subset of gamers. The design goal behind Alganon, as far as I can tell, is "slavishly imitate WoW, and then add a couple of new features that we think would be cool." The only problem is, the imitation is of the poorest imaginable quality, and hardly any of the new features have been added.
Why is Alganon launching in such an unfinished state? One can only assume that the money has run out, and they need to shift some boxes in order to keep paying the bills. Talking the big talk about features and selling pre-orders while the game is still under NDA is one way to try to raise some cash.
I can't imagine it's going to lead to anything other than a trainwreck though. Games like Age of Conan and Warhammer Online have demonstrated how remarkably little tolerance the gaming public has for games launching in a poor state - and both those games were in much, much better shape than Alganon. I've probably played 15 or so MMORPGs over the last six years, and I cannot see any way that three more days work by Quest Online is going to make Alganon anything other than the poorest title I have ever seen on the market.