Before we start on this review, I have a confession to make: I'm not really an MMO person, so I was a little surprised when I was asked to review this. Personally, I just prefer games with actual endings, and for RPGs I like to jump into the story and act out a part, rather than memorizing frame data and learning the ins and outs of gameplay--that's what fighting games are for. However, my inexperience with MMORPGs allowed me to approach Snail Games' Age of Wushu with a fresh perspective, and I left mostly satisfied.
While I am relatively new to MMORPGs, I happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts movies and Chinese comics (manhua), with some of my favorites being high-flying wuxia favorites like Iron Monkey, Fearless, Kung-fu Cult Master (done in manhua form as Heaven Sword, Dragon Saber) and StormRiders. Instead of a straight-up action game, Age of Wushu seems more concerned with building a world that you can develop a character in, letting you start from the bottom and build your skills, showing that true masters have actually taken the time and put in the effort to get where they are. Choosing from one of four basic backgrounds that should be familiar to anyone who has watched a kung-fu movie in the last twenty years, you'll start out as a total nobody in a strange town, doing odd jobs and building up enough basic experience to join one of the Eight Schools. Each School has different martial philosophies and techniques, from the upright and heroic temples (Shaolin, Wudang, and Emei) to the poison-slinging dirtbags in the Tangmen sect, or the ruthless, puppy-kicking Royal Guards.
Normally, MMORPG worlds are jam-packed with NPCs who offer quests, but Age of Wushu takes a different approach--players themselves take up NPC positions. Don't worry, this doesn't mean you'll spend play sessions asking a hundred random people to kill three Wild Dogs and then come back and talk to you, as the whole thing takes place off-screen. In the course of building your character, you'll choose a Profession--a day job, if you will--including Herbalists who create and sell healing items, Woodcutters and Blacksmiths who create weapons and accessories, and Tailors who make outfits and armor, with appropriate bonuses to your own character for whatever specialization you choose. In-game, each Profession has a job-specific mini-game that you use to increase your job skills, but once you log off, your character works their day job, selling items or helping in shops, earning you gold and experience.
Combat is distinctly RPG-like, with learned skills assigned to the number keys, working in a real-time Rock-Paper-Scissors fashion. Along with the holy trinity of Overt Attacks (rock), Parries (paper), and Feints (Scissors), there are Chi techniques for buffs and debuffs, adding some depth to the otherwise basic combat. Each School trains you in a variety of techniques, so two students from the same School can have vastly different skillsets, giving you a chance to build fairly complete parties for higher-difficulty quests.
This is a rich world filled with tons of stuff to do, whether you want to make a ruthless master of brutal martial arts, or a beloved local druggist who just happens to have pretty solid kung-fu. The School system is a nice way to build factions in the game, and even the "villain" schools are populated with friendly people who want to enjoy the game. It's nice knowing that--at least in the schools I played (Wudang, Shaolin, Tangmen, and Royal Guards)--your Schoolmates have your back, and will help you if you're getting jumped out in the 100% PVP world. The graphics are nice, if not mind blowing, and it's bright and detailed even on minimum settings. Surprisingly, Age of Wushu runs fine even on less-than-minimum system settings, with only the occasional message letting you know that your computer is struggling to keep up. There's no doubt that a lot of care and thought was put into the game's world and style... it's just unfortunate that getting to the meat of the game is such a chore.
Your first hour or so in the game is mind-numbing, throwing tons and tons of text at you, then making those notes a gigantic pain in the ass to find if you need to reference them again. The menu setup is not particularly intuitive, with pop-up windows sometimes covering pertinent information, or "new item" pop-ups bringing up even more text to explain something completely different from what you were initially reading about. While it makes sense to give a full row of special techniques on your number keys, you're not able to map them to any other buttons, leaving you wtuck with a less-than-ideal control setup. While my burly brawler from Wudang was just fine running up with WASD and pecking at the number keys, my Tangmen dart-thrower constantly got her ass kicked because it wasn't comfortable to constantly switch from getting in position to using her skills in battle.
The lack of voice-over in the game wasn't a problem for me, but it can definitely throw off people who are used to more modern-feeling games. While I'm okay with the translators leaving plenty of words in Chinese without explanation (like jianghu, which means the community of martial artists and stands for your in-game Rep), it can be kind of a hurdle for many who aren't as familiar with the culture of wuxia stories and Chinese martial arts. Finally, the lack of character levels and emphasis on cultivating individual skills and Professions is a really good idea, but is very poorly explained for such a potentially deep system. You're given so many tutorials early on that when windows pop up later in the game, you're more likely to skip them so you can get back to playing the damn game already.
Age of Wushu is a game that I can't honestly judge right away. It has a lot of ideas that fall short of their ambitions due to clunky execution, but Snail Games has promised regular support for this title--for all I know, this could be a completely different experience in a few months. There's no reason not to at least give this huge free-to-play world a shot--just don't expect to be a high-flying hero right off the bat. There's something satisfying about steady training leading to visible progress.
+ Bright, if slightly-dated visuals that still look good on minimum system settings
+ Excellent world-building for interesting material that isn't often covered in video games
+ The Eight Schools give cool options for developing your character, and the community is friendly and eager to help
+/- Ambitious ideas regarding skill cultivation instead of level-building, but these are unintuitive and poorly-explained
+/- Combat is built around an easy-to-understand Rock-Paper-Scissors system and is fun to watch, but it lacks depth
+/- You're only allowed one character per server, but that's to make each decision meaningful and lasting
- Clunky interface that throws loads of text at you, then makes it difficult to find said text if you need it later for reference
- Equally-clunky control setup doesn't allow for optimization, and why the hell is Block mapped to the same button as Camera Control?