Now, I'm not one to back down from a challenge. In fact, I love a good fight, especially if it can potentially end in my suffering an embarrassing and expensive defeat. So I hopped into the brutal world of Wizardry Online to tempt fate and see just what this game was all about.
As it turns out, it's about dungeons, permadeath, and missed opportunities to make either worthwhile.
Wizardry Online is marketed as a "hardcore" MMO, which means all the things you think it does: permadeath, open PvP, players looting your stuff and general fearing for your life. Gameplay relies mostly on traditional MMO mechanics but raises the stakes by making death a very serious thing and letting everyone attack everyone else at will. This "hardcore" layer is then tossed on top of a visually bland dungeon-related minigame collection in the guise of an MMO. The result is a hodgepodge of stellar ideas that are frustratingly under-delivered.
"You'll spend a lot of time staring at the floor and searching desperately for one last bolt or switch or gem or whatever."
When you're near a trap, an exclamation point flashes over your character's head. This is your cue to examine the floor and find the tiny red orb that indicates a hazard. If you touch it, you blow up or get poisoned or are subjected to any number of other random things that otherwise have no visual representation in the environment. It's like stepping on a certain part of the sidewalk, one that looks exactly like the rest of the sidewalk, and having lava come spewing out in your face. It just doesn't make any sense, and it's definitely not something I would describe as "fun."
You are dead. For serious.
It's not all half-hearted execution and just-missed innovations, however. Wizardry Online does bring some exceptionally cool ideas to the table, mostly related to the "hardcore" layer I referenced above. Permadeath is implemented in a very intelligent way and adds an exciting sense of risk to the gameplay. If you are killed, there is a chance that your character will be reduced to ash (in other words, gone, forever). You can attempt to resurrect yourself, but it's not a guarantee. You can also increase your chances of a successful resurrection by offering some of your items as a sacrifice, which brings a neat level of strategy to what types of stuff you keep in your bag. Regardless, dying is something you very much want to avoid.
Class development is also very cool, thanks to the in-game class swap functionality. Every character is able to change from his primary class to a new class via an in-game quest. However, the character gets to keep some abilities during the transformation process, which in turn allows him to basically build whatever class he wants from scratch. Make a healer and turn him into a heal-thief. Create a mage and transform her into a flame-throwing, mob-bashing tank. This is, by far, my favorite thing about Wizardry Online, and it's something that I think players will find far more replay-positive than running through dungeons over and over again.
"If you insist on murdering every person you see, you'll soon find yourself trapped in the 'outlaw' area of town. NPCs won't speak with you, and guards will attack you on sight."
The game stops itself from becoming a bloody free-for-all by implementing stiff penalties for killing other players. Those who steal and murder are flagged as criminals, and the more hostile they are to the world's players, the more hostile the world becomes toward them. If you insist on murdering every person you see, you'll soon find yourself trapped in the "outlaw" area of town, as other NPCs won't speak with you and guards will attack you on sight.
Your criminality rating, determined by your actions, affects how the world treats you; criminal penalties can be removed only by a countdown timer that operates on in-game time. The worse you act, the longer you'll have to sit logged in to fix the damage. Not to mention the fact that there's a bounty system in play for anyone that wants to use it for a little cold, hard revenge. Earn a reputation as a jerk who ganks lowbies and you may find your character permanently destroyed thanks to a high price on your head funded by the people you've wronged. Permadeath works both ways, after all.
Wizardry Online is a compelling experiment in "hardcore" MMO gaming with tons of promise. Sadly, the whole thing is tripped up by sub-par level design, gimmicks that confuse or bore more often than they surprise, and some of the most nondescript dungeons I think I've seen in a modern online game. In a title that seeks to make its bones by offering the pure, unfiltered danger of permadeath, there just doesn't seem to be reward on par with the risk.
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