Time to really go to Imperial China.
Localisation is a thankless job which takes a staggering amount of time and expertise. Take Age of Wulin for instance, one of the most promising MMORPGs to come out of China for years. Set auspiciously in the 14th Century with only a hint of the kind of fancy action you might find in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Jet Li’s Hero, with authenticity set very much at its core. In terms of atmosphere and tone, it’s one of the most refreshingly different projects out there at the moment, but unless one understands the complexities of Mandarin, you have absolutely no hope of penetrating its deep and alluring core. Of course that isn’t to say it isn’t worth trying, regardless we’re fortunate enough to have a helping hand care of the patient folks at gPotato.
Why are they patient you ask? Well, between you and us, much of the localisation work was in the process of being completed for Age of Wulin and the game was approaching being ready for the unwashed masses via a widely subscribed closed Beta, and then SnailGames dropped another update on the team. One which added lots of intriguing new features, including more quests, PvP potential and areas to explore – only along with it came another 1,000,000 (that’s a million for the numerically challenged) Mandarin characters onto their translation to-do list. Inevitably this led to the game’s delay, and inevitably people (including us) yelled out in frustration crying foul as the chance to test the game was plucked from our grasp. See, a truly thankless job – gPotato are giving us more than we bargained for, and we’re just going to have to wait a while longer for it yet we still complain.
Well, we aren’t complaining any more as we not only got a guided tour of the Oriental experience, but we also got to sit down and sample a quest or to, just to prove that Age of Wulin’s attractive wrapper isn’t all smoke and mirrors.
Free-to-play games usually take few chances in terms of their design, that’s why most of the subscription-less MMORPG options out there involve worn-out fantasy tropes and easy-to-understand yet bullishly dull design. Age of Wulin doesn’t do that. The entire landscape is built on mystical Chinese landmarks, some well known, others not so much.
We took a brief tour around a Shaolin temple, with monks training in the courtyard and impressive statues lining the hallways. A few moments later we were transported to Loulan, an infamous dead city which was apparently lost to the world until being rediscovered in 1935 (it’s real, Google it), next we were instantly warped to Peachblossom Forest, an wooded area where blossom cascaded slowly to the ground, and finally we were shown a province of Shanghai which was a far cry from the modern metropolis of today with complex temples, beggars pleading gracefully for your attention, and fragile-looking wood-panel buildings which may or may not be brothels… On the surface, Age of Wulin looks like an online paradise, but the game’s PvP systems, progression curves and source material betray an altogether less idyllic, darker side.
This feudal society is built on tradition and discipline with no level structure gauging player progression, instead all that matters is faction ranking with each of the game’s five different factions. We were shown the Shaolin side of the game – a faction which preaches honesty, respect and the ways of karma – so any attempt to rough up NPCs walking around the city or take advantage of our fellow monk resulted in negative karma points and buffs which may slow your speed, strength or bust down your rank in the faction, making that next set of skills seem even further away from acquisition than before. Age of Wulin is a game which hands you a lot of freedom to do what you want, but there are consequences for both negative and positive actions. All of this is represented in the game’s social menu which shows NPCs you interacted with, a short bio of them, what quests you’ve performed and in what standing they hold you in. The faction system seemed incredibly robust and the perfect tool to allow players to craft their own tales.
One specific quest we took part in involved rescuing a beggar’s daughter, Yan Zhi, from a nearby brothel. This involved finding her in her parlour room – not an easy feat, talking her down and escorting her to safety taking out a few goons along the way. There were choices in this mission, as we could have forced the daughter’s fate to go a number of ways, but once rescued we approached her father and he told us of another activity. Path-finding was a bit tough, as much of the urban surroundings looked the same, and the amount of quest text we had to decipher was significant – the thing is we still did it though, as we felt an attachment to the scenario and the plight of this seemingly innocent girl. It’s unrealistic to juxtapose that amount of emotional involvement or moral duty to all of Wulin’s quests, but we were told activities like these aren’t rare.
Next we were shown a brief video of some of the PvP skirmishes currently taking place on the game’s Chinese servers and the footage blew our minds. Age of Wulin allows guilds to claim ownership of limited temples spread around the game-world, with the option to unlock vendors, new training opportunities and other perks to encourage communities to be formed.
That isn’t new in the MMORPG world – hell Guild Wars had similar functionality, albeit not part of the world at large. What really took our breath away was the mention of PvP battles of 1,200 players, in the effort to infiltrate, besiege and eventually take over these prized temples – shifting them from one clan’s ownership to the other. The footage showed innumerable battles with player characters being felled left, right and centre. Battles on the size and scope of EVE in the 3D action-orientated MMORPG format, is a promise which should excite many PvPers, even though we need to investigate further to see how it all shakes down.
Another important feature is that player characters never appear offline, even if the player happens to be. When you aren’t in control of your avatar, he’ll still populate the world, taking part in jobs and completing menial tasks. In total there are 17 different career options ranging from blacksmith to woodcutter – players can even specialise in begging if they like. Goods can be sold to other players, NPCs, or players can set up their own persistent stall in the world.
After our hour-long preview session with Age of Wulin, our minds came away swimming of the compelling gameplay possibilities of all these different systems working together in unison: both placing players in the world with four different story-arcs to invest in while at the same time offering ultimate player freedom in a world full of consequence. It’s impossible to gauge how well Age of Wulin will gel, as the Beta is months away from launch, but it’s worth considering the level of success the game has already had in China.
Over a million players are already taking part in the game, critically it’s also a big hit, and gPotato EU are already investing in three servers for the game which has a capacity for 39,000 players (13,000 each), with more to be added if the game proves popular. Microtransaction-wise gPotato are going for convenience rather than power items.
Auto-travel is out for non-paying players, they have to take horse and cart rides from area to area for a nominal gold fee, and quest markers only point you in the vicinity of the objective, rather than leading you right to it World of Warcraft-style if you purchase the right perk. Those restrictions seem a bit mean-spirited to us, but the filthy free dime has to come in somewhere. Whether you think that’s fair is really up to you, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a few more controversial cash store commodities poked their head out from the ether.
Age of Wulin is already a unique prospect, successfully introducing Western gamers to a culture they’ve never seen before, at least in game terms. Whether that potential is fully realised rests on the shoulders of gPotato and their localisation team. It’s going to take a lot of work, blood, sweat and tears, but if they do it right the free-to-play provider could have the next genuine MMO phenomenon on its hands
Tags: Age of Wulin
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