Is Skyforge the next big online RPG?

Futuristic fairytale.

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How does a massively multiplayer role-playing game stand out in 2014? No matter how much diversity the genre offers, it's still difficult to escape accusations that everything is just a World of Warcraft clone, a lingering misconception that each developer seeks to smash into pieces in its own unique way. Many studios look to their combat systems as the means of differentiation, shooting for fighting that approximates a true action-game feel, with your character responding immediately and appropriately to every mouse click and button press.

You can add Skyforge to the list of games trying to heat up the action. It's under development by the team that created Allods Online in collaboration with Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment. I recently took a frost mage out for an adventure in Skyforge and was immediately struck by how similar the game was to another MMOG: Tera. I still believe Tera sets the standard for MMOG combat, so following its lead is no bad thing, and spearing floating robots and armored lizard creatures with icicles gave me Tera-level joys as I played Skyforge.

The welcoming committee has arrived.
The welcoming committee has arrived.

As in Tera, I could also charge up certain attacks by holding the mouse button down for a period of time, as well as perform contextual combos in which a single button could be used for different attacks, depending on what action preceded it. Given the similarities between Skyforge and En Masse's MMOG, I had to wonder what Skyforge brings to battle that makes it unique. Says producer Eric Demitt from Obsidian, "One of the first things players will notice when playing Skyforge is the amount of content we're able to deliver through the mouse alone. Each character class will use the mouse a little differently. You'll find that most classes do a lot more than a basic attack with just that input. We also have a big focus on delivering really high quality animations and effects, you're going to feel the power and impact of your attacks. Our open class system and deep character customization are going to allow you to do a lot of things to change up the combat equation and make it your own."

An MMOG is about more than combat, however. Such games build worlds and give you a certain amount of freedom in how to explore them, providing different races, classes, and customization options. The Skyforge universe's primary world, Aelion, recalls 2006's RF Online, which was shut down in 2008, then resurrected several years later. In one city, sharp-winged airships pass near looming glass towers and curved skyrails; elsewhere, wooden bridges hang over deep chasms, while the rocky cliffs and evergreen trees beyond evoke the American West. It's a diverse but cohesive look, and I asked DeMilt to fill me on on the the universe. What makes it unique among MMOGs?

This not the eight Wonder of Oregon.
This not the eight Wonder of Oregon.

"Skyforge is a highly-stylized MMORPG where the player takes on a larger than life role as an Immortal, wielding incredible powers in the battle to protect his world," says DeMilt. "The game's tone and aesthetic are designed to immerse the player in a glossy, space-age fairy tale, which can be seen in various settings for the game, the over-the-top combat visuals and abilities, the threats and monsters they face, and even in the highly stylized and detailed character and costume designs." Of course, terms like "stylized" and "over-the-top" mean little without context, but DeMilt luckily dropped a few more tidbits about Skyforge's background lore. "The world Aelion is unique among all others: its greater god has vanished, and it is now only protected by Immortals (player characters and NPCs--people capable of becoming gods) and a few remaining lesser gods. Without a strong greater god to protect it, Aelion is an attractive target for the armies of hostile gods and is constantly under the threat of cataclysmic invasions. The scars of these battles already mark many locations in the world."

Eventually, players will gain enough power, renown, and followers to themselves become gods, enabling to protect their worlds and counter invasions, though I'm not yet sure about how that narrative arc plays out in the game. After all, a 15-minute play session is barely a raindrop in the ocean where MMOGs are concerned. I did note, however, that I could access various adventures from a central hub area, so I asked DeMilt how the game was structured.

"[It's] like that of an amusement park," DeMilt told me. "At any given time, there are a number of activities available to the player. These include everything you'd expect in in a triple-A MMOG ranging from solo and group gameplay in large open world zones and instances, player-versus-player, events, raids, and dungeons. Like being at an amusement park, our map-room gives you a god's eye view of everything available for the player at that time and the player can choose the content they want."

Rule number one of dungeon crawling: never turn your back. Especially if doing so leaves your tail vulnerable.
Rule number one of dungeon crawling: never turn your back. Especially if doing so leaves your tail vulnerable.

There's no shortage of themepark-type MMOGs, of course, or space-age fairy tales for that matter, but I commend Allods team and Obsidian for the immediacy of their combat. The action was fun and the areas I explored were beautiful. But the question remains: just what is a skyforge? DeMilt was mum on that one, so it looks like I'll have to wait until Skyforge is released before I get my answer. The bad news: we don't yet know when that will be. Until then, it looks like I'll just have to gaze at the stars and imagine the adventures that might be waiting.

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