At E3 2012, we had the chance to get get hands-on with the in-development free-to-play MMORPG known as Wizardry Online, the latest installment in the old school Wizardry series that began back in 1981. Keeping true to its roots, Wizardry Online proved very challenging, but at the same time what we saw wasn’t visually pretty and most of the gameplay looked like standard fantasy MMO fare, from the user interface and combat to the level designs and loot.

Wizardry Online is developed by Japanese studio Gamepot, Inc., and Sony Online Entertainment released the game in North America and Europe yesterday, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

Like Diablo 3 and loads of other online-only games in the past, Wizardry Online has been burdened with server issues from the moment of launch yesterday, and practically every interested player has met the infamous “Connect” screen which for us, took over 20 minutes on all instances to get into the game. Today, the same issues remain present but SOE has acknowledged the problem and is working hard on rectifying. At peak, there were four times as many players yesterday as there were during the open beta and SOE simply was not prepared.

Wizardry Online Wallpaper

Unfortunately for the game, the connection errors are only problem number one, and likely won’t be the reason many curious players will quickly be turned away by Wizardry Online.

On its surface, Wizardry Online appears like other standard fantasy MMORPG, infused with Japanese game design tropes and aesthetics, and in most ways it is when it comes to progression and gameplay, but with a few critical differences that make Wizardry a hardcore niche game. And make no mistake, SOE and the devs have been promoting the word “hardcore” since the beginning.

The big selling point is the permadeath system where players can die, take soul form and attempt to resurrect themselves in several different ways, but as players progress, it’s more difficult and expensive to do so, adding a legitimate fear of dying. Add in factors like weapon degradation, frequent traps and the open world PvP element where anyone can attack and loot anyone else (at the cost of being marked for their “crime”), and there’s no fooling around.

Death generates a penalty, but it was uncommon in the beta for players to actually “permanently’ die as they do get multiple chances. If you do die, your soul maintains story progression and is transferred to another character. The higher level the player is the more difficult and expensive it is to resurrect. It’ll cost more items and even items that boost the percentage chance of a successful revive. It’s not an issue for low-level characters, but when nearing 20 and above, the game is dubbed “hardcore” for a reason.

Wizardry Online Female Human Fighter

There are five races and four classes to choose from. The character customization is extremely shallow with only a handful of pre-defined faces and hairstyles to choose from. Players looking to play the game solo need to avoid the Thief and Mage classes – according to Senior Producer Todd Carson – as they’ll have a much tougher time progressing without grouping up with others to survive. Playing in a party is critical to finding some enjoyment and being able to heal and Gamespot strongly encourages playing with friends.

Needless to say, the level of difficulty of the game and production values will turn people away, but for those who stick with it, there’s quite a bit of a learning curve. The game is ugly first and foremost, and is mainly comprised of dungeons. The opening three hours from our experience last night were not fun, and a lot of it has to do with the gameplay centering around old MMO tropes disguised as something different when it’s really not.

Aside from the loading times – where players cannot turn off the music or change the resolution settings – the introduction of the game’s story is cheap and forgettable. When players get into the town without tutorial, the opening “missions” that teach the player the basics probably couldn’t get any worse and are a good indicator of quest design as whole. The hotbar is by default loaded with random and needless options that only add to the confusion, from role-playing actions like clapping to game menus which shouldn’t be in there. This isn’t for inexperienced MMO gamers.

In the gameplay videos up top and below, viewers can get a sense of the core design flaws that hindered our own “first look” gameplay from late last night which we recorded for fun, and when we do finally get trekking into the first large dungeon (after the tutorial dungeon), the overly simple and repetitive fetch-and-receive quests combined with quickly-respawning enemies (thanks to the dungeons being public) presented an unenjoyable and unrewarding experience. There are another two hours of recorded gameplay after this, but the first hour is what all players must experience and is very telling. Here’s another 30 minutes recorded over an hour later when we got into it a little more:

Objectives involve finding something and bringing it somewhere else, made difficult due to the maze-like nature of the illogically designed dungeons. Repetitive traps and repetitive combat scenarios add to the issue of lacking variety. The combat mechanics and controls are poor and the game makes it very expensive and time-consuming to heal up (and level up at inns and fountains). The story isn’t there, nor is the gameplay or quests, and the features that had us excited aren’t implemented well. Add to that a dreary aesthetic, and “niche” is definitely an appropriate term, although the “hardcore” label does not make up for the game’s problems.

If Wizardry Online does interest you, and there is a dedicated community enjoying the game, it may be a few days for the server loads to cool down. Otherwise, try out some of the other free-to-play MMOs, including SOE’s own 14-year-old EverQuest which is better than this. Needless to say, our first impressions were less than stellar and the game failed to provide any reason to continue since the “hardcore PvP” which can be enjoyed later in the game is overshadowed by other weaker elements.

Wizardry Online is now available for PC. Play free here.

Follow me on Twitter @rob_keyes.

Source: SOE