Remember RuneScape? I don't know about you, but when I was in middle school, everyone played it, and it was kind of the gateway drug for many of us to the world of MMORPGs. If you didn't like RuneScape, you can probably stop reading now because this game isn't for you. Otherwise, read on! Albion Online is a sandbox MMORPG by Sandbox Interactive that actively seeks to veer away from a lot of the factors that make the MMORPG genre such a homogeneous mass of "Find the quest then gather/kill x of a thing." It combines elements of not only RuneScape, but of other games such as Monster Hunter and my personal MMORPG of choice: Guild Wars 2. I wouldn't call it revolutionary like some would have you believe, but I still enjoyed it despite the flaws in the pacing, some server issues and the big problem I have with the premium accounts.
You can make an account and purchase Albion Online from their website.
There are two kinds of games with little story: the ones where it should be there and the ones where the lack of overarching story is used to make it easier to insert yourself into the in game world. A good example of the former is the last game I reviewed, Zombie Party. As you may have guessed, Albion Online is in the latter category. The only thing resembling a story is the intro video in which we are told that the newly-discovered continent of Albion is viewed as a land for someone willing to brave the dangerous journey for a brighter future. There are some tutorial missions and smaller stories in instances, mostly involving some faction going against the wishes of the king. There is no game-driving narrative aside from the one you give yourself. Maybe you'll be a gatherer, maybe you'll be a craftsman, maybe you'll be a great warrior. One of the selling points of Albion Online is the fact that the game is almost entirely run by players, and so the story really is what you make it. On the downside that means you don't really feel that special so it may feel tough to get invested right away. Really, this facet of the game is just a matter of taste, but it worked for me.
Not to bring up RuneScape again, but this basically plays like if RuneScape were made today. There is more to it than that, there are also the fact that there are no in-game shops, just the market and player-owned refineries. It's really a somehow more capitalist RuneScape. That is a gross oversimplification, so let's take this point by point. Keep in mind I've only been playing for about a week, so even though I tried to hit all the points, by MMO standards I pretty much just dipped my toes in the water.
Let's start before you even start playing the game with the starter packs. You do need to buy this game, then on top of that there are premium accounts. With any starter pack you get 30 days of premium, but I didn't get premium with my critic's copy. Premium accounts are an additional subscription, which I get. Servers and staff cost money. At the same time, those with premium accounts have distinct advantages, namely in being able to advance through tiers quickly using Learning Points rather than experience (or "fame" as the game calls it), they get more resources when they harvest, and they make more money on their own private islands off the coast of Albion. However, you can also use the in-game currency, silver, to keep your account upgraded, but it takes a while for someone to get up to that point, at least if you're not on premium already. So while it is "buy to play" a la Guild Wars 2 until it became free, it's also "Pay to Win." At the same time though you can get a premium account with the in-game silver, so you don't really have to pay but it's still maybe a month of nonstop grind if what I played was any indication. As you can probably tell, I have mixed to negative feelings about this, something about it just feels like they are trying to squeeze the subscription out after buying the game, which leaves a bad feeling in my mouth.
Barrier to entry
There isn't a whole lot of explanation as to how the game works at first. Immediately upon arriving on Albion you are told to gather resources and then make your starting equipment. There isn't much in the game telling you what to do, but there is a great guide that Sandbox Interactive has on their website as well as a help channel where experienced players can help out the newbies. I would still say maybe they could streamline this a bit more. Tier 4 is, and this is a quote directly from the official game guide, "Albion really begins!" For me this took nearly my full week with the game because of all the grinding necessary. When you don't have access to the learning points available in the premium accounts it really doesn't come together very smoothly at first.
What? No player levels?
Albion Online does something that I have been sorely missing since my RuneScape days: the lack of proper player levels. Instead you have the "Destiny Board."
This has different trees for gathering, refinement, combat, cooking, everything! For doing things you get fame, which is different from the usual experience points because these are called fame points. Premium accounts have learning points, which they can use to just reach new tiers more quickly. Without the Learning Points I have to say that the progression almost feels akin to filling up a barrel by spitting into it.
The daily grind
Birds fly, fish swim, MMOs have a lot of grind. This isn't anything new, and Albion Online isn't exactly an innovator when it comes to this. The nice part about this is the maps and how each tells you which tiers of which resources can be found in each map. This can help keep you from running around the world trying to find where exactly you can get leather, stone, or whatever you happen to be gathering. The maps are also small enough to where trying to remember where things are isn't a huge chore. However, I need to direct you into the "spitting into a barrel" comment in the last section. Without the learning points it took me a few days to level my skills to tier 4, which is the point at which I must remind you the "Albion really begins!" I wouldn't mind the slow grind if it wasn't holding the rest of the game hostage from me until I harvested thousands of logs.
This is a new game, and as such there are some server problems. It isn't anywhere close to Pokemon: Go levels of bad, but I was occasionally booted out of the game and/or subjected to a horrendously long wait time. I'm sure this is something Sandbox Interactive is working on fixing and the problems tend to be fixed relatively quickly when they pop up, but they do tend to pop up quite a bit as of right now. Like I said, it's a new game and I know this is a frequent problem with anticipated releases, but I think that it's important to note that at the time of writing, there are frequent issues with servers.
A la Monster Hunter, your character doesn't have stats, but rather your capabilities are entirely determined by the equipment you're wearing. This is something I personally enjoy because it means that you don't need to make a character for each possible build. Literally every bit of equipment you can create or wear has a branch on the destiny board. If you were wearing a cloth cowl, leather armor, and plate boots, you would gain fame for each of those individually. If you wanted to switch to a leather helmet, that fills up a completely different node on the destiny board. I like this because it means the game is very forgiving with character building mistakes. If you find a build online that you aren't quite prepared for, you just need to work your way up a different branch of the board instead of creating an entirely new character. The grind can be tedious, but it's better than just needing to live with an unfixable mistake.
The way they use mounts in this is incredibly helpful but not overpowered. Your mount gives you a bonus to your carrying capacity and movement speed, and the bonus to your carrying capacity is maintained as long as you stay within a glowing circle surrounding your parked steed. You start with a donkey but you can soon upgrade to a horse, which gives further bonuses to movement speed, or an ox, which is slower but can carry a ton (possibly literally, but I didn't do the math). You can't take them into instances, but at they make overworld grinding for resources much less of a hassle by letting you either move more quickly or return to town less often.
Past tier 3, when the game truly begins, there are no proper game-run shops except for the repairman, the artificer, the market, and the travel planner. Everything else is a refinery owned by a player or on a guild island, and they can and probably will charge a usage fee. There is also the market where you can buy things also made by players. The markets aren't even global, the price for sandstone in the mountain area is going to be lower than the price for sandstone in the fens. However, the differences are only by maybe ten silver each, so be sure you've got a lot of stock before heading to another city. Even the banks are discrete, so if you want to take leather to sell in the highlands you had best pack up your ox to make that trip worth it.
The Game world
Albion's world is massive and difficult to trek in one sit-down. I made it a point to go all around the mainland and see the different areas and was happy with what I saw. Each area has it's own resources but no one place will ever have anything, which helps to encourage exploration. The maps were all helpful in letting me know what was where so I never found myself truly lost. However, I did notice a few peculiar instances where the maps in different areas were the same, just with a different coat of paint. It wasn't all of them, but don't think I didn't notice the Highland crossing and the Steppe crossing being the exact same but one was brown while the other was green.
As far as PvP goes, the map is divided into three kinds of areas: Blue has no PvP at all. Yellow has some PvP, but if you don't flag yourself as hostile you get a buff if you are attacked and you just lose some gold on death. Red zones are a free-for-all and if you die then your inventory is gone. The map is also blocked out so that someone can adventure around to all the major cities without having to go through any PvP, which is nice. As someone who would have just been consistently pounded into mulch at the entry to a PvP area, it was good to not have that restricting much access to the map.
There are two kinds of dungeons: Public dungeons, which you can enter whenever in the overworld, and Expeditions, which you sign up for in a city to either go at yourself or with a group. The solo expeditions are where I did a lot of my grinding to get my weapons and armor to tier 4. The tier 3 dungeons were super monotonous, I got literally the same dungeons over and over. Same enemies, same goals, same everything. However, it was preferable to the public instances. Those have a few different map varieties with some changes in enemies found, but the bosses respawn so infrequently I found myself cutting my way through a dungeon only to find out the boss was out to lunch for the next five minutes. I love the sentiment of having people just being able to go into dungeons like that and not need to do much to look for the group, but it got to the point where I stopped going down there because I knew that I'd just be greeted with an empty boss room and the difficult choice to either wait or leave.
One of the big selling points of Albion Online is that it's cross platform with PC, Android, and Apple devices. My tablet didn't have the memory for it, so I used the Android port on my phone, which they admit it isn't optimized for yet but it should work. It did work, but not for too long. I'm not sure if that's the servers or the fact that the app isn't optimized for phones, but as of right now it does indeed work albeit briefly, so it's an MMORPG that you can take with you on the go, but you should probably be sure you're hooked into WiFi.
Graphics and Audio
The graphics have a charming retro look to them that, if the game does hope to last as long as something like World of Warcraft it was a good call for them to choose an art style that I feel could age well. It reminds of the art style of a forgotten Double Fine strategy game called Massive Chalice. They're just detailed enough and they are nice. Not phenominal, but I enjoyed the aesthetic.
The audio is in the same boat as the graphics: nice. No sound effects grated on me and the background audio always matched the moods and scenes: ambient sounds of the land for your normal adventuring, bombastic noble horns for the cities, and diabolical orchestrations for the boss fights. Much like the graphics, not phenomenal but good.
Despite the technical issues, the repetition, and the payment that puts me on edge, I quite enjoyed my time in Albion Online, perhaps it will even become my obsession as RuneScape was back when I was a nerdling. It isn't a revolution, though it breaks from tradition in some areas it isn't really a groundbreaker in the genre. Don't forget everything you know about MMOs. In all honestly, it's probably the MMO-y est MMO to ever MMO (there's a box blurb for you). However, the flexible character creation and the variety of gameplay options will have me coming back for more. If MMORPGs aren't your thing, this one won't change your mind. However, if they are and your current game of choice is becoming a bit stale, maybe take a look at Albion Online. It has plenty to offer for anyone with any gameplay style.
|+ Massive world||– Short but frequent server issues.|
|+ Casual or hardcore, your preference||– Repetitive maps.|
|+ Flexible characters||– Need subscription to get the most out of it.|
|+ Helpful community||– Incredibly grindy|
|+ Cross-platform with mobile||– High barrier to entry|