Apr 19 2009
One of Acclaim's latest projects in a new post-apocalyptic fantasy MMORPG called The Chronicles of Spellborn. It's an original IP with a story that involves 2 races, Humans and Daevi, who are re-emerging thousands of years after a cosmic magical event cast the world into darkness. It may look like dozens of other MMORPGs at first glance, so let's explore some of the ways Spellborn breaks the mold.
Free Client, Pay to Play
The first thing I should clear up is that the game is not entirely free. The game client is free, and you can try the first couple zones, up to about level 7, at no charge, but if you want to go beyond that you need to subscribe at around $15 per month.
In North America, the game is technically still in open beta, but there will be no further character wipes, and they are accepting money from subscribers, so I guess you could call it a "soft launch."
The Unreal 2 graphics engine is at the core of Spellborn, and it's a visually appealing game that should run well on a pretty average computer. The environments and landmarks are memorable, and you're given ample freedom of movement to explore them. The game strikes a nice balance between appearance and performance.
Striving to do something out of the ordinary with RPG combat, Spellborn also had to make changes to the conventional controls. There's no auto-attack in the game, and targetting is done manually with crosshairs. If you have a unit selected, and you aim at a different unit, you will hit the unit you're aimed at. In order to accommodate this scheme, Spellborn's inferface has a combat mode and a non-combat mode. When your weapon is sheathed, your mouse has a pointer and functions much like it would in a typical RPG. While in combat, the controls change; the pointer is replaced with crosshairs, left click becomes attack rather than position camera, and the mouse wheel changes your Skill Deck column rather than camera zoom.
Needless to say, it's not as flexible as some game interfaces, and it all takes some adjustment on the part of new players. Using the keyboard for movement in combat is mandatory, and your Skill Deck is not a shortcut bar, although it may look like one. Once you get used to it, however, it comes together quite well, and it does give Spellborn a dose of action-game feel.
The Skill Deck is central to Spellborn's combat system, and it is a major departure from the norm. When you go into combat, a cylinder appears at the bottom of the screen with your abilities on it. They can be selected with number keys or the mouse wheel, and triggered with the left mouse button, hopefully while the target is in your sights. Each time you use a skill, the cylinder rotates and the next row of skills becomes available.
Subsequently, combat in the game becomes a mixture of aiming, timing, and careful Skill Deck construction. Your Skill Deck starts out with only 2 rows, but as you increase in level more rows and columns are added, so setting it up to suit your purposes becomes more complicated. It's not simply a matter of deciding which skills you want to take into battle, as in Guild Wars, you also have to decide roughly what order you want to use your skills in, and what skills you want to have available at certain times. Planning is key here, because if you end up on a row where everything is on cooldown, there is nothing you can do but wait.
The Skill Deck concept is very abstract, and at first it feels like an offbeat idea without a real purpose. Yet somehow it works, and it becomes remarkably engaging as it grows into a sort of mini-game unto itself.
In most RPGs, equipment is of primary importance to your character, and the prospect of acquiring better gear serves as a major motivation for continuing to play. Spellborn goes a different direction and dispenses with equipment statistics entirely and replaces them with sigil slots. Although sigils do add bonuses to your equipment, you can move them from one item to another. This allows you to attach them to armor you like the appearance of rather than wearing something just for the stats.
It's a bit odd that before you have any sigils, it makes little difference whether you're wearing armor or running around naked. There is always the possibility the game will turn into a grind for sigils at the level cap, but for now they seem intent on de-emphasizing gear in favor of character skills.
Spellborn has plenty of quests, but I've yet to come across anything particularly memorable. While I hear they get better, for the first couple zones it's the standard RPG fare of killing predetermined numbers of wolves, boars, and whatnots, as well as delivering whatever to wherever.
XP and Death
There are two main types of experience in Spellborn: Fame points and Personal Experience Points (PeP). You often earn both at the same time, but bulk of your Fame seems to come from questing, while the bulk of your PeP comes from killing mobs. PeP rank grants a number of bonuses, but it can be lost upon death, which is a relatively harsh penalty these days.
Spellborn isn't likely to rock the world of MMORPGs, but the combat system is as unique any I've seen since Age of Conan. Some people will pleased to see the emphasis taken away from gear and placed on Skill Deck planning and execution, others will find rewards too few and far between. While there is still a lot of Spellborn I haven't seen, I don't think it can be written off as just another World of Warcraft clone. With a little more polish, a PvP system, and some additional content, Spellborn is the sort of game that could come out of nowhere to be quite successful.