Free-to-play MMOs are a dime a dozen at the moment; however. Runes of Magic stands out amoung the rest. See what we think of Runes of Magic in our official preview.
Free-to-play MMOs are a dime a dozen at the moment, with the lion's share of them being developed in the Far East. Runes of Magic is one such game, coming from Taiwanese developer Runewalker Entertainment. However, I'd been hearing that RoM isn't your typical free-to-play game, so I decided to give it a try before its official release on March 19th.
On first impressions, RoM seems to be very much "by the numbers", containing six fantasy-based classes (Warrior, Scout, Rogue, Mage, Priest and Knight), with some of the female classes struggling to stay fully clothed. However, once a character reaches level 10 it can travel to the city of Varanas to take on a second class. A character's secondary class gives a boost to its attributes and also enables the use of some of the class's skills. Even better, if you pick a secondary class that uses a different type of energy for its attacks, you'll end up with two separate energy bars on your character. In other words, if you run out of energy for one type of skill you still have your second energy bar to draw from.
Characters can switch between classes by visiting their houses, which are free and available from around level five. As well as providing this service, houses can give characters extra storage space or provide bonuses to their crafting skills depending on the items placed inside. More furniture slots can be purchased with micropayments, but this isn't necessary in order to have a good, functioning house. Spending time in your house will also give your character a temporary bonus to XP and TP gains. TP (or "Technique Points") are earned alongside XP and are also awarded when a character levels up. These Points can be spent on learning new spells or special abilities, or on increasing the effectiveness of those the character already has.
It's not just characters that can have a place to call their own; guilds can club together to buy entire castles, which not only provide a cool place to hang out, but also give access to the Guild Bank system. Once a castle has a Throne added to it, other guilds can challenge them for control of the castle, wresting control of it from them if they're successful in their attack. Guilds shouldn't expect to be under continuous attack though, as contesting a castle in this way costs an awful lot of Gold.
Attacking a guild's castle won't cost you any real money though, as Gold comes from selling items in-game, rather than from micropayments. Diamonds are the micropayment currency in Runes of Magic and can be spent on a variety of things in-game. Mounts, experience boosts, equipment upgrades and more can all be bought with Diamonds, with special offers giving reduced prices from time to time. Some quests also offer enhanced rewards in exchange for Diamonds, and I encountered another that could be made easier by spending a Diamond or two. However, I didn't reach a point where I felt that I had to buy Diamonds in order to proceed - they seem to be intended to enhance gameplay, rather than being necessary in order to continue.
Combat in Runes of Magic is pretty much as you'd expect, and feels a lot like World of Warcraft. In fact, an awful lot of the game feels like WoW, with the vendor interface, quest interface, mini-map and auction house all ripped from Blizzard's creation. The game also has a similar combination of solo quests, group quests and instances to WoW, but this is no bad thing. WoW's interface is well designed and it contains a good balance of different types of content, so why mess with a winning formula? With that said though, there are enough differences in RoM to make it stand out on its own. For example, it contains a tutorial explaining basic gameplay, followed by a quest line that helps to introduce you to the game's other features as you progress. These quests are well-paced and not too frequent, so you don't feel like you're playing through an extended tutorial. All the information given in these quests is useful and spread out over the first 10 of your character's levels, so you can learn gradually and aren't bombarded with everything at once. There's also a good amount of variety in the quests offered - while RoM does have quests like "kill 10 of these and 20 of those", it also contains quests involving more complex tasks. For example, one quest line sees you collecting a box from inside a cave, before taking it to an NPC so it can be opened. This then results in a side-quest where you need to obtain some items for the NPC, as he doesn't have what he needs to open the box.
What sets RoM apart though is the ability to customise many of the items in the game. Some items can be improved by adding Runes to them, which provide a boost to your stats. Meanwhile, other pieces of equipment can have their overall effectiveness increased, improving them dramatically and turning them into higher-level items. Due to the way the system works, it should be possible - with enough effort - to overwrite the stats previously found on the item and customise them to whatever you want. In other words, you could turn that cool-looking piece of low-level equipment into something truly awesome.
Something else that makes RoM stand out from other MMOs of its type is its translation, which is actually pretty good. While the text in some free-to-play games reads like it was translated by an illiterate monkey, whoever translated RoM has done a good job. The game's also conspicuous by being more polished and feeling more "complete" than the other free MMOs I've played. Despite their differences, the best way to describe Runes of Magic would be "like WoW, but free". Sure, it's not as polished as WoW (with shields not being properly attached to characters' arms, for example), but that doesn't really matter. It's simply not fair to hold micropayment games to the same standards as their subscription-based counterparts. What needs to be focused on here is that while it's kind of like WoW, it's FREE. In other words, if you're looking for a new MMO to play but are short on cash, you should definitely give this a try.
Sam "azerian" Maxted