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Can 10 million Chinese gamers be wrong? That’s the current player base on Age of Wushu, a free-to-play, massively multiplayer online role-playing game that takes place in every kung-fu movie ever made. Add another 100,000 players roaming around a semi-open beta on brand-new North America servers as Wushu is coming to America.
It doesn’t arrive with the same cultural relevance it enjoys in developer Snail Games’ native China. The U.S. team wants to draw Anglo wuxia fans raised on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or classics like Drunken Master and Master of the Flying Guillotine, but they’re banking on core MMO players who want a deeper dive in a richer, more-to-do world. Senior content producer Tyler Rawlins believes a huge chunk of dedicated, online role-players for a game that gives them more. Wushu, he claims, fills that need.
“World of Warcraft was so successful with people who weren’t familiar with MMOs,” says Rawlins. “The mechanics and features are very simple. Age of Wushu offers a lot of sandbox element that World of Warcraft made people want more of.”
“I could explain pretty much everything about World of Warcraft in 25 minutes,” adds QA manager John Lynch. “I’ve been working on this game for three or four months now, and I’m still finding new things.”
Put another way? “It’s cheaper and deeper,” says Rawlins.
After a short tutorial, players select their school of kung fu — including Shaolin monks, artistic Scholars, humble and honorable Beggars, and brutally callous Royal Guards — and step into a lush, 15th century fantasy world. Instead of dragons and minotaurs, your opponents are bandits and gangs of evil Taoist monks. It’s all firmly based in the wuxia film genre, with all the details present and accounted for. Everyone’s running up walls, running across water, and pulling off all manner of wire work, up to and including flight. Just wandering through a quiet marketplace offered demonstrations of the game’s combat, commerce, and depth.
Lynch dropped into a player-vs-player server to wander the enormous, beautiful city of Yanjing — current-day Beijing and a major metropolis during the Ming Dynasty — while Rawlins talked me through the rock-scissors-paper combat mechanics of attacks, feints, and parries. Players level skills, not characters, and skill trees aren’t locked to each school or profession … particularly once you start spying on and stealing from those other outfits.
“If you’re Shaolin, you can eventually learn Wudang skills, and then mix and match those to make your own personal martial art,” says Rawlins. With only a few exceptions, like school-specific internal skills, Wushu has no caps on learning or leveling.
Skills level up through use and internal cultivation — essentially a slower, background increase. “Certain skills were founded in the water or on a mountain,” says Rawlins, “so if you go to those regions, they cultivate a little faster.” Training in groups doesn’t hurt, either. I caught a group of players practicing Tai Chi exercises just off the market square. It wasn’t merely for mental equilibrium.
So it’s helpful that characters are persistent in Wushu; logging out turns your martial arts master into an NPC. Where you log off matters, too. You might take up a temp job as a barker, spend your down time sweeping a garden, or step up for guard duty at your martial-arts school, all of which earn you money and experience points. If another player breaks into your school to steal a few scrolls, your character might engage them. “I can get experience for fighting someone while I’m offline,” says Rawlins.
Naturally, that comes with risks.
Lynch demonstrates those risks by kidnapping another character and selling them into slavery. It takes him a lot of tries. First, he has to mentally dominate his victim. A strong will from a higher-level character not only shrugs off the attempt, but it temporarily paralyzes the would-be kidnapper, leaving you vulnerable should any nearby do-gooders take offense and decide to pummel you for your misdeeds. Indeed, Lynch soon ends up in jail, where he either has to do his time, wait for friends to extricate him, or bribe or beat the guard in a game of dice.
Prison stays increase according to your record of villainy. Truly heinous evil-doers with high infamy are attacked on sight by guards, thrown in maximum-security jails, and publicly executed. That locks the character out for a few days.
Color-coded icons instantly clued me in to every player’s alignment. A red skull told me a man on horseback was a murdering, thieving low-life … and fair game for a heroic takedown. Possibly another player had already put a bounty on his head. “We have a policing feature,” says Rawlins. “Players can join a police force, find warrants, hunt those players down, and kill them.” Reporting it back to the local constabulary earns the reward.
It doesn’t even have to go that far. I encouraged Lynch to just go beat someone up so I could have a good look at the combat. He did, and five passers-by immediately jumped in. Lynch got trashed, while his opponents crowed about sending a GM back to jail. Consider Wushu’s self-regulation between good and evil playstyles already in place.
“We’d see five people walk into a city and start a brawl,” adds Lynch. “All of a sudden, people are jumping over the roofs, coming into it. We saw 35 people just brawling in the street.” And that’s nothing compared to when guilds start fighting over properly.
The combat plays out in real time, and while the expanse of optional quests and tasks is enough to make any MMO player salivate, I found all the attention paid to the combat system far more intriguing. It approaches the depth and complexity of a typical fighting game while still looking fairly approachable. “This isn’t your typical MMO where you press your 1-2-3, 1-2-3 button rotation,” says Lynch. “It’s about what’s going on in that situation, based on your combat style. You have to watch the other player.” That’s crucial to counter their attacks, feint to get in under defenses, and hit hard with the most effective weapons and moves.
“It’s how skillful are you,” says Lynch. “How well do you know your class? How well do you know their skills? How well can you adapt to whatever you’re fighting?”
Of course, it’s not all combat. I watched Lynch challenge a fellow chef in a cook-off — a Bejeweled-style puzzle game — to get materials and experience he needed. It’s also one way to become the master of your chosen profession. But part of the game’s economy revolves around bartering with those different professions to get what you want. “I have to communicate with other characters to make the best sword,” says Rawlins. That could mean bartering with a chef to sharpen the blade to perfection, a craftsman to make the best grip, even an apothecary to lace the edge with poison.
And that’s the outer edge of what Age of Wushu does. I only saw a fraction of professions, a sliver of what guilds do, and a bare minimum of the economy in action. Mainly Lynch fencing his kidnapee. I only saw one city. I don’t see the campaign or any raids at all, but they’re definitely there.
Compared to just what content I do see, the actual free-to-play component feels minor at best. You might get a cart to sell wares while offline, and maybe a few new (but not more powerful) moves. Otherwise, all the microtransactions are strictly cosmetic, like clothes. Even the playtime limitations enforced during the beta go away when Snail USA flips the switch on April 10 and Age of Wushu goes live in the States. Better still, characters created in the beta will simply roll over, with all stats and loot intact.
Rawlins hopes those player become guides for everyone who joins the live game. After all, every kung-fu master needs students. That’s a classic wuxia scenario if ever there were.