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Skyforge is evolving into an absolutely gorgeous massively multiplayer online role-playing game that could use a hook beyond its shiny pixels.

You have the chance to see that for yourself this weekend: Skyforge just entered open beta, offering players the chance to test out the new free-to-play MMORPG. It has an unusual mix of futuristic and fantastic themes.

So far, it demonstrates a lot of flash and not too much substance. But it’s early yet, and time remains for Obsidian Entertainment and Allods Team to add the final story and balance that would push it into the realm of being addictive.

Science + magic for an unusual twist

Obsidian (the folks behind Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, and Fallout: New Vegas) heads up the Westernization of Russian developer Allods’ work. They bill Skyforge as sci-fi, but that mostly applies to the settings and the look of abilities your character will use.

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Skyforge

Above: The training area allows you to try out all the classes in the game, and Skyforge offers a good selection. Most feel very different in combat.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

The classes (tanks, healers, ranged and melee damage dealers) will be familiar to players of any fantasy RPG, even if the execution relies more on lasers than mana, and the storyline has some seriously fantastic elements. You’re a god-in-training, an immortal, and the prologue to your story has some distinctly Greek-god-style overtones.

Eye candy for the guys, at least

Character creation includes intensely detailed, Sims-style sliders for nearly every part of your character’s appearance, and character graphics in-game (both in resting areas and in combat) look absolutely beautiful. Your characters move and fight beautifully.

The animation for the mount provided in the Founders Preview, for example, was absolutely gorgeous on my female berserker. She would do a graceful layout-style backflip as the Glider Stormbringer hovercraft would form out of light, then zoom up under her just as she gracefully landed. Nice.

One note on character creation: It feels a little heavy on male player gratification in a game genre where women make up nearly half of the population at this point.

The lack of serious clothing options for female characters made me roll my eyes a bit — guys can opt for a simple suit, for example, while the girls get a gold poured-on minidress and heels. Other than the default berserker outfit for males, you’ll find hardly any beefcake — and yet almost every female costume offered generous expanses of skin. I saw a heavy exosuit and tried it on — only to have my character assume a Barbie-in-the-mirror pose that showed even that heavy-duty suit had heels. Sigh.

Skyforge

Above: I’m a badass berserker going to battle evil sci-fi rats and crabs and things! Grrr! Oh, cmon, seriously.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

The same inequities were present in the body type sliders. I could make my girl more-muscular (or fat, if I wanted), same as the guys. Both sexes offered an option for butt size. But girls literally slap their bare bottoms if you adjust butt height. Guys don’t — because you can’t adjust guys’ butt height. Really?

MMO players are almost evenly split, and while I like making girly (and sexy!) girls for some of my characters, sometimes I want the option of making someone who looks serious, and not in a pin-up Tank Girl sort of way. At the very least, I also want the capability to make a similar variety of buff half-naked guys that are fun to look at, and the game’s seriously limited in that regard.

It’s also worth mentioning that Skyforge has the most extravagant use of jiggle physics I’ve seen almost anywhere, and that “small” on the chest slider is still a healthy C cup. Not being able to go truly flat-chested limits the athletic options for girls, unfortunately, though I can understand the issues there (since you can’t just shrink the things and have it look natural.) I have to admit: They look good. Sadly, you won’t find any “package” options for guys.

Free-to-play, with the usual caveats

Skyforge

Above: The Ascension Atlas allows you to choose character abilities and even choose more advanced classes. This represents a tiny piece of a honking huge whole.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

I played the Founder’s Preview long enough to rack up about a thousand “prestige points,” Skyforge’s leveling system, and to open up the main ability tree, which allows you to evolve and upgrade your character’s class. I started as a Berserker, but could become a Slayer later, for example.

Characters in Skyforge can swap outfits at any given time (they don’t affect your power), but to change the way your character looks requires Argents, gems that can be bought with credits in-game or real-life cash.

You can swap your character’s class at any time, though you may lose some prestige if you haven’t leveled the other class’ abilities. You can train and test any class you like before making a swap, and earn that class’ basic outfit as a reward for having done so.

Buying a Premium account (which all from this preview program were) allows you to move faster along the character’s skill tree and amass credits and other resources more quickly, but it does not change character power or gameplay at any particular level.

Controls are standard WASD for forward/back/strafe movement, and you’ll use the mouse to look at and space bar to interact with just about everything in the environment. Restricted keybinds control your abilities.

Skyforge

Above: My berserker annihilates all rats in the vicinity. Pretty and lethal, though that cluttered UI could use some help.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Taking your skills on the road

You’re led through a tutorial and then send on a questline that will lead you through a variety of locations and group adventures. You choose your destinations using a globe in the divine observatory, which leads to a geographically based mission interface that provides a pretty simple system for determining where you should go and how hard it will be.

Quests at the moment, as with most early MMOs, are extremely grindy. Kill this, go look at or interact with that, all in linear areas that look pretty but don’t offer much playstyle variety.

Skyforge

Above: The divine observatory gives you access to this geographically-based mission and combat area selection globe.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Adventures, what the game calls group dungeons, offer a few extra dynamics, and I liked the challenge of evolving tactics with groups that weren’t always strict tank-healer-damage arrangements. Some offered additional challenges for extra reward: go without heals, for example, or kill a certain number of enemies.

You get gear through drops and upgrade it with stones you find and combine during missions. What you can choose depends on your class. Berserkers can wield main and off-hand weapons, four amulets, four rings, and two trophies, for example. The Founders Preview offered upgraded weapons and rings to start.

Skyforge

Above: Skyforge has no in-game trade, which may cut down on gold sellers. You buy and sell items on the market.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

A strong beginning for a new MMO — but much work remains

For a beta, Skyforge has well-polished combat, with only a few clipping bugs and some pretty impressive animations. Lag and stuttering were not an issue even at maximum graphic settings on my mid-range gaming rig.

The classes offered a good variety of gameplay — Kinetics in particular are a lot of fun to play, harnessing gravity and natural elements to take down their enemies up close and from afar — that I wish was reflected in what they’ve been given to do in-game.

I didn’t reach godhood, so I can’t tell you what the endgame plays like. But at this point, the leveling game restricts itself to kill-this-go-there than any MMO I’ve seen in the past five years. I’m hoping more content and story enter this sci-fi adventure … fast.

The basic storyline thus far feels uninspiring. It looks terrific, though, with voice acting and cut scenes that include your character (as you designed them). That’s true in some boss-combat lead-ins as well, which adds to immersion.

Skyforge

Above: It’s fun to see the character you designed seamlessly taking part in smoothly animated, fully voice-acted quest scenes.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Skyforge obviously has ways to go before it’s ready to challenge the MMO leaders. The character models and animations are terrific, and the smooth combat offers a promising start. Now we just need to get some gifted writers/storyline designers up in here, and we might have a game worth playing long-term.

Obsidian provided a Founders preorder code for this preview, which opened up the beta but also additional items and classes early.

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