After ten years of MMOG development, breaking new ground can be a challenging task that stymies even the most veteran development team. Questing, travel, and even character creation can become so repetitive it creates a frustrating player experience and ruins the immersion of wonderfully themed games. Combat mechanics in particular are the most susceptible to redundancy and are in dire need of innovation, but can MMO developers break away from the button mashing tradition?
The Chronicles of Spellborn is attempting to add a layer of strategy and change to combat that could please not only the hardcore but provide a refreshing change to the casual player. As a relative newcomer, do they have what it takes to break the mold even heavily funded AAA projects can't avoid? It's difficult to say so soon after the European launch and since no one is sure when Acclaim will release it here in North America many of you can't find out yet. From everything we've seen in beta however, you have to give them credit for a valiant effort.
What makes Chronicles of Spellborn's combat system so unique and innovative? Instead of making skills available to you at all times they become available at different tiers or levels of combat. For example after the first tier attack lands, you can access the second, then the third until you reach the sixth which in a sense "chains" them together. This does sound a little complex and admittedly the first time you play it is intimidating enough to rattle the most hardened MMOG player. Not only do you have these skill options but you are able to build a Skill Deck and choose the order everything appears. This helps create some Street Fighter worthy combo attacks but also assures that skills you earn early on are still beneficial later in the game. If that doesn't sound challenging enough these skill combos are available for a variety of attack styles including melee, ranged, and defensive maneuvers.
An MMOG with combo attacks? It didn't seem to work very well in Funcom's Age of Conan, so why would it possibly succeed now? Age of Conan did provide something similar with real time combat, but it was a series of button mashing with only a few combo options and that could at times feel random. The Skill Deck in Spellborn has a specific list of abilities that take you down numerous paths which end in a clear and predictable manner. So it appears you will have the option of using multiple skill paths from different styles to achieve your goal and these combination choices can be tailored to different situations. So we'll actually have to think before and during combat about what is happening around us which should pretty much kill the normal multi-tasking many of us get away with.
Strategic placement of skills is important but Spellborn isn't done just yet. Those tiered combat abilities are utilized in a real time environment with a targeting reticule. Does this mean no auto attack or ability queuing? That's exactly what it means so put that "easy button" next to your collector's edition stuffed plushy Murloc. Every blade swing and spell cast is activated immediately with no timers and no refresh meaning action as it happens and a much lower margin of error. If the target isn't facing you and the reticule not where it's supposed to be, you are going to lose that battle in a hurry. With latency all of this technology probably requires a little magic from the programmers but what we've seen just isn't used in other games and gives Spellborn a different flavor.
While games like Warhammer Online have done a phenomenal job of keeping skill bars free and simple, these skill decks offer an extension of this convenience. With only one bank of skills showing at a time this will free up untold UI space which sadly will probably be replaced with other windows and maps. This has been a major mechanic issue with many games over the years and should soften the learning curve for less experienced players. It also presents a cleaner and more efficient looking interface which requires less tinkering, modding, and icon shuffling than in other products. Of course some people prefer the instruments of a 747 jet and that's fine, but you will have more than enough to keep you busy and I'm sure a parser will be built.
The most unusual thing about Chronicles of Spellborn, is these mechanics are just a single aspect. The classes, lore, areas, progression, and so much more can be discussed at length and although they might not be as innovative as skill decks, when mixed with combat it's certainly worth having a look. No one is expecting the next World of Warcraft, but the market seems a little stretched and tired right now so this might be a boost everyone could use. If you are in Europe you can already grab this game from the official site at no cost, although going beyond a certain level requires a subscription. Sadly if you live in North Americans as I do, we have to wait for Acclaim to launch it hopefully later this month.
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