Swordsman Online - Introduction
I imagine that Louis Cha's novel, "The Smiling, Proud Warrior," is really, really good. It is a keystone piece of wuxia literature, and has inspired a number of Chinese movies and television series. It also serves as the basis for Swordsman Online, released to Western audiences via PerfectWorld and Arc.
Wuxia usually features high-flying martial artists, often from warring or competing kung-fu schools, in an historic ancient-Chinese setting. That's pretty much the core of Swordsman Online. There are 10 schools to choose from, and each is essentially a separate class with its own unique set of abilities. It's an "action rpg," and has been praised for its very fluid and lively combat.
Swordsman Online - Positive Marks
The design of the landscape and towns and temples is pretty much amazing. I'm not sure ancient China could have possibly ever looked like that in reality, but it's fairly clear where the influences come from. And what Western game hasn't done exactly the same thing with medieval and dark-ages architecture? The scale of everything, and the almost obsessive attention to ornate detail, enhances the feeling of epic adventure and pure heroism that is central to the wuxia genre.
Sun and Moon school looks pretty epic.
The traditional Chinese soundtrack also contributes to this epic feeling. But it's more than just the fight music - Swordsman is a good-sounding game overall. Granted, I don't have a big fancy audio setup on my computer - a set of stereo speakers with a sub, the same setup I've been using since time immemorial - but everything seems well-balanced, richly-layered and atmospheric.
I'm the type of fella that watches non-English movies and Japanese-language anime with the subtitles on, so the all-Chinese spoken dialogue doesn't phase me all that much. It sounds like pretty much all kung-fu/wuxia films, and I believe that's the point.
Chasing bad guys, Yuen Woo-Ping style.
This being a F2P game, I am pleased with the dialed-back cash shop in Swordsman - especially compared to other aggressively-monetized PerfectWorld games. During my entire playtime, I never once felt particularly pushed to use the Marketplace, and actually wasn't even sure how to access it until I went looking for it. Players who are used to the pushy, ever-present Zen market cash shop cues in games like Neverwinter might actually feel neglected or something.
Swordsman Online - Average or Neutral Marks
As much as the buildings and whatnot look cool, the graphics overall are only average. The character models look quite dated by current standards - during the animated cut scenes, they are not lip-synced, and most NPCs have a low-polygon, low-res, mitten-handed look.
The martial arts upon which the gameplay is based are nearly as ancient as some of the NPC models.
Character clothing, even at low levels, is pretty cool-looking, and I really dig my character's Sun and Moon outfit, but the game seems to fall in that MMO-typical zone between hi-res realism and WoW-like cartoonishness.
PerfectWorld decided that they wanted to retain as much of the wuxia flavor as possible, so they left a lot of the hardcore Chinese elements in place. This can be interesting for Westerners who may find some of these elements cool or kind of alien and unique, but it also leads to some rather unique problems.
For example, the Chinese write in vertical columns, and read from right to left. During one early quest, the contents of a scroll are revealed, narrated in Chinese but written in English. The words fade in with a dissolving wipe, and if the game were originally in English, that wipe would be from the upper left corner so the reader would have a chance to read it all. Instead, the wipe comes in from the right, and by the time the words at the start of each line are revealed, thus allowing the reader to make sense of the text, the whole thing disappears. The flavor is retained, but comes at a cost.
The distant rock formations look more realistic than blocky NPC hirelings.
The game offers three different control schemes, each of them evidently based on a style of play common to other games. They felt compromised and foreign to me anyway, and I ended up fumbling around trying to figure out what buttons and keys did what. Consulting the key map charts when selecting a control scheme was kind of bewildering and not terribly helpful in making an informed decision. This is something that generally clears up with practice and time, but for the first little while it was a point of frustration.
Swordsman Online - Below Average or Negative Marks
Gameplay in Swordsman is awful at low levels. The character starts off with super-basic punch attacks, then learns a school of kung-fu that more or less determines his class. For the novice player, this selection is essentially a blind choice - you pick the one that looks like it has cool attacks or whatever with absolutely zero explanation of that class's actual combat role. Watching the little demo videos doesn't help - it shows the combat animations and special effects, but contains no information that will help a player pick a "healing class" or a "tanking class." When I was rolling my characters, I picked Shaolin first, because I'm somewhat familiar with the history of the real-world Shaolin temple, and assumed they would be awesome. That character was disappointingly dull and lackluster. I've seen real Shaolin monks perform feats of agility and strength that seemed super-human, but my guy fought like JD Lutz on 30 Rock, when he takes on Tracy Jordan's suspiciously-old "illegitimate son" to prove that he doesn't actually know karate. Except with a staff.
I got disgusted fairly quickly and decided to roll a different school, and picked Sun and Moon - not because I had learned any more about the different schools, but because they seemed like a pack of jerks. Apparently, they are quite antagonistic in the book, and I always like rolling Dark Side. I trained with the trolliest school, and it turned out to be slightly less boring than Shaolin.
The player then spends 20 levels learning the ins and outs of that school's skill loadout. The character gets 4 or 5 of them in addition to the auto-attack skill. Then, at level 20, the character is summoned back to his school and is taught an entirely new set of skills. The new set of skills seems to be of somewhat limited utility - for my Sun and Moon character, the new set was mostly area-effect attacks with none of the self-healing from the basic set. The new set is entirely separate from the basic set - you can run with one set of skills or the other, but not a combination of both. At least not until 10 levels later when you can create a custom style.
Leveling up is not very satisfying. See that one tiny little up-arrow in the circle in the second-bottom row? That's all the leveling up you get, Jack.
You get a tutorial mission that teaches you all of this stuff, of course, but the game seems to go out of its way to discourage reading quest dialogue of any kind, so wall-of-text tutorial dialogues, or dialogue pop-ups during combat on already-busy UIs, is kind of a lousy way to introduce major new systems. The intrusive overlay illustrating how to equip items from inventory is better - annoying, yes, but informative.
Speaking of quests, for the most part it consists of clicking a character, accepting a quest, clicking the "auto-run to destination" link in the quest tracker, clicking on the next NPC and completing the quest. Occasionally, this kind of questing will be interrupted by the need to kill some enemies. There's more grindy "kill 10 bandits" style of questing around level 20 - 25 or so, but there seems to be almost no point in reading quest dialogue. Everything is set to auto-pilot - you click the link in your quest tracker and your character moves directly to the objective. If that objective involves killing an enemy for loot, the character runs up to the nearest enemy of that type and begins attacking it. About 75% of the time, though, it's running up to some NPC and chatting to complete the quest.
This is approximately the very least engaging kind of gameplay I have ever experienced in any MMO. The story becomes irrelevant, zero thought is required (and only minimal participation) and all you're left with is a basic Skinner box.
I thought the part where you set the horses on fire to distract some bad guys was pretty damn funny. Does that make me an evil person?
Swordsman had a great showing at E3 and even won an award from our staffers. Personally, I found the combat to be aggravating and dull and not engaging at all. Enemy AI seems minimalistic at best - most of them don't aggro when the character approaches them, and some of them barely even hit back when attacked. Most fights, even against bosses, are ridiculously easy. My Sun and Moon character usually walked away with nearly full health. Apparently you can do some really fun things later on when you approach level cap, but the first 30 levels are so incredibly boring that it left me with no desire to see endgame at all.
However, if you really find the grind to be unbearable but still want to get to level cap, there's a solution: starting at level 30, you can learn "self-cultivation," and basically let the game play itself. It works using a resource called Drive, and when you hit level 30, you have one point of drive. That translated to about 2 minutes' worth of bot-style gameplay: click the "Begin" button and the character bombs around his zone killing enemies on auto-pilot.
Theoretically, this kind of system is put in place when developers realize that their games are going to be plagued with bots anyway. And this is certainly true with Swordsman - they are everywhere, running trains of horses from one quest objective to the next and spamming chat with gold-buying "services."
They should have laid railroad tracks for all the trains of bots on every single map.
A lot of gameplay systems get introduced with insufficient information to use them effectively. The player will need to consult 3rd-party game guides to figure out a lot of core systems - for example, the combat roles of the different schools, or how companions work. At level 30, I got a pop-up telling me that I could now use the crafting system. I clicked on it and it showed me a list of crafts I could learn. I selected them all because apparently you can do that in this game. End of information - no tutorials showing how crafting works or explaining what is needed to make stuff. You get a window and some buttons, and you're on your own figuring out how to use them to do anything. And apparently the system uses points for something - I have 1000/1000 crafting points, but no idea what those points do. Really, the information in the Help menu isn't enough to go on.
Apparently there are guilds, PvP and multiplayer instances in Swordsman. But this is the kind of game that does not foster the development of any kind of community. Nobody is chatting it up in the chat box - it's all people buying/selling items or trying to get groups for the same 2 or 3 instances. This is a solo game that plays itself - why would you need to engage with other people?
Conclusion and Final Score
Swordsman strikes me as a game with limited niche appeal in the west. There are going to be people who love it despite/because of the many flaws, simply because of the wuxia setting, which isn't offered up in many other games. The combat style, which apparently improves greatly at endgame, is going to have its share of fans, even if I personally found it to be unbearably dull and aggravating.
In the end, though, there's just not enough here to recommend the game. Pretty buildings and a cool musical score don't outweigh boring combat, sink-or-swim introductions to major gameplay mechanics, and mindless grind that eventually plays itself.