In many ways, Albion Online feels like a game that was made for me. I like to think I've been a pretty vocal supporter of the "sandbox" style of MMORPGs of the years, trumpeting how their open-ended nature often gives rise to far more interesting interactions between players rather than the typical fare you see when playing your average MMO. Most online games regulate player interaction into a dirty corner of their theme park, hiding it under a tarp and only letting it out after sundown as an attempt to scare away those few stragglers still wandering the park. You maybe chat to your guild, run a dungeon with a few strangers (one of whom will quit the very first time you wipe on a boss), and the rest of your time is spent the same way you would spend it in a shopping mall: desperately trying not to make eye contact with anyone else while all navigating cruelly narrow corridors.
But Albion Online is a bit different, it doesn't just relish in player interaction, it enforces it so brutally and mercilessly that unless you're some kind of masochist you wouldn't dare think of playing the game without a guild at your back. I like that. I like that a lot. I also like other things about Albion Online, so many, in fact, I decided to type up a few.
Specialization is the Name of the Game
In Albion Online, there is no such thing as being a jack of all trades. Sure, you could try, but you'll more likely end up being this amorphous blob of not overly useful abilities and skills that no one will want to really spend a lot of time with. Abandoning the tired philosophy of player levels, Albion Online instead introduces a system called a "Destiny Board" which helps guide your time in the game.
So if you spend a lot of time chopping down trees, eventually that branch of the Destiny Board will begin to fill in. But what Albion Online does that I love is make the board so diverse and each branch requiring such an investment, that is really becomes impossible to do everything. Instead, you'll need to narrow down and focus on only a handful of pursuits.
Now, this idea isn't entirely original, but Albion Online takes it even further. Not only are things specialized, they're like, uh, super specialized. Even as a crafter, expecting to be able to make every type of item is incredibly naive. You'll eventually have to focus on just a handful of items, like making bows or hammers or leather armor. This idea also extends to everything else in the game, like different types of armor, weapons, farming, and gathering. You'll only really be able to focus on a small slice of the Destiny Board, which really sets the stage for the next big element of Albion Online that I am enjoying.
It's Actually Massively Multiplayer
Lately, I've really been feeling like most MMORPGs have been dropping the first and, to an extent, second 'M' further and further down the list of priorities. Sure, queueing up for a dungeon using the various group finder tools puts you in a group with other players, but the fact that most games use "cross-server" grouping tools, meaning most of the players you run the dungeon with you will never see again, makes the difference between playing with a group of living, breathing humans and a group of semi-aware game-playing robots extremely slim. If it wasn't for the fact that the tank keeps trying to rush the group despite the healer's pleas to slow down, would you even know if those were real people?
Albion Online, by comparison, puts the 'MM' in MMORPG right at the front and center. Since specializing is so central to the core progression of the game, you will reach a point where you simply cannot progress without a network of other players willing to help you out. It's one of the few games I've played in the past few years where having a guild actually felt like a requirement and not just a way to alleviate the boredom of grinding.
Though the closed beta is only a few days in, I'm already experiencing how the brutal grind of Albion Online is forcing player communities closer together. Doing anything of note in the game will take you a lot of time, and doing everything of note would take more time than I could ever suggest someone spend on a game. So you have to lean on other players and work together in order to both succeed.
The Map is Massive
Having a large map isn't exactly a reason to kneel down and declare any MMORPG "King of All", but I do appreciate the way the size of Albion Online's map adds a rather interesting nuance to how you approach the game. Simply put, the territories that span from one coast to another between Albion's two large continents makes the game world feel positively massive. But the key thing that makes this a good thing instead of a run-of-the-mill feature is the fact that, unlike other MMOs, there is no baked in-game reason to go from one territory to the next. For example, most MMORPGs will feature a chain of quests that conveniently tours you around from location to location on a grand adventure. In Albion, however, you're merely dropped into one of the few starter towns with nothing but the underwear on your groin and no clue where to go.
The differences between zones are subtle at best, but the way population and harvesting resources works encourages players to fan out and find their own little slice of land to call home. Sure, hanging out next to the big cities is a good idea if you need the convenience of a nearby market, but it also comes with the downside that the nearby hinterlands are all but entirely farmed for useable resources and monsters.
This is a feature I love about sandbox MMORPGs because it inspires you to get out there and find your own place in the world. Unlike most typical MMOs, where you go on your big adventure and then spend the rest of your life sitting in the main city waiting for dungeon queues, Albion Online encourages you to find an area and get comfortable. It's entirely feasible that players could spend their entirely in-game lives in one region, never venturing to explore others because they're comfortable where they are.
Gathering is a Chore but has Nuance
Being in closed beta, it's no surprise that Albion Online is rough around the edges. One of the areas is particularly in need of refinement is gathering. In Albion, how much you are carrying affects how fast you move, so going on farming runs for resources out in the world can become exceedingly tedious when you eventually become so weighted down you move at a crawl. Fortunately, you can ride an ox or a horse to help take some of the burden, but then you're constantly switching between the two in a way that is painfully tedious. It needs work.
But that said, I'm starting to appreciate gathering in a sort of therapeutic zen way. Unlike the standard method of gathering in other MMOs, where resource nodes magically appear in the world to be harvest, Albion Online treats its resources in a far more realistic way. Simply put, out in the wild everything is a resource in some form. Every tree you see can be chopped down and just about every stone can be cut. But this also comes with the consequences of over-farming a resource since they need time to regenerate in-between being harvested. Like I said earlier, the zones surrounding cities tend to be barren of anything of value as so much traffic is passing through.
This hunt for resources becomes a game in itself, however. I'm almost embarrassed to admit how excited I became when I happened upon a whole grove of untouched chestnut trees one day when I was already overloaded with goods. I hastily ran back to town, unloaded my goods, and returned, half expecting to find the miraculous find already picked clean by other players. When it wasn't, I happily set to chopping each tree down.
As time goes on, you start to learn your surroundings on a level that supersedes the way you learn your surroundings in other MMOs. You learn where the good pockets of resources are located and you begin to develop an attachment to your surroundings as you begin to understand them better. I think that's really neat.
The Potential for Politics
Albion Online still has a long way to go until its mechanics are as in-depth as other sandbox games like EVE Online, but already there is a firm foundation for the same kind of potential that made EVE so awesome to begin with. Past a large wall which extends from one shore to another lies the dangerous reaches of player versus player territory where guilds can capture settlements and wage wars against one another. It's exciting and dangerous place to be because Albion Online doesn't mess around with its PVP content. If you die out there in the dangerous areas of the world, you drop everything you have on you.
But the nature of the game also means that guilds will need to work together in order to succeed. Holding a large amount of territory is going to require nothing less than a massive infrastructure and logistical network of crafters, gatherers, and soldiers to defend your kingdom from attack. While the system right now lacks the nuanced features like alliance to alliance standings (so you can easily see who is neutral and who is an enemy) and other features that add more depth to it, the idea is more than solid enough to facilitate the same great intrigue and drama that makes EVE Online such a compelling game to read about.
It's still got a long way to go but Albion Online is quickly shaping up to be one of the more interesting MMORPGs coming out next year. While it feels a bit barebones in several areas, and others need reworking entirely, the heart of the game is one that I'm pretty excited about. Even typing this, I cannot wait to get back online and see what my guild is up to. Listed above are just a few of the reasons why.
Have you had a chance to play Albion Online yet? Even if you haven't, what do you think about it so far? Let us know in the comments!