When I first entered the main exhibition hall at PAX West this year, I was surprised by both the size of the Ashes of Creation booth and how popular it seemed to be. It wasn’t quite up there with Destiny 2 or Shadow of War, but it was rather impressive for an indie studio. With more than 19,000 Kickstarter backers and $3 million in funding there’s obviously some interest in the game, however, crowdfunded MMOs don’t often have major showings on the main floor at conventions, especially at a public events like PAX.
That being said, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ashes of Creation had multiple PvE and PvP demo stations available. I’ve personally been rather skeptical of the project since it was first announced, as have many others, which is probably why it was so important for Intrepid Studios to publicly show off the game. I didn’t have a chance to play the PvP demo, but I did get to play through the guided PvE scenario, which took about 15 minutes. I have mixed feelings about the overall experience, which I’ll go into detail below, however, I’m now slightly more confident in the project coming to fruition.
The Node System and Gathering
One of the Ashes of Creation game systems that had me the most skeptical is the concept of nodes. There hasn’t been another MMORPG that has utilized a world-building system that actually responds to the actions of the population. The idea that cities and monsters would populated based on player choices sounded a bit far-fetched, but once I got to experience in the demo I realize that it’s rather simple from a technological point of view.
When we first spawned into the game we were in a tiny camp waiting to escort a series of caravans. While waiting to begin the real mission we were instructed to gather some mushrooms. Gathering is a bit different in Ashes of Creation because players have to use their gathering skill on an area instead of simply clicking a node. I’m rather neutral about this feature as a gameplay mechanic, but it does improve the overall feeling of immersion.
However, the point of sending us off to gather mushrooms was more or less to show off the node progression system. When we got back to the starting area our camp had actually transformed into a small village. Obviously, the experience gain was sped up in order to show it off during the demonstration. In the actual game it will likely take quite a long time, and lots of people, to develop nodes.
The important takeaway from this is that the bare bones of the node system is already working, and it’s overall fairly simple. If players quest, kill monsters, and gather in a certain node it will eventually level up. Once that node starts developing it stops surrounding nodes from gaining experience, which in turn prevents certain quests or monsters from ever spawning. The difficult job will be either hand-crafting a unique experience for every single node in the game or developing a procedural generation system that isn’t terrible. Having story arcs and enemies unique to specific nodes would definitely improve the metagame and create conflict based on the needs of certain player groups.
Classes and Combat
There were four basic classes available to test out during the demo: Cleric, Tank, Ranger, and Mage. These were likely picked out because they’re the most standard archetypes of the MMO genre and are fairly easy to pick up and play. Another four classes have been confirmed but were not being shown off: Fighter, Summoner, Rogue, and Bard.
Each of the archetypes follows a very traditional design. The Cleric and Tank obviously focus on healing and holding threat while the Mage has powerful area-of-effect abilities and the Ranger has a combination of single-target and area attacks. Even though none of the classes really breaks the mold on their own, Ashes of Creation will be using a multi-class system. This means that each character will be able to select both a primary and secondary archetype, similar to the original Guild Wars.
The combat and movement are also fairly traditional with a couple of exceptions. Movement is done through WASD and combat is tab, or click, targeting. Abilities were bound to 1-8, although I assume we’ll be able to rebind these, and there was a distinct lack of auto-attack. Instead of using a standard auto-attack ability, or right-click attack, the first skill acts as more of less like a spammable action similar to Guild Wars 2. Furthermore, there is a sort of mini-game attached to the main skill on every class where players are rewarded with additional attacks for proper timing.
This combo system has been a topic of hot debate ever since it was unveiled. Ethan Macfie posted his thoughts on Ashen Foundry and felt that it was an overall positive addition to the game after he experienced it firsthand. However, I’m not a fan of the combo system in its current state and found it to be clunky and distracting. That’s not to say that it can’t be refined into something much better, but I constantly found myself staring at my action bar whenever I used the ‘Bow’s Combo’ ability.
I understand wanting to reward good gameplay, however, the system needs to be more consistent. Perhaps keeping the timing requirement the same (for each action) would allow high-level players to build muscle memory and not have to even look at the cast bar. Without a true auto-attack, missing these extra attacks won’t be acceptable during competitive content, such as raids, and trying to manage quick-time events and cooldowns in PvP could be a nightmare.
The two other interesting aspects of each class are their ultimate and utility skills. Each class has an ultimate ability that must be charged up with their combo attack and once they have at least 80% focus it can be activated. The Ranger gets Hails of Arrows (large AoE attack), the Mage has Quake (line area attack), the Cleric goes into a healing overdrive mode with Divine Form, and the Tank can pull in enemies with Righteous Fury. Having to build up a meter to use an ability isn’t very common in MMORPGs, with a few exceptions, and is something I personally prefer over lengthy cooldowns that can’t be used every fight.
The utility skills are probably the most intriguing feature about the classes in Ashes of Creation and definitely something I would like to have a lot of focus on in the live game. In addition to their combat skills, each class has a non-combat skill that was essential for progressing in the demo. The Ranger could track enemies, the Tank detected threats, the Cleric cleansed poison and the Mage detected hidden passageways.
It’s incredibly rare that an MMO rewards certain classes or even requires them in order for groups to progress. World of Warcraft did this in a small way with Rogue lockpicking but it never really felt essential. My hope is that Ashes of Creation rewards players for bringing the optimal classes but doesn’t make progression impossible without them. An example would be opening up a passageway with extra treasure or allowing shortcuts and not simply barring a group from completing a dungeon.
When I initially heard about Ashes of Creation I felt like the studio might be biting off more than they could chew, but after getting my hands on the early demo I feel more confident in them actually being able to deliver a product. The game is at least a year from Beta testing and Intrepid appears to be putting together a fairly solid base.
That being said, there are still plenty of concerns from the MMO community. Until Ashes of Creation demonstrates that it will deliver on all the promises, skepticism is justified. Conversely, it’s not fair to be overly critical and no one should hope for a game to fail.
My experience with Ashes of Creation at PAX was more about realizing what the game can become than what it is in its current state. There are beginnings to the node system, PvP is functioning, and even though the combat is a little clunky it still works. Clearly it still needs a lot of work in many different areas but Pre-Alpha testing doesn’t even begin until December 15, 2017 and hopefully we’ll see a lot of progress throughout 2018.
For more information on Ashes of Creation, check out my interview with creative director Steven Sharif. If you have any thoughts, concerns, or questions about the game, please let us know in the comments below!Related: Ashes of Creation, Intrepid Studios, MMORPG, PAX West 2017, Preview