Blade and Soul is NCsoft's latest, most adventurous, attempt at genre eugenics. Having combined soppy and MMO to make Aion, then spliced comic book with MMO with the soon-to-be-missed City of Heroes, they're now attempting to do a Dr Moreau on the fighting game genre and MMO. Blade and Soul is that game, a combination of Dead or Alive, Devil May Cry and Aion, made by their internal development group, 'Team Bloodlust'. It's already doing the numbers in South Korea and now it's set to launch in the West.
The game's unusual appeal is best illustrated with the starting area. It's a tutorial like you've never seen before. Our tutor is teaching us to run, now that we're a fully fledged member of Clan Hong. And we do, sprinting like the Flash then bounding in great leaps from one lush island to another. Next we get taught to glide. And at the apex of our bounds, we now drift for miles, seemingly forever. This is Blade & Soul's 'Qing Gong' movement style.
That's both the best bits from Aion and City of Heroes in the first ten minutes of the game. Who says we're moving towards an instant gratification society?
The actual game world we're drifting across is lush and painterly, but it does differ from the Western-style concept art of Guild Wars 2, being built in the Unreal 3 engine and drawing more on the ink-spattered Asian style of Streetfighter IV. The action follows that theme, with much taken from Crouching Tiger and the House of Flying Daggers – the “supernatural prowess” as Peter Gollan, the game's marketing director, describes it, as well focussing on the classic Asian vengeance story.
That vengeance will have to wait, albeit momentarily, while we're given a quick training session, where we're taught how to use our weapons. Cue lots of exploding wooden training dummies and our teacher showing us how he can hand our arse to us whenever he wants. (Which lets us try out the game's unique respawn style – you have to crawl your defeated character out of aggro range and then meditate yourself better).
The combat is fast and mostly combo-based. As Gollan explains, “I can be a button masher, or I can learn the combinations. The number and type of combos I can pull off depends on the situation – if they're attacking, I'm countering, I'm on the attack, I'm defending, what characters I'm teamed with, and so on.” As you progress, you get different quests from secret trainers, in caves or hidden locations, who will teach you new combination moves.
No sooner have we emerged from the dojo, than the village is beset by a throng of sneering black-clad enemies. The massacre that follows presages the real start of the game; your teachers, your colleagues and the village population slain; only the Clan Master, Hong Suk-Geun, remains standing - a tiny Mr Miyagi figure, surrounded by enemies, facing down the game's antagonist.
According to the game's lore, she and Hong have some past history: in fact, he and the four clan masters of the world killed her exactly a thousand years earlier, though she's now been resurrected as part of her pact with the Dark God, who she wants to bring back into the world. Despite a classic Anime transformation into a muscle-bound Zeus, Hong surrenders to save your life, and is killed, with his part of the key that seals the Dark Gate taken. You are merely thrown off a cliff and left for dead...
Gollon then takes us back to character creation, so we can see the choices available. “It's more flexible than any other MMO out there,” he claims. “You can change everything from the length of your forearm, to your foot size, to the length of your fingers.” There are four races to choose from: the human Jin, monstrous Gon, animalistic Lyn and the female-only Kun – and six distinct classes.
The Assassin is a high-DPS sneaky character, who specialises in AOE and traps. The Blademaster, is classic swordbearer, with both a strong offence and defence. The Kung Fu master looks the most interesting, focussing on a 'ground and pound' combat style. Meanwhile, the Destroyer uses ludicrously-oversized weapons, with AOE swings that “level playing fields,” as Gollon puts it. Then there's the forcemaster, the classic mage class, with fireballs and lightning and ice, but very squishy. The final class is the Summoner, but it hasn't been confirmed for the West yet.
It's notable that your appearance is entirely dependent on your design choices – armour has been replaced by a highly customisable 'Bo-Pae' amulet each player wears, so you don't have to worry about armour sets or identifying what gear enemy players are using. Indeed, if you want to enter the (entirely optional) PvP, you have to change into a second special PvP costume. And, of course, weapons are socketable, to allow players to customise them too.
With a different setting from the usual fantasy and SF, an appeal to fighting game fans, and a genuinely skiful combat (our demoer repeatedly screwed up his combos, because he couldn't do counters for toffee), this might even pull in new players to the somewhat-stagnant MMO audience. NC has promised that they'll change the levelling curves and drop weights for less grind-tolerant Western gamers; hopefully, the problems that the South Koreans are having with not enough end-game content will also be solved by the time the game hits these shores.
The big question, though, is whether and how we're going to have to pay for it. “We haven't worked on the business model yet,” says Gollon, “but we're working with the developers to have flexibility as to what the business model could be.” Which means this could be NCsoft's first free launch... though there's no such thing as a free launch.