The initial sight of forty player-controlled airships crashing into each other while sailing through a mystical valley is breathtaking. I don't have much time to gawk, however, as my schooner has become the target of several enemy vessels intent on bringing me down. I give chase, pulling away and leading them from the fight, hopefully giving me enough time that one of my allies will come to my rescue. No one comes. As the last sliver of my ship's health bar disappears, I release the boat's wheel, run to the starboard side and take a leap of faith. My wingsuit opens, I soar from the exploding airship, and land on one of the enemy ships below me. The captain obviously has no clue what he's doing (to be fair, I don't either) because he doesn't release the wheel as I begin to attack. I dispatch him with ease.
This was my first experience with Ascent: Infinite Realm, the new PVP-focused MMO from Bluehole Studios. Before Bluehole became the developers of this year's breakout success, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, they were better known as the makers of Tera, a fairly successful MMO centered on gruelling action combat. Ascent is also being published by Kakao Games, the publishers of Black Desert Online, which is a breakout success in its own right. It's these two MMOs that Ascent: Infinite Realm shares most of its DNA with, for better and for worse.
Last week, I traveled to South Korea to be one of the first to go hands-on with Ascent. The build I played was in early alpha (the Korean beta tests are scheduled to begin in December, with English tests later in 2018) and not localized to English, but I managed okay with the help of a translator. Despite being in early alpha, I'm happy to say that Ascent played smoothly, and I didn't notice much of the egregious frame rate drops that plagued the gameplay trailer released a few weeks ago. After some more time with it, however, I began to see that Ascent is disappointingly chained to its MMO roots and its airship combat isn't nearly as exciting as my first impression implied.
When first starting a new character, it didn't take long until I was given an airship to pilot. They are, undoubtedly, the heart of Ascent. Kim tells me that Ascent isn't meant to be another grind-fest MMO where players have to spend a hundred hours before they even get to the good stuff. Instead, there's only 30 levels and you can chew through them in about 30 hours. As someone that's exhausted by the idea of starting another daunting MMO grind at level one, that's good news.
Ascent is all about quickly getting to level 30 and beginning the true endgame: realm versus realm PVP. While the system wasn't demonstrable in the alpha build I played, the idea is that guilds of players will conquer floating islands with their airship armadas and then defend them from one another. It's arguably the most exciting part of Ascent and something that I hope mirrors (and learns from) Black Desert Online's own guild wars mode.
What I did go hands on with was an arena mode where teams of 20 attack and defend objectives both in air and on foot. It was an exciting spectacle at first, but after a few rounds some of Ascent's glaring flaws were apparent.
For one, the way airships steer and handle is awful. I hate it. You'd think a hulking mass of floating wood would move somewhat similarly to their naval counterparts, but airships strafe, pitch, and yaw so weightlessly it's jarring. There's no momentum and no skill involved with piloting them as they handle exactly the same as my character does. You can forget any semblance of feeling like you're actually steering a floating vessel because Ascent's airships move like typical MMO mounts.
There is a neat wrinkle in that, unlike typical MMO mounts, you can actually move around the deck of your ship and even fight off attacking players. I suspect, once Ascent's PVP community has time to mature, there will be amazing moments where a team glides onto an opponent's ship for some good old fashioned sabotage. But everything else about airships feels underwhelming.
Instead of having to man cannons individually, for example, you simply mash various number keys to fire your main cannons again and again. It's the exact same MMO combat you're familiar with (and bored of) but now you're a giant airship instead of a paladin.
There's also a dire lack of meaningful feedback in the user interface. Ships have health bars but it's tricky to tell whether your volleys are having an effect. From what I could tell, there was no way to destroy individual components like the engines, so I'd just point and mash number keys to attack until enemies eventually blew up. Cannon shots have an arc to them that is also annoying to account for because my ship blocks so much of my view.
At first Ascent's 40-player arena mode was thrilling, but after a few rounds it became clear that it was a clusterfuck in the worst way. Players would dogpile on top of one another in their airships, forming giant goofy balls of wood and metal, while the room filled with the savage clacking of the number keys as everyone tried to force feed each other cannon balls. There's no damage from ramming another ship and no friendly fire, so the best strategy was to get as close as possible to enemies to make sure your shots were landing. As someone strafing the outside of these giant airship orgies and firing into the fray, it was impossible to know if I was even doing damage or if my shots were missing entirely. It's a mess and I'm not sure meaningful strategic play will ever come of it.
Boots on the ground
The second phase of the arena fight, which took place on foot, was more interesting if only thanks to the addition of mechs that look all too similar to Final Fantasy's Magitek armor. While piloting one, my team and I stormed a corridor that the enemy had locked down with overlapping machine gun nests. The fight turned into a tense tug of war as my team struggled to push forward and the enemy team pushed back. My particular mech came equipped with a flamethrower, which I used to bathe the enemy team in fire, dealing substantial damage. Oddly enough, these mechs are surprisingly flimsy on their own. At one point, I engaged a player in a one-on-one duel and was almost helpless as he danced around me, chipping away my health. Again, I felt the fantasy of piloting powerful technology stripped away from me.
With Ascent clearly hinging most of its weight on airship and mech combat, I found the character combat to be disappointingly simple. There are several classes to choose from, like the Gunslinger I played who dual-wields pistols and can swap to a sniper rifle at will. A range of abilities are mapped to the number keys, but I didn't get the sense that there was much strategy in stringing them together in a certain order like I would in most MMOs.
Ascent's combat isn't bad, by any means, but it sure seems boring. After starting a new character, I was quickly directed to a field outside of town where I whacked scorpions by pressing '1' or '2' and occasionally '3'. As a huge MMO fan, I realize this is standard for the genre, but it's also 2017 and it feels odd to be playing a new MMO that refuses to reinvent the genre's most tired designs. It's also a step backwards considering Tera, Bluehole's other six-year-old MMO, already holds the crown for the most challenging and thrilling combat in an MMO.
This isn't to say that Ascent: Infinite Realm is all-out terrible. The steampunk-meets-fantasy setting is a great aesthetic and the few zones I saw were gorgeous. I love the contrast of industrial European settlements set amid mystical floating islands. The arena PVP mode I played really turned me off from the airship combat, but I'd like to see how it plays out in the open world. If the realm versus realm PVP is anything like Black Desert Online, it could end up being a real hit despite the weak combat. The idea of one day conquering my own floating island is extremely appealing.
Most of what intrigues me about Ascent at this point are ideas that, as of right now, aren't demonstrable. During my interview with Kim, he told me that open-world airship PVP will have tactics like using clouds to conceal your movement and surprise the enemy. That's really cool, even if I'm skeptical whether that'll actually make a difference since airship combat ultimately boils down to a numbers game. Getting the jump on an enemy ship won't matter if that player has spent more time grinding than you.
There's also an open-world housing system where you can tend to gardens and raise your own monsters that presumably accompany you into combat. During my interview, Kim also covered some of the other basics you'd expect, like crafting and a raid encounter that the team is in the early stages of creating. Those will all be nice addons, but only if the core features of airship piloting and combat prove to be more enticing down the road.
Ascent: Infinite Realm is a long way off and I'm holding onto a small sliver of hope that things could change. Kim is adamant that Bluehole is keen on incorporating feedback from the beta, and there's still so much that hasn't been revealed like whether the game will be free-to-play or require a subscription.
I'm not convinced that Ascent: Infinite Realm will be the dawning of a new era in MMOs. If you're fine with the status quo and just want the same MMO you've played before but with airships, that might not be a problem. But if I wanted a traditional MMO, I'd stick with the ones that, like Final Fantasy 14 or World of Warcraft, have polished those systems into a perfect shine. If Ascent wants to stand out from the crowd—especially Bluehole Studios and Kakao Game's other MMOs—it's going to need to aim higher than airships.