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Age of Wulin Preview: kung fu and karma


A wee word before I start: you may already know Age of Wulin by a different name, Age of Wushu, a game that I covered in a Greenlight roundup last month. Age of Wushu is the official title for the North American market, while in all other territories we’ll be calling it Age of Wulin. Why this is, I’m not quite sure, but the game is otherwise the same. It’s a free-to-play fantasy MMORPG set in medieval China which, like many of its peers, hopes to make its money through selling vanity items. It got off to a roaring start in China, its home territory, with more than half a million players signed up for the beta on launch day alone. Is it going to enjoy the same sort of success here, in Europe?

The game’s fantasy doesn’t come from monsters or mythology, but instead the extraordinary martial arts skills that players will have the opportunity to master. Dashing up walls, gliding gently through the air and running across water are just some of the rather more unusual skills that you’ll will be able to train in, but for all its fighting fantasy, Age of Wulin also offers a great deal of more mundane skills and occupations to complement its martial arts action. This is a game about much more than just combat and developers Suzhou Snail are trying to build a world with a strong social focus, one where players contribute to a self-regulating community and respond to the one another based on both their roles and their reputations.

For example, there are 17 professions in the game, ranging from blacksmiths to beggars, all of whom fill a key role in the game’s society, crafting goods and providing services for one another. While aspiring to kung fu perfection is all well and good, it’s going to take a little time and it’s not a bad idea to take a job doing something a little more modest first, perhaps becoming a tailor and crafting clothes for other players to wear. Every profession has something to offer and even beggars have their uses, rewarding those who donate to them with good karma, something they may desperately need if they’ve been misbehaving.

Your reputation, as well as your role, is enormously important within the game world. While your job determines how you’ll fill both your wallet and your belly, your reputation affects how other players, factions and NPCs respond to you. The actions you perform in the game, the organisations you join, even the work you do shapes your reputation and even grants you titles, something other players will be notified of and able to check up on. Should you gain a reputation for bad behaviour or side with a faction of questionable morality, then this will be reflected in your character information, though it will also open up new possibilities. Martial arts schools have strict codes, caring very much about the conduct of their members, though not all of them are looking to recruit the good guys.

Age of Wulin allows player versus player combat anywhere and at any time, protecting only the newest of players from a pummeling, and the idea is for the in-game community to be self-monitoring, with players responding to one another according to their reputations. Those who attack, murder or even kidnap other players will have their karma and reputation altered accordingly, and repeat offenders will become notorious and may find other players have slapped a bounty on their heads. There’s money to be made playing a good guy or a bad guy and (hopefully) as much reason for players to protect and support one another as there is to break the law and bully others.

As well as allying with different in-game factions or signing up to particular martial arts schools, players can form guilds, but the limits imposed on these guilds will be pretty strict. Membership is limited to six hundred members per guild and while there’s no limit on the number of guilds that exist, there is a hard limit of 32 guild castles. These pre-determined sites, which exist within the game world and not as separate instances, will likely be claimed by the first guilds that form, though there’s nothing to stop other guilds from raiding them or even taking them over. There’s likely to be competition for these prestigious sites and guilds will have to be steadfast and organised to keep what they’ve claimed.

Like these castles, the vast majority of Age of Wulin’s world is not instanced, allowing players to travel freely from place to place, and spread across a picturesque game world some 130 kilometers square are many of medieval China’s most famous locations, from the Yellow River to the Shaolin Temple to the old city of Yanjing, the foundation for modern Beijing. While it’s possible to fast travel via stagecoaches, there are many hidden sites waiting to be found, including sacred spots where players can stop and meditate to raise their skills more rapidly.

Ah yes, I should briefly talk about character improvement, where the game shows off some more interesting ideas. The game is classless, so you’re very much defined by what you do and what you choose to train in, but Suzhou Snail don’t want players grinding boring tasks in order to make their money and improve their skills. To help you collect cash, your character can behave like an NPC vendor while you’re offline, still able to perform their blacksmithing (or their begging) services for other players, and when you next log in you’ll be able to see how much money you made from your job.

There are a few minigames nestled within Age of Wulin and if you want to improve your character’s abilities you may find, for example, your tailor is rearranging his stock in a Bejeweled-style experience, or your monk is playing a rhythm action game as they practice their martial arts moves. But your stats don’t simply jump up to the next level as soon as you’ve unlocked it, and you’ll have to wait patiently for a progress bar to inch its way forward, carrying on with something else in the meantime. It’s this that you can hasten by meditation or by finding one of those sacred sites, but it’s still a gradual process and the idea is once again to take players away from simply grinding and brute forcing their way up levels.

Age of Wulin is a story-based MMORPG, with each character following one of four story arcs dotted with optional side quests, and each day the developers will introduce new quests and events for players to take part in. Of course, as well as following your own personal plot, Suzhou Snail very much want their players to engage with those around them, finding their place in this wider world and, in doing so, seeing how other players react to them according to what they do and who they’ve decided to be.

If the developers have got the balance right, and if the community behave as organically as they anticipate, their game may possibly become one of the most roleplay-focused MMOs yet, but it remains to be seen not only how many of these systems work in practice, but also how quickly players are able to manipulate and exploit them. Gamers are nothing if not resourceful and there’ll doubtless be savvy players out there who will find loopholes and shortcuts, requiring the developers to step in to make tweaks here and there. It remains to be seen quite how self-regulating Age of Wulin will become, but it looks like it’s going to be an interesting experiment, nonetheless.