How much can you learn about a game from a few hours in an alpha? Enough, I think, to get a feel for the general way a game plays, if not the specifics of how everything will operate. You’ll hear, “They can still change it, it’s only an alpha (or beta),” but that usually just applies to cosmetic changes, number tweaks, and so on. The rules set is already ingrained in the code, which has taken years to develop, and would be costly and difficult to change.
With that in mind, I can see that Snail Games’ Black Gold Online has a fair amount going for it. The steampunk environment is richly detailed, with top hats on the gents and steam-powered cars chugging along the streets, and even low-level characters sport some nice-looking, if not flashy, gear. Seriously, I haven’t been this in love with how my character looks at level 10 in a long time.
Lost in Translation
The basic leveling experience is pretty standard, at least through as far as I got, which was around level 15 or so. Themepark questing, kill X mobs, tab-targeting, talk to this guy and then that guy… nothing ground-breaking here. But along the way, various other play modes open up. In fact, you’ll be virtually awash in menus, offering “Money type gameplay” and “Equipment type gameplay” and “BOSS” fights (yes, in all caps).
If you’re really lucky, you’ll even be able to understand what’s expected of you. Like its predecessor, Age of Wushu, Black Gold Online could use a little (read: a lot) more time with the localization department, and the sheer number of poorly worded pop-ups you get as you progress are confusing as all heck. It’s just hard to fathom how phrases like “If cost 250 energy” can make it into a near-final product. Yes, I know, it’s alpha, but if you’ve played Age of Wushu, do you have confidence that all of these will be addressed?
There is some good gameplay lurking, if you can find it, and there seems to have been at least some effort to simplify things as compared to AoW’s esoteric systems. A spontaneous group event to kill meandering zombies popped up as I was minding my own business questing. So did a pop-up inviting me to a PvP zone, where I was able to construct my own spider mech and hop into and out of it, Titanfall-style, to wreak havoc in a wide-open map with multiple objectives. Being alpha, the place was practically deserted, but I can see how much fun that mode could be with enough people. I could even take the spider mech back to PvE-land, to annihilate my foes.
Speaking of which, the challenge was… non-existent. Even as a caster class, mobs rarely got me below 95% health, unless I pulled a bunch of them, when they might have gotten me down to 80%. Again, numbers can and will still be balanced, and it was the early levels, but what I saw of open-world PvE (I didn’t get a chance to try a dungeon, owing to there being so few people online) was frightfully dull.
There’s gold in them thar hills
And then there’s the infamous Black Gold Online loot system. We’ve tried to explain it before, but now that I’ve had a chance to experience it myself, it makes a little more sense. Whether I like it or not is another matter.
For every hour of gameplay, the game will save a bundle of stuff consisting of some in-game cash, a Sand of Time, and potentially other items. The quality of your Sand, which can be exchanged for a random item or sold as is, and the other items depends on how many Treasure Points you acquired doing quests. (It’s worth noting that only the main-plot quests gave TP, at least in my experience, which dissuaded me from doing sub-plot quests.) You can claim two of these “bundles” for free every day or pay to unlock more.
Timing is key. If you play for, say, two hours and 10 minutes and then log off, you’ll have three bundles: one for each of your full hours and another (probably worthless) one for your 10 minutes. Play for 45 minutes and you “miss out” on 15 minutes’ more of loot. It doesn’t “add up” to compensate for offline time; in this example, you wouldn’t have a 55-minute bundle if you played those two sessions back to back.
And how this will work with high-level, endgame items is anyone’s guess. I suppose that fulfilling an endgame objective, like clearing out a tough boss, could give you enough TP to score a nice item in your bundle or with your Sand of Time. But what if you’ve done a bunch of stuff leading up to it, and that’s taken you 55 minutes? If the boss fight takes 10 minutes, it will be counted toward the next bundle and your loot will be split. Instead of, say, one awesome 5,000 TP pack, you might wind up with two less valuable packs, at 3,000 and 2,000 TP each. Annoying.
If the question is “Are you being screwed out of loot?” my answer is… maybe, maybe not. I got gear from the main quest line (but not from drops), so it’s not like I was still wearing level 3 stuff at level 15. And it is at least a clever way to run your cash shop, I’ll give it that. But is it something gamers will accept? I highly doubt it. It’s like the game is forcing you to play in chunks of time to its liking, rather than to yours. OK, so maybe it’s not “forcing” you to do anything, but we MMO gamers are nothing if not an efficient, time-sensitive lot, are we not?
Black Gold Online’s still got a long ways to go until full launch, but as I said at the start, the main systems are in place and unlikely to change. There’s fun to be had, and more will probably be added, but understanding how to get to them and adapting to the loot system will be significant hurdles.
By Jason Winter