If there’s one type of game genre that we’re beginning to see pop up more and more on the iOS, particularly the iPhone, it’s the massively multiplayer online game. Typically free-to-play, the latest one we’ve come across is a game by the name of Empire Online, from Lakoo. A bit older, the game has been available only in Chinese for a rather long time. That said, a recent English language release has allowed us to take a look at this often recommended application.
A traditional style of MMOG, Empire Online uses many of the standard mechanics of the genre has a whole. Since the game is on the iPhone, however, it does change the battle system significantly, taking on a more traditional role-playing game approach. Along with some interesting character customization, and the random appearances of pop culture characters, this freemium game is pretty decent, if not wholly inventive.
Players start out in a land that reflects the character class they choose. Ranging from the mystical lands of “China” to those of a Nordic persuasion. All the standard classes are present including the typical warrior, mage, healer, and so on, jobs. However, as one of the interesting aspects to Empire Online, players have a very distinct customization power for their character (but let’s save that for a bit later).
We started with a “Kongfu Fighter” class in the area of Eastland (China, essentially) and right off the bat, players are greeted with by a pop culture parody (basically Chun Li from Street Fighter) and the now standard formula for quest giving. Yes, the World of Warcraft, floating exclamation mark.
Regardless, early quests do a good job of explaining the basics, and while this is not particularly useful for a veteran MMOG player – since the game feels very standardized, such users already know the basics of inventory, leveling up, etc. – there is still nothing to really complain about, as each tutorial quest gives a respectable amount of experience and coin for completion.
This actually plays in well with getting a new player hooked, because each element of the game learned basically expedites the leveling process, letting the player becoming more strong, more quickly. In fact, this is a significant point, as one of the biggest fallacies to MMOs is that it does take too long for the player to feel accomplished in any way, leading to a significant churn rate of new players.
On this same note, it was very early that we were able to begin acquiring new equipment for our avatars. This is yet another excellent means to hold the new player, because it is possible to actually start making one’s avatar look (and be) significantly stronger and more interesting. To add to this, there is a tremendous variety of weaponry in the game, which also alters the visual combat style of the character itself.
Beyond being aesthetically different, different weapons are needed to use different types of skills in battle. Unfortunately, and as one of the negatives to Empire Online, the game is not entirely clear on what weapons allow for what, and it becomes a sort of trial and error exercise. It’s a little annoying until figured out, but the fluidity of the battle system does make up for any complaints.
Combat is a lot like in a standard, console RPG. Whenever players walk into one of the enemies milling about in the over world, they enter into a separate phase of the game and use simple taps to attack enemies in a turn-based fashion. Picking from special skills that cost mana points, to basic attacks, to items, it’s all a system that any Final Fantasy player ought to be familiar with. Additionally, since this is an MMOG, users can team up with other players to tackle more dangerous groups of enemies as well as the occasional, “elite,” boss monster.
Of all the elements to this game, the one that stands out the most is the ability to hybridize one’s character. As users level up, they are able adjust stats such as strength, intelligence, and conviction. With these examples, they affect physical damager, magic damager, and health, but with six total stats to adjust, players can build their character in any way they desire (as a side note, the game does inform players what stat is best for their class).
This is where things get more interesting as users can also visit non-player character skill trainers for classes other than their own and learn different skills and passive abilities. For example, our Kongfu Fighter could, theoretically, learn mage fire spells. In addition to this, each skill can be leveled up to new and more powerful tiers. Of course, they’re not particularly useful if one doesn’t have the equipment to support them (like all RPGs, equipment boosts stats), and many of the items have, not only a level requirement, but a specific stat requirement as well; forcing the player to plan early if they want to make a successful hybrid character.
All that said, there is a sort of reset button. The primary monetization for Empire Online is the purchasing of virtual currency. In this case it is “Silver” and can be purchased in quantities ranging from $0.99 (585 Silver) to $49.99 (29,250 Silver). This currency is then used to purchase special bonuses in game, from an always accessible shop, including a means to reset all of a user’s stats. In addition to this, players can purchase high quality gems to place in some equipment to significantly boost stats, protect themselves from being attackable in player versus player combat, or even increase experience gained. There is even an option to purchase more inventory space with Silver.
It truly is a great usage of virtual currency, as the player really never actually needs the offered items. That said, the bonuses they provide are significant enough, that a serious player will likely purchase a good number of them (especially because many of them are actually quite cheap – 100 Silver).
As for any real complaints with Empire Online, the only one of significance is that the game is not terribly inventive as a whole and feels very formulaic with the majority of its game play. That said, it is an iPhone game, so technology-wise there isn’t a whole lot of room for significant game design changes. Beyond this, the limited screen space often leads to game chat filling up a significant amount of the real estate.
All the same, Empire Online is actually fun to play, and is simple enough that it can easily be used on the go without being too terribly involved. Moreover, it is also worth noting that, unlike many iPhone MMOGs, the game’s server connectivity seems quite stable, and the only time it was lost was when we let the iPhone go to sleep. All this in mind, if you are looking for a game that is going to break the MMOG mold (though as a disclaimer, this could change with end-game content), it’s not going to be found here. Nevertheless, if you are searching for something decent to muck about with on your iOS, then Empire Online might be worth a look.