: Ragnarok Online
: Gravity Interactive LLC
PC (version played: International Ragnarok Online Public Beta)
Ragnarok Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) which originated in South Korea, currently the online gaming capital of the world in the wake of a massive proliferation of broadband internet access there in the last few years, coupled with a highly talented domestic games development sector. The game takes its setting and visual style from a Ragnarok, a manga created by Lee-Myon Jin. The game is set in a medieval fantasy world (the kingdom of Rune-Midgard) built out of elements grabbed from a variety of ancient cultures, and represented in a slightly cute, colourful animé style. Rune-Midgard contains islands, deserts, mountains, jungles, dungeons, cities and many other exotic and dangerous locations for players to explore.
Shrewdly, the game was designed from the outset to provide support for different languages (the main three being Korean, Japanese and English). Since the game was launched in Korea, several international versions have come online. Currently there are Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese versions (KRO, JRO and TRO respectively), with the English language version (IRO - International Ragnarok Online) in open beta. This means that (as of this writing) it is possible to download the game client and play IRO for free. There are two servers running (Chaos and Loki), each of which currently plays host to around 10,000 players at any one time. One interesting thing to note is that when signing up to the game, the gender that you specify on the registration form dictates the gender of any characters (up to a maximum of three per account) you can then create to play as. New features are continually being added to the game (such as the extra classes mentioned below). At the moment it is not possible to engage in player-vs-player (PVP) combat, although it is possible that this will be available as an option in future.
As a new arrival in Rune-Midgard, the player is first guided through a short tutorial section by non-player characters (NPCs) whose dialogue is written in an erratic and sometimes hard to follow dialect of Engrish. The tutorial asks a series of questions to determine which of the five player classes (professions) would be best suited to how the player wishes to interact in the game. The player can follow this advice if they wish, or can elect to try to become any of the other classes. The available classes are Swordsman (good at meleé combat), Archer (good at long range combat), Mage (can cast combat spells), Merchant (focusses on trading items), Thief (can hide and escape from enemies), and Acolyte (can cure and heal other players).
For the first few hours, the new player will be classed as a Novice, who will only be able to fight the weakest types of monsters, and will slowly gain experience and some low-value tradable items until they reach level 10, at which point they can go to the guild of their chosen class and request to be promoted. They will now be able to wield the weapons of that class and, as they continue to level up, gain special skills. Once their 'job level' reaches 40, the player has the option of upgrading to second tier of professions: Knight (can use heavy weapons and ride PecoPeco birds), Hunter (can use traps and train hawks), Blacksmith (can forge and upgrade special items and weapons), Wizard (can cast elemental spells), Assassin (can use two weapons at once as well as poisons) or Priest (more powerful form of Acolyte). At the moment in IRO there is only one second-tier job available per class, but some additional choices are planned: Crusader, Sage, Monk, Rogue, Bard and Dancer. (These are already available in the Korean version of the game.)
Combat in RO is very simple. Ctrl-clicking on a nearby monster will make your character attack it until only one of them is left standing. Most monsters in the game will ignore players unless they are attacked, but there are a few areas with aggressive enemies. Some types of enemy will also 'mob' players- that is, if one of their kind is attacked, all the others on screen will instantly come to its aid, which can catch out inexperienced players. All monsters drop items when they are killed, most of which have no direct use except as something that can be taken back to town and traded for Zeny (the currency of the game). Very rarely, a monster will drop a card with its picture on it. These cards are highly prized among players, as they can be applied to weapons and armour to increase the wielder's abilities. The quickest way to make progress in the game (especially early on) is to form a party with other players, who will then share experience for monsters killed.
Most trading is carried out in the game's towns and cities. Players of the merchant class have a bargaining skill which allows them to purchase items from the game's NPC shops at a discount, which they can then sell at a small profit to other players. Any player can sit down in an open area and set up a shop, which basically displays some items they are carrying, and prices they have set, and allows other players to buy them. Many players will stock up, set up shop and then leave the game running in the background. Some traders even organise auctions. In the capital city, Prontera, there are often hundreds of traders crowding the streets. With the exception of the occasional scam, RO has a surprisingly stable economy. There does not appear to be any problem with hyperinflation.
A useful feature found in most towns is a NPC called a 'Kafra Worker'. These characters offer a range of handy services. They allow the player to 'save' their position in or near that town, so that if they die during combat they will be resurrected in the town (at a small cost to their experience). They also provide a storage service, which allows players to keep stocks of consumable items (e.g. food, health potions and arrows) that would be too heavy to carry around in vast quantities. They also allow players to rent a cart that can be used to carry around items over and above their character's weight limit (I think only blacksmiths can use this service). Finally, they offer a 'warp' service which allows instantaneous transport between towns.
The game's graphics engine is loosely based on Gravity's previous game, Arcturus (which never made it out of Korea, as far as I know). The area around the player's avatar is displayed in an isometric perspective (somewhat similar to Ultima Online). Buildings and terrain are built from texture-mapped polygons, allowing the player to rotate the camera a full 360 degrees around their position, as well as tilting and zooming the view. Characters, monsters and objects are represented by two-dimensional sprites, all of which are very cleanly drawn and reasonably well animated. The sprites for player characters are particularly versatile: there are enough variations of costume, hair colour and hairstyle and other accessories to ensure that every player looks different. While RO's graphics are far from cutting edge, they are clearly laid out and help to give each area of the game a unique atmosphere. The game's sound effects and music are very professional, although both can become somewhat repetitive after extended play.
All MMORPG games rely on the support of their player communities, and RO is no different. A close-knit and highly dedicated community has sprung up around the game, offering help and information resources to new players, and congregating on message boards to trade items, organise activities and display artwork based on the game. As with EverQuest, there is a balanced mix of male and female players. In the English language version, a high percentage of players seem to be animé and manga fans.
Ragnarok Online has its share of strange quirks. Apart from the 'standard' RPG fare of weapons and armour, there are a huge number of decorative items that can be found, many of which command astronomical prices. There must be over a hundred types of hats and masks, including a clown's nose, and a pair of underpants that can be worn over the head like a helmet, and even (in the wake of the real-world SARS scare) flu masks. In addition to text, players can communicate using a wide range of graphical emoticons that appear in animated thought bubbles above the players heads- including everything from requests for help, displays of anger, happiness and sadness, to even rock, paper and scissors.
Ragnarok Online is a game of the type that I would normally dismiss for being too simplistic and unambitious. The gameplay doesn't really offer a lot of variety to the player (the actions that can be performed pretty much come down to chatting, fighting and trading), and has about the same level of complexity in its interaction model as EverQuest. Like EverQuest, it is nearer to being a 'graphical MUD' than a multiplayer equivalent of a modern RPG. It is, in fact, rather like a prettier, large-scale version of Diablo II- a time-consuming diversion rather than a fully-fledged alternate universe. However within the rather modest boundaries that the game sets for itself, RO is surprisingly enjoyable and can even become addictive. The graphics may not be that great and there are many shortcomings in the structure of the game, but the social element and the emphasis on leisurely, even relaxing, exploration work in its favour.
Anyone wishing to try out International Ragnarok Online should be aware that the public beta is now closed, and a subscription fee is now charged. Also bear in mind that the game requires a broadband internet connection to be realistically playable.
http://enweb.ragnarok.co.kr/ (Official homepage, client is available from here.)
The usually-funny website Something Awful ran a massively negative and error-strewn 'comedy' article about Ragnarok Online, which could just as easily be retitled "Why the rest of the world hates fat clueless racist American student cretins":