Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Take Me To The Movies : Allods

Popular opinion would have it that post-Tolkeinian fantasy dominated the MMO scene from the get-go. Not that the good professor had much to say about it; or anything, really. He was a year dead by the appearance in 1974 of Mazewar, the first entry in Wikipedia's History of Massively Multiple Online Games or, much more significantly, the first published edition of Dungeons and Dragons in the same year.

He was supposedly open to the idea of his legacy living on in other hands. He hoped to create a "body of more or less connected legend" that would "leave scope for other minds and hands" to continue. All the same, given his reported comments on some of the attempts to popularize his work during his lifetime, it seems exceptionally unlikely he'd have approved of any of the later entertainments devised in his name.

On receiving one proposed script for a cinematic version of Lord of the Rings he observed, bitterly, hitching up his most impenetrable prose style for the defense of his canon, "I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about". It's just about conceivable that he might have found something positive to say about Peter Jackson's epic interpretation but it's probably best not even to try to imagine what he'd have made of the coming hordes of adolescents and post-adolescents dice-rolling and mouse-clicking their way through Middle Earth.

The Trollshaws? Nope.

Whether or not he'd have agreed with Syp that "LOTRO is a better interpretation of the books than other attempts" we can only guess but I think it's fair to say that, even if he had, it would have been a judgment on a par with choosing whether the world would be better to die in fire or in ice. At the very least, though, he would presumably have been able to recognize LotRO as something derived, however poorly, from his life's work.

This train of thought rolled through my mind this morning as I was playing Allods. It's one of those happy MMOs that seems to be set in a world all its own. On the face of it, it's yet another fantasy game, but scratch the surface and it quickly becomes clear that Tolkein and his legacy have contributed no more than the slightest sheen; an elf here, an orc there, those recognizable by little more than the names of their races. I have to say that the longer I play MMORPGs, the less Tolkein I find in them, the happier I am.

Ok, that could be anywhere! Give us a clue.
Astrum Nival, the original creators of Allods Online, are based in Russia and it shows. They draw their imagery and inspiration from their own history and legend, not from the trammeled imaginings of an Oxford don. The two factions, Empire and League, play with familiar tropes and images from Russian history, White and Red, but more than that they play with time. The League may feed fantasy but the Empire feels steampunk.

Ah, steampunk. Now we approach the core. When MMOs were climbing out of the cradle and learning to toddle steampunk was on the cusp of adolescence. The first use of the term "steampunk" was recorded in 1987; Richard Garriott coined "massively multiple online roleplaying game" a decade later in 1997. They grew up together.

Tolkein had been dead for almost a quarter of a century by then. His legacy was a dimly-understood, if fondly remembered, melange of willowy New Romantic elves, hirsute Hard Rockin' dwarves and pipeweed-toking Hippie Hobbits. Tolkein was past historic; steampunk past present.

Wait a minute...is that... is that a cinema??

Looking back it would be hard to come up with a fantasy MMORPG, even from the first wave, that isn't riddled with 18th and 19th century technology alongside the magic and mythical beasts. Everquest may have had a prohibition on firearms but Ak`Anon clattered and hissed with steam and engines. By the time WoW arrived, the gnomes had pushed forward in technological time to the 20th century, adding warplanes to their formidable arsenal of robots and machinery.

Call it clockwork or magitech, lift the fantasy cloak and, likely as not, you'll find gears and cogs. As the years roll by and the genre stretches and spreads, even the very terms lose their meaning. We're all science-fantasists now. It happened to the Discworld; why should we escape?

So, I guess I should never have been surprised to come across a questline in Allods based around the dawn of Cinema. And yet I was. Astonished.

Perhaps it was because it all happens in a rough camp out in the autumnal wildlands next to the starting zone of the tribal, primal Priden. Maybe a Picture Palace in the Imperial capital Nezebgrad, with its constructivist architecture and billboard propaganda, would have slipped past almost unnoticed.

Even then, I doubt it. I think it's a first. Oh, a projected image on a screen, that's nothing. GW2, with its merry technological mix-and-match that cheerfully puts ox-carts next to helicopters, has vid-screens fit for a starship. But an actual cinema screen, with a projector? Can't recall seeing one of those before. I think that was always going to stand out.

I've always liked Allods. I think it's an underrated MMO, with first-class design and aesthetics, solid gameplay, an engaging and amusing milieu and a facile and friendly UI. There's a heavy reliance on questing; some would say too heavy, but if there are arguably too many quests, at least the quality is consistently high.

Few quests are fully voiced in Allods but they're all fully written, and how. As it does in FFXIV, every quest comes with a lengthy discourse in English that feels just slightly askew. Some people loved that in FFXIV, some hated it. I loved it there and I love it here. I read every word of every quest and relish the odd flavor and fizz as it rolls across my subvocalizing tongue.

For anyone less enamored of off-kilter phrasing and arch characterization there's a benefit to playing Allods that FFXIV lacks: automation. If you're not interested in reading you can click straight through the text then click again on the quest log to autorun your character to the next quest location. Click, click, run. Click, click, done.

That's a feature I would once have sniffed at but now I just can't get enough. The combination of autoquesting and click-to-move makes playing Allods on my Win8.1 tablet a joy and I'm not too proud to use the latter when I'm playing on the desktop either.

Prompt... Prompt!!

Usually I rail against having my mundane tasks automated but this is one that just works. For me, anyway. Especially when much of the quest consists of finding NPCs and listening to them talk. Oh, there were fifteen or so crows to kill and a bunch of ambulatory plants to despatch, and the autorun function makes no compromise with aggressive wildlife so you have to take care, so don't run away with the idea this thing plays itself..

In the end, though, it was all about the strange story of Imperial Cinema versus League stagecraft. The stolen canister of celluloid was retrieved and returned and we all stood spellbound before the magic of the moving image. Which didn't actually, y'know, move, but hey, you can't have everything. Then it was off to assist an elven actress to prepare for performance before joining her on stage for some edge-of-the-seat improv.

One day. I'm not ready today...

I'm guessing that, since Allods is a two faction PvP game and the new Priden race starts unaligned, when she finally leaves the starting zone (which seems huge - she's already Level 11 and there's a lot of map as yet unexplored) there will come one of those decision points where she has to choose between the Empire and The League. That decision may have been made already.

The play was fun but...moving pictures!


  1. Been rather busy with rl stuff and the Eldevin Easter event (ongoing till 22th, includes bunny costumes for all) so a bit late to respond. Thank you for this post on Allods, it indeed sounds like a fun game but for some reason I can't get it to download correctly.

    1. I have heard other complaints about the patcher. It worked fine for me although I did have to download the whole game from scratch again because it has changed ownership or something since last time I played and it seemed easier to start over than try to get my account transferred.

      If you can get it to download it's definitely worth giving it a go. It's nothing you won't have seen before but it has lots of quirky flavor and it's very polished.


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