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Cabal Online: A Gamer's MMORPG?

Now that the North American open beta has started, I spent quite a bit of time in Cabal Online over the weekend. I'm surprised to say that a game hailing from Korea has earned a place amongst in the top three MMORPGs of all time for me. That's not racism, it's just that so many Korean MMORPGs I've played are revolting grinds and this is the opposite.

What follows is not exactly a review of Cabal Online so much as an explanation as to why it has earned this acclaim for me. However, if you're curious about the game, details, screenshots, and instructions on how to access this free-to-play game are included.

First impressions of Cabal Online will invoke whatever feelings you have for a MMORPG: Hitpoint and mana bars in the upper left, a hotkey panel, and that infernal experience bar. This is the interface rightfully belonging to doomed games such as Asheron's Call 2, Auto Assault, and Earth and Beyond. This is also the interface found in incredible products such as EverQuest 2, City of Heroes, and World of Warcraft.

A screenshot showcasing the GUI. A map can be brought up at any time that includes shaded areas that tell you where you should be hunting at your level. There's a built-in jukebox for .ogg music file support. Other than those features, nothing too remarkable here.

Considering the difference between World of Warcraft and Asheron's Call 2, there's clearly a difference between MMORPGs that entertain and ones that are (as I earlier put it) a "revolting grind." I would assert this has nothing to do with the leveling rate, it's simply that we're not able to enjoy the game.

The real question becomes, "What is entertaining about a MMORPG?" There's no universal answer. Different people are entertained by different things. Some people play online games just to hang out with friends. Others play because they're hooked on the advancement mechanics. What's more, different MMORPGs carry differing appeal. Name a canceled game, and I promise you that they had a dedicated fanbase.

My focus has always been on core gameplay, defined as the interaction of the elements of the game to establish a good feeling of gamer's flow. For me, a good game is involving, it makes me think, it provides a stimulating but not insurmountable challenge. Friends are fine, earnings levels at least provides something to look forward to, but it's quality gameplay that I live for. When I roll an alt in City or Heroes, or replace my donkey in Dungeon Siege 2 with a fire-breathing lizard, it's because the gameplay enjoyment well has run dry - I'm bored, and foraging around for enjoyment.

A general game feel screenshot (with proper gamma setting - I normally have adjusted it because my monitor is acting up). Though a little blocky in places, Cabal Online looks pretty good for a game that can run comfortably on a 1 Ghz system, integrating features such as cloth simulation, distortion effects, and widescreen resolutions.

In MMORPG design, it's easy to provide activities to do: Fetch this, kill that, craft those. However, all I care about is how entertaining the game behind the activities is. That goes back to the Gamer's Flow question: Does it challenge me in a way that does not repel me? Does it challenge me at all?

City of Heroes kind of does this in that the sheer number of foes attacking and powers going off work to keep the mind well occupied, but the powers are relatively easily mastered to the point where the upper level game is trivial. EverQuest 2 has accelerated their combat to support some fairly twitchy play, though they could have done a lot more with the Heroic Opportunity system, and the current casual balance trivializes the content. Final Fantasy XI's Renkai system is good at meaningfully challenging teams of players to work together, but is little good if you're working solo.

For me, those are the top three - most other MMORPGs don't even qualify as being mildly challenging. In the lesser 95% of MMORPGs, what little game can be found is easily mastered, and accumulating levels becomes the new game. When you're playing only for the levels, you have a grind, and in a grind there's simply no place for the discerning gamer looking for challenging yet satisfying gameplay.

Cabal Online has startled me because, in a genre saturated with grinds, this emerges as a fair anti-grind. Though the entire balance of the game contributes to this (such as how optional the auto-attack function is) the defining feature that makes this happen is the combo system.

Granted after completing your level 10 promotion, the combo system adds a third bar below your health and mana that represents accumulated SP (combo points). You earn SP from using hotkeyed attacks (or, oddly enough, dancing). You spend SP in activating combo mode (gained at level 10) or using battle auras (granted later).

The combo bar that appears during combo mode.

Once activated, the combo system manifests as a horizontal bar that quickly fills. Your normal hotkey cooldown period is reduced, and goal becomes to use an active attack each time the horizontal bar has scrolled to the second notch on the bar. The closer you get, the more damage you do and more experience points you make. Fail to activate an attack hotkey between the first notch and the end of the bar and combo mode is over. Each time you successfully combo, this becomes increasingly harder to do, but you can potentially have an unlimited combo going if you can switch targets between kills before that bar expires (which is a difficult feat in itself as targets must be manually clicked on).

At first glance, it does not seem like a big deal. This "hit a button when the bar is here" timing game is not a new invention, it's an ancient timing minigame staple. However, this successfully brings Gamer's Flow to Cabal Online where it's absent in the majority of MMORPGs.

Learning to form combos reliably is damn hard, and that's great. When you expect somebody to pour hundreds of hours into your game, by all means, give them something difficult to master. Any idiot can grind levels, but when you see somebody pull off a 31-hit combo, that player is good. Now, that's gaming! (At the end of the weekend, my max was only about 12, and usually more like 4-6 because it's really tricky to switch targets.)

A screenshot of the "Desert Scream" zone, showcasing the general graphical quality of the game. You're quickly introduced to three different hunting zones and spend a lot of time traveling between them for variety.

The bottom line is this: Cabal Online is a MMORPG deliberately designed to challenge the skills of you, the player. Consequently, it's fun for a "gamer" (as defined as someone who enjoys playing games for the gameplay) when few other MMORPGs really are. However, don't play Cabal Online expecting perfection in all aspects. It does not feature dynamic content, an advanced economy, player housing, a realistic virtual world, nor (thus far) provide much incentive to team up. You have to be interested in playing it as a game to enjoy it.

If you're interested in giving it a try and you're in the United States or Canada, your license of Cabal Online is currently in Open Beta at OGPlanet. If you're in Europe, Game Masters has already released the game. For anywhere else, check the Global Website. They've been enforcing their licensed regions with IP banning. Unfortunately, not all parts of the world have access to it yet, although some people have been getting around this with proxy servers.

Comments

Grimwell said…
It's nice to see some excitement. I'll put this into my queue and give it a whirl this weekend!
I hope you like it was much as I do. It's sort of surprising that this game from K-Town, infested with droves of free-play kids, and little in the way of big-name MMORPG quality-of-life features has its hooks in me so well.

I'm over on the Venus server as Rimshan, a Blader. I'd recommend a Dual Blader for your first character just because it gives you a relatively good sampling of the different abilities quickly.

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