Astonia III - the Conflict
Massively multiplayer online games have come a long way since their humble beginnings. What started as simple text-based programs have now evolved into shining examples of the latest in technology, all with full 3D environments and the latest visual and gameplay bells and whistles. Yet many gamers yearn for those bygone days when MMOG's didn't need a monster computer to run properly. One MMORPG that harks back to that simpler time is Astonia III - The Conflict, developed by Intent Software. I gave Astonia III a whirl to see if it could compete with the genre's big names.
Astonia III centers around the empire of Aston, the title's setting. Aston was once only a minor player among many warring city-states, until a millennia-old being named Ishtar showed up and taught the Astonians the powerful magic of the ancients. With its newfound power, Aston expanded all over the continent, but all was not well. Those entrusted with the knowledge of Ishtar's magic became complacent in their power, and began to abuse it. Their laziness and inner turmoil left them open to attack, and one day when Ishtar left on his own business, an army of Demons overran Aston. When Ishtar returned, he found Aston in ruins. He now seeks to prepare the people for the coming conflict with the Demons, and whoever it is who controls them.
Astonia III is played from an isometric perspective reminiscent of Ultima VIII: Pagan. You begin in the small stronghold town of Cameron, featuring all the expected amenities such as shops and areas for lower level characters to fight and train. As soon as you load up the world, you are greeted by a character who immediately gives you an initial quest -- go across the street and check in on another character. You have the choice of doing so or striking out on your own immediately. Following the quests results in a string of tasks leading you from person to person and place to place, gaining experience and getting used to the world and controls.
Creating a character is a simple process. Astonia III features only two classes for starters, although you can branch out and specialize to a much larger degree later. The Fighter class is the standard RPG warrior, for those who prefer brute force and power to solve their problems. The Mage class prefers the arcane arts of magic to physical force, and has a wide array of spells and specializations to choose from. Later on in the game, you have the option of becoming a Seyan'Du, a very powerful combination of a mage and warrior. Should you opt to stick with your initial class, you can become an Archwarrior or Archmage, with specialized skills even more advanced than the Seyan'Du.
Characters advance through experience points, earned through killing monsters or by completing quests. Once you accumulate a certain number of experience points, you can use them to raise your skills and attributes. Though there is also a level system in Astonia III, the only real benefit you receive when you level up is a large number of skill points to spend. Increasing skills and attributes is the only way to attain a more powerful character. Skills range from standards like attack and parry to more exotic entries like tactics and regeneration. Hit points, endurance, and attributes like strength and agility are also increased through skill points.
Combat in Astonia III is a simple affair similar to that of EverQuest. The only direct involvement you have in combat is in initiating it, and then activating special skills, items, or spells during it. Simply holding Ctrl and clicking on an enemy will initiate combat, where your character will execute his or her default attack over and over until the enemy dies. You can spice things up a bit by executing special attacks, such as the Warrior's Battlecry, which causes enemies to slow down and become confused. Mages have a wide array of spells to choose from, and both classes can use items such as potions at any time during battle.
Death comes to all at some point in Astonia III. Thankfully, Ishtar is there to protect you, offering you a "save" each time you level up. When you die with a save, you are simply transported back to the starting town with all your equipment and experience intact. When you die after you've used up all your saves, however, things aren't so nice and easy. Death without a save functions much like it does in other popular MMORPG's. You are warped back to the starting point, take an experience hit, and all your equipment remains on your corpse. Your corpse remains at the location where you died, but only for 30 minutes. Thankfully, it's protected from looting unless you are a player-killer.
Player-killing is also handled in a fairly standard method, where players can choose whether or not they want to be able to attack and be attacked by their fellow players. Once the choice is made, the color of your name changes and you can attack anyone within three levels of your character. You can opt out of being a player-killer if you find it's not your bag, but doing so requires you to go four weeks without killing another player.
Astonia III supports one of the most impressive and involved guild systems I've ever seen in an MMOG. Astonia III's guilds are called "clans" and revolve around gemstones found throughout the game world. Gems are required to found a clan, and to purchase things like a clan hall. The more gems you have, the more powerful your clan will become. To keep the gems you find in the world from deteriorating, you have to store them in a vault. Other clans can attempt to steal your gems at any time by accessing the labyrinthine network of catacombs that lie under every clan hall. NPC guards are available for purchase to protect your vault, but constant vigilance is required to maintain a store of gems. For all the trouble of maintaining them, membership in a clan provides some very tangible bonuses. Each clan gets to determine their own bonuses, and then "purchases" them through a certain payment of gems per week. The clan system maintain an ongoing relationship database between your clan and other clans, with increasingly worse relations leading to more relaxed rules on who can attack who and when.
The graphics of Astonia III are decidedly low-tech, being completely 2D and tile based. All characters and creatures are fairly small, sometimes making it hard to distinguish one from another, especially in large battles. Environments suffer from the tile-based look, causing each room in a dungeon to look just like the last, and forcing everything to succumb to hard right angles. Animations, especially for combat, are jerky and unnaturally quick even at low levels. Combat lacks any sort of dynamic appearance, instead looking like two figures twitching mindlessly next to one another.
There are some good points to Astonia III's graphics, however. The weapons and armor you equip actually show up on your character. Though they are small and not very detailed, individualizations like that do help differentiate characters and give them a bit of personality. A visible day/night cycle is implemented, affecting how much you can see and making torches quite useful during night travel, or in deep dungeons. Outdoor environments are well done, with the 2D nature of the graphics allowing for large, natural looking forests and other landscapes. However, the title simply doesn't hold a candle in the visuals department to newer releases like Anarchy Online.
The Astonia III interface allows a large amount of information to be displayed on the main game screen, without having to resort to separate character and inventory screens. Character information is displayed in the bottom left corner, and the same window is used to distribute points to skills and attributes. It also switches over to an inventory screen for an enemy or shopkeeper at the appropriate time. The bottom right corner is for inventory, with a scrolling, boxed display of all available items. At the top of the screen you can instantly see at any moment what items you have equipped on each part of your character's body.
The problem with the interface arises in how you interact with the world. Performing actions like using, trading, and equipping items requires strange combinations of the shift and ctrl keys along with the mouse. For example, to give an item to someone, you have to press shift and click to pick it out of your inventory, then hold ctrl and click on the person to give it to him or her. These extra key presses are unnecessary. Since right clicking is used for examining, a left click on an inventory item should pick it up by default. If I click an unusable item on someone, then I'm obviously trying to give it to him or her. These are minor gripes, but they do hamper the functionality of the interface as a whole.
As old-school as the graphics are, Astonia III is all about the gameplay experience. From the first time you log on, the program tries to ensure you are having a good time accomplishing things by providing a steady stream of quests appropriate for your level. By the time you're done running the initial gamut, you're at a level high enough to trek off on your own and explore other locations yourself. At every step of the way, staff members and other helpful players are always willing to assist. Astonia III supports one of the most supportive fan communities I've ever had the pleasure of coming across, both in the game and on the official forums.
Astonia III offers you a wide array of options to customize your experience. One example is the chat channel system. Astonia III's chat channel has the standard functions like immediate area chat and shouts, but it also has several channels you can join, which function sort of like chat rooms. Each channel has a specific purpose, such as the Area channel, which broadcasts messages only to those in the world zone you're currently in, or the Gossip channel, a server-wide general discussion. If any channel gets too crowded or isn't serving your needs, all you have to do is type a command and you won't receive messages from that particular channel anymore.
The character system also allows for a great deal of customization as well. Raising your character from the ground up with total control over how he or she advances is a rewarding experience. You definitely feel a connection with your character early on, and choosing whether to spend your points on increasing your attack skill or your hit points is a true dilemma. Things become even more intense later on when you have to decide on what professions to choose and whether or not to attempt the Seyan'Du route. Clans all have a strong sense of camaraderie as well, boosted by the necessity to be active to keep the clan alive.
Connecting to Astonia III is as simple as typing your name and password and hitting a button. I played the title over both a T1 and dial-up connection, and while both were highly playable, the experience was much better over a T1. On dial-up, a noticeable pause occurred between issuing a command and its execution. This caused problems in combat, primarily, as I would have to anticipate when to drink a potion a few seconds before I actually needed to. Still, the problem of lag on dial-up was considerably less than the other major MMOG's I've played, and anything above 56k should provide a good experience.
Sound effects are all adequate, both in combat and the ambient effects in the wilderness. The clanks and poundings of combat match up to hits and misses, providing aural clues to how well you're doing. In the wilderness, ambient sounds like chirping birds and rustling leaves play. The problems with the sound effects are primarily that the ambient sounds repeat far too often. Since there is no music in Astonia III, the repetitious sounds become highly annoying in short order.
Since Astonia III features no musical score, this criterion is not rated.
Intelligence & Difficulty:
Astonia III has no difficulty settings, but no matter what level you are, you'll find something to challenge you nearby. The dungeons are well-balanced to the level you're at when you receive the quest (assuming you follow along the proper path in finding them), and the monsters inside respawn at regular intervals to make sure everyone can get a piece of the action. The catacombs beneath the clan halls are actually randomly generated according to the player's level. Occasionally you'll come across puzzles requiring logic to solve, both during quests and during regular exploration. The puzzles I encountered were not very difficult, but added some variety to the hack-and-slash gameplay of dungeon exploration.
Astonia III - The Conflict is the perfect game for those who don't have the system specs to try out the bigger MMORPG's on the market now. While it may not be the prettiest title on your shelf, its gameplay doesn't disappoint in the least, providing a good amount of variety and customization. If you can stomach the initial 32 MB download, Astonia III is a free game for the first 28 days, so there's really no harm in giving it a try yourself. Fans of old-school MUD gaming and those looking for a good primer to MMORPG's will find a lot to like in Astonia III.
Review by: Gavin Carter