Sword Art Online is the VRMMO featured in the Light Novel and Anime of the same name. Based on the designers dream of a castle floating in the sky, the game features 100 floors and 101 dungeons. Through this article I will be reviewing the game, as if it were an actuality, and giving opinions from a game development point of view.
The interface for SAO is probably the most unique feature of the game. As opposed to using gamepad input, or any other kind of controller, the game uses a “Full Dive System”. This allows players to feel as though they are truly in the game, using a BCI(brain computer interface). Because of this in-depth system, many standard game features are adjusted. The player can see their own life in the corner of their vision, as well as the life of their party members. In order to open a menu, the player just swipes their hand downward in front of themselves, and it will appear floating there. The menu behaves as a touch screen. The inventory and skills screens are very basic, being a simple text list, but the game allows for most basic functionality needed. Players are also able to feel the environment in the game, such as the weight of their equipment, or the weather around them. For obvious reasons, the system reduces any pain felt by the players, although it is shown that receiving an injury is still quite unpleasant.
The gameplay is also quite unique. Although the game contains PVP content, the game is largely a PVE game. Players are expected to work together in large groups in order to explore complex dungeons and take down massive bosses. Aside from one instance, with a very talented solo player, the bosses are near impossible to beat alone, generally requiring massive “raid groups” to take down, a group of many parties working together. The game also uses a very simple, universal system for objects. Everything, from walls to players, are an object, with structures like towns being marked immortal to prevent damage. This can be seen whenever an object is destroyed, as everything has the same “death” animation, shattering into blue shards. The general gameplay is simple, players must work their way up the floors of Aincrad by defeating bosses at the end of each dungeon, until the reach the Ruby Palace at the top. Defeating the boss their clears the game.
Player creation is very detailed in SAO. Players seem to be able to completely customize their character in any way they want, from hair, facial structure, facial hair, and body structure. There are no classes in SAO, instead players must learn and train skills to build their character up to what they want. Outfits are also no chosen at creation, instead players can change what they wear much like real life, from wearing armour to casual street wear. This makes it so there is almost no chance to meet another player that looks just like you. Players can also design their own clothing in game, largely used by guilds to create matching guild uniforms. There does not seem to be any way to change your hairstyle after creation, however, aside from wearing different headgear.
Towns in SAO are massive and extensive. There are many empty homes that may be purchased by players, inns players can rent rooms in, shops, and many others. There are also commercial spaces players may purchase to open up shops, as well as larger guild bases that may be purchased. There are generally more than one town on each floor, leaving large amounts of choices for players. Each town has a teleporter, which allows quick travel around Aincrad, however these must first be activated before use. All objects in a town are immortal, and NPCs that die respawn. NPCs are also protected by the system, preventing players from harassing them. Towns are considered “safe areas”, preventing a player from dying unless challenged to a duel to the death. Attacking is still possible, and effects such as knockback still apply, but no damage is dealt outside of a duel.
Fields and dungeons in SAO are vast and unique, giving players many new experiences as they climb the floors. Fields are generally quite natural looking, with varying vegetation, weather and terrain. Fields also contain bosses, that although not as difficult as dungeon bosses, still require the cooperation of many players to beat. Most fields have some form of unique feature as well, with rare items or difficult bosses within. Some examples are a giant monster at the bottom of a lake, dragon nests in a mountain, and the rare “Pneuma Flower” item deep in a flowery field. Dungeons tend to be very different, almost supernatural looking areas that don’t seem possible. Dungeons also tend to have many secrets and traps hidden throughout. The main feature of the dungeon, its boss, is usually behind a massive door deep in the dungeon. After beating the boss, players may then activate the portal to the next floor. Compared to the fields, the dungeon is largely just a monster filled maze, with very few features other than the boss.
The item system is one of the more interesting features in the game. The items in the game are largely made by the players, with one of the many crafting skills. Items are also more realistic, most of which a player will have no information on unless the item is appraised by someone with the appraisal skill. This information includes the items name, effects, and creator. One of the major item groups in the game are crystals, magic items that can only be used once, but are quick and powerful. Some examples include antidote and teleportation crystals. The biggest downfall of the game, however, is in the item crafting system. The system is extremely dumbed down and simplified, making it accessible to newer players, but boring to anyone else. In order to craft a weapon, just hit the ore with a hammer and the item will be created. To cook food, tap the ingredients with a knife then cook them. Admittedly the system can be a bit more advanced than other games, but in a realistic and immersive game, these systems are far from the top of the features.
Combat, on the other hand, is probably the shining jewel of the game. SAO drops the idea of magic and focuses on pure melee combat. The only ranged combat possible involves throwing weapons, no bows or guns are included. Players have the freedom to use their weapons any way they want, leading to some players fighting without any help from the system. There are however skills to help players. These “sword skills” allow the system to control the player temporarily, to use a predefined attack. This has the benefit of being easy and quick, but can put the player in a bad situation should they be attacked while performing a skill. Of course, sword skills also tend to do much more damage, which helps outweigh any possible negatives to their use. The only time these skills are truly risky to use are in PVP, where your opponent may already know your skills, and be able to counter them. Another great part of the combat system is the anonymity. When a player receives an item, no one else is told, not even party members. This helps solve the problem of people fighting over drops, as nobody has to know that you even got an item. Also, aside from a percentage bar, actual stats, levels, and health are also hidden, and only need to be shared at the players discretion.
The game also has many unique features. One of them is a secret dungeon, hidden below the first level. This dungeon opens further and becomes more difficult as players get further into the game, allowing for an alternative training area. No one knows what secrets wait at the end of this dungeon. Another unique feature is the unique items in the game. There are books players can write in, devices players can record messages with, and other extremely useful items. Map data can also be traded and sold as an item, for those too lazy to map an area themselves. Marriage in the game takes a much more personal approach in this game, giving spouses full access to each others items. Probably the most unique feature of the game, however, is the flexible combat system, and how it works with the epic boss fights. Players must take turns blocking and attacking in order to keep alive, as bosses can kill with only a few hits, if not a single one. It can take a couple dozen players hours to beat down a boss, and even then there will most likely be casualties. The rewards are sweet, however, as the player who lands the killing blow is given a rare item as a reward.
As for my opinions, I believe this game is very well designed. The huge amount of skills allow for extremely unique character builds. The combat system is clearly the main feature of the game, allowing players to fight how they want, but the large variety of non-combat skills allows players to create a realistic economy and play how they want. Of course, too much realism can be a bad thing. One thing that can be seen in the game is players knocking items from another’s hands, which although realistic, can be very annoying. Players can also drop their weapons, and must find their weapon before they are able to attack again. Other players are also able to take these weapons if they wanted. Also, the progression in the game is far too slow, requiring a player years to get anywhere near the end of the game. This also requires players to work together, which although is a nice idea, forcing players to work together on such a large scale can easily drive many players away, especially those who prefer to play solo.
All in all, Sword Art Online is a great looking game. Although it could definitely use balancing and tweaking, it is much more polished and well designed than most other games fresh out of beta. If SAO were to be developed in reality, it would have no trouble creating a player-base and flourishing. Next I will be reviewing Alfheim, a game built using the same full dive system as Sword Art Online, focusing on flight and massive realm vs realm combat.