Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Sandbox Challenge: Istaria

The Sandbox Challenge is not off to a great start. Ultima Online defeated me with its dated graphics and top-down 2-d play and now I've run into a slight problem with Istaria. I'm not sure what I read that allowed this game on to my initial list, but after 10 hours of game time I can confidently stay that this is not a sandbox themed MMO.

I could be wrong. Maybe, in fact, it's the ultimate sandbox MMO which has disguised itself in order to infiltrate the theme-park MMO world where it's going to pull off a massive heist after getting access to the corporate hanger ala Paul Clavete. Probably not.

Ten hours, in MMO terms, isn't a lot of game time so there is the chance that sandbox elements do creep in later. EVE online had an introductory tutorial that lasted a good few hours, and consisted (mainly) of running missions (quests) which did resemble (in a way) the beginning of a traditional theme-park MMO. I knew getting into EVE, however, that this story arc was brief.

Although it will not be scored as part of my Sandbox Challenge I have spent ten hours of my (precious) life playing it so I am going to subject you to a short review. If anyone has played Istaria and can tell me that I'm wrong, and it evolves into the most wonderful sand-box ever, please speak up before I delete it to make room for the others!

There are some elements in Istaria that I really like. The game boasts about the option of playing as a Dragon and rightfully so- it's a brilliant feature! After playing countless dwarves, a smattering of elves, more than a handful of humans, and most recently a Tank, the ability to roll a non-humanoid character is pretty damn refreshing. My choice of Dragon as starting race (species?) was never in doubt but I have to say the altoholic in me was dying to try a few of the others (Half Giant being among them). Why are 'fantasy' games, which by definition should allow for anything, always based on the same old boring model of elves, dwarves, humans, and other? It's a tired theme. Yes, yes, I know we often have orcs to choose from, and sometimes cat-like people, but a full on Dragon? That's just cool no matter how old or game-savy you may be. It's almost as cool as being a tank! But I digress....

That's not a monster, that's me!

So Gankalicious the black dragon (with gold highlights) was born and off she quest. I know that introductory quests are part and parcel of almost all games in some form but I really do hate them. Istaria's quests are of the type I especially dislike in that they involve a lot of running for no apparent (game related) purpose. It drives me crazy. Go here, go there, do this, get that. I can't stand it and I never see the point (other than the time-sink of course). Starting quests should be about allowing you to get used to the interface and immersing you in the world, not providing you with a virtual-workout in case your virtual-cholesterol is high.

Istaria sends you half way across an island to kill 5 of this, and then (after running back to the quest giver) sends you off to kill 5 of that....just a little further from where you were. I finally broke when I was given this quest:

Really? You need to test my swiftness? Is this the army physical all over again? Shall I cough?

The game has been out since 2003 and yet the game-play is very buggy. Animations were off, skills became stuck, characters would disappear into the ground during weird graphical-glitches. For a game that has been out for so long (and has had recent patches) these small but annoying problems should be long-gone.

Despite these annoyances I could see how the game could be a lot of fun. The crafting seemed very in-depth and allowed for you to make anything you would need. Playing a Dragon, as I said, is a great selling point. Your Dragon's Hoard is featured in your inventory and using certain powers would cost a small portion of it. Just amassing a massive hoard would be incentive enough for me, but tying it to your power use is rather unique I thought. The fact that you start as a small hatchling and physically grow as you gain in power is also a nice touch.

My Hoard

The player base seemed very, very small (but I was in the starter area) and everyone I encountered was friendly. Random buffs were quite common and groups of higher ranking players (massive dragons compared to me!) were sitting around talking.

I wouldn't say my time in Istaria was wasted, but it certainly isn't a game I could stick with for very long. The unique features are interesting but I found Istaria to be typical of a theme-park game which relies on questing to grant experience which allows you to level up and distribute points across your skills. I may have been hampered by being the starting area but I didn't see how the game would provide a lot of freedom of action outside of crafting and questing. I am not going to rate Istaria because I didn't reach the 20-hour minimum play time, and it doesn't actually seem to be a sandbox game.

Player Dragons = Cool. And yes Regis, that's my final answer.


  1. S'pose that's one of the difficulties of "sandbox" meaning different things to different people, especially in MMOs that can span a number of areas with the focus shifting as you go through them.

    I'm not sure Pirates of the Burning Sea would qualify as particularly sandboxy, certainly not for the early levels that are very PvE-quest-centric. Might be worth adding Star Wars Galaxies to the list, though, if you haven't tried it already, used to be very sandy (especially on Tatooine), though following the Combat Upgrade/New Game Experience it's a bit more of a mish-mash of various styles.

  2. Hmmm.. I do remember Pirates from my brief time there on launch as being pretty questy all right. I may leave it in as I'm looking for an excuse to pay it again now that it's free!

    I thought about Star Wars but thought I read somewhere that they made some pretty big changes to the game that pretty much killed it..... that said if it's a sandbox I'll likely throw it on the list because I'm a sucker for game-related punishment :)

  3. Have you considered Mortal Online? They're having a 14 day trial offer at the moment (though I would hold off on activating that until they fix their servers - memory leak), and I'm even doing a bit of a diary over at my blog, in case you're interested. It's as sandboxy as it gets (ok maybe not as sandboxy as Xsyon). Though I'm getting a feeling you won't like it. It's incredibly umm "unrefined".

  4. Mortal Online is actually 12th on my list of Sandbox Games- I was trying to enter them blindly (without knowing much about them) but as I read your blog I guess I'll be learning a bit more about it!

    I don't mind unrefined. It's pointless I don't like :)

  5. First great blog...added to my blogroll.

    I really am intriqued with playing as a dragon, though I would not play that game I think if a polished game came out with that option it would be pretty damn cool.

    How many Smaugs are in that game though? LOL!

  6. Ha! I had to look that one up...had no idea who Smaug was lol.

    The dragon's were a nice option. With the player housing, as I understand it, you had the option of creating a lair as well- very cool imo.