Vindictus is a promising new free-to-play online roleplaying game that launched in Open Beta yesterday. It has actually been around for some time in the West under the title Mabinogi Heroes; it has at last gotten its port to the North American market. I’ve had my eye on the game for a while, and I downloaded the client yesterday to play around with it. But before I get to that…

I’ve tried out a number of free-to-play games, and I’ve rarely found them to be all that good. My benchmark is, “would I pay for this?” and by that guideline, most of them fall down. Though some are, surely, better than others and perhaps fine for what they are (i.e., free-to-play), but in the final analysis, they always lack the polish of the paid for games like EVE Online or Age of Conan.

Vindictus, by contrast, at least looks very good, and contains a number of features that I’ve not seen in other titles. I’ll post a gameplay video from YouTube at the bottom of the post. One of the features you will immediately notice is the interactivity component. So many items in the world can be destroyed, picked up, thrown, moved around, and so forth. Humanoid enemies, themselves, can be grappled, dragged about, and bashed against walls or used as shields. That’s an innovation that goes a long way, and from the moment I stepped into Vindictus, I loved the range of options within combat.

Combat, to be sure, is kept almost ridiculously simple on the surface, at least in the early stages. It plays very much like an action game and it’s not in the mold of World of Warcraft. You essentially have two attacks. The left mouse button does a standard attack, whereas the right mouse button does a special follow-up/finisher. For my character, it’s a shield bash that functions as an area of effect crowd control ability, and it looks damn devastating every time. It’s best when you have an enemy in a grapple and drag them over to a wall to perform the secondary attack; the camera switches over to a cinematic view as you get a close-up of your character crushing your enemy against the facade, sometimes dragging them along it and tossing them for good measure. Alternately, if you’re just out in the middle of a playfield, you might simply destroy your enemy with a professional-wrestling-style backbreaker.

Combat is, suffice it to say, a lot of fun from the start, even in a solo scenario.

A bit about the flow of the early game: you can only pick from two different classes (others are shown as “Coming Soon”), and herein lies one of my pet peeves about foreign MMOs. There’s a male character and a female character and they embody different classes. The male is, I think, a dual-sword-wielding class, whereas the female is a sword and shield user. In other words, if you want to play one kind of class, you have to use a male character, and the other, a female character. I have no idea why you’re forced to accept such a pointless decision up front, but okay. I selected the female, a character who, by default, is named Fiona.

Fiona will be your avatar throughout the tutorial, which you can play through in about fifteen minutes. It’s wrapped up within a story-mode frame, and it’s pretty good at establishing the game’s context. This tutorial only shows you the ropes with regards to combat in Vindictus as you fight through a small dungeon in order to confront a giant spider boss at the end. You’re entirely solo here, and it’s not difficult. It’s an adequate combat tutorial, though as I already said, combat is not remarkably complicated, so you’ll quickly be looking forward to entering the actual game.

Once you’ve completed the tutorial, you’re then free to customize your character. Again, another pet peeve about Western MMOs is that the customization options are usually pretty poor. Vindictus is better than a lot of them, but I’m extremely anal about character customization, and I hate to have the same face as every other avatar walking around. I do believe that you can pay for some advanced customization options, however.

This is where the free-to-play games get you. They have to make their money somewhere, so they devise all sorts of opportunities for microtransactions. Something as trivial as avatar appearance I can live with. If somebody wants to pay for that, more power to them. I can’t comment at this point about whether or not microtransactions can give paying players an insurmountable advantage over non-paying players. I would assume not, since that kind of bullshit just drives away players like me, and it’s always better when you’re running an MMORPG to have more players playing your game than fewer. And given that there exists no shortage of players willing to blow their disposable income on intrinsically worthless in-game items, there are plenty of opportunities for microtransactions that aren’t game-breaking.

Anyway, once into the gameworld, you’ll start running through the newbie quests. The way it works is that quest giver NPCs will assign you specific battles that take place in specific play fields. Once you have the battle, you run over to the dock and take a boat to your location. At this point you have three options. You can check a board that lists ships waiting to leave for specific battles and you can hop on one of these ships–in other words, this is a group-finding mechanism. Or you can charter your own ship and either embark solo or solicit other players to join you.

Additionally, there are conditions that can be applied to your battles that, if accomplished, will net you more battle points (the purpose of which, I’m not yet sure). For example, you might get more battle points if you can complete the battle in less than five minutes.

To my knowledge, these battles can be repeated any number of times even after you’ve completed the quests that assigned them to you. These playfields are instanced to you, and they’re self-contained, so you won’t run into other players there unless you specifically invite them to join you. In that sense, it’s kind of an odd design for an MMO, but to be sure, group making in MMOs is always so piss poor that maybe it’s better this way. I’m just left wondering at this point if there will ever be a larger world to explore or if the game is merely composed of these isolated dungeons.

Overall, my impression of Vindictus is favorable, though if exploration is taken out of the equation, I’m not certain how I’ll feel about it in the long view, since one of my favorite things about MMORPGs is running around expansive zones, finding interesting things, and stumbling upon other players. Though maybe I’ve overrated that. These days, especially, I don’t have a whole lot of time to play video games, so perhaps it’s better if I can just jump in, get a group for a dungeon, be there immediately, and not have to mess around. In any case, we’ll see.