I do not envy the developers of free-to-play multiplayer FPS games, particularly after Valve’s recent decision to make Team Fortress 2 a free-to-play title. Yes, okay, everyone on the entire planet has presumably bought Team Fortress 2 at least once, but it’s got to be somewhat intimidating to know that a massive, successful, and ludicrously polished Valve title is now your direct competitor. Clearly, you need to stand out. So, what’s the solution offered by Korean free-to-play multiplayer FPS Karma Online: Prisoners of the Dead? If the subtitle is anything to go by, it’s zombies.
Possibly not the most original of ideas, that, considering how many zombie-themed games we’ve seen recently. If you throw in brown visuals and a World War 2 setting, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been thrown back in time to Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s release, a full decade ago. (Yes, 2001 really was a decade ago, and yes, that freaks me out too.)
Happily, Karma Online’s zombie mode is fairly original: zombies spawn at one point on the map, and both your team and the enemy team rush for that point and open fire. After a minute or two, the zombie spawn moves to a new location, and both teams rush over there. Whichever team hits the kill count first wins. It’s a reverse of the usual Horde mode: in this, you’re the one penning in rapidly-respawning zombies.
When played with Player vs Player off it’s a handy way of learning the game – you and the other team sit at the spawn point firing into the crowd of zombies, with ample time and opportunity to get used to the controls and weapons – but with PvP on it becomes a fascinating three-way battle. You need to kill off the (surprisingly lethal) zombies while stopping your foes from doing so, and make sure an enemy isn’t sneaking up behind you while you’re otherwise distracted. It’s a competitive twist on traditional Horde modes that I can honestly say I haven’t seen before.
Zombie mode aside, Karma Online contains the usual bevy of competitive multiplayer modes, largely set for 8v8 action. There’s free-for-all, team deathmatch, and a variety of objective-based modes, including a Counter-Strike style bomb-planting mode and a mode in which one team has to steal documents from the other. Death comes quickly, but movement is nippy and respawn times are low, so the pace remains high. Analogues can be drawn to a lot of modern, western FPS titles, but rapid kills and the inclusion of killstreaks tended to put me in mind of Call of Duty. Levelling up, however, is handled rather differently.
In the beta, at least, finishing games had players accrue in-game currency, new things to spend it on, and skill points. In an unusual twist on the usual FPS levelling formula, players buy a “character”, each of which has its own skill tree. The earliest characters have basic abilities into which you can pump skill points – improved standing accuracy, lowered recoil, and killstreaks that reveal enemy positions, for instance. Level up a bit more and buy a more expensive character, and you suddenly have access to masses of abilities, from crouch accuracy to mortar-based killstreaks. Considering how long it takes to earn skill points and how many abilities even a basic character has, however, you’ll likely stick with just one.
The loadout you take into battle is also determined in a somewhat unorthodox way. Rather than assigning a primary weapon, sidearm, and grenade type (as in pretty much every other online FPS ever) you have a weight limit. If you want to take a heavy machine gun and a semi-automatic rifle then you can – although you won’t have the capacity for a pistol, first aid kit, grenades, or any damage-reducing body armour. The beta didn’t have a great deal of equipment for purchase, but I imagine that’ll be expanded prior to launch.
It’s hard to judge how well this is all going to work when the game launches properly. As this is a free-to-play game, I fully expect that players will be forced to pay for most of their in-game currency via microtransactions, but it’s impossible to judge how heavily the better gear will be walled off. I can safely state that players who don’t want to shell out should still be able to compete, however; my first team deathmatch game pitted me against players of vastly higher level, but somehow, I still came out with the highest individual score.
Microtransaction details aside, the biggest problem facing Karma Online is one of polish. It’s unfair to criticise a game in beta for a lack of polish, I admit, but what I’ve seen gives me some cause for concern. The translation is currently inept (even in the voiceovers), the graphics are muddy, and the textures are of a surprisingly low quality. I have no doubt that the translation is still in the works, but I’m hoping that the voiceovers are placeholders and that low-res textures were deliberately used to keep the beta download size down. We shall see.
For the most part, though, Karma Online seems to be shaping up well. The engine seems solid, the games I played were completely lag-free, the weapons have a nice kick, the map design is competent, and – above all – it was really rather fun to play. Oddly, the translation issues added a little something to this: there’s a quirky panache to shooting zombies in a World War 2-themed game while an excited-looking combo counter rockets up to the right of the screen, “NICE SHOT!” and “+5 XP” appear above your crosshairs, and slightly broken English pipes out of your speakers. It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm, really.
Karma Online will have its work cut out to compete directly with Quake Live and Team Fortress 2, but if it’s polished up and the free-to-play/microtransaction aspects are well-balanced, then there’s no reason why it can’t carve out a neat little niche as a unique and interesting FPS with some nice little twists of its own.