Reviewed: March 21, 2008
Released: February 29, 2008
Screenshots (Click Image for Gallery)
Ultima Online... EverQuest... World of Warcraft. These are the names of the great pillars of MMORPG history, games that were wildly more successful than anyone expected them to be at first. And certainly, gamers are always on the lookout for the next super-MMO, the next big thing, the "WoW-killer" that will be the next chapter in the gaming lives of millions. But there is plenty of room just outside the spotlight for other MMOs, smaller or more unusual games that fill other market niches besides the pay-to-play sword and sorcery of the biggest franchises.
City of Heroes/Villains, MapleStory and Anarchy Online, for instance, all have aspects that set them apart from their big brothers, and though these games may not always be runaway successes, they have generally proven popular enough to justify their continued production. CABAL Online, the newest MMO to be imported from South Korean developers ESTSoft by publishers OGPlanet, would be a fairly run-of-the-mill action/RPG MMO if it weren't for one thing that sets it apart: it's completely free to play.
CABAL Online is set in a world that can basically be summed up as "post-apocalyptic medieval." In the recent past, so the story goes, the world of Nevareth suffered greatly due to a being of great evil known as CABAL, destroying most of humanity and making most of the land barren and desolate. The few remaining people banded together desperately, under seven great masters of a power called "Force Power" (careful, guys; Lucasfilm has an itchy trigger finger for litigation) who trained and organized them into a cohesive society once again, albeit a society which exists on the razor's edge of survival. At the outset of the game, the CABAL entity is attempting to subtly return to its former power. It is up to you, and the other players, to put an end to CABAL's machinations once again.
The game is fairly standard fare for MMORPGs. There are six classes, with three levels of armor (heavy, medium and light). Three of the classes are fairly straightforward--the Warrior is a tough tank class, the Blader is a fairly lightly armored class with extremely high physical DPS output and high evasion, and the Wizard is a physically weak caster class with powerful spells. The other three classes can be thought of as hybrids, more or less. The Force Blader combines strong physical melee attacks with ranged magic attacks, the Force Archer uses ranged physical attacks and support magic, and the Force Shielder is a consummate physical fighter with high defense and attack ratings, whose magic is primarily used to augment physical ability. As in many MMORPGs, various different skills have different cooldown timers.
A large part of learning to fight well in CABAL Online is learning to stagger the cooldown timers of a character's abilities so that a constant string of attacks is enabled. Additionally, after level 10, characters can initiate a devastating combo attack chain, which is where the game is at its most action-based. A bar appears on the screen with a frame inside it, and begins to fill quickly. By pushing an attack hotkey while the bar is inside the frame, characters make an attack and reset the bar. After each successfully timed button press, the bar fills faster and the frame of success gets smaller, but it is possible, with some practice, to string a dozen or more hits together in rapid succession. During a combo, the damage output of a character rapidly increases, allowing enemies that normally would be almost impossible to be defeated with relative ease.
However, there is no way to heal during a combo, so it pays to keep one eye on the character's HP meter at all times. Outside of combo attacks, healing with potions is instant and can be done at any time, provided that the character has potions in his or her inventory. (The cooldown timer on potions is a paltry couple of seconds.) For classes without healing magic, these potions are all-important. Physical fighters such as Warriors and Bladers often find that they do not feel comfortable leaving town with at least 30 or 40 such potions, as they can and do make the difference between success and failure in most regular fights.
Leveling is by far the most important aspect of playing and enjoying CABAL Online. Equipment options for a given level are extremely limited (somewhat less so as a character's level increases), and the game's story is progressed largely through questing, which is the primary means of gaining levels in the game. Unlike some games, "grinding" for experience is generally quite a slow way to level compared to simply completing quests, which rarely take more than half an hour to do. Besides, there isn't a whole lot to do in CABAL aside from questing.
The zones are small compared to top-tier MMOs, and there are only three full zones available to players below about level 40. On the plus side, this means it never takes all that long to move from quest area to quest area. Each of the three starting zones has a town in one corner, with a magic transport gate that connects it to an empty room, from which the other zones can be entered by walking through the correct portal. There is a fourth portal in this staging area, which is used for special instanced dungeons during many quest chains--it is worth noting that most group content in CABAL is higher level, and there is a definite emphasis on making sure that players always have the option to go questing by themselves if they would prefer to, something that people without the time to keep up with a guild should appreciate. The staging area is also popular with people wishing to sell items and equipment, since every player has to pass through it at some point.
All in all, CABAL Online's quest system is streamlined by the stripped-down game environment, making questing, and therefore leveling, a breeze. Around level 35, there is a large spike in the amount of time it takes to level a character up, but until that point, leveling is startlingly quick, which is very satisfying. It is the sort of MMO that will grant a sense of accomplishment after even a half-hour gameplay session, which makes it a good choice for busy college students or anyone else who never has the time for more in-depth MMOs.
The rewards of leveling are myriad. Aside from a flexible point assignment system that allows players to allocate five stat points per level to whichever combination of character attributes they wish, all equipment and certain powerful class abilities are tied to character level, as are quest chains. Since there are a few points at which doing every quest at a level will still not quite bring a character to the next level, it is a relief to be able to get back to the much more interesting business of completing quests and advancing storylines after a long, dull session of experience grinding.
Separate from the leveling system, there is a skill aptitude system that levels slowly based on how often certain classes of skill are used. For example, using physical attack skills (aside from a basic attack) over and over again will eventually grant points that can be used to increase the effectiveness of those skills, as well as periodically granting access to the next tier of trainable skills, from Novice to Transcender. Since these systems are independent of each other, it is possible to get fairly advanced and devastating combat skills quite early on in a character's levels--provided that character possesses enough Alz (money) to purchase the skills in question.
Alz, the currency of CABAL Online, can be earned in one of two ways. The most common way to earn Alz is to kill monsters, which often drop a pile of them (and occasionally dozens of piles of them), and complete quests, which grant a set amount of Alz per quest. The other way to make money in-game is to sell items to other players. CABAL Online allows players to set up a shopkeeper avatar with up to eight items for sale at whatever price the player chooses.
While the shopkeeper avatar is active, the game cannot be played normally--in other words, when you set up shop, you can't move or do anything except sell items, until you cancel the shop. There is no AFK timer in CABAL Online, however, and so a common selling technique is for a player to set up a shop in the staging area and leave it running at night while he or she sleeps. Selling excess equipment is a good way to get started, but other items (such as Upgrade Cores, which upgrade the quality of a weapon or piece of armor) sell for much more and a re a quick way to rack up a million or more Alz.
One of CABAL Online's best aspects is the fact that it is free; however, as is the case with most such games, North American publisher OGPlanet offers "premium" services and items to players who are willing to shell out a little real money to augment their play experience. No matter how many Alz a character might earn in the game world, they will not buy her 90 days of increased experience and item drops. Similarly, items that allow a character to change his or her face, hairstyle, name and even sex are almost impossible to acquire without purchasing them for a small fee from the OGPlanet website.
Other items, such as those which allow access to various high-level dungeons, can be found in game, but are also available for purchase online to allow impatient gamers to get them more quickly. Overall, the system is a fair one. No game-breaking services are offered by the premium item shop, and the game is fully playable from beginning to end for free, but premium items and advantages are available to those who are more serious about their gameplay experience. Alz are not legally purchasable with real money, although that decree has hardly stopped unscrupulous third parties from offering them to players.
Overall, CABAL Online is a fun game to play, although it can get repetitive over long play sessions. It can be played by hardcore gamers, but casual players will probably find the game more rewarding overall. In addition to quests, classes and skills, players looking for a more in-depth experience can join a guild or engage in PvP, both of which are done in a fairly standard way (PvP is normally done in duels, though PKing is allowed; committing a PK will confer all sorts of nasty punishments upon a character, however). In the end, though, CABAL is basically a streamlined, stripped-down RPG with plenty of action and some interesting quest chains, but without the sort of fantastic depth of a game such as Lord of the Rings Online of World of Warcraft.
CABAL Online has surprisingly nice graphics for a full-featured, completely free MMORPG. Everything is 3D, and even on a slow machine, edges are smoothed nicely and textures, though not outstanding, are well done. Of course, the game's camera and character movement limitations (characters can only walk on predetermined areas, as opposed to games like WoW) help keep the rendering more efficient, and there is no great detail to anything, especially at lower settings. Still, between the solid, smooth 3D rendering, the cool particle effects, and the flashy attack animations, CABAL has a lot to offer in the graphics department, especially considering it costs nothing to play (it was, in fact, originally released as a pay-to-play game in South Korea; OGPlanet made the decision to offer the game for free in North America).
The overall visual style is standard East Asian fantasy fare, reminiscent of games like Lineage II and Granado Espada: Sword of the New World. Characters have fairly lifelike features and proportions, but unusually beautiful eyes, and slick anime-inspired hairstyles in colors ranging from pink to black. Enemy designs range from the memorable, which are usually cute (such as Garlies), to the more forgettable, which are usually meant to look more dangerous (Black Snakes, Zombies).
Each class uses one of three different armor types, and each type of armor is comprised of a single set, whose appearance changes slightly from tier to tier. For example, a character might upgrade from the four-piece Aramid Battlesuit set by gradually replacing them with the flashier, stronger (and higher-level) Bluestin Battlesuit set pieces. Whichever overall type of set a character uses, however, generally remains the same from level to level (a Wizard, therefore, cannot switch from wearing Martialsuit armor to Battlesuit armor). Although somewhat limiting dress-up options for characters, the sets look really cool when completed, and add to the persistence of the game world's esthetic.
The sounds of battle in CABAL Online carry entirely too far. On a busy server, the incessant noise of a dozen players fighting low-level monsters is inescapable anywhere near a town, which can get annoying pretty quickly. The best way to avoid this problem is to keep questing, and not spend a lot of time hanging around in towns. The sound effects themselves, however, are pretty cool-sounding and well-done.
In addition to a slew of whooshing, booming combat noises, there is a quiet ambient track for each zone (Desert Scream features the sound of desert winds blowing), as well as some localized sound effects here and there. Some of the more annoying enemies also make nice satisfying noises when they finally die, as well. And no sounds are more pleasant than the thump and jingle of items and money (respectively) dropping from a recently defeated enemy. When a money jackpot is dropped, the sound of twenty stacks of Alz hitting the ground at once can be a bit deafening through headphones, though, so be careful.
CABAL Online comes with its own full-featured soundtrack, of course. Most of the music is silly Asian pop tunes, though. While that might be someone's cup of tea elsewhere, it certainly isn't mine. This brings me to one of the best features of CABAL: its in-game jukebox. Following the increasing trend towards allowing gamers to pick their own tunes, CABAL's jukebox panel fits unassumingly down on the lower right-hand side of the screen, and can be loaded up with any music a player might want to listen to while questing.
Of course, there is still room for improvement: it's a pain in the butt to load songs in, a process which must be done before the game starts. The desired music files have to be converted into the relatively obscure Ogg Vorbis audio format (.ogg) and dragged into a specific folder inside the CABAL program file folder. Once the deed is done, though, it's gaming bliss. Songs can be skipped or cycled through quickly, set to repeat, or put on a random shuffle. The only time the Jukebox function is not available is inside instanced dungeons; luckily, the dungeon theme is actually pretty cool, so it's not really a problem.
CABAL Online is free! What more convincing could anyone need to see that this makes it an excellent value? Yes, it can get boring when played for a long time continuously. No, aside from one-on-one duel-based PvP and a weak, bare-bones item crafting system, there isn't a whole lot to do if you get bored with questing. And there isn't a whole lot of game world to explore. But the fact remains that CABAL has nice 3D graphics, a player-programmable jukebox, a unified world esthetic, and a satisfying combat system.
Personally, I find it addictive, especially during weeks when I just don't have enough free time to sit down and run group dungeons in other MMOs for six hours a night. It is a good deal for any fan of online gaming (and a good first step for people who don't feel comfortable investing the money into a top-tier MMO), and it's an unbeatable deal for anyone who needs a gaming fix after a long day, but can't stay up all night to get it.
Since it costs nothing, there is no reason why every person with a decent computer should not at least try playing CABAL Online. If it cost money, however, I would say this: the system specs are forgiving (it runs on a 2004 eMachines PC without any problems), and the combat is active and intense. Leveling is quite fast, and is the source for the bulk of gameplay rewards such as increased stats. Unlike World of Warcraft, the majority of a characters statistics are determined by his or her level, rather than equipment, which should be attractive to casual gamers.
For PvP fans, there is definitely a large skill-based component to success or failure in CABAL's duel system. Knowing when to use a forward or back-dash, when to heal and when to activate special combat modes, as well as being good at timing keyboard presses, will make all the difference. On the other hand, outside of duels, there is no PvP to speak of. Additionally, there are not many things to do outside of quests and grinding. Multiplayer opportunities abound, but solo questing is also quite feasible in almost every situation.
Be aware that some players indulge in premium pay services, which may give them an advantage in leveling or access to equipment. Overall, CABAL Online is a better fit for weekend or casual MMO fans than for people looking for the next big thing in serious MMORPGs. In the end though, I have to reiterate that since it's free, there's no reason why everyone shouldn't at least try it. Go ahead... you might be pleasantly surprised.