Review: TibiaME for S60 3rd Edition Review
Version Reviewed: 1.45
TibiaME for Symbian S60 3rd Edition
John Glenn is sometimes credited as the first person in space or the first person to orbit the earth, which he wasn't, both those records belong to the USSR's Yuri Gagarin. Glenn is more often credited as the first American in space, which he wasn't, he was actually third after Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. More on-topic, the iPhone's supposed "first full blown" mobile web browser wasn't first at all, as a large selection of previous smartphone browsers prove, not least of which is the S60 OSS browser which uses exactly the same open source core as the iPhone's Safari, but the S60 version also has built-in Flash support.
So, with all that in mind, it wouldn't be surprising if we see a phone-based Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game from a major publisher appear over the next year or so, grandly claiming to be the first of its kind. Well, this reviewer has news for whoever comes up with it: they're way, way behind. The first ever phone-based MMORPG is already available, in fact it's been running since 2004. It's called Tibia Micro Edition, or TibiaME, and is the mobile little brother of the PC MMORPG Tibia.
Why is AAS reviewing it in 2007? Well, for some reason we never got around to reviewing it before, and the appearance of an S60 3rd Edition version of the client gave us a perfect excuse to finally get this done.
TibiaME doesn't look particularly spectacular. There's no sound at all. It's slow. It's three years old. Yet it's one of the best phone games in the world right now. Interested? Read on...
To get started, you'll need the TibiaME application installed on your phone. It's available as a Symbian app for S60 3rd Edition phones, S60 1st & 2nd Edition phones and as a Java app for J2ME phones. You can get the Free Version which lets you play the game but with no automatic mapping facility, while the Gold Version costs a one-off charge of $4.99 and has automap, a list of players currently online (you can send online players Instant Messages within the game) and a league table of the top 100 players. The free client is good enough to give you a taste of what TibiaME is like, but if you want to become a serious player it's highly recommended that you get the gold edition as the automap is essential to progress later in the game.
The Free and Gold editions of the game are free to use, with no monthly fees, all you pay for are your phone network's charges for using the internet connection (which can be avoided if you use wi-fi, or if you have a flat rate data plan). If you pay for data by the kilobyte, you might like to know that TibiaME uses about half a megabyte of data per hour of gameplay. The first game world you enter, called Lybera, is completely accessible to all players, and has plenty of gameplay to get you started.
However, once you've completed Lybera (which takes some doing) you'll probably want to move on to the main game world called Aurea. You then run into the catch: in order to explore most of the dungeons in Aurea, you have to buy a Premium Character, which costs about 3 euros a month. Premium Characters play in the same world as normal characters, but gain experience more quickly (so they don't have to spend as much time levelling up), have exclusive access to most of the dungeons and islands of the main game world, can use ferries and teleports, and lose less experience when they die. It's fair enough charge though, 3 euros a month isn't very much, and the first game world Lybera is still completely open to free characters.
Once the TibiaME app is installed on your phone, you can use it to create a new character and log on to the actual game through your phone's phone network or wi-fi access point. You can choose a new access point every time you log in.
TibiaME takes place in a Tolkien-style medieval fantasy setting. Characters can be wizards or warriors, male or female, but that's as far as the character creation process goes. It's up to you to customise your character with particular kinds of armour, weapons, magic wands and other objects which can be bought from shops, bartered from other players, or found in dungeons. As with most traditional RPGs, you advance your character to various levels by gaining experience points from fighting monsters, and each new level gives you extra health points and extra magic points, which appear as a red and blue bar at the side of the screen. The TibiaME client lets you store log-on details for many characters at once, and you enter the game by choosing which character you want to play.
The first area you appear in is a very simple tutorial zone, using the same sort of idea as the training levels of the Tomb Raider games, where there's no real danger but you get to learn the basics. You can skip this level if you wish, thanks to a teleport spell. There's then a very large beginner's island, with proper dungeons, a town, some fairly straightforward quests, and enough gameplay to keep you going for quite a while. However, once your character gets to level 8 you can teleport to the main game world which is more varied and more dangerous. (If you're stuck for how to leave the beginner's island, try to find an eccentric wizard and some eccentric signs in the North East).
A Living Mobile World
TibiaME takes place in a real time, massively multiplayer game world.
By mobile game standards, that world is big.
While you can work your way through most phone games in an hour or two, Tibia is the kind of thing that would take weeks of dedicated work to plough through. To give you an idea of how big the game is, this reviewer wrote the first version of this review under the impression that they had explored most of the game world Lybera. In fact, Lybera turned out to be just the beginner's level, and there was the higher level game world Aurea still to come.
Lybera and Aurea are fairly large islands populated with people, monsters, towns, dungeons etc, and there are also some smaller islands around the continent. You see other players wandering around and interacting in real time, just as you would on a PC MMORPG, even on 2G networks. Although you do get lag from time to time, it generally doesn't affect gameplay. This reviewer managed to play the game pretty much continuously on a long train journey, bar the occasional drop-out when going through a tunnel. Lybera is rather dull-looking, but Aurea is a bit more varied with grasslands, forests, deserts, mountains etc. You move your character in the 2D world with the direction pad, and every key of the keypad is a shortcut to a particular function (for example 4 shows your backpack, 6 shows the automap, 3 lets you drop things etc). You can also use every function through the main menu using the left blue soft key.
Travel is simply a case of walking round the continent, although Premium Characters can use various teleportation and ferry services. The towns usually have shops which will buy and sell particular kinds of goods (magic items, weapons, armour, hardware etc) and NPCs who will offer you rewards for taking part in quests. There are also NPCs to be found dotted around the continent, sometimes well away from any towns, who will also have tasks for you to do, or who may be the recipients of something you're delivering.
Dungeons (underground structures full of monsters) can be found near and far from towns, and the difficulty levels of the dungeons varies tremendously so you have to be careful if you're exploring for the first time.
The continent is filled with various secret places and objects, but you can keep track of it using the Gold Version's automap, which will record and display everywhere you've been both above and below ground. The map is visible on-screen as you walk so you can constantly check where you're going, and is particularly handy if you're in a dungeon and can't remember the way out as the exits are marked in yellow.
Despite being three years old, the game is still having new areas added to it. Starting a few days ago, CipSoft have just introduced the first part of a new series of five islands under what is called "TibiaME Tales Season One", with each "episode" apparently featuring 30 to 60 minutes of new gameplay.
NPCs have yellow names (and so do you for some reason) while human players are shown in green. You can talk to any nearby players by simply entering talk mode on the game menu, and then typing using the keypad. What you say appears on the screen as text next to your character, as does the response from other characters. Unfortunately, TibiaME doesn't support predictive text which is extremely annoying and slows discussions down. Bizarrely, the game only supports QWERTY phones and bluetooth keyboards in its options menu, it doesn't support them within the actual game. As an alternative to in-game chats, there's a very active forum on the TibiaME website, and that's probably the best place to chat about the game (although be warned, some of the discussions on there are very juvenile). There are also various unofficial TibiaME fansites scattered across the web.
If you have the Gold Edition of the game you can also send instant messages to anyone who's online, even if they're not near you. Seeing players chat to each other is an eye-opening experience as you realise there are real people in the same game as you, as you notice just how global this game is (some players talk in cyrillic lettering), and there's a something of a sense of community when you help a player or another player helps you. If you bump into someone being attacked by a monster you can join in their defence and form an impromptu adventuring party to explore further into the dark depths.
Combat takes place automatically when you are adjacent to a monster, and continues automatically until you win, run away or die. Each successful blow lowers the health meter of your opponent, and both of your health meters are visible on screen during combat. When your health meter reaches zero you "die", but that's not quite the end in TibiaME as you are reborn in another location with some objects and experience removed. Combat is carried out by whatever object you're wielding, either a weapon or a magical item such as a wand or stone, and you can wield different objects to suit different enemies. Weapons generally do less damage but can be used without restrictions, whereas magical items use up your magical power bar, and when that runs out you cannot use magic until the bar has filled up at least partially. Both health and magic can be topped up at any time using special potions, which you can buy or find in various places.
You can be attacked from four sides at once, but so can the monsters. Just like in paper RPGs, there's a great incentive for human players to form parties together as it stacks the odds in their favour. Parties are also useful because different characters with different objects may be better suited to fighting particular monsters. When a monster dies, you receive experience points and gold (which is shared out if many players took part in the attack), and occasionally monsters leave behind some object, which can be picked up by standing on top of it. Under normal circumstances you cannot attack other human players, although there are clearly marked sandpit arenas within the game where player-vs-player combat is allowed.
You can trade with other players by dropping objects and then letting the other player pick it up, hoping they will do the same in return. This requires trust of course, but it adds to the fun as you are dealing with a real person instead of a computer generated trading algorithm.
The downside of having a game world full of real human beings is that real human beings can be quite nasty. There's nothing to stop other players following you and pestering you, saying nasty things at you, and in some situations they can block you from moving by standing in your way. If this happens, and it does from time to time, the best reaction is to simply exit the game and re-enter a few minutes later, the "blockers" should have gotten bored by then.
Mobile Gameplay: Why TibiaME works well on phones
Complex games are all very well, but as Invasion for S60 3rd Edition showed, there's no point in doing something complex if the user interface isn't up to the job. TibiaME works well as a phone game because the game mechanics are just right for a phone.
You can save and exit at any time from the main menu, and when you log in again you'll be back where you were (although of course the other online players won't be). You can fight monsters by simply walking into them, and run away by walking away. The controls are completely intuitive, and all the menus have on-screen numbers to tell you which keypad button does which function.
The combat system is very simple to use, but not so simple as to remove strategy: you have to match the right object properties to the right situation, certain monsters are much more vulnerable to certain kinds of magic for example, and certain kinds of armour protect you against certain kinds of attack. During battle, you may have to switch weapons during battle, as you may be attacked by different kinds of monster, and you may have to top up your health or magic levels with potions. At the beginning these subtleties don't really matter, but if you want to progress further into the game you'll need to do these things properly, and get a feel for what works and what doesn't.
The game is very player-friendly, if you die you lose some experience and some objects, but you keep most of what you have, and you can try again. It means you don't get scared of exploring, and also means you don't get as annoyed with the game when you do kick the bucket.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, TibiaME isn't empty, there always seemed to be at least some people playing at any time of day. There appear to be at least 15 parallel game worlds running simultaneously. This popularity is possibly due to the wide range of compatible clients: when you put together the S60 1st/2nd, S60 3rd and Java versions of the game, that must make most medium to high end phones compatible with the game.
An Imperfect World
Having said all this, there are some significant problems in TibiaME. Here are some constructive suggestions, if anyone from the TibiaME team is reading this:
- Because of latency or lag, the movement rate in TibiaME is extremely slow, characters crawl along at a steady, smooth but low speed in order to cope with the massive numbers of people and monsters online. Obviously there's not much that can be done about this on 2G and 2.5G phone networks, and even 3G networks may suffer from latency despite their much higher data speeds. However, many of the latest S60 3rd Edition phones have 3.5G (HSDPA) connections and/or Wi-fi connections, both of which have much less latency, and so could cope with faster in-game movement. Perhaps the TibiaME team should construct a separate, faster game world for players who have access to low-latency connections?
- The chat function really really needs predictive text support (also, bluetooth keyboard and QWERTY keypad support would both be great, if possible). At the moment, conversations with other players are incredibly slow and painful because you have to enter messages the old fashioned way by cycling through each keypad number's possible letters.
- When TibiaME launched in 2004, the standard S60 screen size was 176x208. The screen size of the S60 3rd Edition client is still its original 176x208, despite most S60 3rd Edition phones having much higher resolutions of 240x320 or 320x240 pixels. It would be nice if there was a higher res version of the TibiaME client, which had the same number of game tiles on-screen at once so it didn't affect gameplay, but filled the entire screen. Graphic detail shouldn't make any difference to the game speed, because the graphics could be stored locally on the phone itself. The only information that has to go back and forth between the phone and game server is to do with position and movement, not graphics. Indeed, the S60 3rd Edition version could even use 3D graphics, if the camera angle displayed the same number of tiles as the 2D version (for example using an overhead bird's eye view).
- Some sound would greatly enhance the game, even if it was just a few digital samples and title music. Another welcome enhancement would be to let people use their own music tracks as background music, as so many people store music on their phones nowadays. For example, people should be able to pick a track for the titles, a track for generally walking around, and a track for while they're in dungeons.
- There's only four types of player sprites, male warrior, female warrior, male wizard, female wizard. Variety would be appreciated, giving the player more options for customising their appearance. Some alternative colour schemes might be a nice start.
TibiaME does have its shortcomings: it's slow, its graphics look a bit dated, and there's no sound at all. Chatting with other players has huge potential, but is spoilt by the lack of support for predictive text, QWERTY phones or Bluetooth keyboards.
But, for this reviewer at least, these complaints are outweighed by the sheer coolness of Tibia's actual gameplay. You've been attacked by monsters from three sides, your health meter is dangerously low, you've run out of health potions and things look bad. Suddenly a total stranger comes to help and the battle is won. You can go your separate ways, or carry on working together, and there's absolutely nothing artificial about the intelligence in the other characters. Even on your own, the world you explore is massive, and there's new content now being added on a regular basis.
Because it's pioneering, because its creators CipSoft have actually done what other phone developers still only talk about, because the client is free or cheap to download, because the game world is huge, and because the game is great fun when you get into it, TibiaME gets an AAS Recommended award. If Cipsoft addresses most of the concerns above, then TibiaME will be into Megagame territory.
This reviewer would recommend any phone gamers to download the free client and give it a go, to see what it's like. You can also see a video of TibiaME in action on the Unofficial Nokia Gaming Blog.
AAS SCORE: 85%
UPDATE: There has been a slight update of the TibiaME game engine since this review was written, and a new island has been added for Premium players. You can read about all this and more in our TibiaME Autumn 2007 Update article, and you can see a gameplay video of the updated TibiaME engine and island over on the Unofficial Nokia Gaming Blog.
About This Review: The game reviewed was version 1.45 of TibiaME Gold Edition for Symbian S60 3rd Edition. The review was done on a Nokia E61 smartphone.
Reviewed by krisse at