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All of this would paint Blade and Soul as another 'been there done that' Korean MMORPG if it weren't for one thing: the excellent player-versus-player combat that feels more like playing a fighting game than an MMO. It's already a popular esport in the East, and I suspect it'll only continue to grow as western competitors join the ranks.

At any time, you can hop into an arena lobby and get matched against another player. In these duels the stats of your gear are equalized, making victory entirely about raw skill rather than who has the better equipment.

But there's a big problem with the Blade and Soul PvP: It can't truly be appreciated until you've already pushed through the dreadfully dull PvE and leveled your character up to the cap. While arena matches equalize gear, you won't have access to all of your abilities until you've unlocked them through leveling. Even worse, from what I could tell, little attempt is made to pair you with opponents of similar levels. Early on I was frequently matched against players 20 levels higher than me, resulting in a huge disadvantage when I hadn't even unlocked my most powerful skills.

Each of the seven classes has their own unique approach to combat that feels highly distinctive. Though I initially fell in love with the kung fu master's reliance on combos and counters, I quickly came to prefer the sheer brutality of the destroyer, who wields a massive axe and can chokehold opponents while smashing their face repeatedly.

Instead of mashing complicated hotkey rotations while relying on auto-attacks to fill in the blanks, combat in Blade and Soul lets you take direct control of your character. There's a satisfying complexity to the way your abilities branch out over the course of a fight depending on what state you and your opponent are both in. Getting grabbed or knocked onto your back will swap the skills on your hotkey bar for situational abilities that can be properly timed to help swing the fight back in your favor. Playing as my destroyer, a well timed counter could send my opponent flying, opening them up to the punishment of a pile driver.

This fluid approach to combat creates a tense give-and-take that looks elegant while rewarding skill and timing. Even against an obviously better opponent, I never felt completely outmatched in a fight when one well-timed counter could swing the odds back in my favor. I threw my hands up in victory more than once.

Sadly, outside of the arena, combat doesn't have nearly the same effect—especially against the countless monsters on the journey to the endgame. Though most will make some attempt to mimic the abilities used when fighting other players, they're hardly a substitute. I found the general difficulty of most of the PvE combat to be disappointingly easy. Instead of dynamic and challenging combat, fighting most of the computer controlled enemies became a boring routine. Like other MMOs, I spammed the same rotations of abilities over and over again as I cleaved my way across the world while eying my experience bar as if it were the hands of a clock on the last day of school.

This is where the tension in Blade and Soul's aspirations to be an MMO and a highly competitive fighting game is at its worst. And where I wish that the entire MMO aspect could be made optional or done away with entirely. If the PvE and leveling were actually fun, I might be more forgiving of the way PvP is held hostage until you've invested several dozen hours grinding your character to level 45. But as it is, I just can't imagine many of the competitive players Blade and Soul could attract are going to look kindly on investing that time before they can even get to the good part of the game.

Without other distractions like housing or more in-depth crafting, Blade and Soul feels pretty light. Outside of the PvP, it's just the same grind that's already done much better in other games. If the PvP were more immediately accessible to new players, I don't think that'd be nearly as big of a problem, but Blade and Soul insists on being a derivative MMO first and a great competitive fighting game second.

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