Nobunaga's Ambition is a series famous - more so in Japan than here - for its deep strategy gameplay, with hours to be spent on resource and unit management. Now, with Nobunaga's Ambition Online, the series takes a different focus: players are the unit, and they get to be managed by their fellow players online. The question is, will you be a leaf in the winds of change, or a rock?
This title renews the traditional setting of the series, that being 16th century Japan, when the country is torn apart by feudal strife. The prime mechanic in the game is the class system, which makes use of classes that we would expect from the time and place, but maybe with just a bit of magic and mystery added. The classes are: Samurai, who are strong versus demons; Priest, who need no heavy armor while they manage the destruction of evil spirits, thank you very much; Yin Yang Master; Ninja; Blacksmith; Shinto Priest; and Pharmacist. As you can gather from those classes, magic and monsters are very much present in this game. It's one of the new ways Nobunaga tries to incorporate standard RPG gameplay with it's own military/diplomacy scenarios. Another example would be the classic Active Time Battle system the game uses.
Like all MMORPGs, Nobunaga has different groups, such as guilds, that the player can join. Only in this game, the "guilds" are referred to as "factions" and are what makes Nobunaga stand out from the crowd. It is these factions that will compete with one another for control of Japan. It's a cinch who's going to win though - the most populated faction! Well, not necessarily. The amount of players in a faction determines certain benefits, so smaller groups may find they have a few advantages over larger groups. One I can think of immediately is the fact that everyone knows each other in a smaller group, so communication comes naturally - all the more so once the in-game feature of contacting one's friends online is put to use. Of course, it is doubtful that Koei will actually let any faction "win" the game, but there will surely be rewards to having the highest number of kills, or controlling large amounts of territory or something. There are twenty-one provinces in the game (how many are there in present day Japan? I don't even know) and having a specific number mentioned suggests to me that they are in fact up for grabs, rather than just being there for decoration. Actually, the whole idea is reminiscent of the different countries in Final Fantasy XI.
Nobunaga's Ambition Online offers a great amount of choice when it comes to the shape and form of all these factions. Seats of power include bandit organizations, independent townships, and of course feudal lordships. Once a player has made his or her choice of allegiance or role, it isn't engraved in stone - one could go from being a lord back to wandering the fields, killing off random monsters. It would be worth thinking twice about it, though. Former allies may not take kindly to such breaches in loyalty!
Luckily, they may be unable to give chase due to the distracting scenery. NAO has fantastic graphics, and by fantastic I mean ultra-realistic. Even the fantastical parts. Those monsters are scary. Seriously though, the graphics are great, with superb character models and spells. Things look like they may get a bit clunky during all those crowded battles, however. To cut down on problems like that, Koei insists on broadband Internet access. The PS2 hard drive would probably make matters easier as well, especially with all the character information that's bound to be necessary, although it hasn't been said whether or not it is a must to play the game. It is known that the faction information will be saved on the game's servers, so that is a good sign. The future of the high-priced hard drive is sketchy at the moment, and the less it is relied on, the better.
Up to now, Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs have been mainly about building up the players' own characters, without any special focus in mind. With Nobunaga's Ambition, players have factions to worry about, and ambitions of their own to fulfil. Become a lord and reign over legions of minion RPGamers! Even with the similarities to FFXI, Nobunaga takes the idea of this kind of group based play and runs with it. And isn't playing with friends the true beauty of online gaming?