Summary: Earth & Beyond, Westwood's debut MMORPG is going to hit store shelves today. It features space combat and a revolutionary new way to advance - by trading and exploring. But does it live up to the hype? Read on, Macduff!
My first taste of Las Vegas air told me everything, like every breath afterwards confirmed it. All those years of wondering why Las Vegas was in the desert went away with that first surge of dry, hot, Vegasí finest. No, thatís wrong. It was when I exhaled that I was completely sure. I was dying. There could be no better climate for the City of Sin.
Every breath you take is one step closer to death. Doesnít matter if youíre in the Arctic or the French Riviera, Death counts the time to your harvest the way a gambling junkie keeps counting his chips. In the riviera youíre too comfortable to think of it, why ruin the mood. In the Arctic youíre too busy trying to survive. Vegas thrusts the truth at you, flaunts it like the working girl on the street corner, and laughs at the inevitable. The city is a doctorís room; itís performing a Kevorkian on your soul.
As your life continues to ebb and the moisture is stolen from your body, you smile. Itís warm, cozy, friendly. Your money is going Ė donít worry, thereís a shiny sign here, a strip club there. Youíre always just falling asleep, cozy in bed with a black widow in your room. Sooner or later itíll crawl its way over and your time will be up. Donít get up and worry though, itís too comfortable in bed. This is Las Vegas, baby.
Maybe it wasnít QUITE like thatÖ
We donít normally start a review with experiences about what the end of the game is like, but of course there are always exceptions. Itís not often that someone gets to experience life at the end of a MMORPG before anyone else has been halfway there, but thanks to Westwood, I did just that. Along with other select press and fansite writers, we were presented with a Galactic Rally using level 140 characters. Four teams with six members (one for each class of ship) competed to race across the virtual galaxy, using the different class abilities to defeat obstacles and challenges placed in their way. Naturally, the two teams featuring FiringSquad members tied for first place.
In all seriousness, the live event showcased in a short time just exactly what high level characters were capable of. We realize that few gamers will be given the opportunity to play in live GM events such as this. Keeping in mind that this would hardly be representative of actual gameplay but rather a way to play around with high-level characters, I am still very impressed. With only six kinds of ship, class distinctions are very clear and there is no doubt as to any single shipís role. Everyone had a use, and teams could simply have not progressed as efficiently if at all without properly utilizing every team member. The higher the level characters in the game are, the more pronounced the differences. As the differences get bigger, so do the strengths and weaknesses of every ship, and the need to fill them. Donít take that to mean that characters will become useless without a group. Rather, a better way of putting it is that they become more useful and fun when grouping. Soloing is viable, though as in any other MMORPG, it is difficult, risky and rather lonely.
The classes themselves
There are six playable ships from three races in Earth and Beyond, which effectively serve as classes. Three are pure classes and three hybrids. Each race has a specialty, like Exploring for Jenquai, Trade for Terrans and Combat for Progen. So if you want a specialist Trader, you pick a Terran Trader; specialized Warriors are Progen Warriors and specialized Explorers are Jenquai Explorers. The hybrid in every race also has their focused skill. Thus, the Jenquai Defender is a combination Explorer/Warrior, the Terran Enforcer is a Trader/Warrior and Progen Sentinel is a Warrior/Sentinel. Note how the focus of the race always becomes the primary part of the class. So even though both the Sentinel and Defender have Warrior and Explorer in them, their roles are still very different. The Sentinel is stronger at combat while the Defender has better exploration skills.
There is an advantage to playing each race. Terran ships have speed and a fair amount of cargo space, Progen ships are heavily armed and armored and Jenquai ships have excellent scanning and stealth. Classes have unique advantages as well. Abilities like Prospect, which allows players to mine for minerals (the most basic items in the trade system), JumpStart which acts as a sort of Raise Dead and Recharge Shields which is essentially a heal spell. Some of these are shared among a couple of ships others are unique to a single class.
SIDEBAR: Athlon/Pentium 500Mhz
128MB of RAM
32MB DX8.1 3D card
1.5GB hard drive space
56K or better internet connection
512MB of RAM
GF2 or better
It is vital for MMORPGs to have a clean and intuitive interface. Players have enough to worry about without being confused by the interface. Control in Earth and Beyond is very simple. Movement is accomplished entirely by the mouse. Just hold down the right mouse button and aim your ship in a direction. There are keyboard shortcuts to all major commands, but almost everything can be done by mouse. The default keyboard controls are simple to learn and if not intuitive, their positioning is actually very convenient once you memorize the keys.
We had very few problems with the interface. The most glaring one came at the refining consoles where players turn raw materials into refined products. It is not uncommon to come in with a haul of 200 canisters of Oxygen or Neon. Gases like this are plentiful and a common mining resource. The problem is that refining automatically takes five gases and compresses them into one liquid container. Even with little lag, it becomes tiresome clicking the same button one hundred times in a row. We thought that was left behind in games designed 5 years agoÖ
E&B has some ridiculously nice sound effects that are as professional as they come. They mesh so well with the world; theyíre virtually unnoticeable. All the sound effects in the game are on the same level of quality. Nothing specific stands out in the sound department since it is just all uniformly good. Actually, there is one exception to the above rule. Somewhere in the game is a sound effect that was used for emissaries from Civilization II. We donít know what this effect does but it feels undeniably out of place, since it is so distinctive.
Music is ambient instrumental, with occasional military/marching tunes. We wouldnít call it inspired, but the execution is quite flawless. As with regular sound effects, it just blends in with the rest of the game.
Graphiní grrÖ erÖ crap.
E&B has some very nice and modern features. It definitely pushes DirectX8 as far as it will go, with shiny surfaces, large textures, particle and lighting effects. Speaking of lighting effects, the game has possibly the most over-done colored lighting since DirectX 5. There were very few areas when the actual color of my ship was visible, rather than the ambient lighting.
Special effects are nice if not spectacular. Definitely in the top 4/5ths of the whole gaming industry. What sets Earth and Beyond apart is the customization of the playerís ships. There are three kinds of hull, wing and tail sections each, making for twenty-seven different possible combinations per ship. There are six ships, well over twenty decals and thousands of colors to choose from. The color combinations must be in the billions. Enjoy!
SIDEBAR: Athlon T-Bird 1GHz
32MB GF2 GT-S
Earth and Beyond might be set in space, in the future and have all sorts of new features but at its core it is still recognizably a MMORPG. Players group and gather themselves, they search for monsters to hunt and then slay them. While there are no Ďcampsitesí as in the loathed EverQuest fashion, there are areas, which attract players of certain levels, styles and classes. There have been times when I have had people go as far as kill-stealing. In fact, while we couldnít call it rampant, we would say that killstealing is disproportionately high in E&B. Manners and culture havenít had a chance to penetrate the fabric of this society yet.
If profit is what you wish, trade routes may be for you. All one needs to do is find a trade merchant, see what his goods are and ask him what systems pay a premium for those goods. This often involves a little bit of exploration as well, and profits are handsome though the process is somewhat time-consuming.
The fastest way to advance is still combat. Pick the right creature to hunt and you will not only gain a lot of experience, but money as well. Quests aside, combat is the only way to improve oneís Combat Level.
Characters can reach level 150 in the game, three times as much as in basic EQ or Dark Age. The levels come much, much faster than in those other titles. Even level 150 is reached sooner than level 50 would be elsewhere. Part of it is the design of the game Ė making it friendly to mainstream players who donít have 6 hours of time per day. Death penalties are also very low. No one loses experience, they simply accrue an experience debt. While a player has experience debt, he or she pays part of their earned experience towards that debt, and the rest is applied normally. This is still an effective deterrent to dying often. Should the debt simply be too unmanageable to handle, it will go away at the rate of 20% per hour that the player is logged off. A healthy five-hour break means that even the most intimidating debt is wiped clean.
Characters earn levels in Combat, Exploration and Trade. Each of these goes up to level 50, unlocking certain abilities and permitting the use of higher skill levels in those abilities along the way. Many of these require elaborate and interesting quests to unlock, a welcome diversion from the daily grind. Every twenty levels, a character goes on a quest to upgrade his ship. Upgrades give more hull strength, cargo space and perhaps weapon and device slots as well.
A characterís level determines the kind of items he may use. Level III engines are available only to character level 30 Sentinels, and Level III projectile weapons require at least combat level 12. Note the distinction. A player might be level 90 between Trade and Exploration, but still use the most basic weapons if his Combat is not up to speed. Fortunately, he will gain combat experience at the same rate if he was Combat level 5 no matter what his other levels are.
This flexibility and ease will win over many players tired of difficult and punishing MMORPGs. True, some of the hardcore will wonder where the challenge is and they do seem to have a point. We found E&B challenging without being grossly unfair, and that opinion comes after endless days of hard play.
SIDEBAR: Come on, admit it, do you reaaaalllyy think that itís coincidence that the two groups who won the Rally both had someone from FiringSquad? :D
Gaminí in Gamma
Earth and Beyond feels more alive than any other MMORPG out there. At its core it really deviates very little from the EverQuest pattern but it is the additions and minor changes that make it special. Being able to do more than simply sit around and kill things was a huge step for Dark Age. Now, with E&B, players donít even need to hunt to enjoy the game. One of my first experiments is a Jenquai Explorer with no Combat skills except when necessary to get him his next hull. He explores, mines and sells. Trade routes, due to the limited cargo capacity, are a bit of a pain but then again that is what my planned Terran Trader will be for.
There is very little we dislike about E&B, but there are looming possibilities out on the horizon. The first actually manifested itself late in the beta. Many players were banned for exploiting bugs or incorrect settings in the game. Not that we have a problem with that, but one must keep in mind that these are customers who will be paying monthly dues. A great deal of hoop-lah was made about the thorough investigations before banning or resetting accounts. Players who didnít know they were abusing, simply got reset. Is this fair? Yes and no, there are valid arguments on both sides. One of the more pointed arguments was that many of the GMs are from Ultima Online. These hard, grizzled, cynical veterans whoíve dealt with the worst that online gaming has to offer perhaps arenít the best choice for a new game. Still, these bannings are a warning and should be heeded by anyone who sees something that is too good to be true.
The only actual existent problems are some performance issues. Every once in a while zones do lag and though Westwood has taken precautions for the early rush, weíre not going to give out any guarantees of a flawless first day. Although a perfect launch may be far-fetched, a disaster is even less likely. The forecast is for showers with occasional strong gusts of wind, not Hurricane Andrew.
SIDEBAR: Stephen King and horror novels in general were a popular topic at the last dinner Westwood invited us to. Iíve never read King, I worry about reading one good book and then sifting through a hundred others in the same formula to find another.
Gameplay. Innovative, evolutionary and offering new styles of play. From our close scrutiny, it seems Westwood has the game down pat.
Launch. For all of Westwoodís precautions and the expenses they undertook to ensure a clean launch, we still expect some problems. Quite simply, fifty to a hundred thousand players bombarding servers for a week straight as everyone tries to get a leg up on everyone else will not only expose problems on Westwoodís end, but with ISPs and backbones nearby. So, for once, relax people.
SIDEBAR: My first 3D accelerator, during the heyday of colored lighting, was a Rendition V2200. I loved that board, it had better image quality than a Voodoo, had very good 2D though unfortunately it wasnít as fast. Too bad Rendition never followed that baby up.
Best MMORPG ever? Very possibly, at the very least it has the highest score and first Editorís Choice weíve ever given to one. The way it looks right now, Earth and Beyond could be part of the finest few months to several years of our gaming lives. The future only looks brighter with monthly patches that will advance the gameís story and world and rumors of an expansion pack flying around. Itís balanced, itís fun, and I canít wait to get to level 140 again!
Of course, what happens in the future is only possibility. Dark Age of Camelot has gone through some dark times of its own. PC gamers have a habit of being too vocal and critical, driving developers to fix the squeaky wheel which wasnít all that broken. This is particularly true with MMORPGs, but hereís to hoping that between experienced GMs and a very professional development team, Westwood can stay the course with this magnificent title.
SIDEBAR: Did you agree with the review? Is the colored lighting driving you to gouge your eyes out yet? Sound off in our comments!
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