Sunday, January 30, 2011

Earthrise Preview - Ready, Aim, Fire!

As the MMOG industry begins to shift towards a more friendly attitude toward fast-paced action-oriented gameplay, it was only a matter of time before more contenders would step up to take the reigns as a leader in the MMOFPS sub-genre. Earthrise, under development by Masthead Studios, is aiming to bring the experience of aim-and-click shooting into the realm of the MMOG, and wrap it all up in a fun and engaging sandbox game experience worthy of being called a AAA title.

Ambitious? Beyond a doubt. With previous success in the MMOFPS sub-genre generally considered non-existent, Masthead is gambling on being able to deliver a game that can appeal to both shooter and RPG lovers, and stand toe-to-toe with existing MMOGs that already command the monthly subscription fees of thousands or millions of gamers.

What is Earthrise offering to entice you away from your world of hotbars and tab targeting? To begin with, an elimination of the whole concept of "hands-off" combat. In this game, it will not be an option to sit back and let your 1-2-3-4-5 buttons do the talking. Enemies will maneuver out of your crosshairs, and out of your range, and will even use the environment around them to thwart your incoming hail of bullets. Combat in this game will make you feel like you are in control of the outcome of every battle. You win if you get the high ground and take out their snipers, and you lose if you get too close to the flamethrower-wielding psycho without wearing your fireproof underoos.

But don't fear your death, for you are one of an army of clones sent to repopulate this desolate land after its near-annihilation. And death simply means a return to the nearest cloning station. You see, this is Earth, but not as you know it.

Let me set the scene for you...

In the late 21st century, mankind's bickering over dwindling resources eventually boiled over into the Third World War which practically eliminated life on the planet, and irradiated the entire surface. Fortunately, as these events were unfolding, the Continoma Project was born. This project was a vast technological "ark" that stored the DNA of all living things on the planet, including humans, and included the means with which to reproduce them at a later time. A few hundred years after the war was over, the Project began cloning humans to resettle the planet, called the Pioneers. These Pioneers eventually settled the city of Sal Vitas and conquered the island of Enterra (which was once England). But peace did not reign, and internal strife eventually caused war to break out among the newly-cloned civilization.

As far as post-apocalyptic scenarios go, it's pretty standard. People blow up the world, machines are left to clean up, machines create clones of people, clone-people go to war and try to blow up world again - rinse and repeat. It's not exactly innovative or groundbreaking, but at least it's familiar and it gives the world a good story-related reason for the old MMOG respawn mechanic. It also sets up for a very easy-to-accept tutorial scenario, as the cloning stations walk you through the use of your "new body."

Unfortunately, it also left me personally feeling as though there was absolutely nothing at stake, and no reason to care about the character I was creating and learning to use. Hopefully the developers include a "skip tutorial" function after you've ran it once, as having to do this with every character you build would become exceedingly mind-numbing after even just one or two times through it. Huge maps filled with almost nothing to do except stare at the pretty scenery (which is actually very pretty), and a hustle speed that feels closer to a crawl, combine to create an immense amount of wasted time over the course of the tutorial experience. Couple this with the complete lack of mission waypoints or printed directions, and you could conceivably spend hours just being guided through the monotonous task of picking up one weapon and killing things with it, then moving onto the next map to pick up a different weapon and kill different things with it. A little streamlining of this process would go a very long way toward enticing new players to stick around.

Sure is pretty. Wait, I have to run HOW far? 
Once you finally trudge your way out of the cloning facility where you were born - err, hatched? - you will almost immediately find yourself face-to-face with recruitment officers from each of the warring factions that call this brave new world their home. On one side is the law-abiding and draconian Continoma, and on the other are the fiercely independent freedom fighters of The Noir. At first the decision seems fairly simple - choose one side or the other to fight for - but according to the developers, your affiliation with one side or the other may not always be as official as it seems on the surface. It's even said to be possible to eventually play as an unaffiliated independent criminal carving out your own place in the world.

This is just one hint of the massive scale of the sandbox-type experience that Masthead is attempting to create within Earthrise. Additional open-ended content includes the complete lack of a class-based system that restricts your initial choices to just a few types of equipment or skills, as well as a player-ran economy that can respond to the supply and demand of a living community of gamers as they struggle for dominance over one another. Earthrise will also feature territorial PvP conflicts and resource ownership, as well as customizable guild bases.

As great as all of these features sound, they're currently suffering from a number of design faults that are likely to alienate many potential gamers before they even get a chance to experience the depth that this title has to offer.

First is the trudgery of a tutorial. I mentioned it before, but let me just nail the point home: I've only had the opportunity to invest about 16 hours into this game, and easily half of that was spent in the tutorial maps. Some of this delay was caused by bugs that would prevent me from progressing, others by a lack of indication on how to proceed, and still others simply because I truly could not sufficiently understand the combat mechanics to a degree that made me feel like I'd actually completed my combat training. Most of it, however, was simply having to run back and forth across gargantuan zones filled with nothing but great scenery (and the scenery is great - I'll freely admit that).

Beyond the tutorial, travel didn't seem to improve much. Aside from still hoofing it across zones the size of Iowa, I was also repeatedly tasked with returning to my commanding officers after engaging the enemy, resulting in a lot of back-and-forth retracing of my earlier steps. One of the first missions I received had me take out a few enemy soldiers that were patrolling a deep trench - my only means of leaving the immediate area - and then report back to my commander, only to find out that my next mission was on the far end of that same trench. This meant having to re-engage and re-eliminate those same entrenched enemy soldiers before I could even get to the point I had to be in order to attempt to fulfill my next mission. And if I died (which I did, repeatedly) I would have to do it all over again.

And all of that was after I found that trench, which took me probably 30-60 minutes on its own. The mission said "near here." Well, buddy... there's a lot of "here" to be "near" in this zone. Could you be more specific, maybe?

To add to the frustration of all of this excessive and unguided travel, you will be making these runs while watching the disjointed and unnatural animations of a strangely disfigured humanoid. The models themselves look pretty great, and there's something about the way they're shaded and colored that allows them to stand out nicely from the surrounding scenery - a very important graphical feature in a PvP-centric shooter - without looking out of place in the world around them. But all of those good looking models fall apart when anyone starts moving. And heaven forbid you jump - oy vey! Ultimately, the game currently looks fantastic, as long as you never ever move. Sadly, in a twitch-based game of fast combat and real-time tactics, holding still will never be an option. I was pleasantly surprised to see ragdoll physics at work with the corpses of slain enemies, though.

Think it looks awkward to hold? You should see me try and run carrying this thing.
On a brighter note, there are quite a few good things to say about the current state of the sound and music in this game. Voice overs are abundant and generally well-made, and the soundtrack absolutely nails the vibe of "near future techno with a war going on." Ambient noises like waterfalls and chirping wildlife are also pleasing to the ears, but I found the weapon effects to still be lacking. Gun noises are not the greatest point to cut corners on the sound effects budget, since most of the game is supposed to be spent firing bullets at your enemies and not listening to chirping birds and waterfalls.

At the end of my preview experience, I've walked away considering this game a concept that has a lot of potential but is far too rough at this time to warrant an immediate investment. With a release date of February 4th right around the corner, I'm not foreseeing the brightest future. I'd estimate another 3-6 months of solid development time could smooth out some of the rough edges and allow the game to become a more polished experience, but that's just not happening at this point.

What the game has is the great foundation for an open-ended sandbox experience that could potentially stand on its own in this market alongside games like EVE. The story is interesting, the PvP is meaningful and intense, and the economic side of the game sounds deeply complex and satisfying. Sadly, that incredibly foundation is currently supporting the inconsistent and crooked timbers of a poorly-built home on the verge of collapse. With a really nice paint job.

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