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Saturday 14 September 2002

Earth and Beyond initial impressions [lurks]

A number of us have waxed lyrical about how fabulous an online massively multiplayer Elite clone would be. It's been something that I've not only ranted about to my friends but also written features about in the dim and distant past. Actually that feature was kinda hoping that Freelancer would be the one, 3 years ago! Apparently it's still in the works too! Anyhow, I'm not talking about Freelancer, I'm talking about the first game that's turned up which has taken a real stab at doing the whole massively multiplayer Elite/space opera genre. Earth and Beyond, which is now in public beta. A public beta I've been playing the last couple of days so I thought I'd give a run down on how it's shaping up.

First thing, the authors of this are aiming the game at people familiar with massively multiplayer games. So their communications are all full of the same sort of mmorpg jargo you might hear in Everquest or DAOC. It's a little annoying but explains their background at least. In this respect firing up E&B is just like any other mmorpg, a patcher window displays the latest news and then checks to see if your patches are up to date. However there's also a configuration tool which does little more than fire up the graphics engine and tell you if your graphics card is fill-rate limited (will chug) or not. Surprisingly it will chug with AA enabled even on my GF3 Ti500, generally during lots of transparent bits, of which there are plenty.

When you run the game and the patcher has launched, you're into logging in with your user/pass account. Then it's the familiar mmorpg character creation system. We're talking about choosing a class from six possibles and then customizing your ship's appearance and your own character's appearance. I found the ship customization in terms of geometry somewhat limited although no real complaints on the range of choices for your character excepting that this appears oversaturated. Basically everything in E&B is extremely colourful disregarding any issues of taste whatsoever. This is a shame as it makes the beautiful space scenery look ordinary in comparison.

Now the game does indeed look very very lush. However what's hiding underneath all of this? What's it like to drive a ship around and basically do stuff? Well... let's put it this way. Controlling your ship in E&B is rather like controlling characters in mmorpgs as opposed to Quake. In other words, there is absolutely no focus on handling your ship, flying, dog-fighting or anything like it. The control is an insultingly simple right mouse button and point in the direction you want to go. There's no main thrust, maneuvering thrusters system with anything approximating real flight controls. You also stop if you stop thrusting, yes that's how lame it really is.

This leaves me bitterly disappointed at the apparent dumbing down in this area. However rather than bitching about this, let's just accept it and move on. The whole statistics element of the game is much more complex and this is basically what you need to concentrate on rather than learning to fly, as it were. Experience is split up into combat, exploration and trade. Which is interesting but odd. Basically flying around just raises the exploration level without you doing anything, you get a wodge for every sector you fly through that you've never seen before. Combat is obvious, kill bad guys and get combat xp. Trading happens whenever you buy and sell stuff.

Every time any of them raise, your actual level itself raises. So in just a day's play you can expect to hit 20 or so. Every time you raise a level, you get skill points. These can be spent upgrading your abilities such as engine, shield and reactor skills - allowing you to use higher level engine, shields and reactors. Same goes for beam, projectile and missile weapons except that raising skill makes you more accurate. You start at level 1 and it's comical how wide of the mark your laser will go 4/5 times. Without elaborating on this stuff further, I find the statistics and equipment you can change on your ship as fairly engaging stuff. This is the most interesting aspect of E&B thus far.

Combat is, basically, brain dead. You target and fire. Generally you have your favorite weapon set up to auto fire. There's keys to switch targets afterwards and dead hulks can be looted. The time delay on expiring hulks with some loot in them is too long, so unless you loot in the middle of battle, you have a devil of a time finding the appropriate hulks which have the actual valuable loot. No one bothers with the garbage loot since cargo space is at a premium.

It has to be said, if you fancy playing this game for combat then you're going to have to get with the idea of getting groups to do everything. The game tips combat towards groups and in fact is generous with extra XP and weapon effectiveness bonuses in groups and the various classes bring their special effects to each group as well. My sentinel class will decrease energy usage from weapons and can jump-start dead players (resurrect, in effect).

The missions are OKish but the NPCs are often wordy with just badly written stories. There's a very great deal of just flying around, or rather 'warping' which is the same as flying only at about 10X speed. Fortunately the game lets you alt-tab to Windows quite happily and actually continues playing, ideal for popping back to IRC when warping! The whole chat/group/channel conversation system is functional but the first thing you need to learn to do is get out of the public channels such as 'new players' which are full of horrendous yank kiddies saying 'xbox r0x0rs u fag!'.

There lies a big problem. The game is group focused, as any mmorpg, but the players are generally sociopathic yank kiddies. It's not going to be a heck of a lot of fun unless you get your own mates and turn off all the public channels. We can only hope for some European servers!

Another thing I noticed, the class balance is also appears quite broken. The terran 'Enforcer' class I gave a bash. This supposed to be a fighter type class, however I got mullered repeatedly on the training drones. Stuff I had absolutely no difficulty with as a Sentinel. As an Enforcer I had to sit around and beg for a group, despite loads of solo players around. In the end, resorting to spam inviting them, just to kill the basic stuff to get through training.

Then you've got these folks in your group, you talk to them. They don't talk back. Oh dear, this really isn't how it should be but then it's not really a fault of the game itself. As an mmorpg, we can expect a lot of further class balancing as the game goes on and of course some good fan sites with strategy guides to the classes and so on. It seems pretty quick to level up to get into the action, so it's far far less time consuming and frustrating than the fantasy mmorpgs are in my experience.

Overall, this is an easy game to get into. An annoying yank bitch tutorial persona (tip, turn dialog volume down) guides you through all the important stuff getting started. The game looks fantastic in outer space, planet fall is amazing although the internal station/planet stuff is spartan seemingly trying to make up for it by using every extreme colour in RGB range. It's definitely got promise although it's all going to depend on whether the mid and end-game phases bring significantly new material to the party to keep it interesting. Group tactics and story content will be the measure of it's success.

While it's not the savior we hoped this genre would be, E&B is definitely worth a look and has every chance of getting a heck of a lot better. The expansion possibilities for it are nearly limitless. E&B is out on the 24th of this month in the US. Beta folks get to keep their account for two weeks before it goes live. Shall we start a guild then?


  1. Hmm, is it me or is there absolutely no way to tell what sort of trader it is without speaking to them? Annoying.

  2. Like most of these games the combat livens up in a group, with different classes bringing different abilities to the table. The traders have icons under their desk, that shows what kind of stuff they trade in.

  3. Hmm I'll look harder but I stood back and was desperately trying to look for some difference between them. On another note, I've got to say there are some aspects completely ruined by cunting yank teenagers.On Legarto in the Gallina system, there's this 'array' thing. It appears to be some sort of ship teleporter which you feed coordinates into. Half an hour I hung around there trying to get someone to tell me how it worked. All the level 100 asswipes ignored all the newbies and carried on using it.

  4. The most worrying thing about E&B for me is the size of the Universe!

    By the fourth or fifth day of playing, I had uncovered most of the Universe with only a couple of Fringe systems to be uncovered, I do hope this is something they will sort out by the time it goes live with the retail version, if not then it's going to be a short lived game that will get played for two weeks.