It's always fun to see what MMO-monger Play NC is going to show at the E3 Expo… In past years, we saw the developer go into realms where no-one (or, few, at any rate) had ever gone before: worlds of super heroes and villains (City of Heroes/Villains), MMOs that bucked the trend and were playable for no monthly fee (Guild Wars), etc.- you just never know what those wacky developers are thinking about. This year's crop of previewed games shows that the developer is still looking for new and innovative ways to play games, not only through the stories that they are deciding to tell, but also in alternative distribution models. In a show heavily dominated by MMOs, Play NC's offerings were some of the most unique and, in the end, the things that we most anticipated for the PC.
Play NC's booth sat square in the middle of South Hall, the show's NYC (West Hall, featuring Nintendo and the PS3, was arguably the show's "Tokyo" ), where it fought for eye- and ear-space with the Xbox 360, multimedia juggernaut EA, THQ and a raft of others. Unbeknownst to most, however, Play NC also had a secret suite of demo rooms set up, far from the blaze of the main show floors. MyGamer was fortunate enough to score a place in these coveted demo sessions, and we bring you this report.
You gotta pay to play… or do you?
Leading off this year's crop, Play NC demoed four of their new free-to-download, free-to-play titles, Dungeon Runners, Exteel, Soccer Fury and Smash Star. Of these titles, the publisher let us know that they hope to meet the needs of those players wanting "a shorter, faster MMO experience" than what is traditionally offered up by the genre. All four titles, it is promised, will be 100% free to download, and will offer up "basic" play on free basis as well. Additional game play elements can be purchased with a small fee, however, for right now, the publisher is keeping the full extent of the game play elements and fees a secret. The games will focus on delivering short, exciting game sessions and should lack most of the trademarks of fee-based MMOS, namely level grinding, exhaustive quests, and the like.
Dungeon Runners- This title played a bit like World of Warcraft on speed, and featured dungeon-crawl based sessions where players form adventuring parties on the fly. All the game's dungeons are randomly generated, so that no session is quite like another, and all the monsters populating those dungeons will be leveled to provide a challenge to the players. The graphics we saw looked a tad stiff, and the bright-red targeting indicator would probably drive us crazy after a few short hours, and there's no getting around the idea in our heads that "randomized dungeons" sounds like a short-cut workaround for actual well thought-out level design, but, hey, if you're a player that craves that, plus in-depth quests and character development, you're most likely already shelling out fees for a traditional MMO.
Exteel- Fans of the Armored Core franchise rejoice, for your MMO has arrived. Exteel pits teams of fast-moving ‘mechs against one-another in a sleek, futuristic city and amongst special combat arenas. Players use lasers, missiles, machine guns, energy shields, laser swords and other sci-fi weapons against their foes. As in Armored Core, half of the game's fun looks to come from the wealth of upgrade options a player might use to hot-rod their chosen ‘mech- everything from high-speed legs to supercharged power plants to gigantic guns the size of Detroit were showcased, all of which can radically alter your avatar's performance and looks. Game play was fast, furious and quite "arcade-y", and we lost several hours blowing anything and everything up in Play NC's booth. This is definitely a title to watch.
Soccer Fury- What do you call a game that's half Tekken Tag Tournament and Half FIFA Soccer? You call it Soccer Fury. All we saw of the game was an in-game movie, but it was devilishly impressive, seeing as how it was made front-to-back in the same engine that the devs promise players will experience in the final game. We saw a host of cool ball tricks, team-based game play and, of course, plenty of martial arts action as players used elbow smashes, round kicks and other "soccer-fu" moves on one-another. Personally, I've never been a fan of either fighting games or sports titles on the PC, but if Soccer Fury can deliver on the developer's promise of accessibility and fun, I may just have to revise that opinion.
Smash Star- I'm not too sure what to say about this title, which seems to be targeted squarely at the same demographic that finds titles such as Mario Golf irresistible. The game's art direction is squarely in the "kiddie body with gigantic eyes" school of anime gaming, right down to the female characters' short, pleated shirts and the males' aggressive, tropical-fish-like hair. We hesitate to say that this looks like a kids game, but hey we have to call ‘em like we sees ‘em. The tennis action, at least from what we could see of it from the non-playable movie demo, looked pretty action-packed anyway. More on this title as we get the details.
And now for the Heavyweights…
While these free-download/free-play titles were surprisingly compelling, it was the publisher's other titles that really had us salivating. Play NC showed three MMOs at this expo: the recently-released Guild Wars Factions, Tabula Rasa, the long-awaited FPS-flavored MMO from legendary creator Richard Gariott, and a little title called Aion, a Angels-versus-Demon MMO that seems, initially at least, to be targeted at the Asian market.
Guild Wars Factions– We interviewed ArenaNet's co-founder Jeff Strain last month, and now the game is live, but we were still thankful for the opportunity to have some of Cantha's more far-flung areas and towns demoed for us. We're going to release our full review of the title in a few days, so check back with Mygamer.com soon for our full write-up. As with the original Guild Wars, the game is free to play online after registration, and offers up more variety than most other pay-to-play games we've seen recently. The game's PvE exploration is robust while also maintaining a well-balanced and nearly sublime PvP experience, something that only a handful of past MMOs have been able to pull off. And, best of all, the game still looks fantastic, with the title's developers really digging deeply into Factions' graphic engine.
Tabula Rasa– We saw a version of this futuristic MMO at last year's show, and even then the game had been in development for over two years. We were intrigued by the game's promise of FPS-like, non-stop action in a MMO setting, but were somewhat let-down with the game's stuttering, occasionally poorly-textured graphics. We're happy to report that the game looks worlds better, and we're actually starting to get really pumped about the prospect of playing it. Tabula Rasa is the creation of Richard Gariott, famous for his genre-defining Ultima series, so expectations for a deep, rewarding gaming experience are high, to say the least. In the demo we saw, we piloted our soldier through a war-torn landscape, dodging mortar fire, waves of enraged alien attackers, gun emplacements, crazed, blood-thirsty zombie robots and even towering walkers and flying troop transports. The game really does a fantastic job, even in its current state, of simulating the frenetic FPS experience while leveling the playing field- unlike twitch-games like Unreal Tournament or Doom III, Low-Ping-Bastards will not have an intrinsic advantage in TR. And, best of all, the game promises a reduction in "grind" through its use of Character Clones. While we did not see this process in action in the demo, the developer promises that players can, at certain junctures, save a "clone" of their character. The player can then specialize their starting, generic Soldier into an advanced role, and then, should they desire a change at a later date, load up the clone and start down a different "branch" of the skill tree. No longer will you need to create a fresh level 1 character just to experiment with different classes! Tabula Rasa is getting close to release and should be on store shelves later this summer, so check back with MyGamer soon for more details and developer interviews.
Aion– We wish we'd seen more of this tile, which was demoed on the show floor, but which was not a part of our "official" demo rotation. In the end, however, we managed to wrangle the Korea-based development team into showing us a few things. What we can tell you is that the game tells the story of an epic battle between Angels, Demons and Dragons, using the Cry-tech engine (the same toolkit that made the critically acclaimed Far Cry look so fantastic) to bring the world to life. According to the developers we talked to, Aionwill probably be a free initial download with a 3-month trial period, however they were quick to point out that this might change as the game gets closer to its ship date. Best thing we saw: Wings! The graphics, of course, looked fantastic (we'd expect no less from Play NC), but there really was something startlingly cool about watching huge, glowing wings sprout from the character's back, flapping and carrying them aloft, then zooming down waterfall-filled canyons and valleys. Lovely. The devs are shooting for a "late 2006" beta period and a 2007 release, so we'll be sure to keep our ear to the ground for news.