The promise of blending a real-time strategy game with legions of gamers around the world in a persistent online environment is great. But pulling that off remains a challenge.
Earlier this month, I had a chance to sit down with End of Nations, Petroglyph Games' attempt at cracking the code for a working, successful MMORTS. While the game has some really neat ideas, the early build I played had some major implementation issues.
The backstory for End of Nations has you revolting against a group called the Order of Nations, something the developers describe as an amalgam of the United Nations and the military industrial complex. This totalitarian regime rises to power in the vacuum formed by a worldwide melt down of the economy and collapse of governments around the globe.
The Order of Nations is a high-tech, well-funded military complex that you have to take down with the help of players from around the world. End of Nations' plays up that need for massive cooperative play with maps big enough to support 50 players at once, we were told. But the demo we played had just four players working together to take out a mammoth walled city.
We were warned before we started that the developers still need to do a bunch of balancing and tweaks to the game. This was meant to be just an early look.
The map, titled End of the Line, opened with a quick run down of the objectives each of the teammates had to accomplish to get to and finally take out that mammoth central structure. It also explained some of the tactical choices we'd asked to make and the dangers we'd be facing.
Once the briefing ending the game opens with players each in command of a collection of units. While you can do things like add turrets and upgrade abilities, it didn't look like you were able to increase your unit count on the map. Fortunately, you can use the cash earned in the rolling battle across the map to repair and respawn the units you start with.
Our game split the team of four into two smaller teams, each with their own set of differing objectives. In the case of our team, we had to move up the map taking out smaller bases and control points before working our way back to the center of the map and that single mammoth structure.
The battles were quick, tactical affairs that focused more on the intensity of battle than any worries over resource gathering. (It appears resources come entirely from battle.) I was able to drop down a number of turrets that acted as sort of defensive positions to keep enemies from rolling up behind me as we made our way up the map to a sort of mini-boss battle at a smaller base. Currency awarded me through a dev cheat code also allowed me to call in some mammoth special attacks, like a barrage of missiles or a nuke. Both sped up what likely would have been a slower, more thoughtful progress up the map.
While the engagements were mostly point and click affairs, tactics and unit placement seemed to be an important part of the game. I enjoyed the fun, fast-pacing of the battles but I also noticed a few odd issues.
Chief among them was the inability to tackle objectives out of order. The early build I played didn't just make it difficult to confront that mammoth city in the center of the map early, it made it impossible. It appeared that massive base was invulnerable. While I understand the idea of forcing gamers to work their way through a map in a specific order, it might make more sense to just completely over-power that final objective and have it get easier as your team and the other group of two start to take down those ancillary targets.
And that brings up the other issue. The other team. The inherent problem with cooperative games is that you have to rely on cooperation to complete them. Typically, one would think that won't be a problem. People are there because they want to play together. But what if someone skips out early? In the demo we played it essentially made the map unbeatable. In our case the other team left early. We accomplished our goals, but because the other team hadn't we weren't able to complete the map.
We started to work our way down to the opposite corner of the map to try and complete their goals, but the distance and the spawn points made it beyond difficult and certainly not much fun. I'm hoping that as the team work toward launch they keep both of those issues in mind. They seem very fixable, and it could mean a much better play experience.
The one thing I really didn't get a sense of during the demo was the persistence of this online universe and how the game will play out over time and with more engagements. In other words, I didn't get a sense of how this is anything other than a real-time strategy game. It was nice to see that the heart of the game is built on some solid concepts, but I remain very interested in how this game is going to work as a bigger massively multiplayer online title.