By admin | January 10, 2011
Westwood Studios was the pioneer of the real-time strategy genre, and now it’s set on blazing a trail through an unexplored section of another realm — namely, the first big-name space-themed massively multiplayer RPG.
It’s a refreshing take on the genre in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s great to finally have a new MMORPG that’s not set in a kill-the-orcs-and-rats fantasy setting. Plus, it doesn’t require a library of thick manuals and intimate knowledge of obscure third-edition Dungeon & Dragons rules just to start playing. And it’s pulled off what was — and remains — perhaps the most glitch-free launch for a massively multiplayer online game ever.
Finally, and surprisingly (given its focus on team play), it actually manages to appeal to both solitary gamers and social players — not an easy task for a game that’s played 100 percent online.
Set in a distant future, Earth & Beyond drops you in the midst of a galaxy made up of 11 systems, each containing a number of assorted navigational points of interest, ranging from asteroids to space stations to homeworlds.
You can play as one of three races — Progen (who consider themselves uber-beings and masters of combat), Jenquai (peaceful thinkers who are masters of exploration), and Terrans (boring ol’ humans who excel at free enterprise). You also choose one of six trades: Explorer, Warrior, Defender (a defensive warrior, per se), Enforcer, Sentinel (a blend of warrior and explorer), and Tradesman.
Each race and trade offers a distinct playing style and a different perspective on the game’s constantly evolving story, which centers on ancient stargates and strange alien invaders that are appearing throughout the galaxy and raising havoc. You can choose to ignore the main plot, and concentrate on building up your character’s skills, upgrading your ship, and exploring the galaxy — all very fun things to do in and of themselves. Or you can elect to seek out and fulfill missions that are part of the central plot. And you can do either of these paths by yourself or with others, depending on your personal preference.
If you pick the former route — play mostly by yourself — the game still has a ton to offer. It’s sort of a Privateer experience but with hordes of human players who can answer questions when you’re stuck or chat with you during long transits between systems (of which there are many). Westwood has four separate game servers running, each with 500 to 1,600 people online at any given time.
Decide to dive into the community and team up with other players, and you’ll be rewarded with experience bonuses and upgrades that solitary players forgo. Also, each race’s skills are designed to combine with those from other races to create well-balanced teams. So it does pay to play together, particularly when you hit a difficult mission.
Each race/trade has a beginning tutorial and easy-to-follow intro missions that will get you off and running quickly. The controls and interface couldn’t be simpler — Earth & Beyond adheres strongly to the Keep It Simple, Stupid principle. Flight controls are handled entirely by keyboard and mouse (I like the default settings, but everything is configurable), and it takes only an hour or two to get fully up to speed.
Where the KISS principle falters a bit is in the chat and navigation systems. Figuring out how to respond to individual people can be daunting (it involves a “/tell Frank” command, when you should just be able to click on their name in the chat window). Setting up or joining a particular private chat is similarly tricky.
And the navigation map is simply far too difficult to understand as far as figuring out how to get from a planet in System A to a starbase in System B — particularly at the outset of a game, when only a few navigation points per system are marked for you. Westwood has addressed this issue a bit with a new downloadable map that offers much more detail in this regard. Still, some sort of onboard “trip computer” that automatically sets up safe routes between major points would have been a good idea — heck, you get one with a new Lexus, right?
While extremely friendly to newbies, this game may not be challenging enough to hold the attention of more hardcore players for too long — at least not at $13/month (the first month is “free”). E&B’s skill system is pretty straightforward, so there really isn’t a huge difference between one Progen Warrior and the next. And the piloting is extremely basic: you can’t use your fancy new force-feedback joystick because the game doesn’t support joysticks or gamepads, and the space physics (or lack thereof) don’t allow for much in the way of showing off.
Furthermore, because of Westwood/EA’s determination to keep E&B as “clean” as possible so as not to offend new/young/sensitive players, it’s missing a certain “rogue” quality that may turn off MMORPG vets. For instance, there’s no player-versus-player (PvP) combat at this time — when you’re fighting, it’s against drones, space worms, and marauding pirates, and PvP is conspicuous in its absence. Case in point: The story depicts the Progen as the most vile enemy of the Jenquai people, to the point that as a Jenquai you’re itching to tear any Progen that you stumble across a new one. However, you can’t be anything worse than neutral to a Progen character, and through the skill sets you’re actually encouraged to pool your respective talents. Howzat?
Jump on any server and you’ll see someone begging for PvP sooner or later, and Westwood should deliver it in some shape or form (add a new high level–only system that’s PvP, for instance, or a separate PvP server). PvP could also open up new and interesting professions such as pirates, outlaws, and assassins.
While support for forming and maintaining guilds is built into the game, you unfortunately can’t create custom skins or decals for your ship at this time, though an extensive customization option at the outset lets you tweak your vessel’s shape, along with your on-planet avatar’s look and dress style.
“Experienced-player” caveats aside, Earth & Beyond is as beautiful and enthralling a space-exploration game as this space junkie has ever played — standalone or online. Having put in close to 50 hours in nine days, I’ve seen barely a hint of lag (playing over DSL) and not a single fatal crash or lockup. This stability is a testament to thorough beta-testing: E&B’s as polished a MMORPG as you’re likely to find so early in a game’s life cycle.
That’s a big reason why it represents the best option for getting your feet wet in the genre. And even if you’re an experienced MMORPG vet who’s simply tired of bashing rats, Earth & Beyond offers a refreshing alternative to the fantasy standards.
— Steve Klett