Editor's note, you can check out Charles' preview of Auto Assault here
Crafting the image of an avatar is a past time reaching back into biblical epochs, so I’m never surprised that in MMOs -- in any game -- crafting the image of an avatar becomes such an engrossing activity.
In Auto Assault, Biomeks, Humans, and Mutants form the triumvirate of racial options at your fingertips. Each lives according to a doctrine of xenophobia, revenge, and racial superiority. Each seeks the unilateral destruction of the opposing two. And each storyline hands the player well-written tracts of storied propaganda in order to properly align player motivations.
The humans are only recently reemerging onto the planet’s surface, determined to reclaim their rightful position on top of the scorched earth’s food chain. The mutants have adapted to the nuclear fallout on the surface, and will die before handing their lands back over to the human betrayers. The biomeks have adapted to surface-dwelling just as adroitly, albeit with plenty of mechanized reworking. All are compelling choices.
The biomeks trade ornamental coolness for blocky, hard-lined edges: The kinds that make broken chunks of pavement look soft and cuddly. Humanity dresses their people and vehicles in neon and metal, granting them a Tron meets the Terrordome aesthetic: A striking motif that nominates them as the obvious poster children for Auto Assault. The mutants exude the leather and lizard-skinned contours that complement their smoldering green eyes and earth mother spiritualism. The Mutants, with their third world naming conventions and overall bad-assitude, had me at ‘hello.’
Each race is given a set of cosmetic options involving spectrums of skin, hair, and armor colors, as well as helmets, jewelry, mouthpieces, and optical enhancements. Get comfy with your avatar’s look, because you’ll wear it for the rest of the game. But, with 12 character slots available, your looks and charm can take many guises -- at least enough to additionally try out one of each type of character class. You may respec your character’s attribute, R&D, and skill points in specified towns should you feel gimped from a bad build, or if you just want to experiment with greater and lesser emphasis on different traits. Your first respec is free, but a fee grows from nominal to exorbitant the more you pursue this option, and you have a 48 hour waiting period between each respec.
Each race sponsors four classes; the names accommodate the differing racial backgrounds, but harbor equal stats across racial (and gendered) lines. The frontline combatant scores highest, naturally, in the combat trait, which determines fighting and driving abilities and further affects weapon and skill accuracy. The frontline combatant is known to the biomeks as a Terminator, to the humans as a Commando, and to the mutants as a Champion. Oh, and later in the game, these guys get tanks. The producers recommend amateur players begin here. Frontline combatants have the sheer firepower to conduct sustained field operations, alone if need be, utilizing tried and true kick-in-the-door tactics. I took the producer’s advice and created a mutant Champion, but the other options bear equally tempting descriptions. But there’s no way I’m passing up the opportunity to become a tank army of one.
The support & indirect combatant fulfills a buffing and healing role. The biomek Constructors, human Engineers, and mutant Shamans discharge their duties with the highest tech score among the classes. A high tech score is indicative of practical knowledge, which, in this game, affects your vehicle’s hit points (self explanatory) and heat capacity (how continuously you can fire your weapons before overheating). And when it comes to chassis, these guys are driving the biggest vehicles you meet on the road, eventually able to upgrade to semi trucks.
If controlling third-party constructs (or creatures) on the battlefield is your cup of tea, then you want to tip cups with the theory-centric Commander. Highly intelligent and educated, the Commander -- biomek Mastermind, human Lieutenant, and mutant Archon -- excels in power capacity (the frequency of push-button skills they can implement) and exploiting enemy weaknesses. They somehow end up with the sleekest line of vehicles to choose from, too.
But if you really want to exploit enemy weaknesses, then the roguish special ops character belongs to your outfit. The biomek Agent, human Bounty Hunter, and mutant Avenger specialize in perception and have superior chances of performing critical hits and gaining percentage point advantages toward defense. If you want to pilot a crotch rocket of some sort, go special ops for these incredibly fast and maneuverable choppers.
You have the option of taking on Auto Assault as a soloist, if you so desire, and I certainly enjoy playing the lone wolf, even in MMOs. It gives me plenty of time to soak in visuals, soak in storylines, and soak up bullets … without the embarrassment of having an audience. I certainly look forward to the missions that may require a larger convoy of players, but I’m not much of a team builder. That particular fact about me looks horrible on resumes, but really tests my limits as an individual, gradually crafting me into a better teammate as I improvise, adapt, and overcome my avatar’s (read: my) weaknesses.
So I take my mutant Champion -- named Case, as in shell casings -- take the keys to my Cub Cab 50 -- named Below, because that’s where it looks like it crawled up from -- and rush headlong into the inglorious future that awaits us all. And with each of the worldwide servers now merged into one, known as “Nexus,” I’ll be feeling this rush with the most players on a single server Auto Assault had yet seen. And with the new “Faction” chat channel opened, I can read the celebrations, disappointments, flame wars, and marketers all abuzz about events, sightings, and misconceptions, like a scrolling tickertape of MySpace ramblings.
The decision to merge into a single server came from scathingly low player populations. That lengthy top row of Auto Assault boxes at your local Circuit City? That’s the horrifying spectacle of overestimated sales. That high level of anticipation can’t fully be blamed on NCsoft, however. E3 previews for Auto Assault had review sites pinning “Most Anticipated” all over it. NCsoft’s other stellar MMO titles are award winners as well: City of Heroes, Guild Wars, and Lineage II (which, according to MMOGchart.com, owns the second largest share of pay-to-play subscribers). So NCsoft had every indication that Auto Assault’s debut would rock. That didn’t happen. With population densities rarely peaking above “very low,” forming the worldwide “Nexus” server was the only solution from player outcries.
This game is attempting to do something different with the MMO genre, and it’s paying for it out of pocket. Yes, certain conventions define an MMO, and Auto Assault doesn’t escape all of them, nor does it wish to in every sense. Where it wants to make an impact is in the seemingly set in stone click-and-wait policy of combat. Not to mention the click-and-wait policy of harvesting resources for crafting, but plenty more on that later.
The mutants’ thematic storyline is heavily embroiled in tribal lore and tradition, in social prominence through combat, and a divinely- and scientifically-inspired communion with nature. They marry concepts from logic and metaphysics, knowledge and meditation, and they do it within the societal conventions of honor and sacrifice. Take equal parts shaman and samurai and you’ll have a reasonable grasp of mutant philosophy.
While good deeds and a Boy Scout reputation deal their own kind of currency, it’s not the hard currency that pays the bills; and the mission rewards in Auto Assault keep you well-abreast of the best technology you can outfit your vehicle with, considering your level progression. You can shovel out the “clink” for that next-best trigun blaster for your front-loaded vehicle hardpoint, but completing the missions hand out so much more money and experience as to make level-grinding that much harder to engage in.
I’m a story-driven individual. I’m willing to ride out the inherent difficulties of surviving a post-apocalyptic landscape as long as the game keeps feeding me plot points. I get particularly edgy when gaps appear in level progression due to a lack of missions. And I’m downright inconsolable if I’m on a certain-level mission that is wretchedly imbalanced with overpowered enemies. Sitting around and cleaning my windshield at the local repair shop is not my idea of an afternoon of fun either, but here’s where Auto Assault takes another big risk: in death and dying.
There’s zero experience loss when you die, which, I’ll admit, gives plenty of berth for guns blazin’, balls to the walls action. Taking on damage will start to crack your health meter and send sparks shooting from your vehicle, but with so many vivid explosions and particle effects saturating the screen it’s easy to not notice you’re dying. Sound effects rage in 360-degree arcs with guns, lasers, missiles, flamethrowers, and biochemical sprays tearing up vehicles and landscape with commendable gusto. Gear shifting, grinding ground textures, and vehicular crashes (into buildings, trees, other vehicles -- nearly all of it destructible) surround you with such a cacophony of chaos that, again, the sound of your own death will simply drown in the off-key symphony of combat.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, your vehicle will serve as your coffin at several points throughout your Auto Assault career. So don’t complain too loudly if the only loss of experience comes through the agony of defeat and the embarrassment of INC picking up your smoking carcass and dropping it off at the last repair depot you visited … which might be several miles away from where you progressed on the map. Since much of the map is non-instanced, those enemies you so courageously plowed through the first time have subsequently respawned for you to face again. Then there’s the added factor that you, weak link that you are, left the rest of your convoy amidst even greater overwhelming odds to perish out there in those desert sands. No penalty for dying? There’s penalty enough.
But don’t abandon hope, all ye who enter here. There is ample time to scale-up your gameplay abilities, and for the mutants, the newbie yard is known as the Proving Grounds. After personally accepting to follow The Way, my mutant mentors commend me with the respect due a Champion of the tribes, and they opened the horn-rimmed gates for me to proceed to these Proving Grounds and begins my Rites of Ascension.
A short video implored me to “witness the glory” of the nuclear-blasted landscape, excellently narrated with movie-trailer panache (“It began in fire. It will end in fire), and gradually pans into the third-person camera that I’ll be directing the destructive action from.
I comprehend that I’m now existing in a scorched earth campaign, but the land shouldn’t be devoid of striking or even beautiful sights and sensations -- it should douse me with the shock and awe of the insurmountable devastation; I should be moved by Sodom and Gomorrah-levels of ruin; I want to shake my head at the painful realization that this could truly be a heart rending portrait of our Earth a few centuries from now.
Instead, I’m somewhat impressed by the arcade-y nature of the landscape and the few other dull comparisons my mind is dishing up. The gameworld’s wreckage doesn’t approach the hellish pileups you can witness in a Constantine, or a Mad Max, or a Terminator film. It’s not completely unprecedented to compare a videogame to a movie, these types of movies are the obvious inspiration for Auto Assault, and for some reason the filmic quality of Auto Assault doesn’t aptly earn my Roger Ebert thumbs up. Maybe it earns my Richard Roeper thumbs up, but we all know the difference.
There’s no requirement for this title to go extra large on their architecture and landscaping as, say, the concept artists in World of Warcraft do. Nor do they have to create the fantastical sheen of a Guild Wars instance. But the structures that make up the outposts and towns in Auto Assault appear somewhat shrunken down in scale: Like the players are oversized micro machines driving circles around zoomed-in RTS structures. The towns are even set up like an RTS base, which, on one hand makes perfect strategic sense for the struggling races, and indeed makes short work of commuting on foot, but nonetheless takes a dainty bite out of the immersion factor. Buildings that are, externally, the size of a gas station mini-mart suddenly expand to the size of a soccer field when you walk inside of them. And only a strategic bare minimum of structures exist. Old World buildings, still standing or not, are rarely-inspired rectangles of rusty steel and concrete. You gotta make me a believer, and I’m not buying 100 percent of what I’m seeing.
Hell with it. Let’s blow something up already.
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