Enemy encounters in Auto Assault are frenzied and often bewildering exercises. Your opponent’s vehicles spin off in hurried directions, gunfire erupts from shell-shucking turrets, and, often enough to notice, your enemies get stuck behind some stubborn hunk of blasted debris, or they turn n’ burn their wheels up a precarious slope in a futile attempt to take evasive action.
There are countless ways for your own vehicle to be slowed down or stopped while fighting, even while just taking a Sunday afternoon cruise. But in this end-of-the-world backdrop, standing still equals death. Keeping your vehicle in constant motion applies defense bonuses during combat (or so I’ve read; it’s pretty tough to do the math in the middle of a firefight.) The turreted weapon affixed to your roof is hot keyed to lock onto an opponent, but actually nailing your target is determined by your character’s skills and some behind-the-scenes dice rolling. It’s pretty easy to forget that fact when you’re in the heat of combat with an enemy in your cone of fire -- unloading your guns for all their worth -- and you only see the words Miss, Miss, Miss, Deflected, harmlessly scrolling off their vehicle.
Taking down an enemy that is on par with your level already serves as a decent encounter (good job), let alone if they’re one or two levels higher than you (good luck), and then there’s the principle that enemies roll in packs (good night). One strike against the enemy AI -- which translates into a saving grace for me -- is that it doesn’t negotiate the terrain with the greatest acumen. It will thump lamely against a piece of rubble, going to great effort not to destroy the already blasted ruins. I would credit the AI if this were true in their hideouts and bases, since wrecking their own home wouldn’t be in their best interests. But this is the default setting for the enemy: Never hesitant to take a player down, but squeamish in clearing a path for themselves.
Like I said, this is a saving grace for me. I’ve already sunk myself into many a life-threatening situation, only to be saved by an ill-placed pile of destruct-o-building or stalagmite that traps an enemy. Thankfully, players are equipped with a ‘B’ button that will bounce them out of those same tight situations.
And as the enemy grind their gears to drive out of their glued-in state of affairs, I’m limping off, healing myself over time by communing with nature. That may sound like some Daryl Hannah tree-sitting agenda, but it’s actually how mutants self-medicate and repair themselves. In answer to this ability, humans have devised superior shielding technology and biomeks have superior armor fittings; a game balancing mechanism between the three races that keeps them from operating like clones of one another.
Communing with nature, however, represents how mutants haven’t just adapted to the environment; they’ve learned to live in harmony with it. It’s also a great way to quick-fix your vehicle on the move, instead of pit stopping at repair shops every time a Pike takes a potshot at you on your way to the next zone.
Should “the world’s fastest MMO” not get you to the next zone fast enough, the neutral INC corporation provides prompt airlift services for every faction. For a fee they will drop you off at any previously unlocked waypoint on the map; a great service if there are four or five zones between you and your goal, but perhaps a tad wasteful of ‘clink’ if you’re only a few miles from your final destination. Again, this fee is waived should you end up as a stack of burning tire rubber and metal bumpers, or if you just need to catch a ride to the last repair depot you visited (this particular service is probably subsidized by all three factions’ governments). Also, if that B button isn’t bouncing you out of a stuck spot, INC can get you out of any situation, anytime, providing you sit still long enough for them to pinpoint your location. You can’t get a rolling airlift with your pedal to the metal, evacuating some enemy hotspot.
The mutant hierarchy, however, is not paying me to idle around, so uncovering some map acreage and getting a feel for my Cub Cab 50 (which looks like a Chevy Avalanche dunked in a vat of ugly) is of paramount priority. Main transportation arteries won’t serve my purposes when I’m trying to figure out how to ‘B’ bounce my truck up the vertical cliff face of that plateau over there.
Even though the landscape doesn’t wow me at every turn -- though it has its moments -- it does a laudable job of conveying lengthy sets of latitudes and longitudes to explore. Mutant outposts are placed at intuitive niches on the map, with large swaths of gravel, grass, and sand blanketing between. My tires have a spec readout for driving on ice and snow, but it doesn’t look like I’ll encounter any of that soon. Right now it’s all baked earth and wavering heat lines on the horizon. Flora and fauna grow up apropos of their environment, with mutated wildlife flocking around bodies of water. Scavengers scurry like field mice amongst the ruins, salvaging whatever junk they can. And Pikes, apparently a group even more outcast than mutants, dig for minerals in makeshift mining camps that polka dot the hillsides, religiously seeking out their god in the dirt (and generally acting hostile toward anyone coming within 50 yards of them).
A particular set of early missions bring the Pike and Mutant hatred to a head, questioning the senseless violence between the two groups. While drama doesn’t run high in a game so giddy with vehicle combat, this proves to be a more memorable subplot. It’s too bad that the tenuous Mutant-Pike relationship is so earnestly explored ... and summarily discarded with nary a sound afterward. But maybe that’s just me: I’m on a 12-step acceptance program for my drama whore tendencies. I concede, however, that there’s plenty more storyline to go. Who knows how this stage show will pan out?
This isn’t the only example of sharp writing, though. The quest givers gleefully swing between objectively and subjectively motivated goals, with intentions that range from scientific method to personal vendetta. The technical jargon of some dialogue can begin to lose me, but, uncannily, my character tends to drift off in the mission narrative as well. The writers mercifully joke around by dropping lines that go something like, “You realize that you haven’t been paying any attention to Billy Bob for several minutes now,” when Billy Bob Scientist is waxing encyclopedic over some obscure plant biology.
Something worth noting is the familiar mission structure. Beyond your Mad Max delusions of vehicular coolness, the quests systematically follow recognizable MMO mores and guidelines. Collect five of these. Shoot down ten of those. Follow these waypoints to learn about the battlefield history of the surrounding territory and wonder why nothing is exploding yet in this part of the scenario. To Auto Assault’s credit on that last one: At least it’s not only creating a future, it’s creating a past for itself as well.
If that’s not a daring motivator in your book, then perhaps garnering rewards is. A chest full of shiny medals awaits combatants for completing a myriad of measurable accomplishments. While killing ten or 100 of a particular enemy is typical for the genre, getting a medal for it makes the act all the more palatable. An attic full of awards is polished and ready to pin on your chest as you, probably unwittingly, win one during some mission deployment.
Day One: Tutorial and Proving Grounds
Hell breaks loose near the tutorial’s conclusion, up on Tierra Roja. I’m talking to my combat trainer when explosions start rocking the camera and gunfire erupts nearby. I cut the conversation short, peel away, and start tapping my auto-lock hotkey.
Human soldiers. Ten. Maybe twenty, I can’t tell, because they’ve scattered in opposite directions. Applying a “move or die” mantra, I keep my finger attached to the W button and burn circles and figure eights around the human scum. They answer with weak blue laser beams and even weaker death throes. My Vindicator light chain gun cuts them to pieces, arterial blood spray spurting from their soft infantry bodies. Most of them get shot into flying hunks of arms, legs, and torsos.
They all fall down.
I return to my combat trainer and, apparently, he’s pissed because he ordered me to flee the scene and let the local security deal with the human incursion. But then he breaks out in a hearty laugh, pats me on the back, and sends me on my way, more confident than ever about my potential as a warrior of the tribes.
I head for the gate that separates the tutorial from the Proving Grounds, a little ‘clink’ in my pockets, and a Level Up! sign scrolling up on my screen. I decide to pass through the gates before I tend to my leveling up responsibilities.
A movie entitled “Witness the Glory” takes a sky cam tour of the Proving Grounds, a dead serious narrator fleshing out the last hundred years or so of mutant history.
“It started in fire. It will end in fire.”
The movie ends (not impressively by any means) and, thankfully, the desolation is more palpable from the ground. I’m sitting at the northern cusp of desert badlands. I roll casually up a steep incline toward my first mutant outpost: A dusty gathering of three or four sharply-angled structures (Mutant Deco, or Mutant Nouveau? I can never tell the difference) and a green-glowing repair pad. I honestly found myself squinting at my computer screen from the dust storm rummaging across the ground. Time to level up.
Within most of the lower levels I will level up points in three areas: R&D, attributes, and skills. I apply one research point toward Memorization, which is my ability to remember a particular crafting recipe so that I may repeat the process without having to re-memorize it over and over. In attributes I placed two points on Combat (forgoing Theory, Tech, and Perception for now; am I a Champion or am I a Champion?) Then I choose the Commune (healing) skill with my available Skill point. A lot of reviewers have stated that the no-experience-loss death ruins any sense of danger out there.
-- But I’m not buyin’ it. I’m not heading out into that no man’s land to die. I’m heading out there to make everything else die. And I want to do that with minimal commutes back and forth to repair depots.
I speak to a Champion standing in this outpost, a tall beam of light extending skyward for me to see from a healthy distance, indicating that she’s got something mission-related to tell me. She’s the Point B to a mission handed to me in the Tierra Roja tutorial, so I’m rewarded with my first front end Tri-Fecta machine gun. While my original turret weapon spins in a 360-degree arc around me, the front end weapon is stationary, only hitting targets within its forward-aimed firing arc. It’s tougher keeping an enemy in your front sights like that, but I’m betting it’s plenty useful for cutting into stationary structures, fences, guard towers, etc.
Excitedly I open my inventory window and pair it up next to my vehicle overlay wscreen. I repeatedly try to drag it to the front weapon hardpoint -- unsuccessfully -- until I see that it’s only mountable by a third-level Champion. And I just made second.
There are still plenty of slots in my inventory tab, though, so I don’t despair. And, if this MMO progresses like most, third level is only minutes away. While in my inventory tab, I notice that I’m also collecting an already hefty assortment of crafting materials. Innocuous-sounding objects like “scavenged nuts and bolts,” “pieces of metal,” (literally) “junk,” and other randomly MacGyver-inspired ingredients. I don’t have a clue as to what to do with all this stuff yet, so I’m just going to let it stack up in my sizeable inventory. As for now, the only craft I’m pursuing is war craft (no relation to you know who).
My mission journal points me over to a Champion trainer some 400 yards west toward a second encampment. I’m not entitled to a “missions completed” tab, but the available missions listed in my journal are well-written, with objectives and locations standing out clearly and easy to skim. There’s some sort of fight club set up here, with a couple other champions bowing before a mother earth monument. You get a lot of that kinda thing with Mutants.
For completing that mission an NPC there grants me Guajardo’s Tricanon, a little beauty that attaches to my front weapon hardpoint and has a three-target spray. And I can already equip it at second level. Sweet mother of destruction, here I come.
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