NC Soft has made a fine niche for itself with their innovative MMORPG games. Sure they have some of the run of the mill fantasy games like the Lineage series but they also have games like the no-fee Guild Wars, the superhero themed City of Heroes/City of Villains, and their upcoming post apocalyptic car game Auto Assault.
To be up front with you I’m not exactly a hard core MMORPG player. I’ve played bits and pieces of several games in the past and quit them to either a lack of interest (Everquest II)/RF Online) or too much of an interest (World of Warcraft/City of Heroes). I’m also a fan of games that I can jump in and out of as I don’t have a lot of free time to invest in just one game which directly impacts my ability to invest large amounts of time to just one game. So I was a bit intrigued by Auto Assault which seemed to provide a decent experience for those who didn’t have a lot of time to spend during the week with a game as well as the depth for those who did.
The plot for the game starts in the near future with the Earth being hit by a mysterious meteor shower. The shower has the slightly negative effect of mutating a large number of the human race. The humans tried to control the mutants but didn’t have a lot of luck so they created bio-mechanical humans (biomeks) to try and control the mutants. This didn’t really solve the problem as the biomeks rebelled against their human masters. The humans then decided to go under ground and restart the world using the giant nuclear reset button and then re-establish themselves with a clean slate of a planet (the humans are kind of douchebags in this game). After the humans emerged from their underground bunkers they realize that their plan didn’t exactly work as planned as they now have to compete with the biomeks and mutants survivors for resources and control of the planet.
I have been in the beta for the game for about since around October of last year and it was hard not to be excited after the game. After two really strong showings at E3 in 2004 and 2005 I was eager to get my hands on the game. What I found initially was a little on the disappointing side. For some reason I really did not connect with the game the way that I had hoped to. The missions were a little on the sparse side and I just couldn’t get into the game play they way that I had gotten into City of Heroes and other games, Heading the age of advice of “If you don’t have anything nice to say keep your yap shut” I decided to hold off on committing pixels to the screen to see what magic the folks at Net Devil could infuse into the game.
Flash forward to December and I am looking for something to do on a Saturday night as the girlfriend has left me stranded for the night and all of my other friends were out with their own significant others. It had just been announced that Net Devil was going to push back the release of the game into 2006 and I wanted to see where the game was at in its current state. After spending an hour or so watching the game download a new version of the game I re-rolled a new toon and was immediately enthralled with the game. I began to look forward to Wednesday and Saturday nights when I could get the opportunity to play the game (NC Soft only allowed people to test the games on those nights during the early part of the beta). This was OK as it didn’t really interfere with my normal life. That was until a few weeks ago when NC Soft turned the servers on 24/7 and I could play whenever I wanted to. Since then I’ve I often caught myself sneaking online to blow through a couple of quick missions before I went to bed or just hopping on to a server to craft a few items for some extra clink before I went to work in the morning. This isn’t to say that you will only enjoy the game in small doses rather you can just hop on for a “quickie” instead of having to devote several hours to getting anything done in the game.
Like most MMORPGs you start the game by creating your character. In Auto Assault you have the choice of one of the three races (humans, biomek, and mutant)as well as one of four classes. The classes are slight tweaks on your standard MMORPG classes as you have a support class (healer), frontline combat (tank), command (summon/control pets), and special ops class (ranged combat/stealth).
These classes start out with a different level of the games four character attributes: Combat, Technology, Theory, and Perception. Combat measures how accurate you are with your weapons and how well you drive your vehicle. Technology determines your hit points as well as a boost in how much heat your weapons can produce before shutting down. Theory governs how much energy (mana) you have while Perception controls your defensive skill and chance to get a critical hit.
Once you have selected your race and class you get to customize your in-game avatar. There are plenty of options to customize your character and while it’s not as deep as the system in City of Heroes it certainly gets the job done. The next step is to customize your starter vehicle. There aren’t a lot of options to begin with as you only get to set the paint pattern, the two colors of your vehicle, the name, and wheel covers on the vehicle. While these options may seem limited you will pick up more options as you progress through the game.
Each race has its own tutorial level that immediately helps set the tone and background for that particular race. For instance the human race starts with you leaving the underground bunkers where the humans have been hiding since they nuked the world. While the mutants and biomeks have tutorials that help establish their look and culture. It’s a nice touch and really adds to the flavor to the game.
The controls in Auto Assault standard fair.. You have your WASD controls for moving your car through the world with left mouse button interacts with the world/selecting targets and the right mouse button firing your weapons. Some of the other main key you’ll use when exploring the world is the B button which bounces your vehicle in case you get stuck in an awkward positing or for helping to elevate your jumps (more on that in a minute). The rest of the controls are what you would expect from any MMORPG. I shows your cargo and current car hard points with the K button show your skills, the number keys 1-0 activate the skill assigned to them or use an object in inventory that you’ve assigned to it. The J key brings up your journal of missions. and the M key brings up the map of the world. There are other keys in the games but these are the ones that I used the most.
Aiming your weapons is done very well as there are two good ways to deal death and destruction. The user interface shows the arcs of the weapons currently equipped in your car. Each car has three main weapon hard points, the front and rear which are fixed and a turret which can be used to kill anything in a radius around your car. With the turret weapon you can either click on a particular target and have the turret track one particular target(helpful for fighting tougher opponents or bosses) or you can simply rotate the arc around the car and it will fire on anything that enters the arc (best suited for taking out clumps of infantry). It’s a nice system and allows for some flexibility when you are engaging in combat.
The Bounce button is probably one of the most entertaining buttons in the game as it looks like it started off as a way to dislodge your vehicle when it gets stuck in a crevice or up against a rock formation but what I really use it for was for getting that extra little bit of air when ramping my vehicle off the ramps and cliffs in the game. Since your vehicle doesn’t take falling damage the game practically begs you to perform sweet “Dukes of Hazzard” style jumps all through out the game. These are actually encouraged as the folks at Net Devil have left small jump ramps scattered though out the game. The only thing that would make this better would be if you could map a WAV file of the General Lee’s horn to a button for every time you had to jump a giant ravine. It should be noted that your roommates/live in significant others will give you the odd look every time you yell “yeee….HAAAAH” while performing these jumps. Just a little FYI from me to you.
After you learn the basic controls you are thrust out into the world to begin hunting down missions. Finding missions is relatively easy as any NPC who has a mission for you has a large beam of light shining down on them. This beam goes into the sky of the map so if you are in town and want to make sure you have all of the missions for that town you just have to tilt the camera up and do a quick 360 to see if you have missed any. For the most part missions are fairly typical MMORPG fare as you will be getting your share of deliver package X to person Y, pick up package X from person Y, kill X number of people in Area Z, collect Q number of items and so forth. There are a few missions that involve the crafting system in the game but for the most part the game features missions you would expect from a game of this type..
What separates these missions from your ordinary MMO is how fast you can complete them. Since you have a car it’s very easy to complete a lot of missions in a short amount of time or complete clumps of them at a time. Another factor in this is that you can use the INC transport service. INC is a race neutral service that will transport you for free to any visited town on the map as well as picking you up and returning you to a repair station when you are destroyed. While the majority of the missions are short being able to knock three and four off at a time really gives a sense of accomplishment even if you can only log in for a few hours a week. Another great point about the missions is that there are a lot of them (especially for the humans). I was able to get up to level 22 without any really large gaps in the missions. Currently there is a bit of a mission gap between levels 21 and 25 but hopefully Net Devil will fill those in before the game goes live.
This is a boon for those who hate the MMO grind that seems to have become a standard in the industry. In the forty or so hours I’ve logged in the game I never really felt the need to go out and just hunt for experience points and that’s a good thing (at least in my opinion) as the missions provide enough experience points to get you through the game.
The majority of the map takes place in one main persistent world so you will occasionally have to compete with other players for kills. Kill stealing was never really an issue for me in the game and since the loot is only visible to the player who made the kill you don’t have to worry about anyone ganking your hard earned loot. There are a few instanced area in the game that are usually based around one of the bosses in the game but there are some that contain their own story arc. It’s a nice blend and I really didn’t have any problems with this setup.
The game does tend to give you missions that are one or two levels above your current level which isn’t all bad. The game does not have any kind of death penalty so you are never really penalized for taking chances in the game which is something that I really enjoyed. One of the reasons that I stopped playing City of Heroes was because I was so far in XP debt that it kind of took the fun out of exploring parts of the game. No such problems here though.
For the most pat you can also solo most of the game without having to convoy up with any other players. You do get an XP bonus for joining a convoy but for those solitary bounty hunters out there it’s not a requirement unless you need to take down one of the major bosses in the game and even then you can just wait until you are a level or two higher and then take them out.
Besides the missions Auto Assault offers a fairly deep crafting system. I know this because of two things. The first is that I’ve gone through the crafting tutorial three times and it and the second is that the trunk of my car if filled with all kinds of crap that I picked up while exploring the wastelands. Seriously, I’ve got patched glass, functional nuts and bolts, and plating than I know what to do with. Well, that’s a lie. I’m going to turn those into a nice set of armor and use the money from that to pay for a new set of tires for my car.
Crafting is made up of several disciplines such as projectile weapons, power plants, and armor as well as the ingredients that make up that specific discipline. For example the majority of the armor items will require plating plus several other things like nuts and bolts or magnetics. These items have three different grades, salvaged, patched, and functional with each level being composed of X number of the previous levels. For example two salvaged magnetics make up one patched magnetics and two patched magnetics make up one functional magnetic so if you need to make one function magnetic you are going to have to scrounge up four salvaged magnetics. What’s interesting is that different recipes call for different levels of ingredients so you just don’t want to roll into town and refine everything into its highest grade.
Items can only be crafted in town and at certain locations within the town. Each item has it’s own special area, for example weapons and devices can only be constructed at a control shop while power plants can only be done at a reactor. Not all towns have these areas but since you can use INC to transport yourself around from town to town you’re never that far away from crafting an item.
The crafting system is governed by four research skills: Reverse engineering, memorization, experimentation, and tinkering, As you progress through the game you will earn research points as you level up and as a reward for completing certain missions.
Reverse-engineering allows you take an assembled item and break it down into its component parts. This is helpful if you want to learn how to build something by breaking it down and repairing it or if you need a component that’s being used by one of the items.
The crafting system also allows you to repair broken items you find in the wasteland or purchase from the junk shop. This is where memorization comes in as when you repair an item you also have a chance to memorize how to build that item so later on you can build it with just the base parts. This is helpful in that you can quickly create items to sell as well as helping you to increase your skill in that one particular area.
The experimentation skill allows you to modify the standard recipe for certain things to make even better items. The skill governs your chance of actually being able to piece something together.
Tinkering allows you unlock gadget slots on armor, chassis, and weapons. The higher your tinkering skill the easier it will be for you to unlock these slots. These slots allow you to increase the power of a weapon or add resistance or increased defense to armor.
The only area of gameplay that I didn’t get a chance to play through was the various Arena and PVP areas of the game. I never seemed to be online while they were going on but if they were anything like the demos they had at E3 over the last few years I think gamers will have something even more fun on their hands
You really can’t have a modern MMO without good graphics and Auto Assault delivers the good for the most part. Each of the different races has a
really different look and feel that matches with their history perfectly. The humans have a very modern, sci-fi look to them while he mutants are a bit more organic and very tribal. The worlds themselves are very well drawn and very post-apocalypticy and feature some decent looking environmental effects like rain and dark clouds.
What’s really cool about the graphics and the world is that you can blow up almost everything in the game. Seriously. Anything that’s not nailed down can be blown up and torn asunder. That combined with the excellent physics engine allow you to create excel moments of mayhem in the game. You can literally walk in to a small village and knock it to the ground. Of course the game re-spawns the village after a bit but it’s still cool just to walk and and absolutely lay waste to an entire area. This does create some problems though as your vehicle can get stuck on some of the smaller objects but that’s what the bounce button is for.
Since the game is all about the cars you would expect a fine lineup of good looking cars and for the most part Auto Assault delivers. From dune buggies to sports cars to giant trucks you will see a nice menagerie of vehicles. There are even some cool looking tank vehicles that you can gain later on the in the game. I wasn’t really a big fan of the look of the biomek vehicles but that’s kind of the intent as the biomeks are big on looks.
The game ran pretty well on my system (Pentium D 820, 3 GB of RAM, Nvidia 7800GT) at 1650 X 1050. That’s right folks, the game supports widescreen monitors. Even while blowing up tons of stuff the framerate never really seemed to drop. There were some significant slowdowns while walking around inside some of the larger towns though and hopefully that’s one of the things they will fix before the game ships.
Sound in the game is also well done. The weapon sounds are particularly satisfying as there’s nothing like the buzz of a mini-gun as it works it’s way though a cluster of infantry. The game also has some nice auto sounds like the revving of engines when a car aggro’s to you or the screams of the infantry when you turn their bodies into liquid paste.
In its current state the game is a lot of fun but there are a few things that could use some improvement. I’ve already talked about the content gaps but I have a feeling those will be filled in before the game hits store shelves. The game is a MMORPG but the actual controls for putting together and running a convoy of players is a little on the weak side. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way for the convoy leader to select one of the missions from a convoy member for the entire team (like City of Heroes did). This is something that isn’t exactly a deal break but hopefully something that will be corrected shortly after launch.
I’m glad I went back into the beta of the game as the folks at Net Devil have really put a lot of life into a game that I was a little disappointed with initially. NC Soft has the potential for another big MMO hit and Auto Assault seems like the next step in complexity up from City of Heroes/Villains. Either way I know I will be out hunting down Scavs in the wastelands when the game hits store shelves next month.
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