[Author’s Note: This review is a summation of experiences catalogued in three (1, 2, 3) parts. You may read those if you want to dig deeper into the elements informing this score.]
Auto Assault has been racking up trophies since 2004. Online and print previews galore slathered on the accolades: Most Anticipated. Top Online Game. Best of E3. Etcetera. The press could hardly be more excited. But the proof is in the pudding -- not in the recipe -- and many reviewers apparently already had their fill and moved onto the next course. The gaming media can be a fickle lot.
Regardless, there’s no mistaking that Auto Assault pushes the MMO genre in a new direction. Look at the Tried-and-Trues already saturating the shelves: Fantasy is well-covered. Combat shooters are covered. Super heroes (and now super villains) are covered. And sure, Twisted Metal shoved vehicular combat into the online space already, but didn’t even touch the level of character building, crafting, and story-driven missions that the MMO audience demands. So those comparisons are moot. Producers Net Devil scoped uncharted territory to beam down to, set their phasers on Obliterate Anything That Moves, and proceeded to do just that.
Except the public wasn’t biting.
Devastatingly low player populations brought about a server merger in order to, if nothing else, get the cricket-buzzing chat channels ablaze. As I’ve noted before, Auto Assault is scratching a very specific itch, and -- the polls are in -- the gaming population would rather swing a sword than step on the gas. But, as is the case in many instances, low sales are not 100 percent indicative of a poor game. Indeed, on technical merit alone, Auto Assault effortlessly ranks in the higher echelons. Havok physics keep everything from horizon to horizon almost completely destructible (not just crates and barrels, you D&D suckers). Explosions from low-end automobiles set off bigger booms than most end-level bosses in other MMOs. And no matter how hard you swing your +10 Battleaxe of Instant Pwnage, it’ll never hit harder than the armored fenders on your post-apocalyptic SUV, or sandrail, or Tron-crossover bike, or Sherman tank. In fact, “tank” isn’t just an LFG tag here. A tank is your +10 Battleaxe of Instant Pwnage.
And with the pick-up-and-play learning curve, you can Mad Maximize the destruction as soon as the rubber meets the road. Controls grow progressively more nuanced as you familiarize yourself with the interface, but the furiously fast combat is still a cinch to wrap around your finger. With zero experience penalties for dying (this is probably the most forgiving MMO to date) the arcade action ramps up to 10 whether alone or rollin’ deep in a convoy, but quickly gets out of control if you stray into a part of the map you don’t belong in yet. That “wrong side of the tracks” feeling becomes all too apparent.
This problem only escalates when you’re asked to put your nose to the grindstone. Following chapters of plot-thickened missions racks up the most experience, of course, but there are still numerous potholes in the leveling highway. At some point -- in fact, at several points -- the storyline is going to leave you hanging (“Sorry, come talk to me when you’re a higher level” hanging) and you’ll set out on your Lonesome Dove to grind some experience points.
As expected, this is a sluggish process. Like any decent phone sex operator, this MMO knows how to keep you on the line long enough to suck up your funds. The only way to grasp a decent handful of experience is to tackle enemies a couple levels your senior, but actually hitting your leveled-up target can be a harrowing process. You can see the words scrolling up in your combat dialogue box now: Miss. Miss. Miss. Deflected. So you turn to easier pickings, to lesser experience crops … to longer grinds. Like any regular farmer in the dell, you’ll be putting in a lot of hours.
We in the West are becoming mighty spoiled with our no-grind expectations of newer MMOs (many Asians, for whatever reason, are still accepting of the old model). But producers will have to conform to Western Civilization’s demand for faster results, or they will suffer at the hands of our ADHD prescription pills and ticker-tape attention spans. Does this make any particular side of the Pacific higher minded? No. Of course not. But the demands have been made and the trends are in motion.
But where does this leave Auto Assault? Player population is up, due mainly to the singular server merger, but the roads are still low in player turnout. Project Lead Hermann Peterscheck said in an August interview that “nobody’s playing because nobody’s playing.” That may be the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth.
With so much of the content solo-able, this game has been dubbed a “massively single-player” online game on multiple occasions. The chat channels are chattering. The guilds are forming. But the grouping, despite an icing-on-the-cake experience bonus from forming a convoy, is still a rarer occurrence. Several polls on the load screen show more than 50 percent of the player populace is voting for increased solo content, or stating that they look forward to solo missions more than PvP or arena combat. Odd, considering the fact that Auto Assault screams PvP from the get-go.
Net Devil is putting forth a thoroughbred effort to keep their current players corralled, and even putting lassoes in the players’ hands to rustle up more cattle. After only four months it’s hitting bargain bin prices, which has got to have the creative minds behind Auto Assault scratching their heads. Where did all the momentum from the E3 hype machine go? NCsoft label mates Cryptic Studios pulled off the genre-busting City of Heroes (genre-busting for the typical swords n’ sorcery MMO field), so why is the genre-busting Auto Assault getting hit with assault and battery?
This might be answered by a mantra that many real-world artists pack around in their hemp-lined pockets: You don’t have to make the right artwork … you just have to find the right buyer.
There is already a faithful core of players forming. They can’t tread water fast enough to keep the game’s nose above water, but if Auto Assault can hang on for another year, then their niche audience will inevitably throw out the life preserver that Net Devil is paddling for. Net Devil is following as many rules as they can while still setting a fresh table: Easy to use grouping tools, tall crafting trees, player housing, incrementally increasing loot drops -- it’s all here. Now if only the right people would put down their swords and pick up their car keys then this massive game would start to fulfill its obligatory multiplayer aspect.
More On:Auto Assault
This vehicular action/MMO hybrid may be a tad ahead of its time. Grind-core audiences have too many combat variables; pulp action audiences have too many RPG-growth elements. But all the MMO staples are here in one form or another (to greater and lesser effect), with an added bonus of fully destructible environments. Auto Assault just needs to find a niche and scratch it.