Even though it's still in its lengthy beta-testing phase, Auto Assault is making great strides as it races to launch next year. This online role-playing game from NCSoft and developer NetDevil promises to be one of the fastest games you'll play in 2006, thanks to the fact that you'll spend large portions of the game speeding around a wasteland in a combat vehicle, blasting everything that moves. Forget about the chain mail armor and the two-handed sword, because this online RPG is all about big guns and tricked-out rides. We recently got an updated look at the many new improvements that have been made in Auto Assault since we last saw it earlier this summer.
Auto Assault is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth where three races battle for supremacy. First, there are the remnants of humanity, who survived by living underground but now are returning to reclaim the blasted surface of the planet. Then there are the mutants, who used to be human before they were mutated by the strange alien contamination that destroyed the planet. And finally, there are the biomeks, the cyborg faction that relies on technology, as well as transforming vehicles, to survive. You can create a character (or a stable of characters) based on any of these three races and adventure online aside hundreds, or thousands, of other players.
The entire character-creation system has been revamped since we last saw it, and now it looks as though it's close to final. The system gives you plenty of control to tweak your character's appearance, and you can adjust your body style, the scale or size of your character, his or her skin color, as well as their primary and secondary color. Then there are various hair styles, hair colors, accessories (such as helmets and mouth pieces), and more that you can select. After that, though, you can tweak your vehicle's colors and paint scheme, as well as choose from an assortment of wheel rims.
We chose to make a human commando, which meant that we were assigned a heavy combat vehicle, as opposed to the smaller, "sportier" models assigned to other classes, such as the bounty hunter or lieutenant. After character creation, we launched directly into the opening levels of the game, which, as can be expected, serve as a play-as-you-go tutorial to the controls. This involves getting a series of quests that are incredibly easy but gradually scale up in difficulty. You'll begin by having to drive from point A to point B, but you'll eventually have to race out and battle enemy raiders, killing a certain number in order to succeed. Once you've proven that you've got what it takes to go out on your own, you'll be let loose on the surface world to carve your own path.
Visually, there's been some notable improvement in the graphics engine, and the game looks quite a bit better than all the early screenshots indicate. Now there are plenty of weather effects, so there's a lot more atmosphere to the world in general. You'll race around in mist or rainstorms, with blinding flashes of lightning illuminating the otherwise cloudy skies. There are also plenty of other cool nonweather effects, such as the intense heat blur coming off of flamethrowers, which just look awesome. The environment also has much more of a sense of destruction around it. We raced around the gutted ruins of one city and dodged huge pieces of falling debris.
The physics in Auto Assault adhere to the Hot Wheels school of driving. In other words, there's no jump too insane to try to pull off. For example, there's an acceleration ramp that we discovered you can use to pick up speed before it launches you over a canyon. The hard landing (or, more accurately, the crashing back to Earth) doesn't hurt you at all, and if you flip over, just wait a sec and your call will automatically roll back onto its wheels.
Combat itself looks a lot better, too. There's the aforementioned heat blur on flamethrowers, but there's also a sense of a lot more "stuff" in the world. You'll race across terrain that is littered with rocks, plants, burnt-out buildings, and much, much more, so it's not so much an empty wasteland as it is the gutted remnants of a destroyed civilization. Meanwhile, the terrain is hardly flat, and there are plenty of little valleys and folds in the land to create a wild ride. Every little bump or rise can send your car flying in the air, which makes trying to stay locked on to an enemy a bit harder. And when you destroy a target, car parts fly everywhere, and you can often collect a prize for your efforts, such as a new component or weapon.
The controls remain fairly solid, and the driving and shooting is easy to pick up. The WASD keys are used for acceleration, reverse, and steering, while the mouse controls the direction of the weapon arc. Simply select a target and then drive to keep the target within the weapon's firing arc and hit the mouse button. Since this is a role-playing game and not a pure action game, Auto Assault will calculate whether each shot hits or misses and then subtract an appropriate amount of hit points per hit. However, we also discovered the pure joy of simply running targets, especially grunts that are out on foot rather than in a vehicle. While it's not an instant kill, you can finish off weakened opponents in this highly satisfying way.
Auto Assault continues to be one of the more intense online RPGs that we've played, thanks to its blend of action and role-playing. While most online role-playing games have fairly passive combat in which you can sit back and relax while your character does all the work, you have to constantly be on your toes while driving and fighting in Auto Assault. The game is really starting to come together now, and hopefully NetDevil can keep on course to delivering a unique new chapter in the annals of online role-playing. We'll find out sometime in 2006, when Auto Assault launches.