Swords and sorcery are part and parcel of the majority of online role-playing games on the market. However, this is not the case with Auto Assault, the upcoming online role-playing game from NCsoft and developer NetDevil. Instead of dealing with grumpy dwarves, haughty elves, and cheeky peasants, Auto Assault is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where three different races battle it out for supremacy, not with swords, but with highly customized combat vehicles. We've played around with the beta test of Auto Assault, and discovered that it's part Road Warrior, part Twisted Metal: Black, and all online RPG.
The beta servers are only up for a very limited time each week, so we've only had the chance to explore the opening part of the game. Thus far, we've gotten a good feel as to the similarities, and more importantly, the differences, in Auto Assault compared to traditional online RPGs. If you've played any online RPGs before, then the character creation system will undoubtedly be familiar to you. First thing to do is select from the three races in the game (human, mutant, and biomek), and then select a character class. After that, you can customize your character's appearance by selecting different body types, hairstyles, and more. For the purposes of this preview, we elected to play as a human bounty hunter. The bounty hunter is sort of a scout-type class for the humans, as they are focused on stealth and hit-and-run techniques. For example, the beginning bounty hunter skill that we started out with was a stealth shield, which made us invisible so we could sneak up on opponents.
All this so far is par for the course for online role-playing games, and this includes the opening tutorial, which you will be able to skip if you're familiar with the game, but which you'll undoubtedly want to go through your first time. The tutorial consists of a series of simple missions that require you to either deliver a message to someone or wipe out groups of thugz (Auto Assault's fancy term for gang members), who are usually on foot. This gives you a chance to familiarize yourself mainly with the new control scheme, because you don't run around the world of Auto Assault, you drive in it. Fortunately, the control scheme is very similar to existing online role-playing games and first-person shooters. The WASD keys are used for moving forward, reversing, and turning. The space bar is an emergency brake and the mouse controls your turreted weapons. The left mouse button lets you interact with objects or lock onto enemies, while the right button fires weapons. It takes a little while to get used to the speed of the game, as everything whizzes by, but by the end of the tutorial you should be well on your way to being acclimated.
The story of Auto Assault is that humanity was forced underground after a nuclear war was waged to try and fend off an alien contamination. "Pure" humans survived underground, while other humans were transformed into the mutants and others adapted by mating machine parts to their bodies, becoming biomeks. Now, as part of our human bounty hunter's story, humanity is emerging from its sanctuaries and looking to reclaim the surface of the planet. Our character is a freelance mercenary hired by the human corporation to go on various missions on the surface. After the tutorial, we found ourselves in the starting human town of the game. While in these towns, you're out of your car and walking around on foot. This is, once again, all very familiar if you've played online RPGs before. You can talk with non-player characters who give you quests and missions that usually involve delivering something to someone else, and you can go to various shopkeepers and specialists to purchase weapons, armor, and other pieces of equipment for your car. You can also see other players running around the world, socializing with each other and racing off on their latest quests.
Since you nearly always have a quest of some sort at any given time, you've always got something to do, and the floating arrow onscreen tells you who you need to talk to or where you need to go. Before too long, you'll talk to the main authority in town, who tells you that you have to cowboy up and go out into the wilderness and start taking care of the marauding thugz. Once you've got a mission, you head for the gate and exit town, where you'll find yourself in your car, ready to rock and roll.
Road RageIt's when you're driving around like a maniac in the wilderness that Auto Assault really differentiates itself from other online RPGs. There's a sensation of speed that you don't have in other games, and you can rip through the world, plowing through and knocking down everything from trees, guardrails, and more. In fact, you'll need to do this at times, because that's how you can harvest basic crafting materials. And while Auto Assault uses a mix of instanced missions in certain situations (in other words, missions created just for you), the wilderness areas in the game are open to everyone, so you'll see other players' vehicles zooming around. The world of Auto Assault is a very lively place, and there are plenty of enemies (both on foot and in vehicles) to engage, not to mention lots of strange and hostile fauna and flora that will attack you on sight.
Combat is quite different from anything you've really experienced in an online RPG. In this game, combat is a very hands-on affair, so you won't simply click on an enemy and watch your avatar swing its sword automatically until the enemy is dead. It's essentially an action game, because you have to constantly maneuver to try to keep on someone's tail so that you can bring all your weapons to bear. This can result in lots of Hollywood-style chases and moments, and this action can get crazy, especially when there are a bunch of vehicles onscreen. We engaged in numerous battles where another player, or a group of players, would suddenly appear, which would result in cars and bullets flying everywhere. The combat mechanics are a mix of reflex and role-playing statistics, so all you need to do is make sure an enemy vehicle is in your weapon-firing arc for the most part (you don't need to have the ultrasharp reflexes of a 14-year-old kid to succeed).
Your car is equipped with a regenerating shield system, so you can absorb small amounts of damage for a long time and not get a scratch, so long as you give the shields enough time to regenerate between hits. If your shields take a beating, you'll start to take damage on your car, and the more damage you incur, the more your car will spark and smoke onscreen. Unfortunately, since we were playing as a bounty hunter and not as an engineer, we couldn't repair the damage on our own, and after we exhausted our finite supply of repair kits, it didn't take long before our car exploded and we died. If you die, all you have to do is wait a few seconds, because an aircraft will appear and lower a winch to airlift your vehicle to the nearest repair station, where you can heal up before heading out into the wilderness again.
We managed to complete a slew of missions, allowing us to level up our character several times. When you level up, you get a handful of points that you can distribute among your character's attributes and skills. The various attributes affect how accurate your character is when firing weapons, how effectively he or she uses technology, and more. Skills are divided into two sets: faction and specialty. Faction skills are skills that all members of your race can select, and they include (for the humans) improved magnetics, which let you take more damage, and theoretical studies, which maximize the power levels in your vehicle. Then there are specialty skills, which only your class can select. For the bounty hunter, this can include GPS pathfinding, which gives you valuable information about everyone near you, a useful skill to have if you're cloaked and looking for the perfect target.
We feel pretty optimistic about Auto Assault at this point. Though parts of it hearken back to virtually every other online RPG that we've played before, the game's fast-paced action feels unique and engaging. Simply put, it feels much more like an action game than an online RPG at times, and it can certainly appeal to those looking for an online RPG with a faster pace. We'll see how well it does when Auto Assault launches this winter.