Auto Assault Hands-On

We hit the open road in this upcoming massively multiplayer car-combat role-playing game.

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Auto Assault, the upcoming online game from developer NetDevil and publisher NCsoft, isn't your typical massively multiplayer game. Yes, you create a character from a specific profession, then go off to adventure and fight battles in an online world. However, you're not up against elves or wizards of any kind. Instead, you're a road warrior in a postapocalyptic world inhabited by mutants, aliens, and the last remnants of humankind. Auto Assault will put you behind the wheel of many different vehicles to race down highways that extend beyond scattered, civilized areas. You'll blow up enemies on foot and enemies in cars, in addition to roadblocks, trees, signs, buildings, and pretty much anything else, all thanks to the physics system that makes pretty much everything destructible. We've finally gotten our hands on a very early version of the game and have much to report.

In Auto Assault, you'll want to be the guy on the right.
In Auto Assault, you'll want to be the guy on the right.

As you may have already heard, Auto Assault will be a fast-paced game that focuses on action. But as we found out, the game--at least in its early state--is surprisingly easy to play. While it will apparently have full support for peripherals, such as gamepads, its default control scheme will use the mouse and keyboard's WASD keys, which is similar to a first-person shooter. You move and turn with the keyboard and aim your weapons manually with your mouse. Then you can either press the control key or the right mouse button to fire. Other than a set of special abilities that you'll be able to assign to hotkeys in battle, that's pretty much all there is to the game's control scheme, which, according to NetDevil president Scott Brown, is intended to be easy to pick up and play for beginners and veterans alike.

There will be at least four major types of areas in Auto Assault, including neutral towns, player-versus-player arenas, instanced maps (which are generated specifically for you and your current group of companions...and no one else), and highway maps (which are open to the public). We had a chance to tear around a highway map or two and had little to no trouble getting the gist of the game's missions (which provide you with waypoints both onscreen and on the game's mini-map), so there's no chance of getting lost or not knowing what to do next.

Brown explained that other massively multiplayer games sometimes seem like they encourage players to play with a separate Web page open at the same time to look up quests and other information. However, if what we've seen is any indication, this won't be the case in Auto Assault. Even travel will be streamlined. Though the game is planned to take place on a huge world divided into zones of approximately 10 square kilometers in size, you'll be able to jump more or less instantly to anywhere you want to go to meet up with your friends. Simply clicking on the in-game map to any region you've already explored will summon a huge helicopter transport that will give you a lift.

Hazard mode will temporarily make you even more powerful.
Hazard mode will temporarily make you even more powerful.

Auto Assault's combat system also seems extremely easy to pick up. You can currently have two primary weapons built onto your vehicle's chassis, each of which will radiate a "tac-arc," a glowing arc on the ground that essentially acts as a gunsight. If you have two weapons, you'll want to focus both arcs on your target to maximize your chances of hitting and dealing damage. However, as soon as you pull the trigger on your weapon, your hits and misses will be calculated using skill checks and other calculations you'd expect from a traditional role-playing game.

So, many of your tactics, at least early on, will revolve around maneuvering around your enemy to keep him or her in your both your weapons' sights, while simultaneously not firing such long and repeated bursts that your onboard weapons overheat. However, if your onboard weapons do overheat, you'll be temporarily unable to fire as they cool down. Later on, you'll even get "melee" add-ons--bumpers and panels with vicious spikes you can use to ram into your enemies. You'll also have to make judicious use of "hazard mode," an exceptionally powerful, temporary ability that varies among the three races. The half-human, half-machine biomeks, for instance, actually transform their vehicles into heavy-duty, highly damaging mech robots for a brief period. In addition, you'll also have your character's individual skills and abilities to aid you in battle.

Act II: Death Drives a Stick

Auto Assault will have two different classes of skills and abilities based on faction (your character's race: human, mutant, or biomek) and specialty (your character's profession). The game currently features four character classes--the commando, officer, engineer, and ranger--and each has a highly distinctive role. Commandos, which will perhaps be the easiest class for beginners to play, will drive the heaviest vehicles, such as tanks, and will be able to soak up the most damage. Officers will tend to drive less-armored, swifter vehicles (like hot rods) and will have the ability to summon companions to aid in battle, whether these be attack robots or squadrons of paratroopers that drop from the sky. Engineers will essentially be the healers of the game and will be able to repair damaged vehicles in battle, including some of the largest vehicles, such as SUVs and big rigs. Rangers will drive the lightest, fastest vehicles, like motorcycles and dune buggies, and will have long-range attacks, as well as abilities that deal gradual damage to enemies over time. All vehicles will have different handling and speeds depending on their chassis (motorcycles will be faster than buses), as well as what kind of weapons, armor, and other items they're equipped with.

Machine guns will be just the beginning. Flamethrowers, cannons, and plenty of other weapons await.
Machine guns will be just the beginning. Flamethrowers, cannons, and plenty of other weapons await.

Auto Assault will have a very strong emphasis on items and loot, as well as crafting, despite the fact that the focus of the game is ultimately on car combat. Vehicles currently feature multiple hardpoint item slots that include two primary weapon slots, an armor slot, and additional slots for miscellaneous upgrades, like turbo boosts. You'll gain items to deck out your cars either by finding them as loot from enemies, recovering raw materials (such as wiring and broken computer parts) and bringing them to a chop shop in a nearby town to craft them into usable components, or by buying usable components from another player. Fortunately, enemy vehicles aren't the only things that drop loot; on-foot enemies, aliens, and the towns they live in can all drop items when destroyed. Brown explains that Auto Assault will be the sort of game "where you don't just go to a town and kill a few enemies and leave. Instead, you'll go to a town and level the town."

The crafting system will let you try to combine pretty much any bits and pieces you wish to attempt to make something new. Experimenting with new recipes runs the risk of wasting the components on a failed attempt, but it also holds the potential reward of creating items of exceptional quality, and even a random chance for your character to commit that exceptional recipe to memory. In effect, you may end up being the only player who can repeat the formula for that exceptionally powerful item. Loot will play a big role in upgrading your cars, which will scale up in level over time. Lower-level cars simply won't have the slots or weight capacity to carry the items you'll need at higher levels, so you'll eventually end up with a garage of custom vehicles. This is exactly what NetDevil wants. Brown explained that players may find themselves creating vehicles for specific purposes, like a fire-focused car with multiple flamethrowers and flame-resistant armor to deal specifically with enemies that are vulnerable to heat damage. You'll also be able to visit body shops in towns to buy a great many different ornaments to customize your vehicles.

Having the best vehicle will be important in the player-versus-player arena battles, which can include standard one-on-one or group duels, ladder matches, and tournament battles. Standard duels will be tests of skill played solely for bragging rights and maybe a little wager for money (the game will have absolutely zero penalties for dying, in or out of player-versus-player). Tournament battles will be officially sanctioned, scheduled battles that NetDevil hopes players will come to look forward to, especially since these contests may end up being the sources of unique item prizes not found anywhere else. Ladder matches will actually affect your ranking, and your team's ranking, throughout the entire game (no, not just on the specific server you play on, but among all those who play Auto Assault), so the developer hopes the competition will be fierce.

When you absolutely, positively have to have a flamethrower overnight.
When you absolutely, positively have to have a flamethrower overnight.

Even at this early stage, the game looks very impressive and even seems to play quite well. It looks fantastic graphically, and its physical modeling makes blowing up everything in sight a blast, no pun intended. We're told that despite the impressive technical features, the test versions are running on mid- to high-end computers with 2 to 3GHz processors, Radeon 9800 Pro video cards, and about a gigabyte of RAM on test units back at NetDevil headquarters in Denver, Colorado. (The final specifications haven't yet been finalized.) If the developer can successfully combine the technology, the accessible car combat, the highly rewarding crafting system, and the real-time voice chat support that it's planning, Auto Assault will be a fast-paced, great-looking, completely unique online game for anyone who likes fast cars and big explosions. The game is currently scheduled for release later this year.

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