[Update 03/30/09: Fallen Earth will be subscription based, not free-to-play, as previously mentioned.]
SAN FRANCISCO--The 2009 Game Developers Conference is drawing to a close, but we still have new updates on games like the postapocalyptic, massively multiplayer shooter Fallen Earth. The game taks place in and around the Grand Canyon, the world-famous natural valley located in Arizona, on a future Earth that has been devastated by a deadly virus. You start your life 100 years after the viral outbreak, which killed off 90% of the world's population and mutated the rest. You awake in a cloning chamber with flawed DNA, the clothes on your back, and not much else, but eventually make your escape and become a gunslinging warrior of the wasteland. WARNING: This story may contain minor plot spoilers.
We had a chance to see the early part of the game in action. The game begins with character creation--making a male or female character with whatever hair, piercings, and body tattoos you wish, but making no career choices, since Fallen Earth won't have pre-set character classes, but rather, an open-ended skill system that lets you both specialize and generalize. As you gain experience points towards earning your next level, you'll gain two "advancement points" every tenth of the way towards your next level, and you can spend these points on a wide variety of skills, from first aid to crafting (you can craft the very best items in the game, as well as driveable vehicles) to marksmanship. The game will use real-time aiming to determine whether or not you hit your enemies--and it will then calculate how much damage you actually do with each shot based on your character's weapon skill level.
Once you've created your character, you'll run through an instanced, interactive tutorial mission that's intended to teach you to play as well as to draw you into the game's story. You emerge from a cloning cell with a cloning collar around your neck (which explains why you'll be able to respawn after you die) inside Hoover Dam, and must make your escape before you get killed in what appears to be a riot between members of some of the game's six opposing political factions you can curry favorwitha few of them at the expense of angering the rest, and you'll never be able to be friendly with all of them,though you can play through the entire game as a neutral party). After digging an axe-your first weapon--out of the skull of a nearby corpse, you must fight your way to freedom with the help of a mysterious woman who seems to be feeding you clues. You finally make your way out by pulling off a spectacularly brave, and suicidal, stunt that results in your first death, after which you'll watch a cheerful, tongue-in-cheek corporate prospectus video from the company that created your cloning collar, which reassures you that you'll respawn, none the worse for wear.
The outside world is a lot less cheery. Fallen Earth's Grand Canyon is a dusty, rocky world full of shantytowns and the ruins of civilization past. You can make your way around on foot or on horseback (your horse isconsidered aseparate character from you that can be killed or stolen), or by way of player-crafted vehicles, but there are currently no plans to add any kind of instantaneous travel, since the developer feels strongly that players should explore the game's 83-square-kilometer world. To this end, the world is being built with easily-visible landmarks that can be seen above the horizon to guide your progress, as well as a defunct system of monorail tracks whichcan be used as an approximate guide.
In the game itself, you'll spend your time performing quests for various characters that may increase your standing with different factions and net you different rewards. You can also craft any of the game's many, many different high-end weapons, from pistols to sniper rifles to grenade launchers to experimental future technology, like a sledgehammer with a mounted electric stun gun known as the "Tesla hammer." 95% of all the game's items can be crafted, and all the best items in the world will be accessible only by crafting, which requires a time-sink-like commitment of real-time, anywhere from 60 seconds of realtime for a simple pistol to two days for a higher-end vehicle, though you can collaborate with other crafters to cut down on your crafting time by delegating the work (having one player build a chassis, another build an engine, and so on).
Fallen Earth is currently in a beta test state with about 9,000 players. The game is planned to launch later this year.