German developer Reakktor.com is taking a novel approach in creating its new cyberpunk online RPG. Instead of building the game around the same old "click and wait" combat style that so many other MMORPGs use, the combat in Neocron will look and feel much more like what you'd find in a first-person shooter. The fast-paced, in-your-face combat is just a mere hint of Neocron's appeal, however, as the game promises to deliver a number of unique and intriguing gameplay features. Knee-deep in the beta testing phase right now, Neocron clearly has a number of issues and incomplete features. However, even a brief hands-on experience with the beta version of Neocron impressed us quite a bit. The game so effectively combines shooter and RPG elements that it is hard to imagine it not carving out a sizable niche in the MMORPG arena.
Like Funcom's Anarchy Online, Neocron is set in the far future. Apparently, the earth of Neocron's 28th century setting is mostly uninhabitable. Most of the planet surface is a depressing montage of vast wastelands, highlighted here and there by old industrial facilities and populated by people-hating mutants and other nasty creatures. The only truly livable areas on Earth are the few remaining cities, Neocron being the most populous. Reakktor hopes to include three major cities on Earth (Neocron, York, and Tokyo II) as well as two more on distant space colonies, but only Neocron will be accessible when the game launches this spring. The rest may be brought online at unspecified future dates, depending on how popular and successful the game becomes.
The city of Neocron is split into four major zones--Pepper Park, Plaza, ViaRossa, and the Outzone. As you can probably guess, the Outzone is a fringe area where players are afforded very little protection from the in-game law enforcement agents, known as CopBots. Pepper Park, home to the game's red light district, is a little safer, but it still gets only cursory attention from the CopBots. Plaza and ViaRossa are safe areas, however, and are continuously patrolled by the CopBots. During the beta, Pepper Park seemed like the hot spot for players and, unfortunately, a crafty group of exploiters, who ran around killing and looting other players.
When the game launches, player killing will not be an option right out of the gate. All new players begin the game with a special implant--the law enforcer--which prevents you from targeting other players. This in turn prevents you from killing them. You can have the chip removed, however, and gain the ability to kill--and be killed by--other players. Players who have removed the chip can also get slightly more experience and lower skill requirements for using various items, so there is some incentive to put yourself at risk in this way. Interestingly, players who kill other players will gain no experience for doing so, nor will their skills increase. The big reward for player killing, then, lies in the visceral thrill of the thing as well as the ability to loot the victim once the deed is done.
Good Morning SoulLight
Player-vs.-player combat does have one other consequence that can be good or bad, depending upon the players involved. Each character has a rating known as his or her SoulLight. This is a general measure of how good or evil a character is, and it rises or falls every time you kill another player character. If you kill someone with a darker SoulLight than you, your SoulLight becomes lighter, and vice versa. Kill someone with a much lighter SoulLight than you, and your rating will grow much, much darker. In a way, this is somewhat similar to the original reputation system used by Ultima Online, where killing a character identified with red type was a sure way to increase your karma and fame.
In Neocron, once the SoulLight grows too dark, the CopBots will no longer permit a character's presence in the Plaza or ViaRossa regions. In fact, they may shoot on sight if you ever show your face in those areas. You can kill the CopBots if you're powerful enough (or if you have enough heavily armed friends), but once you do, you'll be even less welcome in the so-called civilized sections of the game. And of course, criminals of this sort may find themselves tagged with a bounty, making them a target for every other gun-toting player in the game. In fact, any player can post a bounty on any other player at any time. This opens the door for some rather vicious practical joking, of course, but it also creates a slick user-fueled blood money economy that should prove popular among player-vs.-player fans.
In spite of all this, there is no escaping the fact that player killing is an integral--and even encouraged--part of Neocron. In the Outzone especially, players are free to engage in deathmatch-style play. This only makes sense, of course, given the game's heavy FPS influence. Plus, it's fun and it's good practice. Out in the wastelands, where you need special equipment and clothing just to survive the poisonous atmosphere, your deathmatch skills may come in handy against the swarms of mutants and bloodthirsty monsters that roam the countryside.
Many of the creatures in the game are rather dangerous foes. The giant spider, for example, can attack from a great distance by using some sort of howitzerlike web assault. Mutants frequently band together to pummel you into the dreary earth, and the mangy wolves of the wastelands tend to attack in groups of eight or more.
Because of the FPS style of combat in Neocron, you cannot simply pick a target, click the attack button, and sit back to watch the show as you would in EverQuest or most other MMORPGs. Instead, you have to run, strafe, and shoot just as you would in a normal deathmatch. For this reason, FPS fans should immediately remap the game's default key controls to match their preferred shooter layout. And non-FPS fans should look elsewhere for their online gaming thrills--or simply create a character who does not get his or her hands dirty in this way.
A Question of Character
When you create a character in Neocron, you have four basic classes to choose from: Private Eye, Tank, PsiMonk or Spy. The class you choose affects your beginning ratings in the five basic attributes (strength, intellect, and the rest). You then have a selection of specialized skills that are grouped under a corresponding attribute. Combat skills are found mostly under strength and dexterity, for example, so as you fight, you gain experience in the form of points that can then be allocated to skills listed under those two attributes.
Each new character gets his or her own apartment in the gameworld, much like each does in Anarchy Online. These virtual pads are pretty humorous, actually, because some classes get posh starter homes, while others (like the tank character we started) have to live in dank, metallic rooms filled with rusty barrels of dubious content. If you are so inclined, you can purchase a new, larger apartment later. Regardless of where or in what style you live, however, your apartment is always a safe house in the game. Other players cannot come in unless you invite them (that is, give them the pass code) and open the doors for them. Also, you can store things in your apartment that you don't want to lose.
The appearance of your character plays a much more vital role in Neocron than in other online RPGs because armor does not appear on your body when you wear it. This means that the look you craft for yourself will remain intact even when you stock up on fancy kevlar helmets and bodysuits and all that. While it may not please everyone, this system at least avoids the look-alike problem plaguing so many other RPGs, in which your initial appearance means next to nothing once you have enough money to buy a nice helmet. Equipped weapons do show up on a player's 3D avatar, however, so you will at least know how someone else plans to kill you.
Weapons range from simple knives and baseball bats to machine guns and flamethrowers, as well as some advanced weapons, like remote-controlled drones. Currently, more than 40 weapons are planned for the game. Additionally, highly skilled players can craft and customize their own killing machines. You can, for example, fit a scope to a rifle or construct a rocket launcher from a blueprint and a small pile of key components.
If you're not into fighting, no problem. You can opt for a life of mercantile rewards, setting up shop in your apartment and trading with other players. Or you can specialize in the construction of weapons and armor, relying on other players to procure the materials you need to ply your craft. A bulletin board system helps support this style of play (as well as all others). Because all the players gets their own in-game e-mail address and access to discussion groups accessible within the game, they can pretty easily barter their goods without ever leaving the game. The in-game bulletin boards are also a good place for discussing the game in general or for finding other players willing to team up for some adventuring.
Thus far, the world of Neocron appears to be coming along quite nicely. The RPG-meets-shooter gameplay is surprisingly approachable, especially for anyone who enjoyed System Shock 2 or Deus Ex. The style of Neocron is vaguely similar to each of those games, though clearly there is not as much story-driven content driving the action. The ability to engage in fast-moving combat that actually depends on your own real skill and agility (not to mention your virtual bankroll and armament) is a welcome change in the world of online RPGs. Yet the game offers plenty of RPG depth as well, with numerous skills and character development routes.
Neocron looks great as well, though we all know that looks aren't the make or break factor of a truly good game. The 3D engine behind the game appears to be powerful and speedy, which of course it would have to be to support the sort of player load that Neocron is likely to have. And like Anarchy Online, Neocron offers an array of detail customization options that let you reduce the level of glitz if the game ever bogs down in crowded areas.
Weather effects are very nicely done, with skies darkening and lightning forking through the skies during rainstorms. The lighting and decoration of the cityscapes is quite nice, though possibly not quite as stunning as a few of the locales in Anarchy Online.
Though we were not able to see the entire gameworld during our hands-on time with Neocron, we were able to see a fair-sized chunk of it. The city areas are well designed and stylish, and the outdoor regions are almost Tribes-like in terms of both size and terrain, which has a smooth, rolling nature. It remains to be seen how the game will perform if two large-sized groups go at it in a large outdoor area (or a small indoor one, for that matter), but hopefully those are the sorts of things being hammered out right now in the beta testing.
Lastly, Neocron has an offline tutorial, which is much like the one EverQuest offers. The Neocron tutorial, however, will eventually be given away via download and magazine cover discs, allowing potential players to see and experience the style of the game for free without having to first register an account. Oddly enough, the tutorial had a play-stopping glitch in it during our time with the game, but it is a known bug and should be fixed in the next patch.
Clearly, the folks at Reakktor.com are hoping that Neocron will be able to create its own subgenre in the rapidly expanding MMORPG genre. With its unique blend of shooter and RPG elements, we're inclined to think it has a chance.