Earth and Beyond Online Updated Preview
We take an updated look at Westwood's upcoming massively multiplayer online game.
Last week, GameSpot traveled to Las Vegas to visit Westwood Studios and get hands-on playing time with the company's upcoming online space RPG, Earth and Beyond Online. At first glance, the game looks like a space simulation, but it is at its heart a role-playing game, more like EverQuest than Wing Commander.
In the latest demo of the game, Westwood was able to show off even more of the game in action. The game continues to look impressive, with bright, colorful graphics. The ships are completely customizable, as are your avatars. The ship designs are by Doug Chiang, the same artist who designed the look of Star Wars: Episode I and II, and they look fantastic. There is nary a hint of TIE Fighters and X-Wings here. Instead, each of the game's three races has distinct shapes, from the bulky Progen fighter craft to the sleek and many-finned Jenquai explorer ships. You also have the ability to further customize your ships with colors and decals and even mix and match parts, such as wings and cockpits.
When we started our game of Earth and Beyond, we first had to choose our race. The only playable race is the human race, but it's divided into three subspecies. The Terrans are descendants of the inhabitants of Earth, the Jenquai are the children of the first Mars colonists, and the Progen were birthed by the colonists of Jupiter's moons. Over the centuries (300 years in our future, to be exact), these three branches of humanity have developed certain skills and traits. Thus, picking from amongst these three human races is essentially like choosing whether to play as a dwarf, elf, or human in fantasy RPGs. We then chose the appearance of our character avatar. The interface for this section is still changing, but there is a tremendous amount of customization available in determining how you look. Everything we reported in our previous preview is still here, so no two players will ever look alike.
The race you choose is vitally important to the game, more so perhaps than in fantasy RPGs. The Jenquai are the best scientists and explorers. As a space-born people, they are uncomfortable on planet surfaces. They are experts at stealth and energy manipulation, but their ships are frail, with weak shields. Their unique skills, such as cloak, fold space, and psionic shield, can manipulate space, time, and energy.
The Terrans are the best negotiators and traders. They are masters at getting the most out of their ships, and they have the fastest ships and best computer systems. Their unique skills, such as hacking and befriend, involve technology and character interaction.
The Progen are the best warriors in the galaxy. They were actually bioengineered for battle. Their ships are the most powerful, with better shields and durability. Of all the races, they can take and dish out the most punishment in ship-to-ship dogfights. Their unique skills, such as shield inversion, gravity link, and menace, are almost exclusively designed for use in combat.
After choosing our race, we next had to choose a class. Essentially, each ship in the game is a class, with different abilities. Of course, each of the three races is most proficient in one kind of ship. Progens, for example, are the best fighter pilots, while the Terrans are the best tradesmen. The Jenquai are the ideal explorers. The warrior, tradesman, and explorer are the three ship archetypes in the game and, thus, the three main character classes. Each race can play as a warrior, tradesman, or explorer, but because the Jenquai's skills are different from those of the Terrans, they'll bring their own subtleties to the class. In essence, that means there will be nine classes, based off the three core races and three ship archetypes. However, Westwood says that only six classes will ship with the game, while the other three will probably be added as a patch once the game has shipped.
The Classes and Level Advancement
The nine classes all have different names depending on the race. The Jenquai's strongest archetype is of course the explorer. Their tradesman archetype is called the seeker, while their warrior class is called the defender. The Terran explorer is called the scout, their warrior is called the enforcer, and as the supreme traders, they claim the tradesman name as their own. Besides the warrior, the Progen player can play as a privateer (the equivalent of a tradesman) or sentinel (an explorer). The seeker, scout, and privateer are the three classes that will be patched into the game at a later date. The designers simply wanted to concentrate on making the core classes as good as possible, rather than trying to implement all nine archetypes poorly.
Westwood is very adamant about Earth and Beyond being more than just a combat game. The three races are built along three different styles of gameplay: exploration, trading, and combat. The three main classes in the game are also geared toward one of those three gameplay styles. Westwood says that each "career path" is equally viable and is taking pains to make sure that this is indeed the case. If you want to explore, you can map sectors, uncover hidden locations, explore planet surfaces, guide others to inaccessible locations, prospect for minerals and resources, and act as a scout for a party. Every player gets experience for doing these things, but if you play as an explorer, you will gain much more experience than other characters. If you choose to play as a tradesman, only you can design item formulas and manufacture special items. And you get the most experience from trading goods and supplying other players with rare items and weapons. The combat-oriented player, of course, can fight hostile enemies, hunt down space creatures, and be at the forefront of defending Earth from alien invaders. To be clear, every class can fight if it comes down to that, but some classes are better at it than others. So choosing to play as a tradesman or explorer isn't a second choice to playing as a warrior. After all, as a Terran tradesman, you'll have better weapons and systems than your Progen warrior or Jenquai explorer, and if you choose to play a Jenquai explorer, you will have psionic skills that make up for your weak shields. So clearly, the non-combat-oriented classes are not a dead end.
Earth and Beyond is essentially a level-based game, with an extensive skill system added as well. In fact, there are more than 40 skills in the game, such as build device, critical targeting, beam weapons, build shields, build reactors, create wormhole, self-destruct, summon, and more. And within each skill, there are varying levels of proficiency. When you gain enough experience in Earth and Beyond, you can advance in level and add a point to one skill. However, Earth and Beyond splits the experience between the three fields of trading, exploring, and combat. When you shoot down an enemy drone, you get combat experience. When you sell goods, you get trading experience, and when you uncover a gateway to a new system, you get exploration experience. Right now, when you level up, you get a skill point to add to a new skill. Your ship does not immediately improve, nor do you gain a special ability, like the Jenquai psionic shield or Progen shield inversion (those are handed out with quests at the moment). You do get to upgrade your ship every 25 levels or so for better hulls, more hard points, and so on, but that doesn't seem nearly enough incentive to continue adventuring. Westwood knows that it needs to make level advancement more enticing and that just adding a skill point to an abstract skill set isn't enough. Level advancement could change dramatically, so don't be surprised if in the beta, you see things such as special abilities being tied to level advancement, giving players more hit points or energy, and making ship upgrades more immediate. Westwood knows that games such as Diablo and EverQuest are huge successes in part because they offer a lot of immediate gratification at level advancement and entice players by showing them what more they can have by adventuring just a few more levels. The designers also want to capture that feeling, so the level advancement is definitely subject to improvement.
The Main Event
After playing in the tutorial and experiencing the world and a few missions, Westwood gave us high-level accounts and dropped us in the middle of an event. The designers told us that such an event is a big-time occasion that happens every so often. Scripted events like the one we played will be programmed into the game to happen at regular intervals and aren't as reliant on GMs to drive them as in other online RPGs. Of course, there will still be Westwood people playing NPCs to give certain life to the characters in these events.
In our event, we were trapped in a star system where the gates to other systems had just been destroyed by a cruiser from the pirates of the Chavez faction. They were now bearing down on the system's main space station. As we arrived, a mysterious man named Pilus Cedrix told us what was going on. The altruistic in our party could decide to tackle the cruiser to help the inhabitants of this system, while the more selfish had to battle the cruiser just to get home. That's because the cruiser generated a gravity well that kept the gates closed. Cedrix told us to contact someone named Calvus. Calvus then told us what we had to do to defeat the Chavez cruiser, and he volunteered to fly with us against the mammoth ship. While Cedrix was an AI-controlled NPC, Calvus was played by a live Westwood person.
The Chavez event was designed to force players to cooperate together to solve the crisis. The cruiser was immensely powerful, more than any one player could handle. The cruiser was guarded by a phalanx of drones, with religion appellations such as initiate and devotee. These drone ships patrolled the cruiser and would converge on any trespassers. And if you got past the drones, the cruiser could defend itself with a blistering array of long-range missile batteries. Lastly, the cruiser itself was protected by a shield generator that made the ship impervious to our weapons.
All the players in the system had to band together to defeat the Chavez pirates. First, one of the Terran tradesmen had to research a schematic to build a supergun that could take out the shield generator, since our regular weapons were ineffective. Then the Jenquai explorers had to find the necessary ingredients to construct the gun. Once the gun was completed, we had to swarm the Chavez cruiser. The Progen warriors lead the charge, with half the group diverting the attention of the drones and the others escorting the tradesman into the cruiser's heart to destroy the shield generator. Even then, success wasn't guaranteed, and many players were killed dozens of times. We were thankful in this instance for Earth and Beyond's generous take on player death, as we could rejoin the fray with nothing but a little time lost. After half a dozen sorties against the cruiser, during which we would whittle away at the turrets and drones, our party, which had grown to a dozen ships, finally defeated the Chavez cruiser. When the huge ship disappeared in a fireball of light and debris, we all let out a triumphant shout. The mission was extremely hard, and would have been even more so for regular players, since we had the benefit of all playing together in one room where we could communicate quickly and freely.
Westwood says the event we played was designed for characters of around the 80th level, so it isn't something that you will encounter right away. Of course, there are other missions, as well as similar ones of smaller magnitude. But by experiencing this one, we got a good sense of some of the community-oriented events and missions that will be available when the game ships. Our hopes are high for Earth and Beyond, and the team seems genuinely dedicated to making this game a very good one. If they can tweak some problem areas, like level advancement, then this game will be well on its way to being just that.
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