Horizons Updated Preview

We visited with Arizona-based developer Artifact Entertainment and got up close and personal with the playable dragons in the upcoming online game.

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Horizons: Empire of Istaria
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High fantasy--the kind that features stalwart dwarves, nature-loving elves, winsome princesses, and evil dragons--has long served as a popular setting for role-playing games. And over the years, role-playing game fans have enjoyed playing as dwarves, elves, and even princesses...but for whatever reason, not many games have let players play as actual dragons. Certainly, no massively multiplayer role-playing games, the kind that let you create a fantasy character to explore a colorful persistent world with other players, have let you do this--so Artifact Entertainment's Horizons will be the first. This colorful fantasy game will let you play as one of nine high-fantasy races, one of which will be the flying, fire-breathing lizards themselves.

Horizons will let you play as a variety of different fantasy races, including dragons.
Horizons will let you play as a variety of different fantasy races, including dragons.

We actually had the opportunity to see and try out dragon characters in the game. Dragons will start their lives out like any other character--at Horizons' character-creation menu, which lets you choose your character's race and gender, as well as its features, such as height, skin color, and in the case of dragons, scale decals and crests. Most adventurers in Horizons will begin their lives as penniless characters whose early quests and monster-hunting will help them get the funds to buy up a poor suit of armor and a weapon or two, but dragons being the large and unusually-proportioned creatures they are, won't be able to equip themselves with either weapons or armor, and will have limited career choices--they'll be able to pursue only the paths of the warrior, the mage, or the healer, though later in life, they may be able to craft certain dragon-specific items and structures.

Since young dragons will be faced with such limited skills and being naked to the world, they'll have a tough time of things at first, since they'll be able to defend themselves with nothing but their relatively weak claws and bites, as well as a modest fire-breath attack. They will also have trouble squeezing into tight places, especially as they begin to grow. Dragon characters will develop over time in unusual and intriguing ways, such as increasing the size of their hoard by claiming fabulous treasures as their own, and by devouring magical gems that can imbue their breath weapons with varying properties. Once they mature, dragons become formidable characters in combat, may attempt to craft rare dragon-specific items, and also gain the power of unfettered flight; Horizons will actually give you the option of using a flightstick or similar controller to fly your dragon character the same way you'd control a fighter jet in a flight simulation game. The most powerful dragons, ancients, will even be able to change shape to appear as regular humanoids and explore everywhere that humanoid characters can, though in this form, they'll lose several of their natural benefits.

However, according to Artifact president David Bowman, Horizons is already at the early stages of its third round of beta testing, and even among the relatively experienced pool of beta testers, dragons aren't the most popular race. Beta testers have essentially chosen to play as an even mix of the game's character races, and according to Bowman, this is the case because Horizon's doesn't just have flying dragons to offer--the game will also feature an evolving world with a dynamic economy, player housing, and a developing story.

Fighting monsters won't be the only thing to do in Horizons.
Fighting monsters won't be the only thing to do in Horizons.

Fighting monsters will generally be an easy prospect at first, and it will be the only fighting you'll do in Horizons, since the game will have no player-versus-player (PvP) battles whatsoever. Artifact believes that PvP is a complex feature that shouldn't simply be slapped onto an online RPG, but rather, that it should be a focal point that is carefully designed and balanced--which is why the company has plans to later release an entirely separate, standalone product that will focus solely on PvP combat. Horizons' battles against computer-controlled monsters will get more complicated later as your characters become more skilled, and as they face tougher opponents. However, they won't just offer the same old hack-and-slash battles you may have seen in other games, since Horizons will also have a surprisingly robust player housing system that will let players each control a single plot of land, and build whatever they please on it, including housing, shops, crafting stations, and more. Organized players can and most likely will opt to buy up real estate plots that are close to each other, and turn their small group of lots into a bustling player city, which can be improved by crafting a beneficial "artifact," such as an expensive bronze statue that might increase the crafting skill of all players in the vicinity.

In a World That's Constantly Changing

Horizons' player economy will be truly dynamic, thanks to Artifact's powerful game engine, which will be able to change the world on the fly. In fact, though Artifact may occasionally see fit to bring down the game's servers for routine maintenance, or to provide separate patch downloads for extremely large changes (for users on slower internet connections), the developer will be able to seamlessly modify the game on the fly, as players are actually playing, in real time. This includes minor changes, such as weather effects and the addition or subtraction of a few monsters, to major changes, such as increasing or decreasing the presence of key crafting resources in a specific area. Bowman explained that while Artifact's designers are hard at work creating densely-packed, customized areas for Horizons' huge world of Istaria, they can and will cause ore veins and rare herbs to dry up in highly trafficked areas and move to new ones, so that players won't have to deal with horrible inflation, or making hopeless attempts to sell to a flooded market. Horizons will actually let crafters disassemble finished products to reclaim some of the raw materials, should they need them to craft other items.

The world of Horizons will constantly evolve.
The world of Horizons will constantly evolve.

And apparently, crafters will want to do so regularly, especially if they're called upon to craft important new weapons and items to combat new threats. Before leaving for Artifact Entertainment, Bowman himself contributed a great deal to Turbine's Asheron's Call, an online game that featured regular monthly events that continually ushered in changing weather conditions and new monsters that would require new weapons and magic to combat. When asked if players could expect the same kind of dynamic changes from the world of Horizons, Bowman simply smiled and nodded knowingly. He went on to explain that the real reason he had invited us to Aritfact's Arizona offices was to take us on a tour of the developer's office and show us how the world-builder designers on staff could quickly and easily alter the game's weather and actually reshape the game's terrain using an easy click-and-drag interface...and have those changes actually be reflected in real time on the test server across the office.

And according to Bowman, the dynamic nature of Horizons won't just be limited to technical aspects of its game engine, since the game will have a dynamic story that chronicles the encroachment of a powerful undead army upon the fair shores of Istaria--an army that has already laid waste to the homelands of the elves and the gnomes (which are playable races in the game, but will be races of refugees at the game's initial launch), and has enslaved two other living races. Bowman explains that he wants Horizons to offer challenges that "can't be completed by just one player"--meaningful challenges that actually affect the world, and give players a real sense of accomplishment beyond simply gaining a level or buying a newer, shinier sword. As a new player in Horizons at launch, you may very well be able to do your part to drive back the undead from the conquered cities of the elves and gnomes and even restore them eventually--you may even be able to free the subjugated races, which may, in turn, become more than just your allies.

Horizons will offer long-term goals.
Horizons will offer long-term goals.

The undead will consist of many different kinds of creatures, including stupid, slow-moving zombies and insidious liches, which may lead fresh attacks on the game's player population along the "frontier"--the edge of civilization won back from the undead. And as the boundaries of the frontier change, players will likely change their own playing styles as well. For instance, crafters who have made a good living selling weapons to adventurers at a store near the frontier may find themselves too far from the action once the undead are driven back--and they may find themselves too close to the action if the undead launch a new offensive.

You might think that playable dragons would be the most interesting feature that a game like Horizons could offer, but it actually has plenty of intriguing ideas based around a 3D engine that seems capable of delivering each one. We'll find out as the game develops further and nears its launch date later this year.

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