Imperator E3 2005 Preshow Hands-On - Overview, Starting Levels, Combat

We get our hands on this massively multiplayer game that poses the question: What if Rome never fell?

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Traditional massively multiplayer games have usually involved one or more of the following: elves, creating a persistent character, fighting monsters in a persistent online world with thousands of other players, and scraping together enough copper coins to buy a rusty dagger. Mythic's upcoming game Imperator will follow suit with a persistent online world, just without the elves and the whole rusty dagger thing. Instead, the game will pose the intriguing question: What if the ancient empire of Rome had never fallen, and had instead become a world power that persisted into the space age? You'll live out this sci-fi theory in a futuristic version of Rome as one of its elite citizens, destined for greatness above even the ranks of the Imperial guard. Note that this information is based on a very early playable version of the game, and all of it is subject to change.

The game will take place on a futuristic version of Earth, where Rome has become a dominant world power. Rome's only opposition are the Mayans, another ancient race that had previously left the planet to colonize new worlds before returning as a hostile conqueror. You'll play as an elite cadet in the top ranks of Roman society, choosing from one of four playable races: the humans, the genetically enhanced ingenii, the artificial intelligence (known more colloquially as "automatons"), and the tigris, a race of humanoids imbued with the speed and strength of tigers. You'll actually begin in a starting area called Terra Nova, which will take you all the way from the very beginning to a character level of 10 (the game is planned to have about 100 levels). This starting area will be, or should have been, the site of your character's spring vacation, except that the Mayans have launched a sneak attack, and you're called in to help with the situation.

Imperator will take place in a future where Romans and Mayans battle for control of known space.
Imperator will take place in a future where Romans and Mayans battle for control of known space.

Terra Nova is a colorful world that is amply administered by maintenance droids that keep its surface clean and conducive to the purple-leaved forests that grow there. According to producer Matt Firor, the game will focus on "small, detailed" environments rather than large expanses of empty sprawl. Thankfully, there will also be instantaneous transportation, so you'll never have to endure long travel times (unless you want to), nor will you have to wait for your friends to arrive at your location so that you can adventure together.

Much of the art design will involve futuristic landscapes that combine natural features with high-tech versions of Roman architecture. The Romans themselves will have embraced a high utilitarian philosophy of design. The idea behind the art direction is to make Roman buildings, Roman armor, and Roman weapons seem highly intuitive and plausible, even in a far-flung future (while the Mayans, in contrast, will use cryptic-looking technology and items). This design is reflected in the plated, steel-on-cloth body armor that even our low-level trooper character wore as we went into the fray. Only the trooper and gunner base classes were available to try out in our early play session, though the game will have four base classes of trooper (melee), gunner (ranged combat), tech (support and healing), and quantum (which remains unrevealed for now).

Each of these base classes can be expanded later into one of three advanced professions for a total of 12 in all. These are currently planned to include the melee classes of the skirmisher, a lightly armored fighter with many damaging "positional" combat abilities (such as flanking and rear attacks); the shock trooper, a high-damage character that operates from extended melee range; and the protector, a heavily armored character who can soak up damage. The ranged classes are currently planned to include the sniper, a character with a slow reload rate but highly damaging sniper shots, as well as a series of useful traps; the commando, a hybrid character that can use both machine guns at a distance and combat knives up close; and the grenadier, a heavy-weapon specialist that can use rocket launchers and other weapons to deal damage to all enemies in an area. The tech classes are currently planned to include the biotech, a healer that can also poison enemies with toxins; the engineer, a class that can build stationary turrets and temporary robot guardians; and the robotist, a character that can build durable, long-lasting robot wards and upgrade them with a "nano gun."

We tried out the trooper class--the basic melee character who currently begins life in Imperator equipped with a heavy infantry shield in one hand and a collapsible shock baton (essentially a futuristic version of a club) in the other. Starting a new game of Imperator currently sets you right in front of your first quest giver, a military officer who's extremely glad to see an elite cadet come in to help out. Quests are currently given with descriptive text narration that gets saved to your character's journal for later reference. Our first quest was to go out and whack a few malfunctioning maintenance droids, which we were able to do in short order using a few special abilities that keyed off of each other. We also had a chance to tangle with the Mayans, who appeared in the game as heavily armored shock troops with laser rifles as we dashed into a technologically advanced pyramid to run diagnostics on several control panels. Much of Imperator's content will be based around quests, or as they will be known in the game, "life events." Many of these events (but not all of them) will take place in instanced areas to avoid overcrowding, and many of them will also advance your standing with important factions, like the empire's intelligence agency or the legions--which may net you additional items and access to new content and areas you might otherwise have missed.

The game will feature a deep combat system that will attempt to be more fast paced and more strategic than most current games.
The game will feature a deep combat system that will attempt to be more fast paced and more strategic than most current games.

Unlike Mythic's previous game, Dark Age of Camelot, which featured many combat abilities that could be used in sequence (such as fighting styles that provided openings for follow-ups), Imperator will instead focus on faster, "state-based combat." You'll use skills to place your enemies into a vulnerable state, and then follow up with abilities that take advantage of that state. So, you won't be able to queue up long, predictable strings of attacks--and you shouldn't want to either--since your follow-up attacks will be based on whether you succeeded in staggering, knocking over, or confusing your foes. This type of dynamic will also open up combat for more group tactics, both offensively and defensively. For example, a trooper might be able to use an attack that drops an enemy to one knee, opening that enemy up for a particular long-range sniper shot. However, if that trooper gets knocked down to one knee himself, a support character might be able to revive him to get him back into the fight.

Even though the game still has a long way to go before release, Imperator already looks solid. If everything falls into place, the game's intriguing combination of an unusual sci-fi premise and deep tactical combat will definitely offer fans of online games something different when it's released next year. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates on Imperator from E3.

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