The Alien Invasion expansion pack for Anarchy Online adds what seems like a lot of intriguing new content, but in practice, it's mostly for advanced players who have already spent lots of time with the original game. Yes, Anarchy Online is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which means that you create a character and then go off on adventures in search of better weapons, better armor, and advancement for your character by gaining experience levels. And, yes, Anarchy Online takes place in a persistent online world inhabited by thousands of other players. But unlike other such games, this one takes place in a futuristic world that consists of both hardcore science fiction and Star Wars-like mysticism. And the new expansion does add all-new features to the game in the form of player cities and armies of invading aliens that can attack those cities. But since player cities are hugely expensive, and because these attacks scale with character strength, you won't be able to get much out of these features if you're not already a veteran.
The premise of Anarchy Online is fundamentally the same as it was at launch: A futuristic mining colony known as Rubi-Ka is disputed by major political factions--the evil Omni-Tek corporation, the rebellious clans, and an independent group of neutral parties. However, since Anarchy Online's launch, this feud has been enhanced by the addition of Shadowlands, a previous expansion pack that introduced an alternate dimension and an all-new set of experience points (Shadowlands experience), quests, armor, and items. Alien Invasion doesn't add a new realm to explore, but it does add an all-new type of character experience ("alien experience"), along with a full set of new weapons, armor, and quests. And since the expansion adds a full-on invasion of Rubi-Ka, it also features a new low-level starting area for non-Shadowlands characters. Instead of starting in the backyard of Omni-Tek, the clans, or the neutrals, new characters instead crash-land in a neutral area that's overrun with low-level monsters from outer space.
This starting area acts as a slightly better introduction to the game, since it features brand-new explanatory quests that are given by somewhat helpful characters. However, Anarchy Online remains a dense and highly complex game. Your character still has many different attributes, statistics, and skills to keep track of, which means there's still simply a lot to know (and a lot to not know). So if you're new to Anarchy Online, the latest expansion won't do much to really introduce you to all of its intricacies. The same can be said of the expansion's two major additions: player-built cities and alien attacks. Player-built cities are just that. They're huge city areas that can include various types of shops and new sets of housing, which can grant special bonuses. Player cities are available only to guilds, which are long-standing player associations. If you're part of the upper ranks in your guild, you can actually purchase items and add them to your guild's city layout by using a simplified graphical interface.
While cities can be built to be testaments to your dedication to earning credits in Anarchy Online, they also have another quality: They're prime targets for alien attacks. In fact, one of the most essential additions to any city is a cloaking system that "hides" it from invaders until such time as you and your guild buddies are ready to handle an invasion. The appropriately huge and grotesque extraterrestrials can and will sweep from the sky to attack uncloaked cities. When this occurs, you'll witness a series of impressive real-time animations that show squadron after squadron of fighter ships swooping from out of the air to attack before a colossal mothership blots out the entire sky on its approach.
During an invasion, attackers assail cities in successive, randomly generated waves that are customized to the relative strength and level of the characters present in your city at the time. If you beat your enemies back skillfully, or with reinforcements, or with both, the next wave will be far tougher to defeat. If you have a well-organized group of players of comparable player level, these encounters seem to scale fairly well with your performance in battle. In fact, invasions can be very exciting if your high-level character and your high-level friends can survive the huge waves of invaders that not only swarm your city, but also can bog down your frame rate, especially if your computer has 512MB of RAM or less.
Invasions usually end with the appearance of a capital ship that your party can board so that you can seek out the alien boss of that ship before the craft heads back to space (which otherwise kills your party instantly). Successfully thwarting invasions and capturing motherships lets your characters earn "alien experience," which is an all-new kind of experience point that lets you purchase all-new abilities, called "alien perks," for your character. This system is similar to the "perk" system that was added to the Shadowlands expansion. Defeating these creatures can also net you alien equipment, which can be crafted to form advanced kinds of weapons and armor. These additions are great if you're an experienced player with at least one high-level character--who's got some good support from other high-level characters from your guild. However, there are still ongoing debates about the frequency of alien attacks. Some players feel that attacks are too frequent, which causes many of them to become concerned about their cities coming under attack when they themselves can't play. On the opposite side of the fence, others feel that attacks are too infrequent in the game. Naturally, this balance is still being fine-tuned in the game.
Unfortunately, to build and maintain a successful player city, you'll likely need to be part of a fairly powerful guild and have access to a whole bunch of credits, because building a player city is extremely expensive, and it will be out of the price range of all beginners. And since most cities are owned by high-level players, invasions are mostly custom-generated for high-level characters, which means that your low-level characters won't stand much of a chance in most invasions. As it stands now, most player cities are owned by extremely high-level characters who are seeking to make their already powerful characters even more so, which presents an intriguing prospect to veterans, though it presents a potentially frustrating one if you've only got a bunch of low-level characters.
Otherwise, the expansion adds a great many new items, weapons, and armor, along with peripheral additions, like pet "leets" (if you preordered the game). Leets are Anarchy Online's perennial joke monsters, and they resemble hamsters that talk like the stereotypically obnoxious online RPG players who beg for money and can't type properly. The expansion also offers an all-new set of clothing. Anarchy Online was arguably the first game to really explore the idea of making characters with highly customized appearances, especially with colorful and sometimes goofy clothing, and Alien Invasion offers even more items and noncombat clothes that you can use to dress your characters.
Your characters can look brighter and sillier than before (if you wish), but the game's now-blocky character models and original facial features, along with many of its monsters and environments, are definitely showing their age--at least compared to the expansion's sleek aliens. Even player cities consist of buildings that can look a bit simplistic. But to compensate, however, the best ones are colorful and impressively huge. The expansion's audio doesn't offer much in the way of new content either, though there are new music tracks available for the starting areas, battles, and a few other locales, which fit well into the game but aren't distinctive or exceptionally good on their own. Disappointingly, the expansion offers few new sound effects, other than some new ones for aliens. Anarchy Online's sound effects are still effective and fit well with the sci-fi setting, but if you've already been playing the game, you've heard most of them before. Considering that some of the game's closest competitors--namely EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot--have already undergone or are undergoing major engine enhancements, perhaps the time is right for Anarchy Online to receive a face-lift of its own.
Because the retail version of Alien Invasion comes at a suggested price of $30 and includes the original game, along with the expansion, it's a decent value. It's perhaps disappointing that the expansion didn't also ship with Shadowlands bundled in, because if it had, the entire thing would have been a much more compelling and complete package. Anarchy Online remains a sometimes convoluted--but deep--online game that can be played in short spurts. However, most of its additions are best suited to expert players. As a result, the Shadowlands expansion seems more tailored to beginners or players who played the game a while ago but have now returned to it.