Summary: Better late than never? A big roundup of previews: Warcraft III single player, World of Warcraft, Neverwinter Nights, Command & Conquer Generals, Age of Mythology, Eve Online, Robotech Battlecry, SimCity 4, Sims Online, and Xbox Live plans
Release: July 3, 2002
Warcraft III official home page: http://www.blizzard.com/war3/
Over the last several months, eager RTS fans have been inundated with articles about Warcraft III’s multiplayer aspect, thanks to the ongoing beta test. While debates have raged about multiplayer balance, and much is known about the units and races, little has been revealed about the single player campaign. Far from being a simple set of “build up and kill everything on the map” type missions, the Warcraft III solo campaign will truly help the game live up to the “role playing strategy” label. The developers have worked hard to make the campaigns much more immersive in terms of plot; they’ve got a couple of surprises up their sleeves in terms of mission design.
The first thing we noticed while playing through the first few levels of the human campaign is the extensive use of the in-game engine for lush cinematics and dialogue. The camera zooms in closer to give the player better detail and feel for the characters as they converse with one another and reveal the game’s storyline. The cut scenes using the in-game engine are frequent, and short dialogue sequences during the missions are even more frequent.
The first mission starts off with the player’s Paladin, Arthas (son of King Terenas), talking to Uther Pendragon, a character you may remember from the Warcraft II expansion. The Orcs have invaded Human territories again, and word has just been received that they’re rampaging in a nearby village. Artheas (the player) is sent off to aid the human village, while Uther runs off to find the Orc encampments. The camera zooms out, the quest log interface comes up telling you what the primary objective is, and that there are a couple of secondary objectives that haven’t been revealed. You are then left to explore the map, and complete your objectives, which will usually be highlighted for you on the minimap
As you move through the map toward the besieged town, you come across numerous NPCs in the map. Exploration of these side areas is encouraged, as you’ll come across NPCs who may converse with you and give you side quests that you can undertake for special items. For instance, in that first human mission you’ll find a human family just off the main path whose child has been kidnapped by gnolls. The estimated location of the gnoll encampment highlights in the minimap, and the quest log gets updated with the details of the side quest you’ve just unlocked. Rescuing the child and bringing him back to his mother results in a reward of a special item for your hero’s inventory.
In another example you see a man calling for help in the woods off to the side of the path. As you bring your party of Footmen over to the man, he changes outfits and turns into a highway bandit, as his fellow bandits close in from the woods and surround your men. An ambush! These types of encounters were fairly frequent in the missions we played at E3, and give more of a sense of depth and life to the maps you play in. It only scratches the surface of what Warcraft III has to offer, but these examples are indicative that the single player won’t be 20 different ways of building up and beating down entrenched enemies.
There are 32 missions in Warcraft III, and the plot is presented sequentially through the eyes of the game’s four playable races, Human, Orc, Night Elf, and Undead. Though there isn’t much jumping around between the races, players are given a good sense of continuity as they will be running into heroes later in the game that they played as in earlier parts of the campaign. At times, you may be forced to fight against those same heroes you used! Experience and items you find for your heroes carry over from mission to mission, but since you’ll be switching over to other races as the campaign wears on, you won’t be using the same few heroes for the entire 30+ missions.
There will also be a lot of new tilesets in the single player campaign that aren’t in the multiplayer beta. For example, the tileset for the start of the Orc campaign features a tropical island feel, with an ocean tide that washes waves upon the shore. These new environments will also have entire new sets of creeps and NPCs for players to fight and interact with. With so many levels in the game, we can be sure to see a wide variety of environments throughout the single player campaign.
SIDEBAR: Warcraft III is gold – in stores July 3rd!
Estimated Release: 2003
World of WarCraft official home page: http://www.blizzard.com/wow/
Massively Multiplayer Warcraft
I’ve never been a big fan of massively multiplayer games. But being a big Warcraft player, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which will be their first foray into the massively multiplayer market. Since the game is still rather far away from release, Blizzard was very guarded about specific details on the game, like giving away extensive lists of spells or the abilities and specialties of the (currently and soon to grow, we’d assume) four races in the game – humans, orcs, taurens, and dwarves. Instead, the look we got at E3 served more as a technical demonstration and a mere appetizer of what’s to come with the game.
The first thing we noticed about World of Warcraft is its gorgeous graphics. Normally with a massively multiplayer game, one tends to judge things on a lower scale than you might with a normal RPG or other single player game. With WoW there isn’t much need for mental compromises. Characters are well detailed, and fluidly animated. Weapons and armor that you equip are shown right on the character, just as you’d expect.
The third person camera view affords great looks at the gorgeous environments. Forests filled with lush trees – graveyards filled with gloomy mists creating an atmosphere of dread - grasslands and farmland with blades and vegetation that sway about – oceans and coastlines with water that includes swells and eddies as suns set over the water. Yes, there will be a day/night cycle where twilight affects the colors in the skyline, and stars and moon(s) pop out at night. A clock in the upper right-hand corner helps you keep track of the game time. Interior areas were just as breathtaking as the outdoors, with massive rooms, complete with furniture and carved statues high on walls. One of the abbeys we walked through included a cavernous library, with shelves of books stretching high above the player. Monsters range in size from relatively small wolves and man sized skeletons to gigantic treants (tree-men) that are as powerful as they look.
I asked the developers what ideas they had in terms of the meta-game for WoW. Would the game have grouping built in mind from the ground up like Dark Age of Camelot? As I said earlier, Blizzard was very guarded about details like this in the game. For now the only answer I got is that grouping would “definitely be involved” but they also want “plenty of single player possibilities.” Talk about straddling the fence! They did offer one tidbit about certain spells being ritual spells that require several spellcasters to participate in. Of course these ritual spells would be much more powerful than your garden variety Firebolt or Frozen Finger. Trade skills will be in WoW but again, Blizzard didn’t offer too much in the way of details on how you’d go about creating your own weapons and armor. Dwarves will of course be among the experts at craftsmanship.
We got a peek at three of the character classes in the game – warrior, mage, and shaman. A number of spells from other Warcraft games, like Warcraft III’s Entangling Roots, will be included in WoW. They even used the same icon to represent it in the interface, so veterans of previous Warcraft games can feel right at home and get into the game more easily. We’re eager to learn more about the game as its development progresses. Perhaps WoW might force me to break down and finally join the ranks of other massively multiplayer online addicts!
SIDEBAR: Thus far, I’ve managed to avoid the peer pressure of playing Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest, etc. The huge flood of new MMO games to the market in the coming 2 years will make holding out ever more difficult. I may just have to succumb to the trend.
Estimated Release: June 19, 2002
Neverwinter Nights official home page: http://nwn.bioware.com/
D&D without the dice
Neverwinter Nights is Bioware’s upcoming new Dungeons and Dragons RPG. This isn’t just another Baldur’s Gate-esque game however. NWN sets itself apart because it’s the first PC RPG that allows for a human dungeon master to control events and direct the game for other players. In other words, it’s the closest thing to pen and paper D&D that has ever been done with a PC game. NWN also uses the newest 3rd edition ruleset.
Our party started outside in a graveyard, where an NPC is telling us of strange disturbances and noises coming from within. We descend into one of the tombs where we begin our battle to the bottom. The game gives individual players a lot of freedom – we can walk wherever we want, and fight together or on our own within the levels. There are no artificial constraints placed on any of us. Of course, with the sheer number of monsters and other nasties thrown at us, it was beneficial for us to party up, stick together, and help each other out with spells. My cleric’s healing power came in handy for keeping up the health of the Fighter and Barbarian in our group, who took the brunt of the frontline combat duties. Having the Rogue in our party helped us to spot traps ahead and avoid unnecessary damage.
One semi-annoying thing I noticed is that it’s hard to rest your character if you’re in a party. If you try to rest and someone else in the party gets into a combat situation, you’re immediately taken out of the rest state, even if that battle is going on somewhere offscreen. It seemed as though everyone in the party had to find a safe enclave and all agree to rest before it would work.
I was impressed with the graphics – some of the monsters we encountered, especially the dragon at the end, appeared to be huge on-screen, giving a great sense of scale compared to the size of your character. Each of the monsters and characters are well animated, and all pieces of armor and weaponry show up perfectly on your character when you equip them.
The interface was well designed, considering the incredible depth that is needed to allow for all that 3rd edition rules have to offer. You can assign frequently used abilities, items or spells to the function keys. Although I had a bit of trouble navigating my spell book to find other spells as I ran out of charges for the default hot key spells, I attributed this mostly to my unfamiliarity with this particular character, and not flaws in the interface. Obviously if I had leveled up my character to get so many spells instead of having them all given to me for the demo, I’d have a better idea of what I was doing!
After the play session, we had time to fiddle around with the Dungeon Master interface. With it, you can watch over the players in the game, communicate with them, and use simple menus to do just about anything – spawn monsters, drop items, cast any spell in the game, teleport the players around, etc. There are even pre-made encounter groups so you can quickly spawn in a handful of similar monsters instead of madly clicking, trying to throw in several monsters one by one. To do any of this, you simply select what you want from a menu, then click into the map to drop in the monsters/items or cast a spell in that location. DMs can also possess NPCs within the game and speak through them.
The only thing that the DM interface can’t do within a game is create new areas or geometry. That has to be done outside the game, using the also easy to use toolset which has already been made available by Bioware. All of the art, models, and geometry used in the pre-created modules, along with the scripts, sounds, and music are included with the toolset. Everything the level designers at Bioware used to create the included modules in Neverwinter Nights is available with the toolset. If you wanted to import your own sounds, skins, and such, it is possible with the toolset. Anyone with rudimentary programming skills will be able to program their own scripts (i.e. if player touches this item, spawn these monsters, etc.), and all the scripts within the Bioware made modules will be available for users to study and learn from.
With Neverwinter Nights, the excitement is not so much around the story or game that Bioware has created – it’s the fact that they’ve created a fully extensible and easy to use framework on which users can create their own stories and their own games. For those of us are aren’t quite up to the task of making our own D&D experience, NWN will ship with a long 100 hour campaign, broken up into several non linear modules. There’s still plenty to offer within NWN for the single player gamers, and there are sure to be hundreds of single player user-made campaigns available for download and play over the course of the game’s lifetime.
SIDEBAR: NWN is gold. Expect it in stores next week!
Estimated Release: December 2002
At E3, we didn’t get any hands-on time with Westwood’s newest RTS and newest installment to the Command & Conquer universe: Generals. What we got was a 15 minute presentation of the game in a theater, with the action controlled by a Westwood representative going through a canned mission. The presentation showcased the game fairly well, giving us a good glimpse of the game’s 3D engine (this isn’t Westwood’s first foray into 3D – Emperor Battle for Dune was also 3D), which they call “SAGE.” Unlike Emperor: Battle for Dune, which featured a lot of barren wastes, the SAGE engine is very comfortable and capable of rendering complicated urban maps with destructible buildings.
A relevant, modern storyline
One thing that sets Generals apart is its storyline, set roughly in the present day. The three main sides in the game are: the United States, with its high tech, expensive military; the Chinese with its massive infantry that swarms to its advantage, and the Global Liberation Army, a terrorist group that uses primitive weapons (truck mounted machine guns and rockets, etc) and stealth. Each side is struggling for global power, although the wary enemies of China and the US may find that they have to team up against the threat of the GLA.
What do we fight with?
Each side of course, has unique units. The US has Comanche gunships, Paladin battle tanks, and Aurora strike fighters. The Chinese strength is in infantry, and in the demo we saw a huge band of about 50 chinese infantry take on and swarm over GLA entrenched defenses. The Chinese also have a lot of fire and flame based units, like the Dragon tank, which unleashes waves of flame on the battlefield. The GLA resemble a low-rent terrorist army, with many of its vehicles based on modified jeeps and trucks with mounted machine guns and rockets. However they also have special units like the “Angry Mob” and the ability to build tunnel networks on the map that allow for instant transportation from one side to another. Think StarCraft Nydus Canal.
Estimated Release: October 2002
Age of Mythology official home page: http://www.ensemblestudios.com/aom/index.html
Mixing new and old
The newest game in Ensemble’s celebrated RTS line is Age of Mythology. Unlike previous Age titles, AOM does not base its setting and units around real historical timeframes. Instead, it borrows from the literature and mythology of three ancient civilizations – the Norse, the Greeks, and the Egyptians. AoM also features a fully 3D engine. Unlike Blizzard’s foray into 3D, Ensemble’s AoM very much retains the same look and feel of its previous Age titles, with dozens to hundreds of units on the map, large, extensive towns, and its pulled back, isometric view of the battlefield.
Three cultures, nine gods
Overall there are nine “races” in Age of Mythology – you pick a race by first choosing which culture you want to play and then choosing one of that culture’s three gods. Depending on which god you pick, you’ll be given certain bonuses to units and buildings, specific technologies and upgrades that are unique to that god, and a god power. As you upgrade your civ from age to age, you’ll not just unlock new buildings and units as in previous games – you are given choices of demi-gods from which your civilization can gain different bonuses, new mythological units, and a new god power. So even if two players choose to play as Greek – Poseidon, their choices of demi-gods as they upgrade from age to age can result in two rather different armies and strategy types on the field of battle! You can get an idea of the variety available between the nine gods by peeking at AOM’s Gods page
One of the key differences between AoM and previous Age games is a new resource called favor. The way the three cultures gather favor differs. The Greeks need to use peasants to pray at the temple – this means that the Greeks will probably need to build more villagers than other cultures because peasants that are praying are obviously not doing other useful tasks like farming, gathering, and mining. The Egyptians gain favor by building more monuments. This means that Egyptian towns are going to be a lot larger and more complex than other cultures’ towns (especially the nomadic Norse who only use one type of gathering structure, the mobile ox cart). To balance this out, Egyptian buildings require no resources but take a long time to build. Hey, the pyramids weren’t built in a day! The Norse, being a raider culture, gain favor simply by killing units in battle. If you like battles and like rushing, the Norse might be for you.
Aside from obvious differences in mythological units, god powers, and technologies, the races differ from one another in more basic ways. The Norse for example, don’t use peasants to build structures. Peasants only gather – and they do gather from multipurpose, mobile ox carts. Unlike other races that need lumber yards to get wood, granaries for food, mining camps for minerals ,etc. the Norse only have to build an ox cart. And as the resource supply dwindles from one area, they can move those ox carts to other areas to make gathering more efficient! Forest receding from your clear cutting? Just move the cart closer to the tree line. Their structures are built by the military, so putting unit producing buildings up close to the front lines of battle is definitely part of the agenda. Over the course of a game, you might see a Norse player spread out all over the place with ox carts here, some barracks over there, etc. To reduce the risk of offensive tower cheese, the Norse towers are very weak compared to other races, especially the Egyptians, whose walls and towers are the strongest of the three.
Although on the surface Age of Mythology looks just like Age of Empires with a slick 3D engine, and mythological monsters fighting alongside pikemen, archers, and cavalry, there’s a lot more to the game beneath the surface. The great amount of differentiation that’s possible with the choice in gods and demigods should give a lot of strategic depth to the game, assuming it can be balanced properly. When it comes out in October, AoM should give WarCraft III a run for its money as the RTS of choice.
SIDEBAR: You get one God power per age, for a total of four. You can only use each god power once in a game! So if you’re Greek with the god Zeus, you may want to consider saving that bolt power (instant kill one unit) for when your opponent comes at you with a really strong unit that you absolutely have to kill. If you get caught having to use it early to stop a rush, you’ll surely regret it later in the game since it’s gone!
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Interactive
Estimated Release: October 2002
Eve Online official home page: http://www.eve-online.com/
Massively Multiplayer in Space
Westwood is going to have some tough company in the massively multiplayer online science fiction/space genre. Though Earth & Beyond has received a good amount of press, there are a lot of reasons to believe that CCP Games’ Eve Online has it beat in a number of areas. For one thing, Eve’s style is much edgier and darker than Earth & Beyond’s, whose colorful graphics sometimes give it a cartoon-like feel. Eve’s themes center more around traditional science fiction, as you can see from the screenshots. Most people would also say that Eve’s graphics are more impressive than Earth & Beyond’s.
Eventually these missions will be generated not just by the computer but by the players themselves. You won’t just join a clan to play together. You’ll pool money with other players and create corporations. You won’t just land on random computer controlled planets or starbases. Some of these planets and starbases will be built, owned, and controlled by actual players and player-run corporations. Those starbases will have services and goods that are sold and generate money for the players who own that particular base. New weapons that are introduced into the game are researched by corporations, and the rights to build and sell those weapons will generate royalties to the patent owners. Are you playing as a pirate, disrupting key trade lanes for a particular corporation’s business? You can expect to have a bounty put on your head by the players running that corporation.
At the pinnacle of wealth, the top corporations will be battling with one another across several star systems and dozens of planets, with fleets of battleships, cruisers, and more. The gameplay doesn’t all hinge around cooperative play and corporate warfare though. There’s plenty of room in the universe for simple freelancers who just want to make a living, explore the universe, etc. Unlike Earth & Beyond, you can own more than one ship in the game, enabling players to switch between fighting missions, cargo runs, mining missions or other types of roles.
One bit of bad news for hardcore space jockeys – the interface is still point and click, but for those who want a space-based massively multiplayer game but feel that Earth & Beyond is too constraining, Eve Online may be right up your alley. A beta test is planned before the full game is launched in October of this year.
SIDEBAR: It will be interesting to see which MMO space game gets to market first.
Publisher: TDK Mediactive
Estimated Release: Fall 2002
Robotech: Battlecry official home page: http://www.tdk-mediactive-us.com/us/games/robotech/index.html
Platforms: PS2, Gamecube, Xbox
I took a close look at TDK Mediactive’s Robotech: Battlecry game for consoles, and came away extremely impressed and excited. The story in the game happens parallel to the story in the anime, and will include cameos from some familiar faces including Rick Hunter, and Lin Minmei.
Battlecry is an action game; you’ll be flying the Veritech from the third person perspective in a variety of settings, including terrestrial areas on land amongst buildings, high in the skies over a planet, and out in space. From the levels I played at E3, it seems that each level is one large area, and you’re given complete freedom over where you want to go and how you want to fight within each level. It’s not a rail shooter like the original Starfox where you’re being forcibly moved along a linear level with no opportunity to turn around or sit still. In one mission we found ourselves in the midst of a large city complete with destructible buildings. Our mission was to defend the city from Zentraedi attack, and indeed, the bad guys come in from all directions so we had to zip around to fight them all off and come back to certain areas that we’d already “cleared” in order to defend the city. There was another mission we played, which took place high in the skies over a planet where we had to first defend the SDF-1 from attack, and then later, shift the battle to a large Zentraedi ship and destroy that.
Fans of Robotech/Macross know the weapons available to a Veritech – a rapid fire gun, and missiles. The ammunition in Battlecry is unlimited. Missiles fire in volleys, twisting to their targets with the characteristic circular contrails you remembered from the anime. You can’t fire missiles constantly though – they do have a meter that needs time to recharge and fill itself. There won’t be any need to search out ammo boxes though.
The best part of Battlecry is the ability to switch modes whenever you want, from fighter, to guardian to battleoid (robot). In fighter mode you move the fastest and are able to shoot missiles as well as your gun. The disadvantage is that you can’t sit still as a fighter, so you’ll need to deal with turning circles and such to fight slower opponents. In battleoid mode, you won’t have benefit of your missiles – only your gun, although you can go into a first person sniper mode with the gun and fire at enemies accurately from long range. The other advantage to battleoid mode is that you can sit perfectly still if you want, making it the ideal mode for close quarters combat. The guardian (half robot, half jet) mode is a nice compromise between the two other modes. You can fire missiles like in fighter mode, hover about in a more controlled fashion like battleoid mode. However you can’t move as fast as fighter mode or snipe while in guardian mode.
Battlecry will feature four player multiplayer action. For now, the details are up in the air, but the development team hopes to include three different Veritech variants to choose from (super Veritech with the jet pack, and sumo Veritech with the armor upgrades and tons of missile pods), as well as several Zentraedi vehicles. At E3 we were able to play the regular Veritech and the Zentraedi female powered armor, which was extremely fast and agile.
Vicious Software have captured the look and feel of Robotech beautifully with its cel shaded graphics engine, and gorgeous animation. With 40 or so levels of single player action, plus four player multiplayer capability, Robotech: Battlecry is shaping up to be a must have title for any Robotech fan with a new console.
SIDEBAR: They had Battlecry running on all different consoles at the show. I couldn’t tell much difference between the PS2, the Xbox, and the Gamecube versions.
Estimated Release: SC4: Fall 2002, Sims Online: November 2002
SimCity 4 official home page: http://simcity.ea.com/simcity4/index.html
The Sims Online official page: http://thesimsonline.ea.com/home/
The biggest change from SimCity 4 to its predecessors (aside from even more exquisite graphical detail) is the huge focus on giving the player the impression that there is life in the town. When a fire breaks out, you’ll see an actual fire truck leave the station, head over to the fire and little sim firefighters train a hose on the blaze and put it out. Building sites have several dozens of levels of building states as construction goes on. New effects like moving fog and clouds over the city breathe more life into the game, as well as a day night cycle. As dusk comes over your SimCity, you’ll see the city’s buildings start turning on lights, and windows in skyscrapers lit in a random fashion. You can even create your own sim citizen in the city, give him or her a home, and watch how he/she lives. From there you can get your sim’s opinion on the city, follow it around, etc.
Improvements have been made to the interface - you can click and drag build roads and even drag build large zones where the roads are intelligently included already. There’s more local control over different aspects, like deciding the budget of an individual school as opposed to schools as a whole. You can manually dispatch emergency services like fire and police where they’re needed. And even the natural disasters you can have fine control over. Whereas before you could only unleash calamites but not control their location, now you can decide to create a fire in a very specific area of the city or decide you want a volcano to pop up right next to the baseball stadium.
The Sims Online
The social and self storytelling nature of the Sims makes it a natural candidate for a massively multiplayer game. Maxis plans to deliver with the Sims Online. Here, every Sim you run into is controlled by a human player. Like the regular Sims game, you start out with your one Sim, and you’ll need to have it get a job to earn money to deck out your crib with newer and cooler stuff. The difference here is that you can actually own your own land, and turn your house into a place of business. At E3 we met up with the developers playing the game to show off some of the things that can be done. One was running a wedding chapel where other Sims Online players would pay her to run elaborate wedding ceremonies. Another was running a bar out of her house with an Old West saloon theme. Yet another had a raver dance club decked out complete with colorful lighting systems (fizzy “aspirins” not included).
The Sims Online is basically a social simulator, almost like a virtual popularity contest. There are lists for most liked Sim, Richest Sim, Biggest Flirt, etc, and these are all voted on by other people. The higher you are on lists, the more bonuses you’ll earn from the game. Indeed, early on the game helps you socialize and meet new friends by giving out tasks that are team oriented, and require you to socialize with other players in the game. From there you can establish the relationships you’ll need to climb up on the social ladder and break into the top 100 on the popularity lists.
Whoever said art didn’t imitate life?
SIDEBAR: After the Sims and seemingly a dozen expansion packs and variations, it’s nice to see Maxis get back to its roots and do another SimCity game.
Easy as pie
Scheduled to launch in November of this year, Microsoft unveiled its plans for the online aspect of its Xbox. We were given a video introduction of how Xbox Live will work, and what to expect. Overall there are five primary features of Xbox Live that Microsoft touted.
We asked how easily the Xbox will be able to handle being plugged into a hub as opposed to having the DSL line plugged directly into it. Microsoft assured us that broadband sharing scenarios were thought of from the start, and the Xbox should have no issues with being plugged into a hub and sharing the broadband line with other PCs. Overall, Xbox Live looks like a well designed and well-conceived system. They’re going to have a huge advantage in that every Xbox already has all (well, most of) the hardware it needs to handle Xbox Live. There’s no need to buy a new hard drive or modem, and the cost of the service is built into the communicator device.
The proof will be in the software though, and Microsoft plans about “a dozen titles for Xbox live in the first dozen weeks of service.” The speed with which MS can bring out quality online titles will be the primary determinant of the success of Xbox Live.
SIDEBAR: What do you think of these titles and Xbox Live? Sound off in our comments section.
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