Summary: Westwood looks to take the massively multiplayer genre to a setting it's never been before - sci/fi outer space! Read on and find out what Earth and Beyond Online has to offer. Is it a massively multiplayer Privateer? Sort of...
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Earth & Beyond Online official home page: http://www.earthandbeyond.com/
Ultima Online and Everquest introduced an alphabet soup of new acronyms for gamers to learn. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) in PSWs (persistent state worlds) were going to be the wave of the future. Indeed, we’ve seen a number of other MMORPGs become popular in the last several years – Asheron’s Call, Lineage, and Dark Age of Camelot have all taken in their fair share of subscribers. More and more massively multiplayer games are coming out, and with good reason – the subscriber based model creates a continuous revenue stream, while arguably shortening development time and allowing content to be broken up in an episodic fashion.
Although the current massively multiplayer games have their distinct differences, one thing that each of these games has had in common so far is their setting – a fantasy realm ruled by monsters, swords, and sorcery. Westwood’s Earth & Beyond Online stands apart from the rest right away with its sci-fi setting – a huge galaxy of planets, moons, stars, asteroid belts, and more for the player to explore. NPC monsters, pirates, and other characters exist for players to fight and to trade with. Vast expanses of space remain unexplored, waiting for players to unlock their secrets. Think of a massively multiplayer Privateer, and you won’t be too far off from beginning to understand what Earth & Beyond Online has to offer. But leaving the description at that would shortchange a lot of features and other aspects that EBO brings to the table.
Three ways to level
Another aspect that sets EBO apart from the Everquests and the DaoCs is that there is more than one way to gain levels in EBO aside from fighting. There are three – Exploration, Trade, and Combat. Exploration involves a number of things aside from opening up and mapping uncharted territory. It also involves prospecting asteroids, exploring new planets and discovering new items and resources to be introduced to the “world.” Trade is fairly self-explanatory – players can gain experience picking up resources and commodities from one part of the galaxy and taking them to another part of the galaxy where they’re needed, to gain a profit. You can gain experience simply by getting a good deal on your materials. Combat experience is obvious, as well. Players may come across hostile space monsters and/or pirates in their travels. Killing them gives you money and experience.
Accessibility is a big issue for players who don’t and cannot treat their massively multiplayer games as a fulltime job. Sometimes in other games, it doesn’t seem as fun when you’re constantly falling behind people who spend 8, 12, or 16 hours a day leveling up their character while you can only afford to put in a couple hours. Earth & Beyond Online promises to offer a better sense of accomplishment for all players. Unlike Everquest, which takes thousands of hours to reach the highest levels, EBO allows players to get to the top levels in a matter of a few hundred hours of gameplay.
From the humans who colonized the solar system around Sol, three unique races emerged: the Jenquai, descended from the colonists of Saturn and Jupiter; the Terran, the original humans from Earth; and the Progen, descended from the Mars colonists. Sometime during the 23rd Century, the Jenquai discovered the first of the Ancient Gates at the edge of the solar system – one of a vast array of Gates that allow for instantaneous travel across the galaxy. The Jenquai attempted to keep the discovery secret from the Terran and Progen, who later uncovered the deception. The Terrans banded together with the Progen, starting a huge war that nearly destroyed all three.
Now, in the 24th century, an uneasy peace exists amongst the three races, glued together by thin treaties, respect for the borders each has carved out of unexplored space, and fresh memories of the terrible, catastrophic war that almost consumed humanity completely.
The Jenquai are the most technologically oriented of the three races of humanity. They are the best scientists and explorers, and specialize in stealth and energy efficiency with their ships. The Jenquai also are most adept at using beam weapons on their ships, which makes sense given their efficient use of energy from their ships’ reactors. Their unique skills include Cloaking (think Klingon Bird of Prey), Fold Space (creating their own mini warp jump), and Psionic Shield. On the downside, their ships have the weakest shields of all three races.
The Terrans are the original humans from Earth. As is typical in many games, the Terrans in Earth & Beyond are considered the best negotiators and traders of the game. They get the best deals, and the ships they use tend to have more cargo capacity. Their technological expertise lies in propulsion and computers, and as such, they get the fastest ships, as well as the ability to Hack other ships in combat (a successful hack will randomly disable one of the other ship’s systems). Their area of expertise in gunnery lies with missiles, which have the longest range of the three weapon classes.
The Progens are a clone race of humans descended from the Mars settlers. Of the three races of humans, they are the strongest and most adept at combat. Their ships have the strongest shields and more weapon hardpoints than any other race’s ships. Progen weapon proficiency is best with projectile guns. However, their ships tend to be slower than the other races’ to help balance their superior combat skill. They do feature some unique tricks though, including Shield Inversion (uses shield as a potent close range weapon while draining shield power constantly), which can be devastating against ships that come close in.
Explorer classes have the best scanners of all the ship types. They can identify bogeys as friend or foe from farther away than either of the other two classes. Thus, they are useful to have in a party, to serve as scouts for the main group. They also have the ability to prospect, identifying mineral sources on asteroids, and locating new resources for the traders in the group to collect. Explorers are also tasked with mapping new sectors, finding hideen areas, and exploring new planetary surfaces. They can also guide parties to places that are normally inaccessible.
Traders can gain experience in a number of ways outside of actually running a commodity from one area to another and making a profit from it (although that is the most obvious way to gain trade experience). Trader classes can also discover item formulas by analyzing new weapons/items. What this means is that a good trader can take a rare or expensive item, put it under analysis and find out the component ingredients it takes to manufacture the item. If a trader were to figure out the formula to a powerful/rare item, he could make a huge profit by manufacturing the object and selling it to other players. Of course he’d get a ton of experience for it along the way as well.
Warrior classes gain experience the obvious way – through combat. EBO features plenty of space pirates, hostile NPCs, and space/planetary fauna for you to fight. Unexplored or lightly explored areas feature more dangers than the more populated areas of the galaxy. Warrior class ships are always handy to have in a party to ward off these dangers. Even though Explorer and Trader class ships have their own weapons, there’s no substitute for the real deal, especially with the more dangerous enemies in the game.
You’ll be spending most of your time in Earth & Beyond inside of your ship flying about the galaxy. However, there are dozens upon dozens of planets and starbases that you can land on and dock your ship. Once on “the ground,” your character exits the ship and you can actually walk around the bases, talking to NPCs to gain more story background or pick up missions, and visiting shops to outfit your ship with new items and weapons. Traders will want to make their way to commodities shops to sell and buy items for their cargo holds. It is also on foot that you’ll be able to access your “personal vault” where you can store a limited amount of items outside of your ship. The vault has no physical location in the galaxy – you’ll be able to access it from any docking station in the universe.
Flying the ship is done via mouse and keyboard, not joystick. You can click on landmarks in your immediate sector and have your ship warp to them, or you can fly about independently by pointing your mouse around and holding the right mouse button to engage thrust. Firing weapons is done by clicking icons on your interface screen or by using keyboard shortcuts. There is no aiming of the weapons – once an enemy vessel is targeted (by simply clicking on one), the weapons automatically aim and their probability to hit is calculated based on your character’s gunnery skill with that particular weapon, among other factors. The damage done by each hit is also randomly calculated based on your gunnery skill, the armor class of the opponent, and the strength of your gun.
As you might have guessed, Earth & Beyond isn’t a hardcore space sim. It’s more accurately described as a role playing game set in a sci-fi space setting. It’s partly for this reason that Westwood’s primary focus on the game is having the players go up against the environment as opposed to doing player vs. player. The multiplayer goals are cooperative, with players having to band together and utilize their various strengths to solve complex problems that the game may throw at them – problems that likely couldn’t be overcome by a lone wolf. The sample mission that the press played in Las Vegas was a great example of this.
With about twenty of us press folks together in a room, Westwood created the ideal environment to show off a sample type of mission where E&B players would need to use cooperative tactics. In this particular mission, all of us press folk were given fairly high level characters and decked out ships, but we were all marooned in a sector due to the destruction of the local Gate. The only known situation is that a fleet of pirates, including a large capital ship, is threatening to destroy the only starbase in this particular sector. The local defense forces have the capital ship at bay in a siege formation but neither side is able to really gain an advantage on the other.
The final attack
Massing our ships together for one concerted, glorious attack on the capital ships, we planned a two pronged raid. One group occupied the accompanying fighters, while the rest of us went straight in at the cruiser. It took several waves, the first few to kill the gun turrets on the cruiser, and the last one to attack the heavily shielded core reactor. Yours truly drove his Progen Warrior ship right up to the core, activating my shield inversion unit just as our designated gunner trained the supergun on it. The supergun brought down the shields allowing all the others to pour concentrated fire on the reactor and blow up the cruiser. Unfortunately, I was a bit too close to the core with my shield inversion, so I was vaporized in the ensuing explosion.
Summing it up
Overall, Earth & Beyond Online is shaping up to be quite a compelling game. I’m not a big fan of the massively multiplayer genre, but I found myself getting sucked into the beta test and the trap of “just one more mission” or “just one more level.” There are a number of gameplay issues that need to be ironed out, including the way the game handles lag, but with months left to go in the stress test, there is still plenty of time for Westwood to work out those problems. Westwood has a number of exciting things planned after the launch of the retail game, including the introduction of a hostile NPC alien race to the world as well as the possibility of opening up PvP elements. With its sci-fi space setting, Earth & Beyond Online will take the massively multiplayer genre in a new and exciting direction, attracting gamers who never considered playing a massively multiplayer game before.
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