May 24th, 2006

Auto Assault

But is Auto Assault Fun to Play?

Okay, so the back story and its assumptions aren't as stupid as I expected them to be. And the combat system is oddly much more fun than I thought it would be. However, but there's more to a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game than back story and combat (or else Anarchy Online and Neocron wouldn't have sucked as much as they ended up doing). But I have a hard time fairly evaluating a new MMO, because on a lot of things that matter to me, the original Ralph Koster version of Star Wars: Galaxies, and Cryptic Studios' City of Villains, have spoiled me.

Characters? Each of the three sides has the same four basic character roles, although the actual powers vary pretty widely between the sides. Each side has a pure combat character. Each one has a character that has the best defenses, plus tradeskills and the ability to do field repairs. (Although the repair function is pretty weak. But then, they're looking into that. It's a new game. Two years in, and City of Heroes has still to properly adjust the balance on some powers. War Mace, anyone? But on the other hand, having the only healer class be pre-nerfed is a heck of a criticism.) Each side has a role that buffs team members and which calls up NPC allies. (Although not all allies are created equal. The mutants' summoner class, the archon, has fewer minions but more buffs. But the basic role is still the same.) And each side has a stealthy hit-and-run commando role. (They're also the only ones who can switch to combat motorcycles, in the low to mid 20s, which I gather are tricky to maneuver but fun to ride.)

After SWG and CoV, no game's character appearance customization will ever make me happy, I fear. For each of the 12 character classes, there are exactly four outfits per gender to choose between, and so far as I can tell you can never change yours after you pick it. Oh, yeah, and you get some control over your height. All you can customize of the clothing options is the color of the outfit and the color of some of the accents. You do get a pretty wide variety of facial customization features. That makes some sense; when you're in convoy mode (teamed) your icon shows your face on the convoy status screen, which makes identifying team members on it faster if everybody doesn't look alike. As for the cars themselves, each of the twelve character classes starts with their own standard chassis, and all you can customize to start with is the paint color, plus your choice of three optional paint patterns in a second color. Oh, and you get to choose between four styles of hubcaps. Fighters drive things that look sort of like Humvees. Repair/tradeskill characters drive trucks, unsurprisingly. Summoners drive sports cars, eventually upgrading to (shudder) station wagons. And stealth characters get some kind of small but nimble-looking car, like a dune buggy or a desert racer, and as I said have the option to eventually switch to racing bikes. Eventually, you can find or buy replacement car keys and switch to a different looking car (with different capabilities) in the same general class. Custom trims and paint colors are found in the game world, as loot, then taken to a car-customizing garage in any major city to install, so you do eventually get the ability to trick out your ride until it's pretty cool.

Maps? There are world maps, and there are city maps. You drive and fight in the world maps, never walk. You walk in the city maps, never drive or fight. One of the reasons why it hardly matters what the characters look like from the neck down is that there's very little reason to get out of your car for longer than a few minutes at a time. But even so, it's painful to watch. Characters stand stock corpse-like still when they're not walking. The few character animations have been coded are absolutely painful to watch; in particular, I must conclude that the animators have never actually seen a normal human being run. There are no "emote" animations for characters, no gestures, no facial expressions. This is a real impairment to roleplaying.

The cities really only contain four things: the better shops, the machinery that tradeskillers use (although their raw materials are all harvested from the driving maps, more on that below), about half of the contacts that give missions and pay out mission rewards, and the 3-D artwork that sets the "mood" for each side. That last part they actually achieve pretty well. The human cities look like a credible attempt to carve "Logan's Run" malls/town centers in the middle of nuked out ruins. There are also "scav" NPC cities that have a very The Day After or Mad Max or Beyond the Planet of the Apes feel, of people clawing out what seems to them to be a perfectly ordinary life in the mostly uncleaned up ruins of their grandparents' cities. The biomek cities look militaristic, grim, and industrial; the propaganda screens are bitingly funny. ("Nature has been out-voted. Now we control selection.") The mutant cities, on the other hand, are things of beauty to behold, full of beautiful shrines and amazing public statuary and carefully tended gardens. They also have abundant pools, streams, lakes, and fountains ... of glowing green Contamination, clearly cultivated for their beauty.

The maps for the vast areas between those pedestrian zones, where you never get out of your car, are remarkably well done. The humans start in the ruins of a major city, and eventually expand into the ruined suburbs around it, then the small towns beyond. Their outdoor maps are full of scavengers scrabbling in the ruins, people the Hestia Corporation considers so contaminated as to be unfit for the new world they're re-building. The biomeks start in the devastation of an even more thoroughly destroyed city, all mud and ruins and a gazillion angry humans trying to kill them. (The biomeks practice conscription. And nearly all of the subjects die. The familes of the dead are understandably cranky about this.) The mutants have built their beautiful garden cities in the middle of a vast desert full of remarkably high tech miners and oil refineries and military companies, all of whom the mutants consider abominable blights on their beautiful land. On all of the outdoor maps, the ruins themselves incorporate the same new Phys-X model that Cryptic is using in the Mayhem Missions in the next version of City of Villains (including the same bug, I note wryly - everything bounces like it's made out of styrofoam). Virtually everything can be destroyed ... and will be, over and over again, because half or more of the raw materials for the tradeskillers are harvested from the ruins after you've shot them up or blown them up. And here's the best part: because they can count on you moving through it at 30 to 80 miles per hour, there's room for them to put in all kinds of fun things and to create all kinds of vast, beautiful vistas. I don't enjoy slipping and sliding around in the mud of the biotek ruins' maps, but all of the maps are amazingly beautiful and full of great discoveries, the best I've seen yet. They've also got the most realistic weather I've seen in any game, yet.

Things to Do? Pretty much all MMOs have the same set of "missions" to complete: delivery, kill n (fill in the blank), patrol these waypoints, defeat a specific "boss," find and interact with a certain object, and escort hostages. Auto Assault has all of them, of course. To get the missions, you have to find the NPCs that give them, but that's not especially hard. (Actually, I'm told that it gets harder, but that's a design oversight that's being fixed. They weren't meant to be that few and far between in the 30s and 40s, they're saying on the forums.) Each NPC that offers jobs at your level and above has a pillar of light over their head (on you'r heads-up display) that's visible out to almost a quarter of a mile. And that's plenty, because just about the only time "patrol" missions are given is when you reach the level where you need to go hunt harder critters and people, and need to talk to higher level NPCs about jobs. Each time that happens, you get a mission to go deliver something to an NPC that ("coincidentally") has work for you, or a patrol route that drives you past pit stops, lab stations, small towns, and such that have NPCs (and the repair bays you need). It does two things very well, though. For one thing, mission difficulty is "conned" by the same color codes that apply to the enemies themselves. If you can regularly defeat yellow-difficulty enemies (with regard to your level), then you can just as easily complete a yellow-difficulty mission. (Of course, if you level up with the mission in your journal, its color changes as you go up in level.) The other cool thing it does is that when you get a mission to defeat a certain number of a particular enemy, the regional map shows you big blue dots at places where that kind of enemy might be, which really speeds up looking for them. And as in all games, the text of the missions reveals the backstory and the ongoing story of each area. The stories aren't bad. If I hadn't played City of Heroes, I'd think they were outstanding; they're certainly better than the frankly mostly thrown-together ones in City of Villains.

Or you can just drive around and kill things, a very popular activity for convoys. You pass up some of the end-of-mission XP and rewards, but you get the benefit of being able to hunt much higher level enemies and kill your way across the map even more quickly. One feature that eventually all games will have, but few of them do yet, is built-in voice chat for teams -- if your computer has a microphone plugged in to the sound card, you can press to talk. (Most people map the "push to talk" button to a side mouse button.) Enemies do drop loot, much of the time, including repair kits for the car, and scavenger parts for the tradeskillers, and vehicle upgrades that are almost as good as the ones the tradeskillers can (painstakingly, eventually, and with luck) make themselves, and of course cash. There are tradeskills, something that City of Villains sadly lacks (although issue 7, coming out in a week or less probably, adds the first rudimentary tradeskills). Unfortunately, they have the same problem that most games have: beginner-made equipment is completely worthless, and you can only advance your tradeskills by "grinding" dozens or hundreds of worthless items ... and that, only after scrounging the wastelands for hours, smashing up old buildings and blowing up bad guys' cars for parts. Nor does it help that the process is unspeakably opaque. But hey, tradeskills.

Conclusion? Ennnnhhh ... answer hazy, try again later. I honestly don't know. If I knew more people who were playing, I'd be more tempted. As it is, I'm wondering if I'm about to hit the point of diminishing returns in the fun of City of Villains, maybe enough of one to take a vacation and switch my subscription over to the (identically priced) Auto Assault. I'll hate the ugly player characters, love the combat, hate the current design of the tradeskills, love that there are tradeskills, like the missions, and like that there are (unlike CoH/CoV) lots more new places for me to explore. And I think I'll like the backstory. Right this minute, I'm kind of leaning towards giving it a try, but I'm nowhere near making up my mind.