When Jim wrote his preview of Love more than a year ago, he sealed it with "Even in 2008, a year of fascinating, intriguing developments in gaming... Love stands out like a magnesium fire in a haystack. Let's just hope that Steenberg's energies and inspirations last enough to set the world on fire when he does reach that vital beta."
Finally, that beta's arrived. Despite code savant Eskil Steenberg's intention to keep evolving the MMO, he's released a version of his curious, mathematical baby that he considers feature complete, and access is available to anyone willing to hand over 3 Euros to fund its continued development.
Let's work from the ground up. What do you get for your 3 Euros?
Well, you get a month's access to one of the game's 200-player servers, each of which contains a sprawling, procedurally-generated landscape featuring desolate plains, lush forests, ice shelves, statue gardens, claustrophobic waterways, AI villages and cliffs. Lots and lots of cliffs.
A lot has been made of how beautiful Love is. And it is beautiful, just not in the way you might expect. You know how otherworldly and awe-inspiring the world becomes when you stay up till dawn? Love's that kind of beautiful. It's a parade of stark, gaping colours enveloped in fog, which lends the game a strange, ethereal prettiness that's somehow bigger than you, and induces queasiness if you exist in it for too long.
As for the game itself, it's about exploration of this dreamlike world and working with other players to build settlements within it. This begins with one lucky player finding a Monolith Token somewhere in the wilderness which allows them to fling up a single Monolith wherever they please, thereby starting a settlement. Other players can then touch the Monolith to join the settlement, with the Monolith acting as their respawn point from then on.
Searching for a decent settlement after picking your server is a lonely undertaking, and with all the lethal water and hostile roaming AIs around, it plays a bit like a rite of passage. My own trek through the wilderness saw me spending a good 20 minutes trying to find my way out of a sun-bleached maze of stony walls and bluffs, travelling up ruined staircases or leaping across half-finished bridges where I could find them.
The feeling of glee when I stumbled across a group of players sculpting out a settlement on top of a bright glacier was immense. It was my first and probably last ever instance of being happy to see my frame-rate drop. I'd found my new home! I ran around in a daze, surveying the power pylons and caves these guys were building. Then, while searching for their Monolith, I somehow wedged myself in a tiny tunnel. I couldn't get back out, and everyone else ignored me. Eventually I gave up hammering at movement keys and respawned at my last checkpoint, knowing I'd never be able to retrace my steps. I'd never see those people again.
In a good while I found another settlement, this one in a clearing in the middle of a forest. More relieved than happy by this point, I cautiously located and touched their Monolith before I got the chance to do something stupid. It was here I got to grips with building.
If your settlement isn't very developed, like mine wasn't, building in Love is largely about even more exploration. Each of the dozens of features you can add to your encampment, from wind turbines to windows to constructions that dispense guns or even project live holograms of your base, all of them exist as tokens that are randomly spawned throughout the world, often in AI settlements. It's up to the fearless players of your conclave to venture off, find these tokens, bring them back, and then inevitably deploy them in a really stupid place that you'll have to live with while becoming increasingly angry at your fellow man.
Once you and your cohabitants get into the swing of things, though, Love enters its golden days. It's hugely satisfying to build and then input the coordinates of power relays or edit the landscape into protective walls, and exploration becomes less frustrating and more satisfying when you have a home to go back to. That said, I'm not sold on the Man vs. Cliff "puzzle" element of traversing the landscape that Eskil considers so very integral to the game that he refuses to put in climbing gear.
The algorithm which creates the world very much likes its impassable ravines and sheer cliff-faces. Love being designed to make travelling engaging and challenging is fine, but in practice you end up wasting a lot of time on dead ends. If you're an impatient bugger like me this also means you always end up attempting a jump you know you'll never make and begin drowning yourself in ponds on a regular basis.
In my game, I found myself getting sick of token-hunting for such a disorganised settlement. The final straw was the coming of what the Love community is calling Armageddon, a huge flood which happens every six hours or so. The good news is, if you have a Dive Gear token, everyone in your settlement can go swimming up to areas that were previously inaccessible. But we didn't have a Dive Gear token. We were just a bunch of jerks living in a building site when our shady forest suddenly transformed into a deadly marsh. Worse, my computer has the relatively common problem of being incompatible with Love's high-end mode, and in low-end mode it's really difficult to make out the surface of any water. Hardly ideal when you can't swim.
So, yeah, I ended up leaving those bastards to their plight. They're probably still out there, trying and failing to rig up a teleporter and still accidentally knocking down their own walls.
My second home was more successful, though it had the opposite problem. Carved into a rockface on a snowy, featureless plain, it was too organised. The groundwork was already in place, as was the power, plenty of the tokens and even cosmetic things like stairs and pavements.
I wandered the cold battlements, embarrassed that I wasn't helping my new friends but at a loss of how to do so without interfering. Instead, I did some thinking. What would these people do when they'd perfected their palace? I've read on the wiki that the more developed your settlement gets and the higher you build, the more likely it is that the AI will attack in force. Advanced settlements eventually find themselves under artillery fire, and even island sanctuaries will see bridges being extended towards them. Players in Love are only ever capable of building what amount to giant sandcastles that require constant care and attention to keep the Monolith from being destroyed.
Yet somehow, developing these settlements still feels like a worthy endeavour. Tearing great holes in the landscape, laying minefields, placing a radar you found and brought home yourself, setting up cable transports and then riding them up to distant mesas. You're making a home. Sod the graphics engine everyone talks about, there's something far more beautiful in that.
What it's missing is an endgame, or some kind of story or substance. The way the AI gets angrier and the game gets harder the more you build isn't enough, and I think it might even be counter-productive to the warmth of the game's title and message. The current system leads to the experienced players locking themselves away in ivory towers where the AI and griefers can't get at them.
There's certainly no shortage of roads Eskil could lead Love down. The beta as it stands is an almost perfect framework for a base-building PvP MMO, but as Eskil's stated before, that's not his goal. I just wish I had a better idea what is.
The beta's also unquestionably worth playing if you've an interest in MMOs, game design, cliffs, drowning, or, from a technical standpoint, what you can squeeze into a six (six!) megabyte download. There's absolutely nothing like Love available today, and 3 Euros is pittance. Besides, you'll be contributing to Eskil's continued, fevered development of this curious project, and while nobody has much of an idea where he intends to take his game, you can be sure it's going to be somewhere fascinating.
The Love beta is available from the game's official website.