Up until now the massively multiplayer role-playing game genre has been dominated by tree huggers, with all of the leading games (Ultima Online, Everquest and Asheron's Call) based in fantasy settings, and most of them featuring more than their fair share of elves, trolls and dragons. All that is about to change though, and one of the first science fiction inspired online role-playing games to be released is "Anarchy Online", an ambitious game which is currently entering its first round of beta testing.
Home Sweet Home
Anarchy Online is set in the far future on an alien planet run by the shadowy corporation OmniTek, which is facing a loosely knit group of rebel clans struggling for freedom. On entering the game you can choose to align yourself with either of the two factions, or to remain neutral. Playing as an OmniTek employee you are part of a vast bureaucracy, and will find yourself rising through a strict hierarchy within the company, while playing as a member of one of the rebel clans is an altogether more free-form experience. You will also be given a choice of which race you want your character to be a part of, as the world is inhabited by a number of different gene-tailored variations on your common or garden human, designed for speed, strength or other abilities. For example, the Brute is a towering hulk with great strength, essentially Anarchy Online's answer to the troll. The world itself is vast, split into fifty different zones, each 3km by 3km in size, plus "dungeons". In fact, it's so large that the developers have added a public transport system to help you find your way around it without having to spend hours walking cross-country to get to the next town. Anarchy Online has been designed to hold anything up to 50,000 players at once, and there are no shards here - everybody will play together on the same world. To avoid any of the zones becoming overcrowded, OmniTek crowd control will warn you if there are any illegal gatherings in your area and ask you to disperse.
Before you leave the city, you might want to leave any excess baggage in your apartment, and then look at getting yourself insured. The insurance booths which are scattered throughout the game world scan your molecular structure, and can then recreate you if you are killed. It certainly beats your regular save game feature... And while Anarchy Online might have a science-fiction setting, that doesn't mean that it can't have magic either. The difference is that, instead of being an inherently unexplainable phenomenon, in Anarchy Online magic is caused by swarms of tiny nano-tech creatures controlled by your character. As with any fantasy game, spells come in both offensive and defensive varieties, and can also be used to "buff" yourself or other characters, temporarily increasing their stats. The range of skills on offer in the game is also impressive, with a total of 57 currently in the game, ranging from your basic combat skills through to trade skills, which allow you to build and repair different types of item. These skills can be increased throughout the game, as you gain a certain number of "skill points" every time your character goes up a level, and these are then spent on improving your abilities. Regardless of which profession you chose for your character at the start of the game, you can still train yourself in any of the game's range of skills. Instead of limiting your choices, your profession simply acts as a guideline for your character, with the cost of learning skills varying according to your profession. For example, soldiers get combat skills cheaper, while they may find it harder to learn nano-magic. And even if you decide at some point that you want to take your character in an entirely different direction, you can always change your profession .. at a cost.
What Is Your Quest?
Experience is earned through completing quests, which you receive at quest booths. These give you a choice of quests based on your current level, profession, and which side of the conflict you are on. Quests can include everything from sneaking your way into an enemy installation to steal some vital documents, to assassinating an enemy leader, or even blowing up power stations. As well as getting experience from carrying out quests, you will also receive items and money to compensate you. As this is the main source of new items in the game, it should make for a less "campy" experience than in games like Everquest, where items come from monsters which respawn regularly in the same place, leading to queues forming as players await their turn to slay the evil troll and get the Staff Of Smiting. Limits on who can use items, depending on your abilities and level, should also prevent the problem of experienced players gifting powerful items to new characters, which tends to rather unbalance a game. For more mundane items, there is a full trade system with basic supply and demand economics. As some items are only available in certain parts of the world, players in the beta test have taken to buying them at the source, transporting them to a distant zone, and then selling them at a profit. Whether this will hold up under the stress of 50,000 players remains to be seen - Everquest's attempts in this direction proved to be fairly futile in the long run.
One thing we can be sure of is that Anarchy Online's graphics will be the best seen in a massively multiplayer role-playing game to date, with vast open terrain, some rather nice lighting effects, and a surprisingly high polygon count. The game is built around DirectX 7.0, and comes with full support for transform & lighting acceleration - good news for those of us with NVIDIA graphics cards. The landscape is nicely detailed, with the usual range of valleys, plains and rolling hills, while waves lap gently on the shores. The game also sports some of the best trees we've seen in a game of this type, so all you tree huggers will have something to cheer about despite the lack of elves. Cities are filled with detailed buildings and walkways, with tents and stalls out in the countryside. Weather effects are also very impressive, although in a heavy fog or sandstorm you can barely see past the end of your nose, which can make trying to navigate your way through inclement weather rather frustrating at times. The game's real graphical strength though is the creatures which inhabit this world. The characters themselves look great, and have a wide range of smooth animations, from your basic run and walk cycles to social animations like dancing, waving and clapping. You can even do the chicken dance. The world is also filled with plant life and animals, ranging from vast graceful alien life-forms which tower high above you to small rodent like creatures.
Funcom have managed to create an intricate and believable alien world with Anarchy Online, with excellent graphics and a novel science fiction setting which should help it stand out from the crowd of fantasy role-playing games currently glutting the market. The first stage of beta testing has already begun, and so we should know soon whether the game is as good in practice as it is in theory. But certainly judging from what we were shown of it at the recent ECTS trade show in London, it is one of the more promising massively multiplayer games currently in development, and well worth a look when the beta test goes public later in the year.