For years now I've been banging on about how someone needs to copy EVE Online as a model for MMOs, rather than simply reworking the other more traditional models of EverQuest and World Of Warcraft. Some games, such as Darkfall and Mortal Online, are doing something like that, in that they're taking their inspiration from Ultima Online - the game that originally inspired EVE to be the game it is today. But only one game can truly be said to take EVE Online as its inspiration, and that's Perpetuum Online.
Now, when I first considered writing this preview I thought about playing down the similarity of Perpetuum to EVE Online, because it would have been such lazy journalism to say that it's EVE with robots. However, when I went to show the game to another gamer friend of mine, he sat there blank-faced. "What?" he said, uncomprehending. "Look how similar to EVE this loading screen is," said I. His eyes widened: he hadn't realised that it wasn't EVE.
So that's the issue we face here. I can describe game systems, like the fact that skill development takes place not through gathering XP or exercise skills, but over time, and you'll have seen it in another game: EVE Online. So much is similar here that my chum's mistake really was pardonable, at least as someone who hadn't played EVE for a few years.
However, there are differences that mean that Perpetuum doesn't do everything in quite the same way. For example, instead of slowly building up skills over time, as EVE does, this learning system simply accrues points which you later spend on the skills of your choice. Clearly a better choice, because it means you don't have to worry about logging in to set the next skill running. Also, it means that you won't be running two weeks behind your chums if you decide to go on holiday and your skill runs out.
This system - clearly inspired by, but not exactly the same as EVE - seems representative of the game as whole. You can see where they're coming from, but you can also see how and why the Hungarian development team are motivated to do things differently. (Making money is another matter: that's as grindy as you might expect, with some serious graft in the pipeline for anyone determined to obtain game wealth.)
The biggest difference, of course, is that Perpetuum is not set in space, and has terrain. There are not spaceships, but robots. Some are a little stompy, others skittering, all armed as you see fit. The robots deploy from various techno fortresses that are scattered across the landscape.
As a starting player you begin as a member of a non-player-character corporation, and find yourself in a hangar with your starter robot. More robots can be purchased as you skill up, and they fill different roles, such as a hauler robot for cargo, industrial robots that are best suited to mining resources on the planet's surface, and various combat robots. Robots can be fitted with various modules, which can be purchased from the market, or found as drops from killing NPCs. As in EVE, everything apart from the most basic equipment requires skills, so you'll be waiting for some time to get into the more advanced robots and even longer to be able to make use of the kind of equipment that you could fit into them.
This modular adaptability will lie at the heart of the game, and it's the thing that Perpetuum is going to share most closely with EVE. Finding the right loadout for your chosen ride is going be crucial to your effectiveness in the field, and being useful solo will mean quite different things to being useful in player-versus-player, or in a group. What's great about that is that you'll eventually be able to field a whole hangar full of bots, each suited to different tasks.
Once out on the planet's surface you are faced with a weird alien landscape full of plants, mountains, more techno-fortress things, and other robots. There are a whole bunch of NPC robots that you can shoot up for resources, and these rapidly get dangerously tough as you wander off into the surrounding areas. Some are simply hanging out, waiting to be exploded, while others are tied to the various mission objectives you'll be able to take on. (The missions right now seem ludicrously tough, but I guess that's because I've tried to solo them in a crap robot.)
What's sort of interesting about this early wandering is that you get to see how Perpetuum's terrain-based interactions affect things. You can't hide in the depths of space here, and there's real scope for wandering into danger, either from NPCs or other player robots. Combat here is handled in real time - you move your robot around with the WASD keys - but firing and damage is calculated per turret, or per missile launcher. Whether you hit, and how much damage you do, is a factor of your skills, the type of weapon, and the range you choose to engage at. PvP is, of course, fairly open, and it feels a lot like EVE. I've yet to see a proper pitched battle, but I should imagine it's going to be fairly intense (and fairly laggy) when two sides manage to pitch two armies of robots against each other.
Perpetuum is currently in closed beta, with waves of invites being sent out to grow the population as new features are implemented. Most recently the game introduced a mission system, which perhaps gives you some idea about just what a sandbox it has been up to now. The world prior to missions could simply be explored, with the options being to shoot NPCs or mine for material resources. Getting a player-driven economy up and running is clearly more of a priority for these developers than creating the kind of quest-driven systems that are the motor in other MMOs. That's a good sign, because it means they've got their priorities for how the game should work just right.
It's not clear right now when this game will launch, or enter any kind of commercial phase. Avatar Creations have announced that they're "looking for partners", which is emblazoned on the game launcher itself. The technical hurdles to getting such a game online for a large audience are not inconsiderable and could end up being Perpetuum's greatest challenge. You can keep an eye on things over at the official website.