Few licences have ever been as suitable for an MMO as Stargate SG-1. The very premise that enabled MGM's sci-fi show to run for ten years without running out of new ideas - that is, travelling between a near-infinite network of planets through wormhole-connected gates and usually blowing up whatever's there - provides an endless, running source of material with which to fill up a truly massive online world. In addition, Stargate Worlds' purpose-built developer Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment has a ready-made and well-loved universe of carefully-constructed, fully fleshed-out science-fiction as a backdrop for its game. The developers really are spoiled for inspiration.
Stargate Worlds has been in development for three years, and is due to enter beta testing within the next few months. The development team was assembled specifically for the game, and it shows - it is hugely faithful to its source material, and our chat with studio head Dan Elggren left us with the strong impression that the developer has a sense for what makes the series great. The team is committed to making the Stargate game that fans fantasise about.
Players will begin in Stargate Command on Earth, the hub of the television series, before taking their first steps through the stargate itself into unknown lands. The stargates work exactly the same way as they do in the series: you dial up a seven-symbol address, walk through, and emerge in a different area. Low-level areas are predictably geared towards educating new players in combat, equipment and Stargate SG-1 back-story, but the system is open; gate addresses can be found and earned through missions, but there's nothing to stop you from dialling up an address you got from another player, or simply dialling at random and hoping to strike lucky - as long as you're prepared for the distinct possibility of getting slaughtered by whatever lurks on the other side.
This naturally allows for a lot of variety in the appearance and structure of the game's various environments, which is promising. Unconstrained by a TV series budget, the developer has free rein to craft whatever alien world comes to mind, whereas in the early days of the TV series, about 80 per cent of the planets looked remarkably like Colorado forests, or a Canadian quarry. There will be limited instancing for the purposes of story missions, but otherwise it's all one big, open world - or open galaxy, more appropriately - with various SG teams independently exploring planets, discovering new technologies and shooting at things.
Combat-wise, being a Stargate game, SG Worlds is heavily focused on guns and other ranged weapons; but it's not a shooter. There'll be a right-click auto-attack and an infinite-ammo system to prevent hauling crates of ammo around on quests, and players will receive a buff from cover, as will enemies - as a consequence, the developer is going to have to pay close attention to the layout of the environments to keep combat interesting. A dynamic indicator will show the quality of cover at a glance - rather like Diablo's equipment colour-coding - and line-of-sight or tactical advantages like high ground will come into the equation as well.
This might all sound rather Tabula Rasa at the moment, and as with that game, Stargate Worlds' combat all relies on behind-the-scenes dice rolls in the end. But the combat is a key area in which the game is attempting to differentiate itself from the crowd and offer something new, partly through the more action-oriented gameplay, and partly through the variety of weaponry on offer. Equipment plays a huge part in the game, with skills closely tied to armour, weapons and other equipment, rather than dependent upon character stats.
The idea is to provide a lot of flexibility and, naturally, loot-lust, as access to equipment is levelled. Stargate is essentially a big arms race, after all, so it seems fitting that players will all be lusting after new, better-looking gear, including the series' iconic staff weapons, ubiquitous P90s, zat'nik'tels (that's stun-guns to the uninitiated) and Goa'uld hand devices, which essentially shoot pain at people and/or cause them to go flying into the nearest wall. There's a lot of inspiration for inventive and fun-to-use weaponry throughout the series; it's hard to imagine that this area of the game will disappoint.
Equipment will define skills and abilities both on a superficial level and more significantly; it's obvious, for example, that wearing anti-radiation armour on a planet with high radiation levels might prove a good idea, but the fact that armour has far more of an influence on hit points, damage resistance and other such character fundamentals means that much more time will be spent hunting new equipment than agonising over assigning your attribute points when you level up.
Crafting is going to be a big part of this, although it's not clear at this point how exactly it will work. Stargate Worlds' quests will often be a search for new technology, like the TV episodes so often are, and evidently it's possible to specialise in the technology of the different races - Goa'uld, Asgard or human - to either improve existing weapons and equipment or discover new types. More technical character classes will evidently be better at this, but every player will be capable of crafting their own superweapons, to a certain extent.
The character class system is the aspect of Stargate Worlds that both interests and concerns us the most at this point. Humans can choose between archaeologist, scientist, commando and soldier. Archaeologists specialise in languages and diplomacy; scientists in deploying things like turrets and shields; commandos in sniping and traps; and soldiers in human weaponry and party ability-boosting command skills.
The other three archetypes - Goa'uld, Asgard and Jaffa - are based on the other three primary races in the television series. Jaffa are essentially tanks with massive weaponry and healing capabilites, but the Goa'uld and Asgard are more technical classes. The Asgard, being little naked grey men, rely on technology in combat, and can bring drones, beaming technology and other technological advantages to the party. The Goa'uld are Stargate's big baddies from the first eight seasons of the series; they're creepy, parasitic worm things that move between and act through human hosts, and it will evidently be possible in the game to emulate this behaviour in the game, though not on other players' human characters. Their combat strength comes from technology and their ability to command Jaffa.
If you're a Stargate fanperson, this sounds, theoretically, amazing. But, without serious playtime, we can't be sure how the classes are going to fit together. As in the series, even archaeologists and scientists have to run around packing enough weaponry to blow up an alien mothership (just in case), so those two character types will evidently be differentiated from the others by their ability to solve puzzles using mini-games. For instance, like Daniel Jackson in the series, archaeologists will be able to infiltrate the enemy with their language skills; success will depend on walking up to enemies and playing a quick card-based mini-game. Scientists, meanwhile, will be fixing hyperdrives and trying to get through locked doors by rearranging crystals and suchlike.
It's hard to see how these mini-games are going to work in the context of missions or combat, and how levelling up is going to affect mini-game abilities. Apparently, higher-level characters in these classes will get time-boosting skills, making it easier to solve harder and harder puzzles, but we're not sure how many players are going to pick mini-game prowess over the potentially more interesting abilities of the other classes.
That said, you can imagine how it could work - every time that Sam Carter the scientist and Daniel Jackson the archaeologist are busy trying to figure out how to fix a command console or unlock a door in the series whilst Jack O'Neill the soldier and Teal'c the Jaffa are busy shooting down waves upon waves of incoming enemies in the series, Carter and Jackson are essentially playing a mini-game trying to rearrange crystals or cut wires or figure out ancient runes before everything explodes around them. It's lovely to imagine this translating well into in-game missions, but we're just not going to be sure if it will work until we get some time on the beta.
The TV show's star team, SG-1, is essentially a ready-made party. In Stargate Worlds, instead of massive guilds, you'll be able to form and be part of small Stargate Command teams of 4-6 people, each with special registration, designation, the works. Given that we rarely play MMOs regularly with more than a handful of people, this sounds like a very good idea. Teams can band together to form Commands, which will be the equivalent of larger guilds, but the game's community aspects are still being finalised.
Naturally, Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment can't expect everybody who picks up the game to have watched ten seasons' worth of DVDs. It's going to be interesting to see how the developer manages to strike a balance between educating the uninitiated and playing to the legions of hardcore fans who will almost certainly be picking up the game. For those familiar with the series, Stargate Worlds is set during season eight, beginning during the ongoing battle with the sinister Goa'uld - so the latter two series' omnipotent and incorporeal foes, the Ori, are thankfully nowhere to be seen. SG-1 and all the other characters from the TV series will feature, all with the original voice talent. There's a lot of space to expand upon the TV series, exploring how its various factions and institutions and alliances came to be, which would at once delight curious fans and provide newcomers with some gentle education.
Stargate Worlds' release model loosely follows the television series'. Large updates and new content will come in the form of new 'seasons', whereas quest packs and other smaller things will come as 'episodes', released continually on a regular basis, and for free, to subscribers. Cheyenne promises to release episode packs every six to eight weeks - an extremely ambitious aim, as MMO content schedules go. Naturally there's room to expand into SG-1's spin-off series, Atlantis, which covers a whole new galaxy and has the potential to bring exciting things like space flight, and vampiric super-enemies the Wraith, into the mix.
Many of Stargate Worlds' ideas are really intriguing; the licence really is an excellent one, and the developer is committed to doing it justice. As ever, it's difficult to see how well all of these ideas are going to fit together without having played it. We're still wondering whether there will be enough differentiation in the classes, or subtlety in the combat, to support a thriving community. Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment has set itself some ambitious targets with Stargate Worlds, but if it achieves them, it could be the sci-fi MMO that many genre-fans have been waiting for.