What do you get if you cross Freespace 2, Homeworld and Starsiege Tribes? Microsoft's new online space-based teamplay game, Allegiance, near enough...
In a way, Allegiance is to space combat sims what Team Fortress 2 will be to first person shooters - a multiplayer game that adds strategy elements to the traditional action gameplay, and encourages cooperation between team mates.
The difference is that as well as being able to run "small" (up to 32 player) games over the internet or a LAN yourself, you will also be able to take part in larger games on Microsoft's online service The Zone .. for a monthly fee. As well as supporting literally hundreds of players in a single online battle, the Zone will also add a persistent ranking system so that you can see your progress as you take part in more games, as well as running regular tournaments and leagues to test your mettle against other players.
Once in the game, players can choose from a wide range of roles, piloting fighters and scout ships, commanding larger vessels such as cruisers and bombers, manning turrets on them, or watching the whole game from a Homeworld-style strategy screen to get a wider view of the action, sending orders to your team mates using a simple mouse and keyboard interface.
Teams can construct miners to exploit the resources on asteroids, then use the money to create builders to make new bases, or spend the money on researching new weapons, ships, and equipment as part of an impressive technology tree that puts many strategy games to shame.
And to win the game you will need to do all of this, and work together as a team. If you don't have a skilled commander monitoring the battle from the strategic viewpoint and handling the resources and research, you are likely to be caught off guard by your enemy, run out of money, and fall behind in the arms race. If your bombers leave their bases without players to man their turrets they will be sitting ducks, unlikely to reach their targets if the enemy is any better organised than you are. Scouts are needed to explore new sectors, locate enemy installations, and identify potential targets. Fighters are needed to escort larger ships and defend your bases.
And that's just scratching the surface...
Battlefields in Allegiance are made up of a series of "sectors" interconnected by conveniently placed wormholes. In the main game mode, "Conquest", your job is to take control of a certain number of these sectors, establishing bases and fighting off your rivals to control the territory.
Games can take anything from a matter of minutes to a few hours, depending on the relative skills of the players, the number of teams, and the size of the game universe. Battles with as many as 200 players in them have already taken place on the Zone, and the game is still only in open beta!
The most impressive thing though is that even with all this going on, the game still plays silky smooth. The servers are all based in Microsoft's home town of Redmond, Washington on the west coast of the USA, and yet we were able to play competitively over a 56k modem connection from London in the UK! The ships did twitch occasionally due to lag, but generally the game was smooth and playable despite the distance involved.
Sadly there aren't any plans to set up servers in Europe when the game is released here in April, but judging from the performance we were seeing at the press launch that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Besides, even if you can't get a good connection to Washington, you can always play smaller games run by server ops closer to home. And not only will these 32 player games still be fun, they will also be free!
Allegiance promises to offer a whole new level of space based online gaming, which will be a welcome relief from all the massively multiplayer fantasy RPGs and online first person shooters out there...
It's an intriguing mix of action and strategy, with an impressive level of detail and plenty of scope for experimentation. You have a choice of three factions, 18 spacecraft, 20 weapon types, 16 capital ships, a whole technology tree to explore, and the ability to just sit back and watch the whole thing unfold from a strategic viewpoint as you send commands to your team mates and manage your faction's finances.
It also looks the part graphically speaking, certainly a match for Homeworld or Freespace, with detailed models and suitably over the top weapons effects and explosions. And there is even 3D audio support for all you hi-fi freaks out there.
The game is due out in the UK one day before my birthday, and you can bet it will be at the top of my wish list...
To find out more, or to download the latest beta version, check the official Allegiance website over at Microsoft.