Some things are better balanced; strawberries and cream or Eric and Ernie, for example. We think it's an issue of complexity, that certain things on their own are just too simple; that people want a certain level of complication to take up those spare brain cycles, and are willing to try anything that sucks them in just enough. Certain gamers, get this, don't like car games. Others, perverse imps that they are, just don't like simple shooters. But combine the two, chuck in a few thousand other people, and they'll play it. Hence the shooty-car MMO genre (sorry for the excessively analytic lingo) and hence Auto Assault.
Regarding the premise, as far as we can discern, some cataclysmic event befell the Earth, wiping out or mutating all life that didn't find cover. This, while cheesy, provides an excellence basis for wholesome sci-fi plotties that inform your every action in the story. And it means we're not Elves, dunmer, dwemer or any thing vaguely fey! Don't get us wrong, we enjoy fantasy as much as the next escapist dreamer, but it's just so refreshing to meet some MMO developers who haven't had the creativity carved out of their heads with a wooden spoon. Admittedly, in sci-fi terms mutants, cyborgs and humans aren't exactly refreshing, but futuristic car combat is one of the less well-mined sci-fi varieties.
Those three factions are the Mutants, the cyborg Biomeks, and the "Geeky Humans who look a bit Tron" (we think that's their name.) They each divide into one of four classes; scout, warrior, medi-mechanics, and leaders (the class with automated henchmen); each of which has its own style of vehicle (though players can unlock more vehicles as they rank up); and its own starting areas, agenda, brand of deodorant, etc. The customisation options for your humanoid avatar aren't as extreme as that of City of Heroes, which is a pity; you feel NCsoft could have just ripped that straight out of the other game. Your vehicle is similarly limited, but you have the opportunity to customise that in the game proper, with junk you find in the wastes.
Like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes, the game moves you along by pushing you from the tutorial areas towards areas where there are more missions waiting for you, and building up longer plots around those missions as you go along. Yes, they fit all the usual parcel-delivery or killing missions, as there's not really that much you can do with fixed multiplayer environments, but they do try to take advantage of the game's openness, giving you missions to jump a long way or to avoid particular terrain.
The environments themselves are huge; great sprawling masses packed with enemy combatants, most of whom pose little threat individually. All of this is rendered in Havok 2 physics, so as you get higher-level weapons you get used to levelling entire shantytowns and forests at a whim. Because, we suspect, of the size and physics, it's also pug ugly.
Ugly like Quasimodo bred with David Blunkett.
Moreover, the game runs like a two-legged dog. We had irregular crashes running it, all through the beta; we've changed machines and the problems have recurred, no matter what we do. Cranking the settings right up doesn't even look that good, as you can see from the screens; less polys than a parrot farm, with relatively low-res textures. Zoom out and it doesn't look too bad, but up close, ugh. Thankfully, we do have some uppers.
The meat of the game, which should be the meat of every MMO but sadly often isn't, is the scream and grind of combat. A vehicle has several weapon mountings, ranging from fixed forward and rear guns to a rotatable turret (normally your main weapon). Each has a firing arc and, like archaic galleons swinging round to bring broadsides to bear, you can maximise your damage by lining up these arcs with as many enemies as possible. A quick click of tab locks you onto the nearest target, though you can aim yourself. And here's where the pretence of this being hard sci-fi tips its hat, hops merrily out of the window and makes the descent of several storeys of ludicrousness before impacting with a marshmallow pavement.
You. Massacre. Everything.
It's a wonder there's any life left on the surface of the planet considering the alacrity with which you'll tear through foot-troops, buildings, monsters and cars alike. The combat is, at root, Carmageddon or even Quarantine, right down to the bloody roadkill you make of pedestrians, the enormous variety of weapons and seemingly limitless enemies. There are even GTA-style "Killing Spree" flashes and XP bonuses when you've nobbled enough in a row (which are shared across any group you're in). This bloody mêlée is really the saviour of the game, as it's just enormous fun.
The counterpart of fighting is dying. Your vehicle will get blown up at some point (unless you're really good). A big twin-rotor airship will come and rescue you and drop you off at the last healing pad you visited, with no health or power. It's not a bad thing because it gives you a chance to heal up for nowt and get back to the main base of the area. In fact, it doesn't penalise you in any way and the speed of the vehicles means you can get back into the action quickly.
There are two buttons on the dash that intrigue. The first is labelled INC and summons the seemingly-enslaved airships that rescue you whenever you die - it's only there in case you get stuck in the scenery (with the real physics and the speed some of the jalopies can travel, you will get stuck). The second is the awe-inspiring Hazard Mode. Contrary to expectation, it doesn't consist of walking 200m down the road behind you and setting up a small red triangle. Instead your vehicle changes for a short period into something breath-taking, depending on your race, like a blazing robot leviathan for the Biomeks.
We also welcome with massively-mutated open arms the return of proper crafting, wot we remember from our yoof in Ultima Online. Not the side-thought of Guild Wars or the complete absence of D&D Online's; this is confusing and complicated. We learnt as much from the in-game tutorial system as we did from Grange Hill, so let's explain. Basically you take stuff that you've collected from blowing up enemies or buildings and take it to the city hubs, the only place in game where you get to walk around as your human character. There you refine it and craft it into other items, or break it down to work out how it works, or tinker with it to improve it or... essentially, there's about as many crafting skills as there are other skills. Once you get into it, it's rational and sensible, but it's desperate need of a proper in-game explanation.
We will admit to not having reached the endgame yet, with all the arenas, PVP and the Ground Zero area. As far as we know, top-level characters can battle each other in the arenas or mount assaults on enemy outposts. Ground Zero is a dedicated server, servicing all the others, where anyone playing is bumped up to the top level and can carry out special missions in a PVP environment.
Despite this endgame focus, Auto Assault would feel much better as single-player game. When we interviewed the developers, they themselves called it "massively single-player". Oblivion has shown that single-player RPGs still work and still sell, Guild Wars has shown that single-player RPGs with multiplayer arenas work (and you don't need to charge an extortionate monthly rate for them...) Unlike City of Heroes, where the scale of the battles means assaults can be planned, the roving nature of Auto Assault turns teaming into chaos with multiple people skedaddling all over the place. Also, we suspect (though we don't claim any great technical knowledge) that the game would perform and look better if it was designed that way.
Auto Assault combines the vehicular glee of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors with the ultraviolence of Rambo or Carmeggedon. What lets it down is ugliness, its hunger for power (and the corresponding technical issues), and the knowledge that this would be much better and more coherent as a purely single-player game.