Fully Automatic for the people. Mutant MMO people.
There's a part of Eurogamer's personality it doesn't talk about too much. It's the part that wants to bulk up, cover itself in oil, strip off and slide into a customised leather harness, wear a hockey mask, move to the Australian Outback, wait for an inevitable collapse of the world's socio-economic structure and then rule a tribe of barbaric machine-riders as king supreme. It's not satisfied often (except for a private party back in 1996 which still causes it to toss and turn at night at the memories), but it's always there.
It's for reasons like this (as well as it being our job to cover videogames and boring stuff like that) that we've been paying close attention to the imminent Road-Warrior-esque massively-multiplayer online game, Auto Assault. We've talked to the NetDevil chaps already, in a couple of interviews which you should have read. But when they brought over the latest build for a demonstration to an eager press, we thought we'd have to have a look at its bodywork.
First things first: it's not the Mad Max game of our dreams (and if you don't have Mad Max dreams because you haven't seen it, don't read the last line of this preview, because we're going to totally spoil it. Go see it, have Mad Max game-dreams, then come back and appreciate that this isn't one). Yes, it's set in a post-apocalypse world and involves driving kitted-out vehicles. Yes, it's an action-lead thing rather than the more sedentary stat-based system of lore. And, yes, you can be a character in a ludicrous leather costume. However, in terms of actual setting it's a lot more high-tech science-fiction that pure post-apocalypse. The level of technology on display is well above what you'd expect by the phrase "Mad Max", including cars in the Biomek faction being able to transform into a robot mode for added stomping. It's also worth noting that while the pace is much faster than other MMOs, there's still a still a firm statistical underlay to everything. While you select the cone where your weapons fire, whether you draw a bead or not depends on the abilities you've managed to amass. In other words, while having a strong action element, it's not a pure-action MMO like PlanetSide.
Not that Auto Assault hasn't got a lot worth discussing. Chatting to Creative Director Ryan Seabury, he describes sitting at a recent games developer conference, watching a panel full of people saying that getting workable real-time physics in an MMO environment is an impossibility for the foreseeable future. At which point they all glanced around and pretty much started snickering.
Because, yes, Auto Assault manages to include workable real-time physics in a real MMO-peer-baiting fashion, integrated on the server side. This is mainly seen when destroying the buildings scattered across the world of Auto Assault, each edifice shattering spectacularly into its component elements. In a terribly shallow way, it's this basic destructive thrill that'll keep the moving through the world a joy even after you're a settled resident.
That said, problems of a conceptual nature do arise if you think about it too much. The image of us rolling around a desolate landscape where a locust-like horde of VW Beetles covered with M16s have just passed fills the mind, until we're told that spotless architecture will be sneakily respawning to refill the landscape. If you need an in-game justification for this particular necessary mechanic, imagine a particularly ninja-like army of Fraggle-Rock Dozers working hurriedly in your blind spot to reconstruct the results of your deconstruction.
And slightly stretched in-game justification for mechanics does seem to be the order of the day. Auto Assault leans towards Guild War's Accessibility Is All mandate rather than the true-world-building of something like EVE Online, allowing you to travel instantly from any region to another in the world as long as you've previously visited. This is achieved by an independent faction of flying pilots who rule the skies, and must spend their entire time carting around vehicles from destination to destination. Not entirely convincing if you stop to think about it.
The answer being: don't stop to think about it. Auto Assault is very much the game end of the MMO spectrum. In fact, it's somewhere distinctly different. Ryan smiles as he jokingly describes the game as "Massively-Single-player", arguing that while playing in a group is a thrill in most games, the majority of time in most is spent quietly doing your own thing. He had a point. In many games, the other players do little other than act as a very atmospheric background for your own adventures. Auto Assault has been designed that, no matter what your class, you can progress through it happily solo. While there's plentiful support for group play, including features like automatic voice-communication whenever you form a convoy (Game slang for a group), the aim seems to be a game where this is very much an optional activity all the way through. Unlike - for example - hypothetical games that may allow you to solo up to a point, and then change the game dynamic so you have to team up with other people, else die.
Not that it isn't atmospheric in other ways. As a design it seems to lack the extreme formalist rigour of something like Guild Wars; instead stepping away from a hard vision to lob in some features they can't resist. For example, while you're incapable of leaving your vehicle while out on the missions, when you return to one of the towns you get out of your jalopy and explore in a carefully designed, personalized avatar. Also, eventually you're able to purchase a crib where you can hang. Nothing else, really, except a cool place to chill with your friends. Oh - and perhaps shop.
Not that the ability to personalise isn't limited to your street clothes. Your vehicles, naturally enough, can have all manner of custom looks applied. Where this is interesting is the decision to separate function from style. So, unlike games where you're forced to get rid of your pink fluffy dice because you have found some mauve fluffy dice (+4 against Scarabs) that you really need to help in your continuing Scarab-killing adventures, here the decoration is completely separate to the bonuses. So your ride can be pimped out in the finest fashion of your choosing.
That Xzibit has a lot to answer for.
Initial worries at this stage? Well, there's one nagging aspect which is preying on our mind. It's not exactly the prettiest game in the world. Not that its technology isn't impressive, but the art design means that Auto Assault's world isn't exactly the most pleasing place to be. While City of Heroes juxtaposes realistic cityscapes with fantasy characters, Guild Wars has an airbrushed fantasy-artwork aesthetic of ludicrously pretty people and World of Warcraft features a solid, cartoon landscape which feels like an integrated land, Auto Assault's designs are a little lumpen; a little late-1990s mid-level PC videogame. To choose a specific example, the mutagen infection which covers much of the landscape in some areas is the sort of shade of bilious green which caused a million magazine art designers to cry when Microsoft revealed the Xbox's colour scheme, and brings us out in hives. It's not something that will kill the game, but it's something which could harm what a pleasant place the freeways of Auto Assault will be.
In terms of play, we won't really know how it feels until we manage to get on the Beta, which should be in the next couple of months. When it is, expect to see an article very much like this one (except possibly written in the first-person). Until then, if anyone else is up for joining us in our humungous fantasy, please write. First-comer gets to be that speed-addled guy who appears to be virtually indestructible throughout before being mashed in a hilarious car crash.