Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 4)

Today we focus on MMOs. Planetquest 2, Aoin, S.K.I.L.L., Everquest Next, Landmark.

Planetside 2 (PC and PlayStation 4)

The biggest challenge for any MMO is sustaining its playerbase. Planetside 2, the expansive online shooter, is keeping its fighters keen with a huge new battlefield, Hossin. Made up of 64km2 it’s a very different prospect from anything in-game currently as combat moves away from the deserts and verdant planes and instead rages across a lush swampland. Even just from a glimpse of the new area, with tall trees creating a canopy that mutes colour and blocks aerial attacks, you can see it’s going to change how battles are fought.

Speaking to Matthew Higby, Planetside 2’s Creative Director, he admitted that creating levels for Planetside is a daunting task. Balancing how small fire fights play out in a theatre where simultaneously hundreds of opposing players battle for control is a tricky task. Throw in the need to support tanks and aircraft and you have to tip your hat to their design team for the results. Being the first new map since launch they have taken the experience of the last few years, learned from any flaws in their launch maps, and produced fresh challenges for the warring factions.

All of it wouldn’t be possible without Sony Online’s dedication to its community. They’ve actively listened to their fans’ views right from the reveal trailer and have even opened up their development roadmap to them. Each item on there is linked to the forums allowing the players to feedback directly into what is important for them, saving the devs the need to stare into a crystal ball and predict what they think they want. The community is the heart of any MMO and they know that.

Top of the priority list at the moment is performance. Stepping out of your spawn point and into a battlefield where hundreds of players and vehicles are can see the framerate plummet even on moderately specced rigs. From personal experience, the stuttering can be a large barrier to entry as it throws off any sense of fluidity or even confidence in your aim. It’s a high priority fix and one that will pay great dividends.

It’s also key for the forthcoming PS4 release, which is being pitched as the PC version but on maximum settings. There will be no cross-play between the platforms however due to a handful of issues, not least the platform’s stance on patching. Though disappointing that the console community cannot take advantage of the already burgeoning PC playerbase, this at least won’t bring up the perennial debate of controller versus keyboard.

Rating: Awesome

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Aion (PC)

One of a stable of free-to-play games from Gameforge, AION is the most traditional of its kind: a classical fantasy MMO. Having been around since 2008 it has received numerous updates and at Gamescom we saw the latest which raises the level cap to 65, adds a series of new instances, expands the PvP with extra fortresses, and offers a further two classes.

The engineer class, which evolves into a gunner class, looks styled upon the offspring of Van Helsing and Kate Beckinsale’s character in Underworld. Dressed in dark leather and sporting a wide brimmed hat they cut an ominous sight. A fun class, aimed possibly at those also wanting a more action approach to the game, they pepper their prey from afar with a selection of firepower. Baring dual pistols or touting a huge cannon, they nimbly spring about the screen keeping away from danger.

The other new addition is the artist who levels to become a bard. An elegant, Oriental figure wearing a split dress, this musician plays a support role on the battlefield. With a whistle on their pipe or strum on their harp they’ll heal, buff and debuff with a delightful elegance. Though delicate in appearance they are the trouble makers at the back, capable of tying larger enemies down in a tangle of vines or even transforming them into a troupe of dancing penguins. If there was an award for Best Attack of the Show, that would have taken it by a country mile.

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S.K.I.L.L. – Special Force 2 (PC)

Aimed specifically at the eSports arena, Special Force 2 comes equipped with everything required to manage a clan. There are calendars, rosters, chat rooms, and a myriad of stats aimed at dissecting performance. It’s an interesting way to spend your development time given the number of free services out there doing similar things, but having them all in one place is definitely beneficial.

Bonus features would be worthless though without a solid game and with this first-person shooter Gameforge have focused on the core experience. The handling feels slick and responsive and mainstream concepts such as a stamina are done away with; here you sprint by default to keep the action always at a high pace. There are also no vehicles or perks, instead there is a direct aim of pitting two sets of skilled and fairly matched players against each other. You have your two guns and a grenade and everything else is down to your reactions; no dogs will save you here. Even the premium additions to this FTP shooter don’t affect you in-game abilities but merely XP boosts or extra tagging options.

Game modes take advantage of the Special Forces theme and the majority of them are based on covert operations. Not all are taken too seriously however as it seems your squad is also in cahoots with Area 51 as there are several wave-based games against alien invaders, and even a bizarre version that sees you don the skin of the invaders and wield otherworldly weapons.

Rating: Good

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Everquest Next (PC)

Everquest is returning, yet rather than fall back on being a prettier version of what it used to be it is choosing to breaking new ground. Literally. With a world built entirely out of voxels the team has invested a great deal of time in real-time battlefield deformation. Not only is this an impressive sight as your area attacks gouge out the ground around you, leaving it potted and scarred, but it plays into combat. Bridges can be destroyed and floors blown out from underneath feet, leading to tactical choices of not only how you should fight but where. You don’t want to be stuck in an impromptu pit with a horde of angry orcs.

As it is a shared world, the land will heal over time but even then it opens up possibilities. The new land is many tiers deep, each with its own style and lore thanks to the rich history of the Everquest universe. How you reach these lower levels is not always clear and so it can be quite a surprise when the ogre you’re fighting pounds a hole in the ground, dropping you into a further battle against an angry lava deity below. Though probably not a common occurrence, the fact that it is possible is highly exciting. Exploration in MMOs are usually very linear, walking down paths and seeing what monsters lie in wait but here there’s a verticality that’s unique.

Furthermore even the enemies themselves don’t know where they’ll be. Using a special tagging system the developers release them into the wild and let them find their own way. Taking orcs as an example, if they’re tagged as hating built up areas and guards but liking open stretches and ambush, they may wander away from the city and choose to camp on the approaching road, lying in wait for players who amble by. Off course if the guards start patrolling that route the orcs may start to wander off, likewise if players choose to avoid the area completely. The result is that although you may know what to expect you can never be sure as to what, if anything, lies in wait around the next corner.

The aim is to end the strength of the wiki. The developers don’t want players heading to a text dump of where questlines are or what to find where, they are developing a world that is as much a dynamic part of the experience as the host of players roaming it. With even quests themselves adapting to your behaviour and what’s in the local environment it’s a fascinating experiment.

Rating: Awesome

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Everquest Next Landmark (PC)

If what they’re attempting with a dynamic world isn’t a big enough change, Everquest are also launching a second MMO called Landmark. If all the talk of voxels and subterranean questing hadn’t put you in mind of Minecraft already then the thought of a sister experience created solely for the joy of building should. Landmark is a tool handed to the community to shape Everquest Next.

Using many of the same systems as Next, its primary characters are the Adventurers. A class that ventures out into the world, places their stake on a piece of land, and then starts turning it into whatever they want. In the demonstration we saw a pair reshape a hillside completely in about thirty minutes, moving a harsh slope from the left to the right and creating a cutting straight through. In a longer clip we saw a time lapse capturing three hours’ work that saw a multi-storey and decorated temple rise up from a desolate mountain top.

Interestingly all the resources must still be mined and so there is still a lot of work entailed. Players can trade, form building unions, and level, just as in a typical MMO. The end result however is that anything the players make could achieve the ultimate quest reward: being imported into the final Everquest Next

It’s a staggering undertaking but also a canny one. For one it acts a beta for Next, allowing them to test the load on a playerbase that will no doubt be smaller than the final game’s. Also, the dedication of the community should never be underestimated and I’ve no doubt that given the talent of people out there much of the Everquest content will come from outside the studio. Expect to see a lot of warriors standing outside ruined castles repeatedly shouting “I MADE THIS!”

Rating: Awesome

About James Thomas

I make my living as a programmer at a British games developer. In my spare time I try and spread myself between writing, gaming, drumming, goalkeeping, rolling dice and keeping my hair blue. Somewhere around that my wife fits in. Disclaimer: the views expressed are my own and do not neccessarily reflect those of my employer.