While more engrossing, fulfilling and longer lasting than any other type of game genre out there, massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) are also the most difficult to start. The learning curves tend to be very steep, the frustration levels high, and when they first launch, they usually have more bugs than the dumpster behind Taco Bell.
All of which makes Earth & Beyond a nice surprise and a pleasure to pick up and play. It installed flawlessly on several different machines with varying specs, it runs almost totally bug free, and it's a breeze to get started. Earth & Beyond is a classic space adventure from the very first minute and serves as a great introduction to the world of massively multiplayer gaming, though veteran space jockeys might long for bigger guns.
Like all MMORPGs, the first thing you must do is decide who you are going to be. Thankfully, the simple task of designing your character and starship is entertaining. As humans spread throughout the galaxy, they separated into three distinct races: the warrior Progens, the introspective Jenquai, and the trusty, all-purpose Terrans. Each race has two classes: one combat oriented, and the other more exploration and trade oriented.
If the Sociology Department ever taught me anything, it was that you never look at race and class without following that up with gender. Choose your sex and then it's time to play god, designing you character's hair, face, head, body, skin, eyes, glasses, cyber-accoutrements, height, weight, and clothing. This is all just for looks when you're wandering around on the space stations and does not affect your skills, but there are so many options it's actually pretty fun.
The same goes for your ship. You select from several different hulls, wings, gizmos, logos and paint jobs to customize your ride. And I must say, my Jenquai Defender ship turned out much cooler than my rusty '88 Nissan Pulsar.
Now it's time to start playing. You start off in your ship, which is easy to fly thanks to very intuitive controls. Even if you couldn't figure them out yourself, you begin by going through a very complete set of tutorials guided by a friendly voice. Upon completion, just land on your class' space station to start being assigned your fist missions for advancement within your class.
E&B really plays like a lot like a single player game, only with lots of other people playing around you. Again, this makes it easy to get moving, as it is very clear where to go to start collecting experience and becoming more powerful.
As you go up in levels, you gain access to more powerful ships (still based on your original design) and better weapons, engines, shields and devices. This is all focused on increases in three types of experience (trade, exploration and combat) and about 17 different skills, some of which will be unique to your race and class. Again, all very straightforward and familiar.
The icing on this cake is some very good graphics. All the ships, stations and other space objects tend to be brightly colored and cartoony, having more in common with Star Trek than the dark and gritty world of Aliens or the upcoming Eve Online. Glossy textures, lighting effect and tons of other eye-candy abound. The designers obviously took great care with this; star systems look diverse and unique, and even the space stations are individually designed. It's a pretty game.
The sound is nicely done as well. Engines thrum pleasantly and lasers make that familiar "p-hew! phew!" sound. The voices are good, particularly the little Net-7 news blurbs. The game doesn't try to over-music you to death, using only low-key, infrequent music I like to call "Space Noodling."
Again, like Star Trek, the universe seems to be mostly laid out on a flat plane. You can fly up and down a fair distance, but you'll find that all the items of interest in a sector are all on the same flat level. While not exactly realistic, it makes the game more accessible and easy to navigate the 50 or so sectors in the game.
But this is a MMORPG after all. Interaction with other players consists of trading, chatting, and banding into groups for combat or exploration. Chatting is done though a separate chat window with many different "channels" that you can use, or not, as you choose. Grouping with people can be very useful because ships accord one another different bonuses when they are grouped together, plus you get group experience bonuses. You can even fly in formation with the leader controlling everyone in order to concentrate fire on particular targets.
However, there's no way to negatively influence the other players (other than abusing them in the chat window, I suppose). There is no player vs. player (PvP) combat at all, despite a heavy plot in the game chronicling the hatred between the Jenquai and the Progen.
So it seems to me that EA and Westwood have put together an A-list, big budget, mass market, entry level MMORPG. It's simply terrific for a while, and the easiest-to-play massively multiplayer game so far. But with linear goals, specialization only within a few classes and a paltry 17 skills to nurture (the upcoming Star Wars Galaxies has over 700), E&B might feel too much like a single player game.
This may actually drive away the hardcore gamers, and the game certainly lacks the longevity of more complex games like Ultima Online or Everquest. Like other MMORPGs, the universe will evolve and grow, and it is rumored that PvP is in the works, but right now E&B is just a very pretty seedling.
Also, E&B aims its phaser at your wallet to the tune of about $50 for the retail product, then $13 a month upkeep. However, EA has stated in the past that they hope to give dedicated gamers a discount if they play more than one EA Online game. So theorectially, if you're planning to pick up The Sims Online as well, it will work out to be a bargain.
If you've never played a MMORPG and you're dying for your first taste, or if you are looking to get more community than conflict, you couldn't make a wiser choice than Earth & Beyond. But those of you searching to dominate your fellow organics will probably get bored in a couple months and may want to wait for the more intimidating, complex, unfair, violent, huge worlds of Eve Online and Star Wars: Galaxies due out next year.