A mechanic's special.
Whether caused by a comet in Lucifer’s Hammer
, a virus in Dawn of the Dead
, a nuclear war in Fallout II
, or a big retarded storm in The Day After Tomorrow
, the post-apocalyptic future has a rich tradition. The most iconic of antediluvian images emerged back in 1981, when previously unknown Mel Gibson
drove out of the wasteland and into legend in The Road Warrior
. Next stop? Jesus.
Dozens of B-movie rip-offs couldn’t be made fast enough, including the staggeringly awful Cherry 2000, starring the previously unknown Melanie Griffith and Lawrence Fishburne. Humanity’s future in highly-modified, weapon encrusted monsters of metal destruction now seemed assured.
Conveniently, MMORPG juggernaut NCSoft has gone beyond Thunderdome to bring that future to your PC right now in the form of Auto Assault. It may have been done before with games like Auto Duel, I-76 and Carmageddon, but this is the first massively multiplayer, persistent auto apocalypse. It’s a welcome breath of radioactive fresh air for a genre overloaded with orcs and magic swords.
In this case, the world has been destroyed by some sort of alien infection, leaving the remains of civilization to be picked over and blown up by three human-ish factions. The Humans fled underground to avoid contamination, the Mutants have embraced it, and the Biomeks stick as much machinery in their bodies as possible to make them stronger. There’s actually far more back story than that, but do you really need a 10-chapter prelude for a game in which you drive around in cars blowing crap up?
As usual, you begin by designing your character. Each race has four classes, such as the Human Bounty Hunter or the Biomek Terminator, with different focuses on strength, speed, group support, and ability to build stuff. Unfortunately, when it comes to designing your look, Auto Assault falls far, far short of the NCSoft’s other reigning superhero. With a very limited selection of faces and clothing, you won’t be able to differentiate yourself much from the pack.
And someone needs to say it: enough with the over-sexualized ladies. I’m all for girls in sexy outfits at the right occasions, but this is a war-torn, contaminated, apocalyptic hell-planet. The guys are dressed for survival, while the women are offered a selection of armored bikinis. Is that a belly-button ring of radiation shielding? That’s not sexy, that’s bad character design.
At least you don’t spend as much time afoot as you do in your car, which is much more customizable once you can afford some new rides. Auto Assault features a fairly large selection of cars, most of which you won’t be able to drive for a while. You can take it to the shop and pimp that ride with fat tailpipes, fierce powerplants, massive guns, brutal spikes, engine vents, and other mods scavenged from the wasteland.
Scavenging is a dangerous job, too, as the world is covered with aggressive mutant wildlife and violent bands of survivors. Auto Assault is the most action-oriented of any MMORPG, with frenetic, fast-paced vehicular combat. Every vehicle can support a front and rear weapon, plus a rotating turret you control with your mouse. Each weapon can fire only in a distinct, visible cone projecting from your car, so the length and width of that field of fire is just as important as how much damage a particular weapon does. Although there’s certainly plenty of action going on, once something is inside the cone, your abilities and weapon stats determine hits and misses instead of any skilled aiming. Ultimately, it’s a roll of the invisible dice.
You’ll definitely be doing a lot of hitting and missing, as shooting things is the core of the game. Killing enemies gives you cash, materials, and experience points. Loot can also be found all over the terrain, and nearly everything is destructible. Useful metal might be found by bashing down old fences and highway signs or blasting through a shantytown of squatters. Car physics are handled decently and it’s fairly easy to begin the bone-jarring ride over the planet’s rough surface, but it never feels as authentic as a pure diving game. Different tires have different traction on certain terrain types, from ancient highways to desert sand and icy snow, and different cars have different performance characteristics.
When not killing stuff for materials and cash, you can earn XP by taking missions. The mission system is almost identical to that in City of Heroes, which leads you by the hand through a fairly linear progression of agents and slowly unlocks new areas of increasing difficulty. Of course, most missions just involve blowing up more stuff with your car, but at least you get paid for it.
Near the upper end of the level cap, you’ll gain access to the game’s player-vs-player areas where you can kill off those pesky Humans once and for all. PvP combat is the long-term lifeblood of any MMO, giving players a reason to keep playing even after they’ve seen everything and can’t advance any further. But while it’s great that Auto Assault features PvP straight out of the box, it feels a little thin because it seems mostly pointless.
This is because there’s no penalty at all for dying in Auto Assault; you just respawn at the nearest repair pad, which is usually pretty close. This takes any possible tension out of the battles as you don’t actually care if you die. It also means you can beat pretty much any mission by yourself just by diving into the fray, dying, and then coming back a few times until that boss vehicle is dead.
Oddly, Auto Assault’s crafting system is quite deep, allowing you to rebuild all manner of engines, guns, armor and other road warrior necessities out of materials you can scavenge and then refine. You can even reverse engineer items and upgrade others by tinkering with them and adding the right gadgets. Unfortunately, like the complex back story, it seems tacked on, as the game has no market or auction house at all, leaving you little reason to explore that depth and no way to trade with other players without standing around spamming the chat channel. That made sense in the monthly-fee free Guild Wars, but not in this full-priced package.
The graphics are decent, if cluttered and frenetic. So frenetic, in fact, that the game is actually a system hog. Not only do bits of things fly everywhere as everything blows up, but every single hit, miss, XP gain, item pickup and cash bonus pops up in the middle of your screen. This makes for a very busy, intimidating looking game that will surely prove daunting to many potential players, not to mention punch your computer’s framerate in the gut.
The sound is slightly better, full of crashes, bashes, and smashes. The rock soundtrack isn’t half bad, mostly because it isn’t overplayed. The chatter of guns is also punchy and well done, which is good because the chatter of people is totally missing as there are no voices in the game. Also oddly missing are any sort of tire squeals.
I really appreciate the risks that NCSoft takes as a publisher. Every game of theirs tries to innovate in some way, putting you in the tights of a superhero in City of Heroes or doing away with monthly charges altogether in Guild Wars. Auto Assault is a similar risk, going for a much more casual, action-packed, arcade-style experience. Unfortunately, it leaves behind much of what makes MMORPGs so addictive and still keeps us shelling out $15 a month. If Auto Assault followed the Guild Wars model, it could definitely have been the short-attention span alternative. But this budget rental car just isn’t worth the luxury fees.