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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.