I’m by far not the first one to blog about this. In fact, at least Bhagpuss and Keen have participated in several of the alpha tests before. This weekend, they had a big one though, with everybody and their grandmother being able to procure alpha keys via helpful people who had been to the party before (a big thanks from me to Stubborn at Sheep The Diamond for providing me with a key; my grandmother passed on the chance, though).
I already knew that the game was browser-based, something I have a distinct dislike for. There are several reasons, none of them well-founded, but you know how it goes with prejudices; they don’t need foundation, just self-reinforcement. One sign that I had never touched these before was that I actually had to install the Unity3D browser plugin first. The rest of the setup, however, went very smoothly. I entered my alpha key, created an account, logged in and… whoops, this is already the game? You mean, it already loaded? That was fast.
Let me say: for a browser game and that little loading time, the game intro looked very impressive. That impression stayed with me for the rest of my test. Of course, you cannot compare City of Steam with dedicated game engines with gigabytes of local assets. But I was still impressed by the visual quality. Loading screens between zones rarely kept me for longer than 5-10 seconds, and only once or twice did I have problems interacting with objects or NPCs right after a zone change; canceling and retrying solved this consistently.
One big disadvantage of being a browser game is that it doesn’t have a proper screenshot button. I’m already very bad at remembering to make screenshots, but if doing one requires me to press PrintScreen, alt-tab out, paste into IrfanView, and save into a file… well, I ended up with 2 screenshots, neither of which showed the complete screen. Both of them where in “interaction” or “talking” mode, in which the screen gets letterboxed so you can choose answers over a black background:
For more (and better) pictures, I suggest you visit Bhagpuss, who also had more time to focus on the specific aspect of the game’s vendor economy in the game, or Azuriel, who has a video and a short interview.
Sadly, I had little time on the weekend, so I only could give the game a test drive of about 2 hours. I rolled a female Hobbe warder, because, you know, orc girls! In plate! And the Hobbe looked most lean and mean of the bunch of no less than three greenskin races (Hobbe, Orc, and Goblin). I decided to ignore the plate tank top; at least it wasn’t a bikini.
It took me a bit to get used to the controls. Movement and battle is very similar to Diablo and its clones, but you have a free-moving camera, which, as opposed to every other game I’ve played recently, is moved by holding down your right mouse key. You (left) click to move (though you can also use WASD), and click to attack (though you can also use Q), and have a limited amount of abilities that you can assign to number keys. Enemies die, lots of stuff falls to the ground, and you click to pick it up. One quirk is that you have a choice between different attack modes. The warder, for example, can use a 2h sword stance, a dual-wielding stance, and sword-and-board. I guess they form different points on the scale between offensive and defensive, but I couldn’t figure this out completely during the test. One of the problems of the alpha is that the tutorial is still rudimentary. It is there, though, more than you can say of some other games that are much farther into their development.
When it comes to story and quests, though, City of Steam falls squarely into MMO territory, and the style reminds me most of a crossover between DDO and Allods. Main quests, side quests, exploration quests, all there. Maps are provided, but not very useful, because they’re too small; on the other hand, for most quest objectives, you can select a “satnav” mode which will lead you to your target. It works well for the most part, but every now and then, gets stuck and required you to backtrack to a certain point before it works again.
Now, remember that when I say things like “the maps are too small” or “the satnav is buggy” that this is still an alpha. These are mostly small things that could easily be fixed, and chances are, many of them will. At the core, I see promise as far as game play and story goes. I have two personal problems with the game, however: 1) I still don’t like the browser-based thing, even though it works very well and I understand where they come from and that it might be a lot easier and less infrastructure-heavy, and 2) I’m not a huge fan of steampunk. If these are no problems for you, you definitely should keep eyes on that game though; I will, even though these might make it hard for me to enjoy the game long-term.
Finally, there’s another very good point that Azuriel makes in the above-linked post (and that I already had thought about, but he was faster at posting it!): These smaller-scale games that don’t cost hundreds of millions to produce might actually be the future for the MMO genre. They can work without immense numbers of players, because their monthly expenses are lower, too. Maybe we’ll see the occasional blockbuster MMO again, but it feels like a very risky endeavor at the moment. Smaller games that can work with limited layer numbers can make tailor-made worlds the way they prefer, without having to cater to a least common denominator to catch lots of people. If that should happen, I’ll look at it with a laughing and a weeping eye. I will miss the vastness, the polish, the work that only an army of game and graphic designers can do; but I’ll look forward to closer, more tight-knit and friendly communities and probably more mingling again between the developers and their players, and see what comes out of that.