January 15, 2011

My First Days in the Apocalypse

I recently started playing Fallen Earth, a post-apocalyptic MMO that is somewhere around its first year of life. It had a rough start at first, but it is still around and from what I can tell is polished enough to enjoy.

Overall I like the game. The UI works, the players seem to be largely helpful, and I really enjoy the theme. It's not more swords and elves, which I must admit I'm tired of. The game has a sense of loneliness that I really appreciate. It's something I love about EVE. You can explore for a long time without seeing anyone, though I imagine this is more due to the size of their world and small player base than a deliberate design choice.

Some thoughts on specific features after the jump.

I really disagree with their inventory design. Most games give you a limitation on the weight of things your character cancarry (i.e. Oblivion) or slots (i.e. World of Warcraft). Fallen Earth does both. To complicate this, your character can never increase the number of slots on their personal inventory. You can increase the amount of weight your character may carry, but only if you dump your points into Strength (I use Rifles, so I tend to bolster Dexterity).

To complicate matters further, the horse they give you at the beginning of the game is more hindrance than help. It's great that you get a mount so early to expedite travel. Plus, the mount also has inventory slots. However, the starting horse has 2. The very next horse, which is very easy to obtain, has 16. My first few hours with the game would have been insanely better had they just given me the 16 slot horse.

Another quibble is that the game doesn't consider items that are not in your personal inventory when crafting. So, even if I'm standing next to my horse (within inventory transfer range) and have all the ingredients in the horse's inventory to make a crafting recipe, I cannot craft. I must swap items between my personal and horse inventory, then craft it. This is tedious and dumb.

Finally, I hate it when games allow unique, quest-only items to take up precious slots. Fallen Earth complicates this further by tending to make quest items heavy. It's infuriating to prematurely use items, or throw them away, just so I can carry a quest item. I much prefer the solution in Lord of the Rings Online where you have a separate, weight-free quest bag.

The breadth of the crafting system only aggravates my inventory woes further.

One of Fallen Earth's biggest distinctions, aside from its setting, is the game's focus on crafting. I had a conversation with their PR representative who referred to this as their "back of the box" feature. Much like EVE, the game's economy is entirely player driven. However, the crafting mechanics are much closer to World of Warcraft's.

In Warcraft, you are able to take on a limited number of Crafting professions. Players typically go with a gathering profession (i.e. Mining) and a manufacturing profession (i.e. Armor crafting). You earn points for gathering by...gathering, and points for manufacturing by creating items using recipes. You have to buy these recipes typically before you can make things.

That is, from what I can tell, identical to how Fallen Earth's crafting system works. But, and this is a big but, you're able to do every crafting profession. This means I'm currently working on Nature, Construction, Ballistics, Weaponry, Armorcraft, Cooking, Salvage, Geology, Medicine...and I think there's more that I've forgotten. Further breadth is added by numerous recipes that are practically identical (i.e. 5 types of shirts with no statistical differences, but different inputs to craft) and therefore there are tons of items used to make the craftables.

Essentially, you have craftable inflation. It makes the game more confusing than it really needs to be and you have to gather an far greater number of items. I'd far prefer fewer crafting components and fewer, more meaningful recipes to craft. Remember the inventory issues I discussed above? When you have 40 different components, space is really a premium. Also, in order to craft or harvest anything, you need to have a unique kit for every profession. Each of these is a half pound, so approximately 10% of my personal inventory weight is consumed by kits, not to mention a handful of inventory slots.

Sure, I could craft fewer items, but at the same time it's fun to make stuff that you actually use. All of the gear I'm wearing was made by me or a friend. The food I eat? I made. The bandages I use? I made. The ammo I shoot? I made. The 9 Iron I fight dudes with? Me.

One key thing to note is that crafting occurs in real time. Somewhat like EVE's skill system, I can set my character to craft 6 hours worth of items, log off, return in 6 hours, and they'll be waiting for me. I love progression when I'm not playing, so this gets a big thumbs up from me.

I've grown very fond of EVE's crafting system over the past few years. Everything in the game is built using approximately a dozen types of minerals, all of which are harvested from a few dozen types of asteroids in varying quantities. You also receive these minerals for deconstructing any item you loot (ex: missiles, ships, armor plating) or even drones. The system has very few input components, but hundreds or thousands of output components. It also means there's real value in being a dedicated miner.

I like Fallen Earth's crafting due to the variety, relative simplicity, and usefulness of making things. But, I wish it jived better with a more friendly inventory system. Perhaps I can get a friend to play and we can each specialize?

Unlike almost every MMO on the market, Fallen Earth uses a real-time aiming combat system. If I shoot a bad guy in the head, I earn a critical damage boost. If I miss him, no dice roll is going to whiz the bullet back around. This makes combat fresh and exciting, even if the aiming mechanics feel a bit wobbly. Ironically enough, the shooting mechanics work approximately as well as they do in Fallout 3, this game's not-so-distant gaming cousin. Not the worst implementation, not the best. But definitely fun, which is the most important thing.

I tend to use a combination of precision rifles and melee weapons. I'll zoom in, pull off a few head shots, then switch to my 9 Iron to finish off a charging opponent. I can also dual wield these two nasty hammers, which is also satisfying. Or I can use a pistol (or dual pistols!). The game doesn't have classes, so I'm not limited in any way. Variety is what kept me playing EVE so long and I imagine it will be a boon in Fallen Earth's favor as far as I'm concerned.

The game also has varying abilities, like combat stances which modify attributes. Some of the abilities, like a heal, or this lightning bolt thing, don't feel as good as they do in World of Warcraft. To be honest, I find that most MMO's abilities feel loose and imprecise. Warcraft's combat feels tight and responsive, but Lord of the Rings and Fallen Earth feel quite loose and I don't care for it. The abilities also have long descriptions with all sorts of random combat effects. Huh? What does this doo-hicky do? I find that I often don't use my abilities because I don't really know what they do.  Good thing I like hitting dudes in the face with my 9 Iron.

I also believe there are more abilities I can purchase, but I'm a little lost on character progression in general. More on this in a second.

Character Progression
As you earn experience (which is earned by crafting, gathering, completing quests, or killing enemies) you progress towards the next level and earn AP. I'm guessing these are called Action Points, but I don't know for sure. Nor do I care.

AP are rewarded frequently, especially in the first 10 levels, which means you can fiddle with your character constantly. You have four tabs on your character UI: Stats (like dexterity, strength), which require 5 AP to increment by 1. These can affect all sorts of things. For example, Perception aids me in PVP by showing me enemies sooner, aids my rifle damage, but also makes me better at crafting. Next, you have Skills. These are things like Rifles, Pistols, Melee, Dodge, and more. You can increment these 1 for 1.

As discussed above, Trade Skills can only be improved by doing trade skill activities. The final category is for Mutations. I have no clue what these are or what they do. I went to my mutations screen and I had an ability or two, which I dragged onto my abilities bar and I use. But, yeah, this is a bit of a black hole for me.

Having a system this open is very cool, but I'm a bit unclear on precisely what everything does. I know I should hold onto my points until I DO understand things (though I can respec my character for a fee), but that's not fun. If it were up to me, I would have limited what the player has access to early on based on some early choices. So, perhaps if I start with Rifles, it gears me towards rifle only skills. As I level up, it opens up other skills, but not until I have my bearings. The other cool part about this is that it gives me things to look forward to. "Heck yeah, in 2 levels I get this new skill!" That's a good incentive to progress. Right now, leveling up doesn't do much for me...that I know of?

Finally, I don't know where my skills can be at their maximum potential. My Rifle bar is full and has been since level 8. Will it get better? Or am I already the best rifleman ever?

Not the prettiest game, but I've seen worse. I think the setting and environment is nice. I love how sparse and empty everything is. The game isn't the most populated and I tend to be traveling through moon lit deserts. I really enjoy that, so I won't be too harsh on the visuals.

I look onto the canyon from horseback. I believe I'm in Arizona.
Head wrap, jean shorts, 2x4, and 3D goggles. I'm awesome.
My level 10 character in the loading screen.
Dismounted on the outskirts of Emery.
When UI attacks! No, it doesn't default to this. I just have a lot open.
I snuck up on some NPC bandits. I love being Rooster Cogburn.
Headshot imminent.
Blood Sports
I only tried this once and the experience was a definite low point for the game. These are essentially the game's battle grounds. I tried an assault game, where 5 players of the red team competed with 5 players of the blue team. The assaulting team (mine) was trying to complete objectives before time ran out. However, the map was so convoluted and the objectives so unclear that we lost despite the blue team rarely killing us. They should have started simpler!

They also have capture the flag, deathmatch, and a survival mode. I imagine the capture the flag could be fun, but the controls aren't good enough for me to even try deathmatch.

The developers probably should have spent time enriching in world PVP, though I haven't had a chance to sample that. I don't know if it's lacking.What I can say is that I have no desire to return to the Blood Sports.
This is drawing a bit longer than I'd hoped! A few more quick comments. The game takes too long to launch. Every time the launcher does some sort of sync even though I have the latest version. EVE Online, World of Warcraft, and other MMOs launch almost immediately. It makes a difference.

The game has tons of quest, which is good in that I have plenty to do, but bad in that the quests draw on far longer than it's worth my time to stick around. If I were to complete everything, which I prefer to do, I'll be way ahead of the level curve and it just won't be efficient, challenging, or fun. I'd rather they give me just a slight boost in doing everything before sending me to the next zone. As it stands now, I run the quests until I'm ready to move on and just go elsewhere. So far, this hasn't ended in catastrophe!

At $10 I really enjoy the game. I may not play it as long as I played World of Warcraft or EVE Online, but I don't regret the purchase. I may even give it a second month. There is a 30 day trial on the developer's website.

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