You know that scene in Contact in which Jodie Foster is looking out at the cosmos, telling the folks at mission control that they should have sent a poet? All the while I was playing End of Nations at Trion World's Gamer's Day event, I kept thinking, "Massively should have sent a StarCraft guru!" I initially felt very much out of my element. MMOs and RPGs are my shtick; I only rarely dive into turn-based strategy games. And RTS games? Forget it. They don't agree with me. If it doesn't have a pause button, I probably don't have time for it. I'm too easily distractible, too impatient, and too exhausted after a work-day of multi-tasking to spend my playtime multi-tasking even more. There's just no time for cooking meals, browsing lolcats, and chatting with the spouse when you're neck-deep in an RTS. RTS games are serious business; they require my undivided attention and concentration, and I don't like doing things halfway.
And yet maybe that makes me just the right person to try out an MMORTS hybrid like Trion's EoN. Most people who give it a spin when it hits the market will probably have a lot in common with me -- they'll be loyalists to one side or the other, not to both. Maybe an RTS novice is just the sort of person who can test out the game, present it to MMO gamers, and explain just what the heck this game thinks it's doing playing around in our end of the pool.
Or maybe I'll end up sobbing amidst the charred remains of my tank minions. You'll never know if you don't hit the break!
(Not) too much information
Each of our previoushands-on experiences with End of Nations began the same way as this one: The player is greeted first with the War Room, a glittering panel of information that immediately caught my interest. In fact, as an information junkie, I wish I'd had more time to drink in the slick interface of the War Room, which offered gadgets for maps, contacts, a sliding news ticker at the bottom, and everything else you can imagine. I wanted to click on everything. Trion has managed to make this element of the UI very exciting, given that it's effectively a log-in or match-making screen. I felt instantly drawn to the game, a small part of something larger, and let's face it -- a game like this needs that feeling to overcome the fact that its massiveness is largely obscured.
But there was no time for dawdling. I had to roll up my army and get on with the business of saving the world from the dystopian, oppressive Order of Nations. (Just as it has done for its other incoming MMO, Rift: Planes of Telara, Trion has crafted an elaborate political backstory justifying our playing online tanks. It's World of 1984craft... with nukes.)
I'll take a Panzer in pink, please
Creating my commander and her army was actually a simple affair of selecting from a pool of avatars (both genders and several skin tones available), then selecting a role for the map I planned to join. Since I am a neophyte at these types of games, I chose the tank commander role for my class, hoping it would give me the survivability I'd need to muddle through. In hindsight, I wish I'd gone for one of the DPS roles, because, as I soon found out, the best defense is a ridiculously overpowered offense!
Players can customize their armies by spending from their set pool of points to slot different types of vehicles for each encounter, but as a newbie, I had no such diversification available to me. From inside my headquarters (kinda like housing in other games), I could see my entire fleet spread out before me. Eventually, I'd be able to expand my base for research and manufacturing, but it was pretty bare-bones for a newcomer. Instead, all I could do from inside HQ was poke around and tinker with the appearance of my fleet of tanks (what, candy-apple red isn't an appropriate color for desert tanks?). Decals can be applied to the tanks as well. The whole customization process reminded me of painting and deploying miniatures for a table-top war-game, and I've no doubt that's intentional.
EoN's user interface turned out to be an interesting hybrid of MMO and RTS design. While the game defaulted to a strategy-centric top-down layout, a quick mouse flick allowed me to stare out over beautiful, distant landscapes (the visuals are surprisingly detailed and bright for what you might expect would be a dreary war-game). A chat window makes the game feel significantly more social than most RTS games, and the minimap and hotbars could have wandered straight over from World of Warcraft. That instant familiarity was certainly useful as the other attendees and I were plunged into our first PvE map in the deserts of Oman.
And why shouldn't an MMORTS have a quest tracker?
My first task was to roll my little tank pets towards a mission-giver, who instructed me to reinforce and set flares up at a chokepoint. Of course, I made the typical MMO-player mistake of forgetting to actually read the quest log, so I had to backtrack to pick up my flares, and then I was off! In addition to the other players who had joined my instance (maps are generated on the fly when population demands it, similarly to instances in City of Heroes or Guild Wars), ally and enemy NPC vehicles flocked around the map, helping me and hindering me as they could. I dutifully followed the instructions of my quest-givers, whose commands sat in a very WoW-like quest tracker off to the side of my screen, and whose objectives popped up convenient waypoint arrows to tell me where to go. Blow up a communications array here. Assist in a siege there. Take down a big enemy over yonder. Pick up loot from your enemies' metal carcasses (yes, loot!). Wander off the rails if you like, but know that the best rewards are earned through questing.
Once I figured out how to select and move my entire army at once, I was set. Basic combat is as simple as clicking on an enemy and sitting back while my assortment of tanks fired away, but I could quickly see that gameplay could be significantly more complex. My choice of commander role wasn't just about a pretty avatar; the special skills available to me and populating my hotbar reflected the role I'd chosen and could be fired off to protect my minions and buff their damage. Indeed, I suspect that a more-experienced RTS player would have been able to position each individual member of the army to better engage in combat, but I figured I'd stick to the basics. It's interesting to see this sort of layered difficulty emerge in both of Trion's upcoming MMOs; the teams seem to be following in the footsteps of something like Sims 3, a game which was perfectly playable at an ultra-simplistic sandbox level as well as at a multi-tasky challenge level. Leaving that choice up to the player's whims might just be an excellent tactic for introducing new and casual gamers into up-and-coming genres and games.
Oh right, other players
After our brief introduction to the game, we were divided into groups for some team-based PvE in another area: Magadan, Russia. Yes, pity the poor group stuck with me as the tank-spec'd commander, because tanking seemed to consist primarily of getting blown up while spastically smacking defensive specials. My mates and I instantly spotted a deficiency in the game -- it's really hard to find your groupmates in PvE! Fellow players look just like NPCs on the map, and the only way to group up seemed to be a special skill that allowed you to plant a flag and invite everyone to gather round. (No doubt, that'll be fixed by launch -- we were playing on the pre-alpha client after all!) Consequently, we spent a great deal of time wandering around trying to find each other and being shot at by enemy armies along the way.
Fortunately, our hapless meanderings caused a few deaths, enough for me to figure out just how dying worked in the game. In the maps I sampled, death was only a minor setback; I found myself ported to the starting area with all of my tanks repaired enough for me to start the long trek back to my team. While there is a "healing" skill (more like an engineering reconstruction skill), it wasn't as useful as I might have hoped since it didn't work while I was (or any of my nearby teammates were) in combat. This led to several instances in which it was better to simply be killed entirely and respawn than to be left dangling with one crippled tank remaining.
Nevertheless, the few times my group and I were able to come together and coordinate our attacks were extremely entertaining. My screen was literally crawling with dozens of little killing-machines, and though we never quite did take down the giant, green-hued tank boss of the area, it was loads of fun to try.
Tank vs. tank warfare
"The enemy team was [...] saving up just enough points for a Really Big Nuke, and then deploying it on me. Repeatedly."
The last event of the day was a set of PvP matches in Africa, which pitted half of the participants against the other in randomly formed teams. (I saw other areas -- Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Sakhalin -- but we didn't have time to try them all.) Again, pity my teammates! The map, we quickly realized, featured a capture-and-hold game very similar to something like Arathi Basin in World of Warcraft. Commanders could attack and attempt to hold each area on the map. As you capture each node and take out opposing armies, you accrue points that can be spent back at home base on temporary powers and upgrades and buffs, which reminds me more of a game like Demigod than a true, resource-driven, territory-governed RTS.
While I busied myself doing what I love to do in battlegrounds -- capturing neglected nodes -- the enemy team was figuring out that the best course of action was saving up just enough points for a Really Big Nuke, and then deploying it on me. Repeatedly. The firebomb was fantastic, I must say, even though I was the victim. It lit up my entire screen and left my happy red tank minions half-buried in a smoking crater. I really had a great time being slaughtered, and I think that given a bit more practice with the game, I'd have been holding my own just fine. Bonus: no one /spit on my corpse!
End of impressions
Ultimately, piloting my army in End of Nations didn't feel different from playing a minion master necromancer in Guild Wars, a mastermind in City of Heroes, or an alchemist in Torchlight. In fact, it felt far more like playing any of those pet classes than my last run through Sins of a Solar Empire. In a very strange way, it didn't seem much like an RTS at all. The PvE and PvP played much more like the mini-strategy games stuffed into this generation of MMOs, leaving aside that EoN's "massiveness" is still debatable. The setting is an RTS, but the gameplay resonates with the kind of jump-in jump-out matches I see in a lot of strong PvP MMOs. And while I think it might be a bit much to charge a standard monthly fee for the game as Trion plans to do, I can certainly see that there is a niche set of players who are looking for exactly this kind of persistent, as-casual-as-you-like-it war-gaming. And even those of us for whom MMORTS games aren't quite ideal can recognize that hybrids like EoN recruit new players into the MMO genre while blending non-MMO gaming motifs in innovative ways that even experienced MMO players can enjoy.