The P-word: Earthrise first impressions

Prior to taking the plunge with Masthead Studios' new Earthrise MMORPG, ask yourself the following questions: Do you have patience? Do you like to read? If the answer to either one of those questions is no -- regardless of whether you consider yourself a sandbox fan -- the game's current incarnation probably isn't for you.

Earthrise is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi MMORPG featuring two human factions struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of a third world war. In this distant, dystopian future, nanotech, quantum engineering, and cloning are commonplace technologies, and that's a good thing for you since you'll be dying. A lot.

If you're pre-disposed to sandboxes, excited by complexity, and not averse to a little ganking, the game might just tickle your fancy despite its rough-around-the-edges presentation and sub-par performance. We previewed the game a few weeks back over livestream, but today we add to that with a full hands-on with the game post-launch. Join me after the cut for my first impressions after 10-plus hours of gameplay.
Despite being a huge sandbox fan, I purposely shied away from the Earthrise beta because of my experiences with Mortal Online's bug-ridden Block A and Darkfall's forgettable launch. In a nutshell, I'm a true Earthrise newb, and I had no idea what was going on for my first few hours on Enterra. This is more of a handicap than it would be in most traditional MMORPGs, since Earthrise eschews a standard tutorial in favor of lengthy text explanations (accessible via terminals that aren't always obviously placed in the game world).

In short, it's not a game with which you can sit down and immediately feel comfortable, and while that adds to the flavor for me personally, it's worth noting for those with little time or short attention spans.

Earthrise avatarThe basics

Character creation is pretty straightforward, and in fact, it was one of the game's more disappointing aspects. The models and textures look great, but you're limited to a few pre-set faces, skin colors, and hairstyles. Body customization and sliders are nowhere to be found. After settling on a name for your clone, you're deposited inside an appropriately intimidating processing center where you'll spend a few moments orienting yourself before heading down the ramp to begin the lengthy process that passes for the game's tutorial.

The controls are unabashedly awkward at first. Holding left-click spins your character and the camera simultaneously, while right-clicking and dragging rotates the camera alone. The tab key toggles UI mouse control, while pressing alt switches you between the game's exploration and battle modes. The former enables regenerating hit points/energy points/stamina points and faster movement speed but features neither armor nor threshold and disallows the use of special abilities. The latter lets you fire your specials and also activates your armor and allows for the application of buffs (but slows you down considerably).

Earthrise doesn't feature any key binding functionality, so you're basically stuck with the defaults unless you're comfortable rooting around in your Windows folders and editing text files. If you're feeling adventurous, an enterprising forum user has put together a helpful manual key-mapping guide.

Deciphering the game's chat box is somewhat irritating, particularly at higher resolutions. The squint-inducing font size and the red text make readability quite a challenge at 2560x1600. The UI also lacks click-and-drag resizing and repositioning capabilities, so you're currently out of luck if you want to customize your HUD to approximate any other MMOs you may be playing. The interface itself is quite pretty, though, and the techno-minimalist stylings, combined with the huge number of windows and sub-menus to explore, are a sci-fi freak's dream.

The tutorial is basically a series of click-on-this-terminal-to-teleport-to-the-next-area tasks interspersed with a bit of textual lore dissemination and some mob-killing courtesy of the game's various weapon types. It feels overly drawn-out, and Masthead would do well to streamline the experience a bit so as to get the player out of the shooting ranges and into the wilds as soon as possible since Earthrise shines brightest when you're exploring the extensive landscapes.

Running awayThe combat

Combat in Earthrise will seem off-putting for some gamers, mainly those who lack the patience to do anything other than jump in and mash buttons hoping to figure stuff out on the fly. Most MMOs nowadays don't bother with explaining the nuts and bolts of their underlying combat systems because they're all pretty much identical and expected. Not so in Earthrise, as you're presented with a good amount of reading material that explains how certain gameplay aspects work.

For example, clicking on the little mechanical bug-like thing standing next to the training robot at the rifle range portion of the training course gives you a menu with a bunch of drill-down options relating to Combat Status Information (i.e., how your equipment functions). You can read about everything from energy points (used to activate abilities) to stamina points (for sprinting and stance upkeep) to armor values and threshold (a characteristic that comes into play after armor value is calculated).

When you break away from the mechanics and get into the actual practice of combat, you'll probably experience a bit of frustration. Earthrise is in dire need of performance tweaks, and I'm hard-pressed to find anything good to say about the game's current build in terms of optimization. My frame rates alternated between 12 and 40 on a state-of-the art system (the low end occurring in combat with multiple NPCs and the high end while exploring solo). More troubling are the desync and lag issues that cause mobs to disappear, rubber-band, and otherwise become impossible to hit with alarming regularity.

I had to relog during several missions on account of being unable to hit quest mobs despite the fact that my flamethrower was belching fiery hot magma at point-blank range (the mobs were dropping my health bar quite easily, though).

Aside from the performance issues, there's nothing overly difficult about Earthrise's combat implementation; it's just a bit outside the norm. The biggest adjustment for me was remembering that the tab key was no longer used for targeting (Earthrise has no target lock, i.e., you have to aim) and is instead coupled to your UI mouse control.

The game does feature traditional special abilities, which are unlocked via various skill trees and the spending of battle points. Abilities are organized thematically into skill groups in the UI, and initially at least, these skill groups have no unlocked abilities. Each ability has three grades, the first of which is simply the unlock and the second and third of which are tactics slots (basically, ability modifiers).

The crafting

Crafting has long been one of Earthrise's selling points, and it's a large part of what excites me about the game. That said, the 10-plus hours I've managed to devote to the title over the past week simply aren't enough to allow me to comment on crafting in detail, both because it is pretty deep and because, at this early stage, players are still figuring it out.

Suffice it to say that while the game's performance issues and thoughtless PvP implementation annoy me, the crafting has ensured that I'll stay subbed well beyond the free month.

Skill tabIn a nutshell, crafting is performed at various stations (located in major cities and quest hubs) and requires both credits and crafting points to skill up. New crafters are usually advised to purchase ranks in the biological, synthetic, and metallic recycling recipe trees, and the skills are advanced by looting part items from various AI mobs. The manufacturing process really demands its own article, so for now I'll leave you with the thought that, even though I've barely scratched the surface, I can say that you don't really know the full meaning of the word "complex" until you've spent some time looking at the Earthrise crafting interface.

The community

Earthrise's community is about what you would expect from a newly launched open PvP game. Once your initial immunity wears off, you'll be ganked by the requisite schoolyard bullies until you leave their vicinity or grow strong enough to defend yourself. On the other hand, the global /yell channel is home to a good number of folks bent on being helpful and navigating the game's complexities together, and it's rare that you find the kind of trollish and deliberate misinformation that infects the global chat of some larger titles.

Masthead has some work to do in terms of the factions and the rhyme and reason of open PvP, though, otherwise Earthrise will end up as another sandbox MMO that devolves into an open-world FPS with progression elements.

The little stuff

Whew. Well, if you've made it this far, you're probably thinking that my first impressions of Earthrise are rather negative. I can't sugar-coat the game's performance problems; they are major roadblocks to enjoyment at this point. And I also have to scratch my head a bit at the fact that there is zero to do other than kill and craft in a game that styles itself as a sandbox. All that said, I'm still enamored of Earthrise and will be playing it regularly for the foreseeable future (it's actually managed to dethrone Darkfall as my current sandbox of choice).

Why is that?

It's the little things. The sci-fi atmospherics are terrific, whether we're talking about the moody score and the unique sound suite (love that tactical rifle zap) or the hazy, realistic visuals that conjure a grand sense of scale and possibility. There's simply a lot of eye- and ear-candy in Earthrise. Small details, like the fact that I can walk up to a vanquished corpse and nudge it around, or the fact that the game has a proper scaleable windowed mode, cause me to cut the title more slack than I normally would.

The end

In the end, almost everything about Earthrise is pleasingly old-school, right down to the fact that the game box (yes, there is a retail box option!) comes with a fold-out map/poster and a manual that's more than a front-and-back keybind listing. What difference does a box make, I can hear the new-age download-only gamers asking? Well, I don't know that it makes one, but it gives the impression of weight behind the game, as it obviously cost money to produce and it's therefore entirely possible that Earthrise has some staying power (as opposed to being another title off the endless assembly line of disposable MMOs that are releasing every other day).

Ultimately, Earthrise has the potential to be the game I'd like to play. Yes, I know, I used the dreaded P-word. That's how I see it, though. Currently, the game is extremely rough, and I can't honestly recommend it to those who want a polished or familiar experience. If you've got even a little bit of sandbox fan in you, though, it's one to keep an eye on.

This article was originally published on Massively.