Browser beauty: Hands-on with City of Steam

City of Steam
Browser games aren't supposed to be like this. Browser games are supposed to be Flash-based trifles and social "gaming" money printers. They're supposed to have simple graphics, shallow gameplay and zero narrative. Put simply, browser-based games are supposed to be bad.

City of Steam, a free-to-play, browser-based MMO developed by Mechanist Games, isn't content to live in this world of assumed browser-based inferiority. In fact, the game almost feels like a challenge to the industry: If this is what browsers can do, why isn't everyone doing it? City of Steam has the potential to shake the foundation of the MMO world by proving that full, engaging game experiences can be delivered instantly and on-demand, as long as its final execution lives up to its current promise.

From what's been revealed so far, Mechanist appears to be on the right track.

First, let's cover the basics: When you start City of Steam, you'll be asked to choose a race and class, then customize your character. There are 10 races and four classes, all available in whatever sort of mix you want. From there, each class can choose one of three primary skill trees to start down a certain path of character development. For instance, the Arcanist can choose between fire, ice, and lightning, while the Gunner can choose between sharpshooting, incendiary, and chemical.

City of Steam Robot
It's your basic character creation process, with some nice touches thrown in: Each character can choose to carry dual weapons, a two-handed weapon or a one-hander with a shield, and each character is able to pick from a number of perks that enhance his or her skill with specific abilities or weapons (perks have not been implemented quite yet, so I can't comment much on their effectiveness). Additionally, all characters can at level 10 choose a second talent tree from the list, locking the third out permanently but adding new play options. City of Steam's character creator is slightly lacking in terms of physical variety (there are hairstyles and accessories, naturally), but it makes up for this with deep customization of the character's actual abilities.

Your introduction to City of Steam comes in the form of an animated cinematic. The city of Delton, the cinematic explains, was built in the shadow of a great colossus. The town prospered and the colossus slumbered until one day an evil-looking tower came crashing out of the sky and started summoning demons and tossing fireballs all over the place. The colossus awoke and a battle began, while you and your family attempted to flee the flaming city.

City of Steam Battle
It's important to note that this story doesn't end with the cinematic fading away; fleeing the doomed city is your first order of business. Every character must find his or her unique family member (this is based on choices made during character creation and could be a father, brother, sister or mother), then find a way to safely evacuate while the colossus and the demon tower do their thing. It's here that you'll first get a sense of the incredible scale Mechanist has managed to pack into this tiny little box, as the battle you just heard about becomes the background setting for your initial tutorial quests.

City of Steam is packed with these little moments of awe. Whether you're fighting a massive demon on a moving train as it careens across the countryside or smashing another player in the face in a subterranean PvP arena, the game consistently defies the expectations that come along with a title running directly out of a browser. The visual fidelity is like nothing that's ever been done in a browser game before, thanks largely to clever coding and the increasingly amazing flexibility of the Unity web player. City of Steam will impress you, repeatedly.

City of Steam Train Fight
After the initial tutorial phase and the whole "escaping rampaging demons" thing, you'll be dropped into the game's first hub area, The Refuge. It's here that City of Steam's steampunk aesthetic and expansive design really start to sink in, as you step off the train platform and are greeted by a massive, sprawling city infused with gears, pipes, and smokestacks. There's even an enormous steam airship hovering above the town and a friendly looking robot patrolling about. These small details make The Refuge feel like a living, breathing space.

The Refuge is what Mechanist refers to as a "suburb," which is the studio's term for a zone that connects to several instanced dungeons. It's not exactly an open world, but it's not entirely closed, either; players can be found wandering about suburbs in between dungeon runs, and you're free to chat it up or show off your sweet steam-powered motorcycles during your downtime between quests. According to Mechanist, closed beta should offer three to five suburbs, with the launch version of the game boasting five or six.

Wander around The Refuge for a while and you'll find plenty of characters in need and activities to enjoy. Quests abound, and most lead into nearby dungeons packed with nasty foes and interesting loot. Each dungeon has a few different challenge modes that can be completed daily for Challenge Orbs, an in-game currency that can in turn be used to buy special items and accessories. If PvE isn't your thing, you can challenge nearby players to battle in an instanced PvP duel or have a beer at the local tap, all in a freely explorable, gorgeous 3-D town that's much larger than it initially seems.

City of Steam Refuge
One thing that can't be expressed clearly enough is how smoothly this all runs. Load times are short, and even with the graphics maxed, characters just glide through the environment. No hang-ups, no snarls, no snags -- just slick, gorgeous gameplay. The controls are exceptional. But there are glitches and bugs, to be sure; during one playtest, none of my character's abilities worked, but the overall experience is one with sharp polish and clear intention. City of Steam is a game developed by a team with a vision, and that vision isn't to simply make a passable browser game that cudgels players into buying virtual currency.

There is a cash shop, of course. But Mechanist is being very careful about its implementation and claims that no item available in the shop will give players an unfair advantage. Most purchases fall into the vanity catalogue, with the rest either offering temporary benefits (XP boosts and the like) or having in-game methods of acquisition. The idea, according to Mechanist, is to give players flexibility in how they play without compromising the game for those who wish to avoid investing real-life dollars. You've probably heard that before from other free-to-play enterprises, and only the actual launch will show whether Mechanist succeeds where others have failed, but for now, the team seems to be attacking the issue with the right perspective.

City of Steam Station
City of Steam is not perfect. It entered closed beta today, and sometimes (like when you click an NPC and nothing happens or you get two-shotted by a same-level enemy or your hair randomly changes colors) it's quite obvious that the game is still a long way from release. However, all of the bugs, glitches, kinks, and oddities can't cover up the potential of what lies underneath.

City of Steam is, in its current state, impressive. With a little time and some loving care, it could very well be amazing.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
This article was originally published on Massively.