While the demo was hands-off, it did give plenty of opportunity to see a sample of the game's starting areas, what the high-level regions look like, and what players can expect when they sit down to start building their homes. So let's start out at a region that's both high in level and high above the rest of the game... because it's in high orbit. (And don't forget the housing video past the break!)
The Halon Ring
Finding the planet Nexus hasn't always been a major problem, but actually getting to land is another story. The Halon Ring is a series of satellites in high orbit that have only one function: shooting down literally anything that comes close to the planet. While it's stopped preventing anyone from landing, that doesn't mean the combination defense network and debris field isn't still pretty darn interesting.
The Halon Ring is a zone in the 40-ish range, not quite at the apex but getting close. It's a dark place aesthetically, filled with gutted ships, unearthly light sources, and plenty of junk still crashing down to the surface. Some of those crashing objects are meteors, some are ships, and all of them tie into the game's dynamic events.
Of course, the first wrinkle players need to deal with is the fact that the zone is a lower-gravity environment, which means that players jump higher but slower at the same time. This creates a very different flow in combat because you're no longer able to dodge as if you were on the planet's surface. I saw this as the team showed off one of the dynamic events involving a new object crashing to the surface... a vending machine.
This isn't your ordinary vending machine. Well, unless your definition of "ordinary vending machine" includes having it unfold arms and legs and then try to kill you, which raises several questions about the vending machines you encounter on a regular basis. This also served as a great opportunity to show off the game's combat, which looked responsive and quick.
After the fight against the Vend-o-bot, we took a brief tour through the rest of the starship graveyard, filled with undead creatures composed of former crew members and pirates looking to scavenge a few valuable bits off the ships. Pirates are a constant threat on the Halon Ring, which looks as if it'll be full of intriguing and novel challenges for veteran players.
Of course, all the awesome high-end content in the world doesn't matter if the early game isn't cool enough to make you care. So our next stop was the Crimson Isle, which is an area that new Draken players will be tasked with infiltrating. It's a nice place, evoking memories of the Utah landscape, right down to the enormous forcefield preventing the Dominion army from landing.
Wait, that's not in Utah. That's in Arizona.
At any rate, players will be tasked with getting into the region, shutting down the force field, and then escaping via a stolen Exile ship. This qualifies as the "starter" experience for Draken. It also features high-flying orbital strike devices and minefields surrounding the area, giving players an early introduction to the way that the environment affects combat patterns.
For example, at first, you see the circles indicating orbital targeting and you want to avoid them. Then you start learning how to dodge them if they catch you. Then you start stepping in to lure a strike down, pull an enemy into the blast radius, and dodge out just before the fire of heaven rains down. It's a different twist on combat, and it leads to a more distinct combat experience.
Equally diverting are the path opportunities. I got to see an Explorer opportunity near the forcefield controls, sending the player character running into a tunnel searching for a beacon location. After a few twists, the main meat of the region was shown to be a game of hot-and-cold looking for the beacon location while rocks steadily fell from the ceiling. No combat, but still a challenge for an explorer-focused player. I was told that anywhere between 25-30% of the content in any given zone is meant for specific paths, ensuring that two characters will play through the same zone in different ways.
The zone as a whole also shows off the fundamental philosophy that players should be fighting cool stuff even in the start of the game. In the Crimson Isle you fight an enormous space football player, assault an Exile base, and wind up dealing with an enormous robot embedded in a cliff face that will hopefully help you kill your enemies rather than killing you. It's got the sense of a late-game zone, but it's part of the introduction.
Following Crimson Isle, players move over to Deradune, so it made sense fo us to move over as well. I was told that the low-level regions are put at a lower player cap than usual, with each instance holding around 50 players. Once you get past the low-level regions, you're in the wide open world.
Deradune has been seen before, but we did take a look at one of the terraformed areas that brings a taste of the Aurin starting areas into Deradune. One of the big things the developers are fighting is the concept of zone fatigue, where one large-scale area starts to wear on you over time. Terraformed areas help shake this up, giving players a bit of visual flavor apart from the rest of the region.
Last but most certainly not least, we took a look at the game's housing system, which is already progressing nicely. We started out with a short video explaining the gist of how housing works -- players can pick up their house starting at level 6 by plunking down a bit of money at your local Protostar representative. Needless to say, Protostar has sold you a plot that's not entirely what was advertised, but once you murder the vicious critters infesting the region, you can get into the business of making your house beautiful.
There are two sides to designing your home area: the indoors and the outdoors. Outdoor decoration has two components. You've got decorations, which can be turned around and placed on pre-defined "hooks" all around the building surfaces and the landscape. Then you have "plugs," functional modules that add something special to your house once they're placed into one of the plot's "sockets."
Plugs have a variety of functions, many of which are based upon what it is you want to do. Like to craft? Build a crafting station. Like to raid? Build a personal raid portal. Need ore? Build a mine. Many of these plugs also come with daily quests once they finish building, as well as certain buffs for players who make use of them. And they're not limited to just one player, either.
Give other players permission to enter your house, and you can both reap benefits. Have to stay out of the game for a week? Your friends can harvest your garden and get some extra resources as a result. It's similar to social games in spirit, with plenty of opportunity for players to work together for mutual gain.
The rewards extend to the inside of your house as well. At the moment, the main benefit comes in the form of rested experience. Logging out in your house gets you more rested experience. If your house is nicer, you get even more. Nicer refers to fairly standard creature comforts -- nicer things, more lighting, and so forth. Veterans of The Sims will have no trouble understanding the core mechanics.
Indoors, the game abandons the hook system in favor of freeform placement, sizing, and arrangement. The development team is looking into letting players give others design permissions, so you can pay someone else to make your house look beautiful. I got to witness the developers building a makeshift loft out of a series of bookcases just as an example of how flexible the system actually is. Players can also change tiling, wallpapers, surfaces, and so forth -- everything you need to make your home feel like, well, home.
Some of the things you can add to your home plot come with challenges, but they're not mandatory challenges. They're meant to be fun optional additions, not additional chores. Build a hedge maze and you can get rare spawns to fight, but you aren't going to log into your home to find that you absolutely must deal with several rampaging beasts in your face.
We know the beta is coming soon, probably within the next month or two, and there's already somewhere between 150-170 hours of content within the game. And that's not even counting the hours that can be lost with decorating one's house. It's an impressive game to look at, and every new reveal just seems to make it look a little bit better.
Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 22nd to 24th, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2013. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, DUST 514, or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!