I love it when I come across a game that surprises me. I usually load up MMOs well before I commit to writing about them just to test out whether or not it's worthwhile. I've covered too many duds to know that if I don't check the game out, I could be stuck with a game that literally doesn't work.
So I signed up for a free Brain Storm account, picked out where my city should be located (based on a real-world map), and started the tutorial. At first I thought that an MMO that is essentially one part quiz-show, one part MMORTS, and one part SimCity-ish builder would come off as hokey and much too easy.
But I was wrong on a lot of fronts. This game is clever, clean, and a lot of fun.
The game is pretty simple, at least once you understand the basics. I'll put it this way: You start off in a futuristic city, and your job is to explore the rest of the world, probing for clues and bits of the past. You find these clues by sending out all-terrain vehicles on exploration missions. After a certain amount of time -- depending on the distance it's going -- it will let you know what it found.
It could uncover another player's city, a genium vein (which needs to be extracted with another vehicle), a campsite, or most importantly, a point of interest. This is where things get interesting!
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You click on the point of interest and choose one of your experts to send on a trip to analyze the fragment. The expert could be an artisan, an engineer, an archaeologist, or many other types. The expert travels to the point of interest to analyze the information, and then you gather it, adding it to your Geniapedia, the inventory of all of your "knowledge units." Those units need to be examined and then are turned into the energy you need to run your city. You transfer them into energy by -- I kid you not -- answering quizzes about them. The amount of energy you get out of the session depends on several factors, such as how many questions you correctly answer in a row, how many times you had to skip one, and so on. The questions are generally easy at first, but as you level and locate different bits of knowledge, the quiz becomes more of a challenge.
You need loads of genium to send vehicles on exploration missions, and so you will also send out extractors to the genium mines that are spread throughout the areas that you have discovered. It's a wonderfully simple energy system that ties all of the other systems together.
Because there are other players in the game, the best discovery bits are sought-after and fought-over. Don't worry, though; there are neither tanks nor blood in this game. Instead, players will attack your city by attempting to break through your shield, a powerful protective device that is powered by -- you guessed it -- questions. So if a player attacked me (as the community manager for this game did -- what a welcome!), she would need to answer two questions in order to break through and steal one of the knowledge units involved in the defense.
Here's another cool part: As I try to "master" the knowledge units I have (by answering questions), I can send any of them into one of my shield slots to help out in defense. If I come across a particularly hard question, I can send it to the shield in the hopes that other players will have a hard time with it as well. Brilliant!
At any point I can open the Geniapedia to study up on the knowledge units I have in my possession. It might sound sort of like homework, but the UI is designed so wonderfully that I actually enjoyed finding out about common things and coming across some really odd bit of information that I had no idea about. It truly feels as though I am examining some sort of past technology from the seat of some time in the future. How smart of the designers to use modern-day information as part of a futuristic setting. After all, as time goes on, the developers will have endless access to information as time moves forward. Again, I say brilliant!
Of course, there are some issues when you use trivia questions as the bread and butter of gameplay. The game's lead designer, Olivier Simon, joined me for one of my sessions; he explained that Genia has a team of five people who conduct the search for trivia questions for the game, but I think they solved many of the issues by keeping games limited to 30 days. While I'm not normally a fan of time-limited games, I do understand the need for it in this case. Players eventually come to memorize many of the questions that are asked multiple times, so they have a much easier time as the game moves along. Having an end and a win scenario isn't a bad idea.
In the end, you'll want to join an Alliance in the hopes of making the biggest and best Alliance before the timer runs out. I attempted to join three, and none accepted me. Can I put a frowny-face icon here?
Even though I didn't get into an alliance, Brain Storm is wonderful. I usually reserve old-fashioned words like "wonderful" or "charming" for games that show me something different and interesting. Brain Storm is clever in the way that it takes what is essentially a trivia-based educational game and thanks to some neat twists of lore and setting makes it seem like an in-depth strategy game and almost completely unique.
Genia should be proud that, as its first MMO project, the studio has made something new. That's very hard to do these days.
Next week I am looking at Myst Online: Uru Live, an older title that disappeared for a while until its community and developers decided to re-release it as a free title. If you like in-depth puzzles and older yet killer graphics, you have to see this. Join me as I stream it live on Monday, the 13th of January, at 4:00 p.m. EST right here on our livestream page! See you then!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!