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Massively Exclusive: Gauging the pressure on the City of Steam alpha

Eliot Lefebvre

City of Steam doesn't look good for a game in alpha; it looks good for a game in beta. And yet you can tell that the game is still in alpha testing if you read through our last tour of the game and compare it with the state of the game players will experience over the weekend. This is a game that's growing by leaps and bounds, making huge strides in development at each turn.

And that's all the more impressive when you realize that it's a browser-based title from an independent studio working on what I can only assume is a shoestring budget.

If you haven't heard of City of Steam before now, I invite you to take a look at our last tour through the game at the hands of the inimitable Justin Olivetti, who gives an overview of what the game is and how it played during the previous alpha test. But what about now? What's been improved and expanded? I took a brief tour with Mechanist Games' Gabriel Laforge to see the latest client and get a sense of the game for myself.

No, I don't know why I picked the name.The first thing that struck me when I logged into the game was that the whole thing is remarkably well-polished. It's not just that the game runs remarkably well for a browser game; it runs remarkably well for a browser game still in alpha, much less one with a minimal system footprint. Even with my computer's long sequence of issues, everything in the game animated very smoothly and ran without notable glitches.

I started off with a toss into character creation, which is... currently a little spare. You choose your race, your gender, and your class, and then you toggle parts of your hairstyle a bit. That's about it. You also get a choice between three different specializations for your class, but Laforge informed me that the descriptions for these classes aren't in place just yet.

I picked a Channeler with the Radiance specialization, which turned out to be a medium-armor Paladin sort of character with a variety of ranged attacks and buffs. Combat was fairly similar to what Justin experienced in the first alpha weekend, but I particularly liked the three different weapon sets that players can switch between at any time. Beyond that, it plays more like Diablo and points related than anything -- click to attack, click to move, and so forth.

After the tutorial, I got to start exploring the city, which holds several of the game's newer features. One of the ones I particularly liked was the addition of two major notice boards -- one for major locations throughout the town and the other for questgivers in the area. The former allows you to click the name of a major waypoint and move there, while the latter allows you to check whether there are any quests around you haven't picked up and move there if you haven't grabbed them.

Equally appreciated in this regard is the fact that your character simply runs to the appropriate location instead of teleporting to it. It seems like a little thing, but it means that even as you're navigating by waypoint, you're learning the layout of the maps.

No more wondering if there's another quest you missed.
We ducked inside a couple of the game's early instances to take a look at the game's combat in a little more depth, which revealed the biggest problem the game currently has: It's not very balanced. With my character at level 2 and Laforge's character at level 6, we were routinely taking on huge packs of enemies at level 6 or 7 without taking much damage. Laforge mentioned that the team's current priority is ironing out the engine and the functionality of the game rather than the balance, but the devs are well aware that Channelers are far overtuned in their current incarnation.

Even so, it was definitely fun. There were a lot of clever little ideas, like having bank tubes scattered throughout the instance in case you need to stash something midway through an area. Dying also presents you with a fairly light penalty; you either respawn in place if you have a resurrection potion, respawn back at town and lose your progress in the instance, or you pay a little bit of real money to respawn on location. (That last option isn't in at the moment for alpha, obviously.)

This version of the alpha also has the beginning of the game's housing system, which at the moment amounts to an empty room with some plot relevance. In the planning of the game, the character select screen was going to be within the house, but the team is currently scaling back and working on making housing more relevant. It's certainly an interesting idea, however, and I like the idea of linking your characters together via a shared living space.

It's a fixer-upper.  You know, like they had to fix up the White House after it got burnt.
We also took a brief sojourn in the game's instanced PvP, which is still a quick teleport-to-an-arena affair, and sampled one of the new daily quests that sends players off to fight waves of enemies until the player dies or the enemies do. I died within about three seconds, but that's to be expected. (As mentioned, the game is still a bit unbalanced.) It was also the only place that I saw one of the game's actual bugs (when we were trying to get two characters into the quest and couldn't manage it).

Beyond that, however, everything in the game seemed to work well, and the game stayed stable the entire time. The plugin required for the game is lightweight, and the browser-based interface offered few issues. And while there were blank spots meant for the game to fill out later, the overall experience was remarkably coherent and competent.

If you've been turned off to browser games in general, this may be the one to change your mind. City of Steam is running another alpha weekend this weekend, and as I mentioned before, this is a game that's looking very good for a free-to-play title preparing for full release, much less still in the pre-beta stages. If you're looking for a vaguely Diablo-like MMO experience in a browser, you should definitely keep a close watch on this title's development.

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?

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