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Free for All: Skylancer Battle for Horizon actually displays originality


Skylancer: Battle for Horizon is a pretty unique take on the hugely overpopulated MMORTS genre. I play a lot of the popular strategy titles, and I'd estimate that 85% of them are simple repeats of previous titles. To be fair, I must admit that gaming in general is much like other forms of entertainment like movies or music and is mostly full of stuff that we've seen before. It can be a bit disheartening to write about something you love like gaming, only to struggle to find games that are truly unique and give you that same feeling you had when you first played games.

Now, I'm not setting up Skylancer: Battle for Horizon as some sort of paragon of originality. The fact is that there are plenty of mechanics and systems in the game that are familiar to me, but there are also enough twists in the design to remind me that it is still possible to feel unique, even in this overcrowded genre.

Skylancer: Battle for Horizon screenshot
The first thing you will notice about Skylancer: Battle for Horizon is the way you control the game. Most MMORTS titles I've played allow players to control the game while looking down at their towns or maps. In my favorites, I can click on the map, maybe zoom in on my town, and scroll around the massive world. I truly love this style because it reminds me of table-top gaming from my youth. Those giant in-game maps feel truly epic because each town or village I see represents a player, a player who spent possibly many, many hours building up a mighty city or empire. There is scale within scale in a good MMORTS and layers within layers of persistence.

But that giant map is almost always seen as on massive, flat area. In Skylancer: Battle for Horizon, the map is basically a round, rotating world. You move by rotating the globe with your mouse. Landmasses float by; enemies shoot past. It's not only refreshing to spin a giant planet to move around the game; it also feels large. There are smaller cities and islands on the horizon and even a moon that can be captured by factions, resulting in a giant chain attaching the two planets together. Instead of being a map viewed only by the player-gods who are looking down upon their domains, the map in Skylancer: Battle for Horizon makes me feel as if I am floating through the air. It's hard to describe, but I like it.

"It all comes from a sci-fantasy universe, something you rarely, rarely see in multiplayer games. Ryzom was the last title I can think of that offered such a unique take on an IP."

Beside the map, the character design and UI are top-notch. It all comes from a sci-fantasy universe, something you rarely, rarely see in multiplayer games. Ryzom was the last title I can think of that offered such a unique take on an IP. A lot of people claim that steampunk has a similar feel or comes from the sci-fantasy genre as well, but I am not a fan of the cogs and top-hat sort of silliness that steampunk offers. I'd rather see a more organic approach to design, one that has characters adorned with handcrafted and rough materials rather than finely crafted machines or inventions. Skylancer: Battle for Horizon has ships that fly through the sky and creatures that you might find in a science fiction movie but it takes more from fantasy than science. All of the drawings are stylized as well. I much prefer a stylized approach to game design rather than a realistic one. In 40 years when game graphics are way, way more sophisticated than they are now, I will probably still prefer to romp through a world with "cartoony" graphics.

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Skyancer: Battle for Horizon is easy to access in your browser. I've been on a browser kick over the last few months, but really I've been playing and covering browser-based games for years. I've watched them become a force to be reckoned with, boasting possibly more players than most other games combined. Skylancer: Battle for Horizon uses the Microsoft Silverlight plugin, which will limit it to browsers or devices that can run Silverlight, but it's well worth the install. The music, controls, and occasional effects combined with the original look of the game take browser-based gaming to a new level as well. I wonder how many players have noticed that so far, though. The unusual games usually do not pull in the larger numbers, and even though the game has some systems that are essentially the same systems that we've seen before (city-building, resource collecting), many players still want the same Evony-style combat and farming.

I'm encouraged by a game like Skylancer: Battle for Horizon. Genres change slowly when they change for the better, and games like this one quietly contribute to that change. I'd like to see more variety in the gameplay, but I imagine that, like many MMOs, higher-level play becomes more intense and involved. I am able to play Skylancer: Battle for Horizon on less than an hour a day -- a good thing for a casual MMORTS -- but it would be nice to see more larger recurring events like the moon take-over or battles for land control.

Here's hoping that we'll see more titles bring original back to the MMORTS genre. A makeover has been long overdue.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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