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PAX East 2013: Hands-on with City of Steam


I don't know what it is about steam engines, brass goggles, and copious amounts of clockwork mechanisms that excites me so much, but the steampunk genre has a special place in my heart. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that when I discovered that Mechanist Games, the
studio behind upcoming F2P browser MMO City of Steam, was going to be at PAX East, I immediately claimed the assignment.

For the uninitiated, City of Steam is a title that mixes the traditional fantasy flavors of magic, elves, and goblins with steampunk staples of industrialism, clockwork automatons, and airships to create what is described as "industrial age fantasy in a fallen world." During my time at PAX East, I got to spend just under an hour exploring the world of City of Steam and chatting with the game's developers who were milling about the booth. It's a fairly ambitious title that's aiming to bring a high-quality, modern MMO experience to players' browsers, but will it run like clockwork or go up in a cloud of steam?

Let's talk for a second about how the game looks. Beau recently included City of Steam on his list of the 10 best-looking browser MMOs, and that spot is well-deserved. Sure, it's not about to be winning any beauty contests against AAA titles, but as someone who grew up playing the original version of RuneScape (and who thinks the current version still looks terrible), I think it's amazing that a game can run in my browser and still look this good.

Anyone who knows me would also tell you that I'm a sucker for games that work to bring a lot of flavor to the world, and City of Steam has that in spades. One thing I must praise is the choice to include a variety of human cultures rather than a single human "race." In fact, the only race in the game that does not have a variety of different cultures is the dwarven race, and even then, the dwarves break away from their traditional fantasy pedigree by way of a number of biomechanical augmentations.

Screenshot -- City of Steam
The game's story is also very well fleshed out, and each race has its own traditions, culture, and even style of speaking. For instance, my character was of the human Stoigmari culture, and my fellow Stoigmari NPCs spoke in a style best described as broken, Russian-tinged English, similar to Team Fortress 2's Heavy ("Engineer is credit to team!"). The writing team has done a wonderful job of incorporating little lore tidbits into dialogue, such as the early revelation that it's considered tradition in Stoigmari culture to carry around the ashes of dead family members (encased in the head of a hammer, in this situation) as a form of mourning. It's these little bits of flavor that really bring the game to life and set its universe apart from the usual high-fantasy settings to which we've become accustomed.

The game plays like your standard action-RPG: left click to move (though WASD works as well, if that tickles your fancy), left click to attack, and hotbar buttons to use abilities. Simple, standard, no surprises here. The progression system isn't exactly anything groundbreaking either. You earn skill points when you level up, which you can then invest in a number of different abilities based on your class. I chose to play a Gunner, who -- as the name implies -- wields a pair of pistols (or a musket, blunderbuss, or repeater) with which he can unleash a variety of elemental and special shots to bring death to his enemies. It played exactly as I expected (stand at range, pew pew pew, repeat), and while fans of action-RPGs will find themselves right at home, the combat overall is nothing to write home about.

Screenshot -- City of SteamCity of Steam utilizes what is described as a "suburb," which means that certain areas, such as major cities and the like, are public zones where players can congregate, trade, form groups, and generally be social, while missions and dungeons take place in separate instanced areas for each group, much like the system seen in Path of Exile.

But the one thing that really interested me -- and the one I didn't get a chance to see for myself -- is the game's crafting system. Players will be able to, of course, craft their own weapons and armor, but that's only the start. Players can also fabricate mods and upgrades for their equipment, and the neat part about it is that mods alter not only the weapon's attributes but its appearance as well. That is to say, if you take a musket and add a scope mod to it, the new scope will appear on your gun's model. City of Steam also includes a number of pets that players can earn or purchase from the cash shop that will assist players in combat. More interestingly, though, players can also add mods to their pets, which likewise increases the pets' attributes and alters their appearance.

As interesting as all of this was, though, I'm admittedly somewhat concerned about the game's cash shop. The devs claim that they don't want players to be able to buy anything that will give them an advantage over others, but I specifically saw at least one grab-bag style cash shop item (and we all know how much people love those) that claimed to include a random piece of powerful gear. That may not be the exact phrasing (I forgot to check the cash shop for myself, but I caught a glimpse of it on another screen as I was leaving), but it seems odd to me that a game that wants to avoid players buying power would include grab-bag items that can provide equipment.

Aside from that, however, I walked away from my time with the game feeling largely positive about it. Sure, it's nothing particularly groundbreaking or mindblowing, but for those of you who want to get your MMO fix when you're, say, at work (tsk tsk), City of Steam will definitely provide plenty of entertainment without the need for a powerful rig or a client download. Its setting and universe is also one of the most unique I've seen in quite some time, and the story and flavor should give the lore junkies plenty to pore over. If you're at all interested in the steampunk genre or if you're just sick of the same old Arthurian fantasy and space opera sci-fi that dominates the MMO field today, City of Steam is certainly worth your time. The game will be going into beta sometime soon, and the devs state they're hoping to launch sometime in the next few months, so be sure to keep an eye out if you're interested.

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!

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