Massively hands-on: Let's talk about The Repopulation

Writing about early access games is the suck. I guess it's something I'll have to get over, though, given how early access is now launch, how alpha is the new beta, and how gamers are lining up to pay big money for ideas.

With that out of the way, let's talk a bit about my first steps in The Repopulation. It's an appropriately ambitious sci-fi sandbox from scrappy indie studio Above & Beyond Technologies. As you might expect, it's somewhat rough at the moment. I see it carving out a successful niche for itself in the future, though.

Some serious crafting

I've put just over five hours into The Repopulation at this point, and at least an hour of that time was spent reading tutorial popups and NPC dialogue. This is an MMORPG that revels in complexity, which is OK with me after slogging through 10-plus years of 1, 2, 3, mana pot, 1, 2, 3, mana pot.

Take the game's crafting, for instance. I'd love to put a bow on it for you, but after a couple of hours, I don't fully grok how it works. I do know that the game's economy is crafter-driven as opposed to loot-driven, and I know that most every item in the world is craftable.

I was given a bunch of recipe cards as I explored the lengthy tutorial joint, and after double-clicking on them, I found the appropriate recipes available at various crafting stations. Post-tutorial, I acquired a couple more recipes as mission rewards, and of course more are readily available via mob killing, player trading, or engagement rewards (with engagements being The Repopulation's answer to public quests).

Once I scribed a recipe, I found that I wasn't limited to creating the base item; I can vary the agent and ingredient subcomponents to achieve a dizzying array of results, some of them useful and some not. There are item grades, too, and since this is a skill-based game, all of this experimentation is productive both for your character and for you, assuming that you're aiming at some sort of specialized uber-crafter as your ultimate goal.

If you're a self-sufficiency freak, though, you might want to rethink that approach or stay away from The Repopulation's crafting. The tutorials and the breadth of the system as a whole lead me to believe that player interdependency was a -- maybe the -- top priority during the design process.

Yep, it's got MMO combat

Combat isn't quite as interesting, and that's due to both my personal preferences (I find even the best MMO combat systems unbearably tedious) and The Repopulation's indie production values. The devs have opted for a curious system that allows you to choose between traditional RPG-style hotbar fighting and a hybrid action mechanic that throws some crosshairs on your screen and invites you to tool around as if you're playing either a first- or a third-person shooter.

You can swap between modes on the fly via the middle mouse button, though it's worth noting that the action option still requires you to obtain abilities like Leg Shot or Burst Fire or what have you. There's also a momentum mechanic that gates your access to higher powered abilities until you've built up enough of the resource. And don't forget the energy and endurance mechanics that power things like weapons and shields in the case of the former and sprinting or other physical feats in the case of the latter.

There's even a nifty little slider on your character sheet that allows you to distribute energy between your shields and your guns as you see fit! The Repopulation features a basic cover system, too, and those of you who played early versions of Star Wars: Galaxies will find the crouch, prone, and standup options familiar right down to their icons.

So all that sounds kinda cool, but didn't I say earlier that I don't really like the combat? I did indeed, and the reason for that is its mushy feel. There's no weight to it, and the lackluster animations make it seem as though my avatar is disconnected from the action that I'm supposedly directing. Maybe it's my computer, which is looking a little long in the tooth these days, or maybe it's the fact that this is alpha/beta/early access/whatever, but the end result is that thus far The Repopulation's combat system does nothing well enough to make me want to continue using it.

Hey, this is a virtual world!

Fortunately the game isn't your typical MMO combat lobby. One of my tutorial NPCs taught me a couple of dance moves that buff myself and other players, and while they currently suffer from the same production value problems as the combat visuals, I heart this dev team for being the only one brave enough to riff on SWG's blow-away-badass entertainer professions.

Another NPC checked me out on a temporary robotic pet, and a bit further along in the tutorial I got to tame this tiny little Nacoot rodent thing, which now follows me around and apparently grows up to be a somewhat larger Nacoot rodent, assuming I feed and care for it properly. And if I don't, it dies because, well, sandbox right?

The Repopulation's harvesting is interesting, too, as you can opt to collect resources by hand and engage in a sort of minigame to upgrade the harvested material quality. Or you can just accept the basic item and be on your way. Later on you can plunk down automated harvesters and try your hand at surveying to find the best resources to either sell or support your crafting habit.

Some final first-day thoughts

In terms of production values, The Repopulation is a mixed bag. As I mentioned, the animations are sub-par in places, and the interior textures feel bland and repetitive more often than not. On the other hand, I enjoyed the fact that character creation didn't squeeze me into the usual supermodel suit. Your avatar can be fat, short, bald, or Thor incarnate, as you like. The armor detail is, um, detailed, and the colorful exterior environments avoid the sort of high-gloss fakery that I've seen in too many sci-fi MMOs.

The audio feels unfinished, with many of the sounds seeming fresh off a Star Trek set circa 1967, though I guess part of the audience might call that a positive. The music hits and misses. It's at its best when it sticks to ambient sci-fi bits that seem to me like a lighthearted take on EVE's electronica. It stumbles due to sync issues, though, and the game occasionally insists on bombastic big-damn-heroes stuff even when I'm chilling at the crafting station.

I've yet to sample housing, player cities, PvP, and a number of other back-of-the-box features, so at this point I've barely scratched The Repopulation's surface. That's a satisfying feeling because it's been too long since I've played a sandbox MMORPG that got so many things right during the design stage. If Above & Beyond can somehow parlay that success into similarly competent production value upgrades, The Repopulation will be worth playing for many years to come. And if not, hey, it's still better than the prettiest 1, 2, 3, mana pot.

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?