MMOing During The Apocalypse

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Wood Elves Need Not Apply

I’ve seen a lot of MMOs in my time. Once people realized that Ultima Online was making money, and a lot of it, everyone tried to jump in to capture that all-important monthly subscription fee from their players. The top dog of the world changed hands fairly often, and the current leader of the pack, World of Warcraft, has spawned so many clones that it’s hard to keep up with all of them.

So when something new comes along, it’s good to take notice. The Fallen Earth team seems to have created a stable MMO without a wood elf or orc in sight. And believe me, that alone is quite an accomplishment.

The world of Fallen Earth takes place in the far future. It’s set around the Grand Canyon. There has been an apocalypse but it seems based mostly on a disease outbreak instead of a nuclear war. The end result is a wasteland teeming with hostile creatures, mutants and rival factions of both NPCs and real players.

The game is clever in explaining why you can die in the world and come back to life. You happen to be a clone. Whenever you are eaten by a hostile creature or shot to death out in the wasteland, a new body complete with all your memories is spawned at a nearby cloning facility, which seems to still be working perfectly even though almost all other types of technology are kaput. You do have to undertake a mission to fix your broken genetic code around level five, but other than that, you are pretty much cleared for operations in the wastes. After a certain point, dying will cause your carried items to degrade slightly and you will be under an experience penalty for a bit, but other than that, dying is not too bad, and far better than with most MMOs.

The characters in Fallen Earth are classless. Not that they don’t have style. I mean that you don’t play a fighter or a thief or even a sniper or Smith. You are awarded action points as you adventure and can drop them into whatever skills and attributes that you require. So if you see yourself as a gunfighter, you will spend your points on the coordination attribute and the pistol skill. Skills go up one for one in terms of points, whereas it takes five points to increase a base attribute by one point. But skills are also capped based on your accompanying attribute, so you will need to put points into both areas to advance. I’ve got a complaint about that in terms of crafting, but I will get to that in a bit. For the most part, this is a great way for people to create a unique character and not have thousands of "tanks," "healers," "DPS specialists," and the like normally found in most MMOs.

Combat is really well done, at least in terms of ranged fighting. When you draw your gun (or crossbow) you see a crosshair. If it turns green, you are in range. From the player’s perspective, you shoot and your shot hits the opponent, hopefully. But there is actually a lot of calculations going on in the background. The game randomly picks a point within that target window (the target window will get smaller if you stand still and aim) based on your skill with the weapon. When you fire, if the enemy’s body is within the hit point chosen by the computer, they take damage. It feels like a single player shooter, which is nice. Most MMOs have combat that involves you standing there automatically fighting and occasionally hitting a button to trigger a special move. Fallen Earth feels much more natural than that.

Unfortunately, this system doesn’t look as good with melee combat. It still resolves itself fine, but it looks a little cheesy with you swinging a board through the air and a little -22 popping up to show how badly you hit the snake at your feet. It’s no worse than other MMOs, but no where near as elegant as FE’s ranged combat.

Crafting seems to be a major part of the game. As in: if you don’t craft, you are going to be hard pressed to survive, especially at lower levels. None of the quests in the starting towns offer firearms as rewards, as far as I found. So if you want something better than the basic starting equipment (guns based on paintball designs) you will need to get your hands dirty and make stuff yourself. There are also no auction halls in the starter towns, which is exactly where they SHOULD be, because it would let low level crafters sell their wares to other low-level characters. Instead, you have to get into a major city, which is difficult when you are a low-level character, and once there, will find that your low level crafting items are not going to be bought by higher level characters. Adding auction hall nodes to starter towns would really open the game up to more crafting options and jump start the economy too.

After all, crafting is actually one of the hardest things in the game to do. First you will need to purchase schematic books for what you want to make. Then you will need to get your skill in that area, say ballistics, up to a level where you can make something. To make a light crossbow, the first weapon in that tier, you need a ballistics skill of 14. The only way to get your crafting skills up is to make stuff. So you will be spending time making gun cleaning kits, crossbow bolts and other low level stuff to get your skill up. Keep in mind that because you don’t have access to an auction hall, these are things that basically become vendor trash, even though other players would probably buy them if they could be posted. All crafting requires items that are found out in the wasteland, like wood, scrap fasteners and copper. Some items can also be made by crafters in other areas. Paper can be made by science crafters for example. In terms of raw materials, wood seems particularly hard to find out in the Grand Canyon, though the scrap fasteners are actually the item that the game needs to spawn in greater numbers.

So, even though you envision yourself as a sniper, you are going to be hitting things with a board or golf club until you can gather enough stuff to make enough junk to get to a proficiency level where you can craft something useful like a crossbow.

Oh, and remember where I said that attribute scores can cap skills? Well, if you craft, you are going to need to put points into intelligence, which governs most crafting skills. That is points that you won’t be putting into coordination, so you won’t be growing as a gunfighter while you are making your gun. A lot of people in the chat window complained that they finally created a good firearm after a month of effort, only to learn that they didn’t meet the minimum requirements for using it. You see, crafting skills go up as you use them, but combat skills ONLY go up when you put points into them. So going out and using your rifle all the time won’t increase your rifle skill, where as working at a workbench building a gun will increase your crafting skill. It’s unfortunate that they use both methods of skill advancement because it makes an already difficult to understand MMO even harder to play. Plus, it makes no sense that shooting your weapon in combat doesn’t increase your proficiency with it, but weaving a shirt makes you a better tailor.

But my biggest concern is that because of this, you really can’t effectively make a crafting character and a combat character at the same time. You need one character that does crafting, and one character that gets the benefit of the items the first character makes. Otherwise you end up with weapons you can’t use.

That is just one more thing that you will need to figure out on your own, and I really think a lot of aspects of the game need cleaned up and simplified. Right now, it takes way too much time to figure everything out, and I’m afraid most players won’t put in the effort, which could mean big trouble for Fallen Earth in the near future as players drop off and move on to other games that don’t require an advanced degree to decode.

Also, the tutorial for Fallen Earth is the worst I have ever experienced. It tells you absolutely nothing about the game. All the crafting things I discovered were by trial and error. The tutorial gives you a basic background on the story at best, but gives no clue as to the game mechanics. Look at a game like Lord of the Rings Online if you want to see a good tutorial. You can give information without too much hand holding, but Fallen Earth does neither.

The one saving grace in terms of gameplay is that there is a huge community of (seemingly overworked) GMs that monitor the Help channel in the game. And there are A LOT of confused players with questions. The GMs do everything they can to point out how and why the game works, but they wouldn’t have to do nearly as much if the tutorial was even halfway decent. One of the things the GMs seem to do on a regular basis is to warn people about using CAPS when they type, which is apparently a mortal sin in Fallen Earth. The GMs are way too militant about that to the expense of everything else. One night the players went into a full-on rebellion and started typing in all caps. Eventually the GMs shut down the entire chat server as punishment. Real calls for help were ignored that night. This was an isolated incident, but a horrible way to endear a game to new players. Okay, rant over about that.

Graphically, Fallen Earth is a mixed bag. The player models look pretty good, and I like the fact that when you put on gloves or a helmet or even wrap a towel over your head that your character reflects that in his new look. On the bad side, the actual environment of the game looks generic at best. I realize that this is a wasteland, but running for five minutes over terrain with mirrored bushes and rocks and NOTHING else to see is dull at best. The plants look like little X’s all generically spawned in neat rows along the ground. Come on guys, use Speed Tree or something to change the view a bit. The game world is pretty huge, but it’s mostly a big, open nothingness, so I don’t know how much bragging rights that gives. Even the towns look pretty much the same without any real character. In fact, if I was playing Fallen Earth and it was five years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised at the graphics level. Games like World of Warcraft, Everquest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Eve Online and others look fantastic, and are in a different league graphically than Fallen Earth, which seems a little more like a simulation title graphics wise than a modern MMO.

The sound is also rather generic. There is a music soundtrack that plays in different areas that is appropriate, if looped. But other than the tutorial, nobody has a voice. An NPC might say some generic phrase like "Have you killed anybody" or "It must be fun being a clone" but won’t actually talk out mission objectives. So the sound is not bad, but nothing to write home about either.

My guess is that Fallen Earth will appeal to a fairly good number of players who really like a nuts and bolts, number and stat heavy MMO. Everything about the game is micro-managed, at least in terms of crafting, and some people enjoy that. But there are enough harsh edges that unless you fall into that category, you probably won’t enjoy your time in the wasteland.

I’ve got to give Fallen Earth kudos for making a unique MMO. However, as it stands right now, it seems like another couple months in development wouldn’t have hurt this title. Odd quirks about the crafting system, the worse-than-nothing tutorial and the placement of auction halls are just a few things that could have been resolved with some critical beta testing. Fallen Earth is an okay game. But it could have been a great game, and that’s a bit of a shame given the unique setting and gameplay it offers.

Editor’s Note: Since the writing of this review the other week, Fallen Earth has implemented some changes to improve the gameplay. The best one is an extra tutorial that shows new players how to craft and use other skills, something that was sorely missing at launch. We hope this trend of improvement continues.

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