Stubborn Makes Good – or – A Review of City of Steam
Imagine my surprise when I saw in my mailbox an offer to be taken on a personal tour around an upcoming MMO. To be fair, at first, I assumed it wasn’t legitimate. Today’s day and age have jaded those Internet savvy among us (which I hardly am, but enough to know this) to think that things that seem to good to be true or appeal to our vanity are probably hoaxes.
Our correspondences haven’t brought me a lot of fame, nor have they been going on particularly long. I’m not much of an Internet personality, really. Still, if it was a legitimate offer that I was being given, I wanted to follow up on it.
I learned in the following minutes of legwork (I’m a real tough PI, googling stuff and all) about an upcoming browser-based MMO named City of Steam that’s currently in its alpha stage. I was lucky enough to be given a special tour of the game alongside one of the employees of its developer, Mechanist Games. I was shown several of the “city” zones and a few of the local dungeons. The overall experience was quite enjoyable.
The setting of City of Steam is a mixture of the steampunk and post-apocalyptic genres that occupies the topside of a giant gear floating in space. The concept, from what I gathered, is that the makers of this world have left, and the world’s begun to fall into a state of disrepair. Plants, which are where many enemies spawn from, have begun to overgrow the giant, world-sized city, and so its denizens have decided to get things in working order again.
The game world is a huge city broken up into very diversified zones. One of the zones I was shown, Gardenworks, was draped with vines spreading turning in to old growth. The atmosphere that this created was spot-on, suggesting old majesty being reclaimed by nature.
This picture highlights a few things that really impressed me about the game. First, I have no technical expertise or knowledge about what can be delivered via web browsers, but I was impressed as hell by how this game looked. My only other browser-based experience was with Glitch, which was designed specifically with cartoony graphics to fit its atmosphere. This game looks stunning for what I’d expect from a browser based game.
Another illustrative example of the graphics came while I was wandering around with my tour guide. He had pointed out an ambient (I assume) airship flying around in the sky. I looked at it, and it was quite impressive looking, but it was one feature, you know, so it didn’t blow me away. After that, though, I started to notice all the ambient features around me, things like flapping banners and subtle ambient lighting. Then, a huge airship shadow passed over where I was standing, filling nearly the entire screen. That impressed the hell out of me. These devs are struggling to get load times to be as minimal as possible (and they were quite speedy – I don’t think I had to wait more than 30 seconds for any new zone to load, with most loads being closer to 15 seconds) – but they included nicely detailed ambiance all the same.
Also appearing in the image above is another feature I liked a lot. The signs around town aren’t just information; if you click them, you will auto-path to the destination. Rather than having to talk to a guard and navigate a clunky dialogue system, you can just click and walk. It’s a great way to learn how to get around the city. In fact, the employee I spoke to told me that the signs had grown up organically as the devs themselves were getting lost in there very large and detailed environs, so they incorporated the signs as a solution. That’s how innovation happens, I suspect: often by accident.
As you can see from the images, the game plays like a standard MMO with hotbar abilities. Here, you’re limited to how many you can choose (edit: no, I was just oblivious of an option to increase the hotbar to 10 buttons. Whoops!). However, you can also see that each class has 3 weapon combinations. The buttons near the blue globe allow you to quickly move from a weapon and shield combo to a dual weapon to a single 2 hander. Each class has these options, adding greater versatility to whatever you’re doing in game.
The environment shown here also goes to show the depth some of the lore of this new game reaches. The pit here has a long backstory about its existence. The game’s world, in fact, is based on a series of fantasy novels written by the lead developer, so this setting isn’t being grown up just for the game; it exists in literature already and is being designed around the author’s intent. LotRO did a great job with using Tolkien’s work, but there were times I felt some small inconsistencies (I am a Tolkien scholar, though, so I don’t blame the makers at all). Here, with the author sitting at the helm, I suspect his vision will be maintained artistically, which really matters to literature nerds like me.
I did ask the hard question for you, dear reader. I asked where the money comes from. The answer I got was encouraging. Mechanist Games plans to follow a LoL-like model, where cash items will be virtually entirely aesthetic. The gentleman I was speaking to seemed quite put off by the idea of play-to-win games and ensured me that City of Steam will not be designed in that fashion. That was a relief, as I, too, can’t stand play-to-win models. Allods, for example, might have kept my attention if it weren’t for the fact that I knew I’d have to spend money not to have to grind extremely slowly. City of Steam is avoiding that pitfall.
The game has a crafting system based around upgrading and enhancing current weapons, and one of the features the spokeman was very interested in was that every modification actually appears on the weapon. If you add a scope to a gun, the model you’re wearing on your belt becomes scoped. Customization seems to be a huge impetus for the designers, which should appeal to a vast majority of players while not interfering with players who aren’t interested in that sort of thing.
The designers plan to have customizable player housing and player transportation, as well. These features will most likely be the great moneymakers for the games, as they’re putting a lot of effort into allowing customization at every level. I was told, though, that everything you could buy from the cash shop would also be able to be looted in-game. That’s not true for a lot of cash-shop models, and I think is a generous concession to make in a game for which you’re not charging.
Right now, the combat instances are private to parties, so your loot and monsters can’t be interfered with. I saw a couple of those zones and did some fighting, though I was often a bit underpowered since I was being escorted by my tour guide. Here’s an action shot I took not long before I was killed.
The biggest concern I had, which comes from readings I’ve taught in my games courses, was the lack of a jump. Games that do jumps poorly often suffer from complaints of “bad controls.” I’m not sure how a game with no jump will be received. However, when I asked why there was no jump, I got a fair and logical explanation. Not being a dev, I don’t think about the amount of data that a Z axis takes up. Since their primary goal is short loading times with good graphics, a decision was made to sacrifice the Z axis to have faster loads and more beautiful scenery. Since I only really jump in WoW (with two exceptions: Thaddeus and the Firelands Dailies) when I’m screwing around in the city just talking to my friends on vent, it’s really not much of a loss from the game, and I agreed that the two categories that benefit from the absence of a Z axis are far more important than jumping around when I’m bored.
Overall, it looks like a very interesting game with a lot of potential. The game’s from an independent developer, and you know, dear reader, that I like to support the little guy, particularly when we’re talking creative endeavors. That’s one of the primary reasons I wanted to write this piece up as soon as I could.
But it’s not the primary reason. The primary reason is that their final alpha test weekend is tomorrow, and the representative was kind enough to give me a few keys that I could give out to you if you’re interested. If you’d like to get a sneak peek at the game world and a chance to experience a very impressive browser based game, let me know in a comment, and I’ll email you one of the keys. I only have 5, so it’s first come, first serve (though I suspect I could wiggle a few more out if needed). I’d really like to push interest their way, so please, if you’re going to have a few hours free this weekend, sign up!
Stubborn (and being recognized)