Earth & Beyond
They've released the Beta Version, and thousands of happy(?) Beta Testers are picking the game apart!
I got accepted for Beta Testing about three weeks ago now, in Westwood's second wave of Beta Testers, and after a begrudgingly long 850 MB download, which isn't fun on a 56k Modem (but that's another story), and I've gotta tell you this game has alot of potential. Even when I read the preview in PC Powerplay, I thought, "This games got potential!". Think about it, its free form, you get to fly around in a spaceship, across an entire GALAXY! You can travel to Mars, Jupiter, Alpha Centauri, Tau Ceti and more! Plus the visuals look great! Unfortuneately, at the moment (and unless they do some major engine overhauls, which I don't see happenning) this game blows - to be blunt.
First of all, I want to have a whinge about the control system, because of all the game's downfalls this one irks me the most. Earth & Beyond is a space simulator, as such you fly around in space alot, in a spaceship, which you spend the great majority of your time in. You do not spend any time planetside (as you cannot land on planets) and you only ever briefly visit any spacestations. Therefore, it would be rather logical for the game to utilise a control system not too dissimilar from another space simulator, such as I-War or X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, right?
Wrong. Westwood opted for the point and click method, which is fine for a top down RPG/MMORPG where you spend your time on the ground, but not for an MMORPG where most of its allure comes from being a space simulator! Instead, you simply point your mouse, hold down the right mouse button and wheeeeeeee! Your snail of a spaceship crawls ever so slowly towards your target, and I mean slow. This is because Westwood decided that it would expect everyone to travel any lengthy distances (according to the tutorial, but you don't even want to cross a short distance without warping, especially with the slower Progen), and let me tell you, warping is the most boring thing this side of the Milky Way!
First of all, its no challenge finding where you want to go. You open up your map, and there are lots of pretty waypoints for you, ones you haven't been to are labelled with question marks, although running your mouse over them pops up with some friendly text to tell you what it is (even though you've never been there... funny that). Once you've selected your target, all one is required to do then is to hit the warp button and double wheeeeeeee! You're warping, faster than normal travel, but still tediously slow. What's worse, is that you can't do anything now. All you can do is sit and wait till you reach your destination, or you can punch out of the warp in the event that you see something, or decide that death by hanging is better than waiting for your Progen Warrior to finish warping.
Once you do reach your target, however, assuming you have not been there before, you are greeted with some experience. Hoorah! I just got 350 exploration experience for selecting a question mark, pressing a warp button, and waiting for five minutes to reach it. This is how the xp system works, discover a new location, you get explorer experience, create a new item, you get merchant experience, blow something up, you get warrior experience. This doesn't mean you have to be of that profession to gain a level with that experience, it just means that anything you gain in that field stays in that field. i.e. You need 3000 XP to level up, you have 1000 explorer, 1000 merchant and 1000 warrior; gain 2000 in any field and you will level up. Sounds promising, but its tedious. Creating items is point and click, so is combat, and it simply sucks.
Another allure to the game is Westwood's promise of customization. They lied. You don't have much customization at all. First of all, there are only six classes. Yes, there are three professions and three races, so there should be nine classes, but not all races can be all classes. You may choose: Terran Enforcer (Warrior), Terran Merchant (Merchant), Progen Warrior (Warrior), Progen Sentinel (Explorer), Jenquai Explorer (Explorer), Jenquai Defender (Warrior). Next is character customization, and you really don't have all that much freedom here either. Firstly, there's not much deviation between the Terran, Progen and Jenquai, other than clothing and initial skin tone (which can be changed). There's about six face types for each sex and race (i.e. 6 Female Jenquai faces, 6 Male Jenquai Faces, 6 Female Progen Faces etc.), and the face types only change bone structure, nothing else. There's about the same different hair styles, ear wear and eye wear available too. For clothes there are three tops and three bottoms, allowing nine combinations as well as custom colours, but not much freedom here. Ship customization is severely limited. Your class defines what ship type you shall have, and then there are three hull types and three wing types, allowing for nine combinations. Colours can be changed and decals added, however as you travel it is glaringly evident that there are only nine ship types out there.
Also, as you travel, you begin to notice that wherever you gate to (gates are used to travel between solar systems, which is a great relief as I imagine it would take a year or more of realtime warping to change solar systems) you see some really spectacular planets surrounding you and a couple of spacestations nearby, perhaps some asteroid fields and some hostiles. As you attempt to travel to these planets, and perhaps land on them, or fly through their atmosphere, as I mentioned before, you can't. Biiig let down here. As you approach the planets, you hit a dead wall, just like in all those older games where you just hit the edge of the map and couldn't move any further, this is what happens here. They could at least do something like have your clearence to land denied.
Perhaps all this could be saved with a strong storyline, and I'm open to such a notion, however the storyline for this game is about as addictive as celery. Its there, its got potential, but the missions are dry and repetetive, they don't delve the player deep into the story, they are just machine like orders with a bit of tone and sense of urgency seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The NPCs are dismal, they don't even have a voice, simply text, and they don't further the storyline anymore than the missions do.
So there you have it. If you get accepted for Beta Testing on a 56k, don't waste your bandwidth. If you're on broadband it might be worth checking it out, but you do have to download large patches in excess of 60 MB constantly. Please note that this is reviewing the Beta version and in no way reflects the final release.