The team behind End of Nations has some serious industry cred. Publisher Trion Worlds is notable for its remarkably smooth-launching MMO, RIFT. Developer Petroglyph's pedigree is no less respectable (if a little dated), with titles like 1992's Dune II (widely credited for having inspired the Warcraft series of RTS games) and the original 1995 Command and Conquer under its belt.
My time with this game was spent during the alpha testing phase, and many things might change between now and launch. Still, the bones of the game were there, and I'm happy to share my findings with you, discerning readers. From what I saw and experienced, End of Nations just might have what it takes to become the first "triple-A" MMORTS.
As I noted earlier, MMORTS games aren't new. Titles like Beau Hindman's beloved Illyriad and the notoriously mammary-focused Evony Online have spread their freemium tendrils throughout cyberspace. Most MMORTS titles look pretty cheap, and that's because they are. There are exceptions, but by and large, the MMORTS genre has remained the province of "pay-to-win" browser-based games. End of Nations just might be the release that breathes life into a genre currently lacking a flagship title.
End of Nations is set, appropriately, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland brought about by economic collapse and nuclear proliferation. The world is ruled over by the spiritual successors of the UN, the Order of Nations. This Order of Nations has apparently decided that its baby-blue helmets and peacekeeping missions were old hat, with totalitarian dictatorships being more its style. Players play as one of two rebel factions: the egalitarian Liberation Front (heavy industrial tech) or the still-slightly-fascist Shadow Revolution (speedy future tech). Battles unfold on a real-world map, bringing to mind board games like Risk (no further word as yet on whether holing up in Australia is still the best strategy ever).
The Order of Nations serves as the PvE big bad of the series, with the single-player mode and multi-player PvE missions consisting of the player's struggles against the Order's machinations. PvP will also feature heavily in the game; Shadow Revolutionaries will take the fight to their Liberation Front compatriots in battle hotspots sprinkled over the globe. All of these take place on the same map, with clearly delineated PvE and PvP zones.
Right out of the gate, you can immediately see how Petroglyph's influences have seeped into End of Nations. The game feels like Command and Conquer, and it looks somewhat like it too. Unit types are fairly standard; you've got artillery, flying units, and bipedal mechs straight out of Aliens standing in for infantry. Trion stated that its balance design philosophy tends toward the rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock approach -- there will be some hard-counters to your units, but there will be some neutral match-ups as well, in a departure from the StarCraft design philosophy that does away with lizards and Spock.
There is a notable emphasis on small numbers of units, bringing to mind games like the Dawn of War series with its focus on squad-based gameplay. Your paltry (albeit robot- and tank-filled, so paltry is relative) force will be supplemented by up to 25 teammates, each with his own squad of units ready to capture points and bring the hurt to your opponents. All told, Trion says that some maps can support upwards of 500 units at a time, so expect some crazy firefights that scream for voice chat support (VOIP is apparently on the wish list and may yet be a launch feature).
My first few forays into the game were team-based, as I suspect will be the norm for the title. Coordination with teammates is essential, in part due to the loadout system. Before entering a map, you choose what units to spawn with, limited by a money cap -- you can go with a balanced mix, like I did, or you can decide that masses of helicopters fix every problem. Planning with your teammates to choose loadouts based on the objective at hand seems like it's going to play a large role in the game's meta.
This is where the MMO aspect comes in hard. Depending on your faction, you have access to one of two classes tied to that faction (Trion says it plans to add more post-launch). Those classes give you access to certain powers. I played Liberation Front and was assigned the heals-focused Patriot class. It made for some interesting strategic decisions: In the middle of a firefight, I had the option of reinforcing my units (and running them back to the action, a pain if slow artillery is involved), healing my remaining forces with an easily placed AoE, or giving them a defensive buff to cut the sting of artillery fire. All of these actions consumed resource, and the system made for some engaging gameplay.
Additionally, you can unlock powers based on what strategic points you've captured on the map in question. Did you capture a nuclear reactor? Suddenly your whole team is hoarding resources so your mates can show off their newfound capacity to toss nukes at each other (and yes, getting a nuke thrown at you invokes the same mad scramble to move units out of the way as in StarCraft).
A caveat: End of Nations is not, and probably will never be, a game in which prowess is measured in actions per minute. Most units can fire on the move, and while this doesn't rule out the advantages of fine unit control, you're not going to see marines being microed around the map and stopping to fire every millisecond. Every units does have some sort of activated ability, though; some tanks can siege up and fire on a location, and some infantry can use stims to trade a small amount of health for a speed boost.
Each map has objectives and is situated somewhere on the real-world campaign map. According to Trion, you can place yourself in a matchmaking system upon entering the game and find places to fight over in that fashion, so don't expect EVE Online-style territory snagging. Trion was sparse with campaign map details overall, so I want to be careful about speculating too much about how the persistent world and territory capture mechanics work. Remember, it's still in alpha as of the time of this writing.
I want to elaborate a little bit on what makes this otherwise-dyed-in-the-wool RTS qualify as a member of the MMO family. As I noted before, you get classes based on your faction. You also get skill trees that you can fill up as you level and earn experience winning battles and completing missions. These skill trees improve units and your special abilities. Trion has said that it wants players to feel invested in their characters and the game, so the studio has gone with skill trees and class-based gameplay.
As you level up, you can unlock more units as well. Trion hasn't revealed whether these units will just be flat-out better than lower-tier units or not. I would assume that in the interests of balance, unlockable units tend more toward the utility spectrum and exist to give players choice on what they want to use.
Additionally, you can customize your units themselves, in a nod to tabletop wargame figure painting. Some of my teammates decided to paint their machines of war with zebra stripes or bacon-inspired color schemes. This actually does serve a strategic purpose because there can be a lot of units on screen at once, and it's important to be able to pick out your units from the bacon-and-zebra colored throng. You can also mod your units; for example, an artillery piece could be modded to either deal more damage or move more quickly.
Plus, there's the actual persistent world. I said earlier that I don't want to speculate too much on how this is going to function, so here are the bare bones. It's a real-world map, and you capture territory by completing missions. Since it's a faction-based game, I imagine there shouldn't be a problem with territories' being stolen because there's no one online to defend them. Ostensibly, someone will always be online to defend hard-earned ground. Clans are a confirmed launch figure, but functionality has yet to be elaborated on.
End of Nations is slated to be free-to-play at launch, with an optional subscription model and a cash shop. Some players may love this; others may not. Trion is very much against the pay-to-win model and has made it known that the cash shop will offer primarily unit customizations and XP boosts. Details on the subscription model remain sparse, but if other games are any guide, the subscription will likely offer monthly cash-shop rewards for players willing to pay the as-yet-unspecified fee.
End of Nations will enter closed beta this spring and open beta this summer. The open beta will include the game's PvP maps, and fall will see the game's launch along with the full single-player campaign (which can be played solo or cooperatively with 50 other people).
It's a grand experiment, but I for one am excited to see an MMORTS that, as Trion claims, will receive continuous support and updates post-launch in the form of new units, new classes and maps. Heck, the end of the world doesn't sound so bad.
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