PlanetSide 2? Nope -- this is Neocron, the quite-forgettable MMOFPS from the way-back era. I like to call it "that game with the most regrettable cover art in the history of video games," but that isn't quite as snappy.
Going into this article, I have to admit that I previously knew absolutely nothing about Neocron other than the fact that it was a sci-fi MMO that vaguely reminded me of Anarchy Online. Oh, also the fact that nobody I know or perhaps ever will know played it. Is it just a myth? A practical joke to make us believe in a MMO phantom? Only sifting through layers of dust and grime would produce results, so I rolled up my sleeves and started digging.
The origins of Neocron are all but lost in the dusty attic of the internet. That's something I come up against a lot when covering these older MMOs because not only was online games media in its infancy right when MMOs started to emerge, but specific sites dedicated to covering these types of games did not exist. Another reason behind the lack of information is that the studio developing Neocron was in Germany and (to my knowledge) was not very vocal about promoting the title.
However, we do know that Reakktor (later Reakktor Media) began work on the project in the late '90s, attempted to get a beta going for it in 2000 but saw the actual beta release later, and then launched the title in late 2002. The idea for the world's first cyberpunk MMO came from then-CEO Martin J. Schwiezer, who was a massive fan of the genre. Schwiezer also worked on Black Prophecy before leaving Reakktor to start another company.
Neocron was to be an antidote to the emerging plague of fantasy MMOs. The studio became famous for its "No more Elves" mantra and boasted a gritty futuristic world that had more in common with Blade Runner and Judge Dredd than it did Dungeons & Dragons. The story goes that the world had been trashed by nuclear war, and following a devasting apocalypse, only a handful of advanced cities emerged from the wasteland. One of these is the titular metropolis of Neocron, while its adversary Dome of York became another.
Apart from its setting, Neocron was notable for pursuing a first-person shooter interface for its gameplay. Alongside PlanetSide and World War II Online, this game represented one of the first attempts at merging the MMO and FPS genres.
Neocron offered four weeks of free play to first-timers, with a $9.95 monthly subscription thereafter.
Players were offered four professions at the start. There was the GenTank (tank), the Spy (rogue), Psi Monk (mage), and Private Eye (which combined lesser abilities of the other three classes). Depending on the class chosen, characters began their existence in Neocron in one of four different neighborhood apartments.
That's right: Neocron shipped with housing. While some modern studios claim that housing is too difficult to attempt at the start, it came standard here. That's because Reakktor felt it was important to immerse players into the game world by giving them a sense of home. Apartments could be decorated over time to become cozy dwellings.
Because Neocron came out prior to World of Warcraft's quest-centric design, it offered a much looser association of activities that depended on a player's interest. Beginners were encouraged to run courier missions, although crafting or hunting was equally viable. PvP-minded individuals could remove their anti-PvP implant to fight others, but an interesting karma-like system encouraged them to pick their fights carefully. There was also hacking, a separate minigame that allowed fast travel and its own rewards.
Neocron offered many forward-thinking features, such as appearance slots and a political system. It even was praised for relatively fast performance over the era's dial-up modems. So with all this going for the title, why did it wallow in mediocrity and obscurity instead of breaking into the big time?
From what I can tell, the publisher really didn't have the muscle to push the product far in any market. It didn't help that despite some praise from critics, reviews gave it fair-to-middling scores across the board. Finally, Neocron was far from family-friendly.
Reading old previews of Neocron sometimes felt like talking with your skeezy uncles who won't stop har-harring over some Playboy pinup on the den wall. You see, a major "selling point" of the game was that Neocron was adult-oriented in its language, tone, and visuals. And the media just focused on that aspect instead of on the game surrounding it.
Strip clubs. That's what we're talking about. Strip clubs of crude polygon dancers. Woo and hoo.
Since the game came from Europe, a little skin wasn't a major consideration -- it's just part of the culture. But it presented a problem trying to market it to overseas, where nudity was more of a barrier to entry than head-exploding violence. So Reakktor did make concessions and added clothes to the US version of the game, although it politely looked the other way when a nude patch became available to allow players to access the European version.
"This is something you would expect in a city like Neocron," developer Holger Nathrath said of the nudity. "You also won't be surprised to find such establishments in a Blade Runner scenario. I think everybody agrees with that because nobody ever complained. It's a important part of the overall game atmosphere."
Development on Neocron's first expansion was well underway when Reakktor was sold to 10tacle Studios AG in 2004. The new bosses decided that the expansion should be packaged and released as a sequel instead, and so Neocron 2: Beyond Dome of York came into being. Neocron 2 contained all of the content of Neocron plus the new content, so players were encouraged to transfer over with their existing characters. For a short time, both Neocron 1 and 2 operated in parallel, and then the first Neocron was quietly taken offline.
Neocron 2 not only added a completely new city to the game but greatly improved the title as a whole. The original DX7 graphics engine was scrapped for a better DX9 one, hackers could explore the HackNet, flying vehicles were introduced, GMs ran daily events, and a high-level character development system allowed endgamers to keep working on their characters.
The move to a sequel worked out quite well for the Neocron community. From 2004 to 2010, regular updates kept the game going forward, and a massive update called Neocron Evolution 2.2 attempted to make the title relevant to modern gamers.
Unfortunately, the story of Neocron and Reakktor does not end in a shout of glory or a battle to the death. The main website stopped updates sometime in 2009, and the final patch for the game came out in July 2010.
Reakktor's follow-up project, Black Prophecy, failed to achieve the levels of success that the studio anticipated. 10tacle Studios filed for bankruptcy in 2008, and Reakktor announced that it had become insolvent in February 2012.
So where does this leave Neocron? It's hard to ascertain at the moment, as the main website doesn't always seem to work. From what I can tell, the game is still in operation and isn't charging players anything to access it. Because of the insolvency, getting an account might be very difficult at this point. A Neocron fan site attempted to rally support for the studio and holds out hope that Neocron 3 would become a real thing, but at this point, the title looks to be dead on its feet.
Without ever having played Neocron myself, I find it hard to say whether or not this was a title worth grieving. For having known nothing about it prior to researching this column, I feel more enlightened about a studio that had great ideas (and gratuitous pandering) but couldn't quite make them gel into a genuine competitor.
Update: An astute reader pointed out that Reakktor's former CEO started up a new company and is in the process of making Neocron Reloaded for the browser -- so stay tuned!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.