The MMORPG community is a rabid, frenzied bunch. While at heart we are all nice people who would probably adopt a small injured squirrel if the occasion called for such duties, we can’t help opening our mush caves and spewing forth anger. And to be quite honest, we open our mouths with bitter-malice for good cause. When we pay a modest dowry of cash for a brand-new game we expect something that is fresh, innovative, and, most importantly of all, fit for purpose. Alas this is not always the case.
Earthrise is the debut Sci-Fi MMORPG from small indie developer Masthead Studios. Boasting free-form and sandbox gameplay – this online-‘em-up conjures images of Star Wars Galaxies and Anarchy Online, but sadly fails to measure up to the aforementioned in either ambition or design. Where we should be playing a refined and immersive title, we find a hollow, rat race for grind, gear and cash.
The world has been ravished by the inevitable race for dwindling natural resources. In a global game of one-upping, governments have unleashed their fury in the form of nuclear missiles and everyone has danced a merry jig into death – except a (un)lucky few. In their infinite futuristic wisdom, brainy scientists have created a DNA database which allows clones of the deceased to be recreated instantly if they happen to be set upon by a gang of mutated, post-apocalyptic bastards. To run alongside this marvellous breakthrough in god-denying, is the struggle between an over oppressive surviving regime and a resistance group: this is where you come in to carve your name into the forehead of the refreshed world.
Breaking from the standard formula, Earthrise only offers one playable race, boring Humans, and spits in the face of those other science-fiction formats with their exotic and varied body-forms- get your cloak and hat other bipedal, extraterrestrial races: you are not welcome here. Like many a sandbox, from the start the player is called upon to direct what their initially blank avatar is going to be in-game as the character creation process only calling upon the decisions of the time-honoured Mr.T style and a bushy moustache or too.
Only once entered into the game world, players are able to begin shaping their character in whatever way they see fit. The skill menu is available from the UI and calls forth a frightening amount of choices, and using earned battle points and crafting points, this is where the majority of development comes from. The only problem with this sandbox style approach to class is that nothing new or particularly exciting ever comes from it. The class-barrel has been well and truly scrapped clean over almost four decades of Dungeons and Dragons – Earthrise offers nothing particularly new as the game will only ever call for a Tank, a Healer, a Support, and the ever-green DPS. Allowing players to pick and choose suitable abilities is only really giving the illusion of choice.
Of course the tools of the classes in this MMO are distinctively futuristic: instead of traditional blades, hammers, and staves, we have rifles, flame throwers, and mounted gauntlets. This does add a degree of variation but the RPG genre has never comfortably or convincingly integrated modern weapons such as guns. The developers of Earthrise have taken a huge gamble in adding a manually aimed system with these weapons and while it is an amiable attempt, neither the client nor the server performance is adequate enough to pull it off. The game also adds a degree of magical ability in the form of ‘Psonics’ but this is nothing inventive or noteworthy. It should also be mentioned that weapons, and armour, effectively dictate your level so those with the highest damage per second rule the roost. This a slightly more emergent system but slightly fails when someone butchers you, claims your items, and sends you back to square one.
To also go along side the skill/class system (which also encompasses crafting) is the faction system. Like any MMORPG worth its goblin-scented salt, every title in the genre must now include two opposing groups despite its value to the ensemble as a whole – and within Masthead’s title it does seem like a needless addition with the sole purpose of adding PvP. The fun and adventure in the game comes from the sense of an unexplored and remerging world – forcing two pre-existing sides into this segregates a budding player-driven community, and also drives away the notion that said community is building the society and ideologies of the place.
And at heart the faction system within the game simply feels like a tacked-on addition. Aside from small dialogue between two NPCs in the tutorial stages, players will find scarce mention of it until they come across larger settlements which gives the distinct feeling of poor execution. Killing a certain player will shift your alignment and rarely will anyone pick a certain side out of anything other than blind PvP and progressing through the game.
This is all comes back to an element which reoccurs within Earthrise – nothing is explained well enough. There is a common misconception that sandbox games are some kind of higher spiritual being within MMORPGs, and that they harken’ back to a time when Ultima Online and EverQuest purposely threw players through the school of hard knocks. If anyone played a decade previous they will know that this is wrong; older games didn’t guide or tutor players simply because of the shortcomings of an emerging genre. This notion of allowing players to stumble blindly through a game is not one inherent to the sub-category of 'Sandbox’ but one tagged to it by those who have missed the point of earlier games. The difficulty comes from mastering the elements within, not by poorly explaining the basics. And while there is a welcome page and tutorial, neither are sufficient in explaining a great deal about the mechanics and the tutorial area itself is nothing more than an exercise in what different firearms are on offer.