Afterworld is set in the next 200 years in Siberia. Some horrible accident/incident occurred and most of the Earth's population is wiped out. You may not think that would matter much in Siberia, but what animals and humans who were "exposed" but not killed were mutated, leading to cravings for living, untainted flesh or some such. This is a little different from standard sci-fi fare.
While you're downloading the game, I suggest checking out the link on the main website to its wiki. There are tons of articles designed to help new players. Even in its Alpha stage, there's plenty stuff geared toward helping players get into the game. And for all two of you who've read my first article (hi Mom), you'll know my problem with websites and games that were terribly translated. This is not a problem for Afterworld. It's like they care.
After you download the game (a relatively small file), set up an account and download the latest files, you are presented a login screen in both English and Russian. Here you can go through the options (you can't do that in-game) and adjust everything. Here is the first big thumbs-up from me: you can completely remap all of the controls. The current settings are based on WASD keys for movement, but you can map them anywhere. I know this is a little thing, but I've gotten kind of sick of games that don't allow the player to decide what's most comfortable for them. Customization makes me a happy panda.
Character creation is pretty standard, you can tell this is something they've glossed over for the time being. You pick gender, face and hairstyle and names, both "real" and "nick". The creator is set up for starting equipment but don't get too connected to this choice. As of this writing, you start out running around in your underwear with nothing in your inventory but big dreams and room for expansion.
The game itself is beautiful. Even at lower settings, its draw distance (literally how far away from the player the game builds the environment) is very good. At its highest settings, the game looks like a single player FPS from a few years ago. I know this seems like a weird comparison, but when dealing with MMOs, a player is generally operating on technology that's a few years older because it's more stable and less load for the servers to manage.
The game uses the Torque Engine, which has been on the commercial game scene since 2001 when it was used in Tribes 2. The wikipedia article covers more basic information about the engine and its other uses. The engine has been steadily updated over the years, and it's definitely a good choice.
This isn't to say it's perfect. You won't think you're watching a movie. For example, the water looks like some kid drank Cool Blue Kool-Aid, spun in circles on the sugar high, then promptly threw up outside. I have not experienced any weather yet either, but that might be its Alpha age showing.
The game is presented as free, but you can "donate" money to the developers and get AWD, the in-game currency, at the exchange rate of $10 USD for 100 AWD. I decided to try playing without donating any money, but I would not recommend doing that if you can avoid it. That 100 AWD goes far.
The game boasts a completely free-market economy where all items are made by players and sold on an international market or by the players themselves. The interesting issue this raises is players enter the world quite literally with nothing. You can't sell anything to make money to buy the things you need to make more money. This makes the beginning of the game pretty difficult. The developers had a little flash of foresight and created the trash barrels where players can get crap equipment to start out chopping wood, picking rocks, or harvesting flowers. These items cannot be sold and they break quickly, but it's a baby step forward.
You would think that if you could just buy money, everything would be insanely overpriced. The opposite has occurred. From what I can tell, AWD is only introduced into the game via players who make donations, meaning there is a bit of a shortage of the currency. This, in turn, makes everything more affordable than you might expect. For example, a steel pickaxe (a step up from the crappy one you get for free) fluctuates around 1 AWD. This shortage of AWD is especially noticeable in the Quarantine Zone (newbie area), probably because anyone who has the money has bought their way out of quarantine.
My experience with the community is limited to the Quarantine Zone, sadly. What I've seen of it is that it's alive, helpful, and as cosmopolitan as they come. Just in the newbie area, I saw English, Russian, French, and I think German typed out on the chat screen. This is a good sign for the game, as a helpful community tends to grow and the more people playing, the better.
One thing present in other game but missing here are quests. Good, old-fashioned, save the world quests that start out small and escalate to epic battles for world domination.
The only quests I ran across in Afterworld were given by the warrant officers to get out of Quarantine. I could either pay 100AWD (hint: $10 US) or earn 50 Promissory Notes. Since I did not want to put money down, I decided to make the "P-Notes", as they are called, my main goal. How do I earn said P-Notes? I must collect 500kg of a particular mineral. Does that get me all 50?
No! Such a paltry amount like 500Kg (over 1,100 lbs for us American folk) is only worth one Promissory note. ONE! Okay, I thought. Surely it's not that difficult to gather 500kg of one mineral. Surely the game has made this quick and easy. After all, this isn't what I play for.
After the first three hours, I still didn't have it done. I didn't even have 500 total, let alone of one mineral. And in case you're wondering; yes, mining is still boring. It was only later that I discovered the warrant officer had a shift and was replaced by a different person. This new person required a completely different mineral to get a p-note from. Oh goody. It turns out there are four warrant officers and they all want something different. This needs to be more streamlined, in my mind. Also, variety is the spice of life, particularly in your lower levels. Need I say more on this?
Unfortunately, there are several things I cannot tell you about. Even after the many hours I put into the game, I have almost nothing to show for it. The player cannot level up using the free equipment, so until you've earned enough to pay for better equipment, there's no advancement in the character. I think that is my biggest complaint. When you have a game that doesn't deliver a story to you via role-playing style elements or cinematic action, you don't have much driving you forward. There's no pull to finish a story or see the next chapter. Honestly, there's not much more for an MMO to fall back on. I can also not comment on combat. There is nothing to kill or hunt in the newbie zone and since I could not leave it, I experienced no combat.
Despite all my complaining, Afterworld has the potential to be a good game. The free-market idea is nothing new, but I get all hot and bothered when I see it in a video game. Offering the game for free is probably the right path to take, but if they want more people willing to donate, they'll have to make it easier to improve your character. As I mentioned earlier, they'll also add more variety to the lower levels. If they plan on keeping the Quarantine Zone in Beta and in final release, they should add hunting areas or dungeons. I kept getting the feeling there was more out there, but I could never get to it. If you have the money and inclination, I would say support the developers. Donate the $10 and get the early boost in the game. They're planning to release their beta at the end of this year, so keep an eye on this one. If it's this far along in alpha, beta should be pretty good.