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City of Steam Previews: Diving into the Closed Beta

By Richard Cox on November 16, 2012

Whenever I hear the phrase “web based MMO” I instantly think of either MMOs for kids such as Marvel’s Super Hero Squad Online and Wizard 101 or turn based “social games” which require you to save up turns or energy while offline so you can play in tiny chunks of time. Don’t get me wrong, my kids and I are big fans of MSHSO and the 101 games, but the phrase never makes me think of a “full-fledged” MMO experience. So naturally, when I got an invite to take a tour of City of Steam’s upcoming beta build, I wasn’t expecting much. But I was intrigued based primarily on the setting and the idea that there could be a solid MMO experience in a browser. It has been one of the promises of the Unity Engine for a while now; someone has to eventually knock one out of the park right?

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The premise is pretty straight forward. City of Steam is a dungeon crawling adventure MMO. Think Steampunk meets Arcanum meets Fantasy. It doesn’t really have the Victorian feel that most Steampunk settings have. Instead it opts more for the mechanical side of the coin with lots of cogs and steam powered machinery mixed into a fairly fantasy based world. There are ten races to choose from: four different varieties of Human, two different varieties of Elves, three different Greenskins and Dwarves. In a lot of ways, the races are pretty much exactly what you’d expect them to be based on their familiar names, but there are also subtle and fun differences. The four different humans are loosely based on different real geographic regions such as Germanic, Italian, Russian, etc. The Elves are a bit more different than the lore you’re used to: they’re no tree huggers in City of Steam. Elves, Riven and Draug (light and dark respectively), are actually the newest species on the planet. Elves were created to be servants to the rich and elite, but have since worked their way into primarily governmental and financial positions based on their good looks and slick tongues.

A lot of lore in other games/worlds suggest Dwarves figuratively come from forges. In City of Steam they literally do. Dwarves are actually constructed on forges, and are somewhat of a Steampunkish cyborg. They’re half organic and half mechanical. And then you have the three Greenskin types: Goblin, Hobbe and Orc. Greenskins were the last to be accepted by society and have had to go through some pretty intense “re-education camps” in order to fit in. There’s still a good bit of resentment towards them in the world portrayed through segmentation and borderline racism.

That being said, naturally I chose to play as a Greenskin, Goblin in particular, during my tour with Andrew Woodruff. I chose Gunner as my class, with a specialization in Sharpshooting. I mean, if I’m going to be a gunner and carry around the blasty things I should be good with them right? My other specialization options were “Chemical” and “Incendiary”. As you’d expect from the name, the Gunner is a ranged DPS type of class. The other class options are the Warder (Tank), Archanist (Mechanical based Magic type class specializing in Elemental attacks) and the Channeler which uses sounds, steam and music to perform a support type role.

The first thing that really stood out and impressed me was how quickly everything loaded. In speaking with Andrew on the subject I learned that City of Steam manages to have an incredibly small file size. While most browser based games who claim “almost nothing to download, just play instantly” actually download around a gig worth of files to your temp cache, City of Steam comes in at a whopping 15MB. Most of the zones you visit run about 1MB in size or less and load almost instantly. This is made even more amazing by how detailed and nice everything looks. They definitely don’t sacrifice graphics to reach these download amounts and loading speeds. And you also don’t need a beast of a gaming machine to run the game. I just have a mid-range system and was able to jack all the settings all the way up and turn on all of the bells and whistles like hard shadows and full water effects without affecting my frame rate at all.

The depth to the class system was also a pleasant surprise. You have multiple skill trees to put your points into. You can also “add oil to skill” which is basically a way to overclock your skills. Not only does it make the skill more powerful, it can also change the animations and effects as well. You can get oil either by purchasing it in the item shop or as a drop from mobs. While I didn’t get to play around with it in this build, it seems like a cool system that will promote individuality between different players of the same class. Another system which will further promote individuality is the weapon mod system. Weapons have slots where you can add mods which not only affect the weapon’s performance, but actually appear on the weapon visually. If you add a larger clip or scope to your weapon, they actually appear on the physical model in your character’s hand. You can see at a glance what type of upgrades another player has on their gear. Down the road there will also be ‘Prestige Classes’ which you will be able to transition your character to once you’ve reached a certain level. They weren’t available yet in the build I was playing unfortunately, but again, I love the idea. Anything which differentiates one Gunner from another for example, is a bonus in my book.

During the tour we ran a couple of challenge dungeons, which is the primary focus of the game. As you run through challenge dungeons you’ll earn “challenge orbs” which can be cashed in at a roulette wheel type of machine. The wheel can reward everything from gear to ingame currency to the currency normally bought by real world cash to be used in the item shop. One really cool feature about the dungeons is there are multiple different objectives you can choose from. In one run our goal was to kill X number of mobs within a set time limit. In another, we were tasked with smashing X number of destroyable items. There was even one where we had to find and open a certain number of treasure chests within ninety seconds. It really broke up the usual monotony associated with running dungeons over and over like you find in a lot of dungeon crawling action games.

You’ll also find keys as a dropped item throughout the assorted dungeons as loot (or you can buy them through the item shop) which can be used to open treasure chests. Or you can hoard them and trade/sell them to other players. I can see this becoming a major factor in the economy of the game. Speaking of the item shop, since I know a lot of people are concerned with the problem a lot of these F2P games encounter where the rich just buy their way to victory, I asked Andrew about that. He stated that about 95% or more of the items available in the item shop are also available as drops throughout the world. The remaining amount is generally limited edition items that will only be available for a short time.

Social media will also be a big factor in the progression of City of Steam. Sites like Facebook and Twitter will be heavily used to gather community feedback and even unlock features within the game itself. The Prestige Classes were given as an example of this.

The last topic we touched on was Player versus Player. Currently the PvP system is 5v5 Arena based, with a ladder ranking system. They are definitely looking at ways to expand this down the road based on player feedback during the beta testing. One possibility that was mentioned was Company versus Company (read: Guild versus Guild). Currently PvP rewards players with ‘Honor Points’ which can be exchanged for unique items, which should encourage participation, if you needed a reason to stab other player in the face.

Overall I was quite pleased with what I saw in City of Steam. The amount of content is just mind-blowing for a web-based title. I’ve seen less detailed and deep class systems in traditional client-based MMOs. City of Steam wasn’t very high on my Watch List before, but I can safely say it is now. Browser-based MMOs are getting better and better, and City of Steam is proof of that pudding.


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