Hands On With Open Zones
Global Agenda is rapidly becoming a game to watch with new features being added like crazy every month or so. The big Sandstorm update is currently hitting the servers in several phases and at E3 this year I got a chance to sit down with Hi-Rez Studios founder and CEO Erez Goren to get a look at Phase 2 of the Sandstorm update and talk about what lies ahead for the hybrid shooter-MMORPG. First I was treated to a tour of the game's first open zone and then I had the opportunity to play through one of the team's upcoming new co-op missions.
Erez loaded up the first of several upcoming open zones. Set just outside the Dome City in a vast and rocky desert terrain (think Arizona or New Mexico) players are immediately greeted with that familiar sight of an NPC with an icon over her head expressing the fact that she has a quest for you. With that first glimpse, I could tell that Hi-Rez really is serious about injecting some MMORPG into their match-based shooter. Combat out in the open is still the skill-based shooting affair you've come to know and love of from the third-person game, but now for the first time players will have wide open wilderness to explore and adventure in.
This first area is looked at by the designers as sort of a bridge between the tutorial single-player experience and the rest of the match-play game. Hi-Rez acknowledges that the tutorial leaves you suddenly a little wet behind the ears when you're thrust into co-op and PvP missions, and the first open zone is intended as a way for players to go on their own for a while longer before jumping into the more multi-player aspects of the game. Of course the zone will support plenty of players at any given time and allow teaming like any other MMO, but most of the content in the area is entirely solo-able.
The artwork and design of the zone is gorgeous and sprawling, and while it seemed a little sparsely populated by both mobs and NPCs, Erez told me that's the part they're still fleshing out: how to make it feel living without being too crowded with baddies and static NPCs. I suspect he's hoping the presence of players will add a lot of the life to the area. But speaking of life, players of GA are currently used to facing off against robots and droids in PvE. With the introduction of Phase 2, players will start pitting themselves against human bandit enemies (both in the open zones and in missions).
The quests in the area are of the standard fare: Kill this, collect that, talk to this person. There's nothing new here, and yet it's not exactly an unproven way of handling questing. And considering the shooter nature of the gameplay, I find that killing ten robots while dodging behind cover and using my jetpack to get high ground on rocks is a bit more intense than your usual MMO combat. The action helps make up for the lack of originality in this case. I watched as Erez made his way about the terrain with his Recon, taking out enemies with stealth, and others from afar. As he demonstrated some of the quests for me, he mentioned that this first zone is going to be for players up to level 15, while there will be probably two more for players levels 15-30, and several more from there on for 30 and above. At the very least the level 1-15 zone will be ready and Phase 2, with the others coming in Phase 3 if they're not ready for primetime with Phase 2.
Aside from all these new MMORPG-esque zones to explore Phase 2 is also bringing with it the addition of craftable consumable items. Using drops from the game world, players of any class will be able to craft consumables that may have only previously been used by other classes. So with crafting, an Assault player might be able to craft and use some of the Medic's healing items, but they won't be able to be used indefinitely. Once used, they're gone. Erez expects this to add quite a bit to the economy of the game when Phase 2 hits, especially given how much their players seem to love the PvE content and missions.
On that topic Erez told me that the team's core focus right now and moving forward is to keep layering on more mission content, more open zones, tournament PvP battles, and a complete reworking of the achievement system that will have its own set of rewards tied to it. When the game launched he believed that the AvA content would wind up being the game's crowning achievement, and what the team soon noticed was that only 10% or so of the playerbase was taking part in AvA even though 100% of them had access to the system. Beyond Sandstorm they'll be reworking the AvA system, as well as bringing forth new content with a distinctly "arctic" flavor. They don't have a name for it yet, but he assured me that they'd be talking more about it once all of Sandstorm had hit the live server.
Additionally Erez mentioned, but couldn't demo, the addition of spontaneous PvE raids coming to the live game soon. Basically what will happen is that players will be standing around Dome City when an alarm sounds, signaling that the Commonwealth is assaulting the Dome. When this happens at certain times throughout the day players will be able to queue up to join a 10-person raid and take part in fending off waves of the Commonwealth as they assault the Dome. If successful, all players who partake will be get some nifty loot, achievements, as well as experience and tokens. It's just another way, Erez said, in which Hi-Rez is seeking to add layers and layers of content to the Global Agenda experience.
I walked away impressed with the amount of care and communication coming from the studio, and looking forward to getting my hands on the Open Zones when Phase 2 hits the live servers in the next month or so.