When I attended the unveiling of End of Nations back in April, Petroglyph and Trion weren't keen on letting us get behind the controls of the game quite yet. That changed this past week at E3 though, as I sat down at the keyboard for a guided tour of the one of the game's many group instances at the Trion booth. End of Nations is an ambitious title to say the least. Promising to be the industry's first true MMORTS/RPG hybrid, Petroglyph has a heavy load to carry through development and to release in 2011. Keep in mind that I am absolutely terrible at RTS games. So much so that I usually avoid the genre unless I'm using cheat codes in single-player mode. I'm that bad. And here I find myself after the show calling EoN one of my top surprises, and I can't wait to see what else Petroglyph has up its sleeve.
The demo began with the War Room UI, basically your overview of the entire world (which is actually our world, go figure) and what's going on throughout. The UI is still a work in progress, but it's here that you'll see a running ticker of what your friends, guild members, and enemies are up to in the world. It's also where you'll access your HQ (think housing with an RTS military theme) and keep an eye on who has control of what parts of the world. It's like a blend of CNN and Facebook and even at an early stage it looks fantastic.
The game world is split up by zones that you'll access from the War Room by clicking and selecting "deploy". There are massive open zones that serve as traditional "adventure" areas you might be familiar with in a traditional MMO. These house dozens of players at a time, have quest and trading hubs, as well as public quest objectives. But for the demo we were shown around one of the games group instances (think dungeon) built for a four-player team. It was just me, myself, and I in the instance so I had the luxury of nigh invincibility but rest-assured that it will be clear from both the UI and perhaps just trial and error that the place is designed with groups in mind. Had I been in there alone and without buffs I would have died a swift death.
After choosing my load-out on the Tank Commander I was playing, I selected the instance from the War Room map and quickly loaded into the game. EoN is still in the alpha stages but everything seems to be running smoothly and at a high frame rate even with dozens of units on the screen and explosions going off all around me. It's a pretty game to be sure, with a real post-WWIII feel as there doesn't seem to be a single place untouched by the fight against the Order of Nations (the game's tyrannical NPC overlords). Houses are in ruin, parks are littered with shell casings, and massive Order of Nations structures loom over the green and charred fields of the play area.
The instance began with me safe among the bunkers of my rebel base as hoards of NPC controlled allies filed out to the ongoing fight. It's not like a normal MMORPG dungeon where you enter and it's quiet until you delve deeper into the location. You're basically entering the fight as its in full throttle with the aim to help the rebels overthrow and defeat the Order in that particular area. Anyone who's ever played an RTS will be right at home with the controls of EoN. You can click individual units, click and drag to highlight multiples, and right-clicking will tell your selected units to move to a specific area. Camera control is handles both with WASD and the arrow keys for panning, and the middle mouse button to zoom and swivel as needed.
I had a host of abilities and consumables lines up on the hotbar, as well as a secondary hotbar on the right where I could monitor and select individual units from my load-out. I was told that when it comes to load-out, different units require different amounts of points and that each zone (whether open or instanced) has a limit to how many points you can use thereby keeping higher level players in line with the lower level players for each zone. You might, for instance, be a high level player with an awesome unit that's worth 100 points, but in the lower level zones if you want to bring that unit it might be all you're allowed to bring. It's all about keeping things on a level playing field for both PvE and the PvP zones. This is EoN's way of making sure higher level players delving into lower level zones won't have an immediate advantage over the appropriately leveled players there.
I fought my way past the Order's defenses using my tanks as "tanks", my strike vehicles as swiftly moving in and out damage dealers, and my artillery from afar to take out things like turrets and short-ranged units. Eventually I made my way to the Order's massive base wall. Along the way I stopped at different control points which serve as resurrection points in case of your defeat. The enemy will try to take back these points as you move along through the level, so it makes sense to try and keep an eye on the closest control point as you move through the place so as to not have to fight your way back to where you last were. Because this is an ongoing battle, the enemies don't stay dead and new units are churned out by the enemy as you move along. Luckily it seemed that there were plenty of these control points throughout the level and maintaining control didn't seem like too much of a chore.
The walls of the Order base were guarded by large turrets, which by moving close enough to the player can hack and take control. As I turned the Order's defenses against themselves I moved my attention to the large gun in the middle of the front wall. When I say large, I mean it... the shells of the thing were as big as my tanks. And as the shells were loaded into the weapon, occasionally its shields would open, providing me an opportunity to strike and destroy the thing. After quite a bit of back and forth with the Order's ground units and some running and recharging of my own I was able to destroy the gun and bring down the wall in dramatic fashion. I wanted to go through and wipe out the remaining Order units inside, but it's here where I was stopped by the producer and told I'd have to wait a bit longer to see what's behind the walls.
The whole fight took less than fifteen minutes, I called in several airstrikes and napalm dousing, and left elated with the gameplay I'd experienced. Petroglyph is filled with people whose entire career has been made on RTS games and it shows. The real key to the game's success will be whether or not it can seamlessly blend the RTS with the MMO. The instance I played was not unlike a co-op mission from any other RTS, so I'm curious to see how the title's more open zones where dozens of players commune will play out. I'm also anxious to find out just how class progression works outside of collecting and building new units for your load-out. Still, the team has the gameplay mechanics down. If it can pull off the persistent world part, Petroglyph could easily come through on the promise of an MMORTS that MMO gamers have been longing for.