Free to play games often get shunned by subscription players. Being one of the subscription "elite", I was a little apprehensive about checking out the free to play game, and Altus Online's first announced project, Neo Steam. Slated for a Summer 2009 release, Neo Steam brings steampunk fantasy to MMO gaming and creates an environment that, while familiar to veteran gamers, offers a unique appeal.
Set in a world where three distinct kingdoms vie for control over the valuable resource Neo Steam, players follow one of four career paths: the Mystic, the Warrior, the Scout and the Machinist. Entering the game as an elven warrior, I found myself surrounded by the landscape of the Kingdom of Elerd. Its blue backdrop was adorned with unique architecture and glowing reminders of its magical nature. I met up with the other members of my party and we set out to explore the area.
As we began our journey, I noticed that most of us were level 56 whereas our guide was 110, the maximum attainable level in the game. I asked what the experience penalties were for players of different levels in groups. As experience is granted based on the average level of the party, I was told that players would always gain experience no matter the level spread of the group members. While the maximum experience per kill would be granted to groups where players were closer in level, it was relieving to know that players could hunt with anyone without an overly harsh penalty.
One aspect I found particularly well incorporated was the variety of different transportation modes available to the player. Direct connections to the main cities and quest areas were available via submarine, zeppelin, subway or steam balloon. Of particular interest was mention of a risky method of travel... the cannon!
In addition to the standard modes of transportation, players could obtain rideable mounts which were available at specific levels. If a player chose not to wait, they could purchase a mount for use at any level through the premium store.
One huge, and expected, feature of MMO gaming is the ability to have pets and minions to do your bidding. As a templar, one of the warrior class branches, I was able to call forth a summoned dragon to fight at my side. While I was unable to specifically target the summons to a mob, it would engage anything that I was battling or would defend me should an NPC preemptively attack my character. Summons would not permanently die and would be able to gain experience in order to level up. As they attained higher levels, summons would obtain additional attacks and spells making them stronger and more useful in battle.
In addition to a summoned companion, all players can own pets. Small at first, these namable support providers also gain experience, similar to the summons. While not directly involved in battle, they can offer buffs and provide your teleportation spell back to town. Once called, these pets will follow you around - but, like all pets, you must care for them. If you don't feed your companion, they become angry and will refuse to do your bidding.
Deciding to continue our tour via mount, I called forth my Ivory Riding Pufu , one of many mounts available in-game, and we made our way to a player versus player zone - the capital city of the Republic of Rogwel. Each nation's capital city is open for attack by players, similar to the way players lay siege to major cities in Warhammer Online. As the inhabitants of the Republic of Rogwel crept to our main city, we slipped through their gates and overtook one of their NPC guards. As it took our group quite a while to kill just one of the city guards, it became apparent that attacking a fully defended city would be an opportunity to stage large scale combat between the separate nations.
With the PvP elements in-game, I was concerned that areas appropriate for lower level players would become stomping grounds for griefers. In order to restrict that behavior, NeoSteam put restrictions for access into certain zones. Imposed level caps on zones prevent players outside the appropriate level range from entering. In addition, if PvP game play isn't something you enjoy, players can spend most of their time exploring the PvE side of Neo Steam with minimal exposure to PvP. Players familiar with EVE Online or Pirates of the Burning Sea will be familiar with a system whereby players can choose to restrict their gameplay to PvE, but will experience the occasional push into PvP areas. While entering the PvP areas offer risk, there comes reward. PvP flagged areas will grant players the best experience and item drops especially at level 80+.
In addition to staging capital city raids and participating in PvP combat in designated zone areas, players may also challenge one another to a "gladiator" fights in an arena. Two players enter; one player leaves. The winner of the fight remains in the arena to face the next player in line. The loser leaves the arena and can wait their turn to stage a rematch, or go about his way.
With regards to gear, players can receive items and mounts through questing or they can visit the premium shop where items such as potions or mounts can be purchased with crowns. Priced around $1 USD for 700 crowns, items average between $2 and $20 dollars, depending on the usefulness or "cool factor" of the item.
Neo Steam offers a good amount of content, numerous options to accommodate different play styles, structured options for small scale and large scale PvP combat, flexible options for acquiring in game items, and just enough steam punk flavor to make this game not only interesting but fun. I'm definitely looking to see more from Altus Online.