Petroglyph and Trion Worlds are close to releasing End Of Nations, and they are hoping that it will change things for the MMORTS genre. Seeing the game at Gamescom has given us some clues as to whether they are going to realise that dream.
Conceptually, strategy MMOs, to put it kindly, have been screwed in the head. Designers have always been so keen to create a huge, persistent strategy world where anyone can win long-term that they've forgotten that this means everyone else loses long-term. Most of them have turned out to be officially Not Much Fun At All. Developers have also neglected the micro-battles, if they've included them at all, focusing more on the wider sweep of grand political gameplay. I'm thinking Time of Defiance, Dreamlords, and the rest.
What Petroglyph (the guys behind Star Wars: Empire at War, and the original core of the Westwood team who made Dune 2 and Command & Conquer) have realised is that a) like Total War, the battles need to be damn good in and of themselves b) they themselves have lots of experience with a pretty compelling small-scale battle simulation c) those DOTA arena battle games are doing really, really well (look at League of Legend's $5 million cash prize for evidence) d) people didn't mind so much about Planetside's endless back-and-forth metagame, as long as they had fun and kept levelling up e) no-one wants to pay to play. So End of Nations is a RTS that Frankensteins all those bits together.
We got a demo at GamesCom from Mike Legg, co-founder of Petroglyph. The first thing to notice is that the game is solidly attractive, with a classic over-designed C&C style GUI, replete with glowy technical bits, pulsating wiring and huge logos. In-game, it's not spectacular but it has that solid ‘flat battlefield with 3D models thing’ that C&C has done so well. Occasionally, the team drop us down to a horizon-level camera, to show off how neatly-animated the game is, not that anyone will play the game at anything except maximum zoom. The units are trad-C&C overblown ideas, so a War-Walker thing called a Guardian, supposedly 16 feet high, has a chaingun as big as itself.
The backstory is set fifty years in the future, after a world economic collapse (fifty years might be optimistic – Pessimism Ed), so basically all governments have crumbled. The United Nations has turned into a tyrannical dictatorship called The Order of Nations, regularly disappearing enemies of the state with no compunctions. Notably, players can't play as the UN; you only play as one of two resistance movements, the Liberation Front or the Shadow Revolution, seeking to overthrow the UN and establish a new world order along the lines of their own agenda.
Each rebel faction has different commander classes to play as – the Liberation Front have the Patriot and Spartan classes, and the Shadow Revolution have the Wraith and Phantom classes – each of which has access to different starting units and levels up in different ways, up to a max level of 30. Of course, each commander has access to a different tech tree – for example, the Spartan commander can unlock Titan tanks and Nuke turrets as he levels up, should he specialise that way.
There’s a wide variety of game modes included and available to all players – 2-50 player co-op, up to 26 vs 26 PvP, a story mode, a campaign – but the core gameplay shared by all of them is a simple RTS C&C-style multiplayer.
Looking at the world map, you can choose where to fight; when you do, it pops up a little briefing video giving you a background to the fighting in that area – what the target is, where the enemy are located, all the control points and the enemy headquarters. You get in-game money from capturing and holding points, which your fragile infantry specialise at. The battles are completely drop-in, drop-out, so players can rapidly shift to where the battle is being lost, pop out to change their unit line-up and so on. Different areas of the world map seem to have different battle maps, and the whole world can shift from one faction to another over the course of several hours. Usefully, you can see any clan members or friends online on the world map (and clans will be able to reserve spots for clan vs clan battles).
In-battle, you deploy up to twenty units you've selected from all those available to you; certain units, like the Titan tank or Ragnarok chopper, take up more unit slots by themselves. As you gain resources, you can deploy special weapons or order in replacements for units you've lost. Units take the classic rock-paper-shotgun structure and every unit has one special ability it can do – for example, the Guardian unit can lock himself down to improve his damage.
The battles we saw were extremely fluid; players advancing, dropping in turrets to defend choke-points, those turrets being nuked (along with most of their army) and them retreating, to be replaced by an ally who'd respawned his own army 30 seconds before. As you play you also earn in-battle money, which you can use to unlock these other elements. Also rare unit modifications (speed boost, attack power, defense augmentations, etc.) sometimes drop in battle, which can’t be bought but allow you to customise your army even more.
Again, like Tribes: Ascend, the mantra here is 'no pay-to-win'. The Petroglyph guys were regularly confused about what they’d agreed they were and weren’t charging for, but we think they’re selling new skins for vehicles (we saw an astoundingly gaudy Team America look, a German flag and a disgusting bacon skin) and probably XP-boosters, but they don't plan to restrict access to either maps or the higher levels of the game. These skins don't preclude your own colour customization either, which you can do with every single unit.
End of Nations is dragging the DOTA game back to its strategy roots, plugging C&C’s endlessly-compelling multiplayer into a RPG structure and a wider metagame. With this set-up, being Free2Play is natural; but if this shift of every multiplayer genre into micropayments continues, we have to ask are all AAA games going to go this way?