I dropped by the End of Nations booth at GamesCom for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'd heard they served the most wonderful amuse-bouches in the VIP area, which was true. You got a whole peach, and inside that was a smaller, marzipan peach, and inside that was lots of money! I ate four. I even ate the money, and spared a thought for Alec. I'd seen him earlier that day, looking like the thing behind the dumpster from Mulholland Drive. What was happening there? Maybe I should save some money for him.
Then I remembered the other reason I'd come to the End of Nations booth- this game was touting itself as the first MMO RTS, and had a serious budget behind it. How on Earth did an MMO RTS work? Handily Michael Legg, the President of End of Nations developers Petroglyph, was on hand to tell me everything over a couple of cigars. You should have seen these things we were smoking! They were like trumpets.
Petroglyph's vision of an MMO RTS will, perhaps, be disappointingly familiar to fans of either genre, but we'll get to that in a minute. End of Nations tells the story of a day-after-tomorrow global economic meltdown. Out of all the subsequent rioting and violence and lack of daytime TV emerges a fascist organisation called the Order of Nations, and you play a freelance general who spends all day fighting both the Order of Nations and other players.
The core of End of Nations is picking a mission from the world map, selecting a handful of vehicles from your army according to the mission's point limit, and then doing your best to command them to victory over the AI ('PvE') or other players ('PvP'). These missions play out quite traditionally. You have your top down camera, you click somewhere and your units go there. So there's your RTS.
Where the massively multiplayer part comes in is that- well, if you just insert any and all MMORPG features you can think of into the above framework, you've pretty much got End of Nations
You start EoN by picking a Class of general, allowing you to specialise in either Tanks, Recon or Artillery. Completing missions earns experience points and also loot, which you can craft into items using your trade skills or you can just sell it at the auction house. There are even bosses in PvE- huge tanks the size of battleships. The difference here is, you're not collecting gear, you're collecting units. And you're not making spider buns and chainmail jockstraps, you're making special ammunition and repair kits.
Watching Michael go flicking through the customised units back at his HQ, it's instantly clear how addictive this could be- like collecting an army in Warhammer, although he compares it to a collectible card game. The obvious difference between this and earning gear in a traditional MMOG is that traditionally, new gear replaces your old stuff. Here, you're ticking off boxes, with each new unit expanding your tactical options. Rubbish units are never outmoded because they're worth less points, allowing you to take more of them into a fight. In Michael's words, a veteran player could show off against a newbie by taking a single mega-tank that bristles with armaments into battle against a swarm of lesser vehicles.
But as immediately confident as I was in this persistent side of things, I was made similarly nervous about End of Nations' prowess as an actual RTS. It has no base building, which means little in this day and age, but it also has no units except land vehicles and your control over those looks pretty slight. The demonstration we watched saw the developer throwing all of his tanks at a point to capture it, and then those tanks got soundly trounced when the other team ordered many more tanks to the same point. There seems little room for deft micromanagement or chin-strokey tactical deployments.
Which is where the MMOG side of things comes back. You know how the combat of MMORPGs compares unfavourably to the combat of straight action games or RPGs? Well, it's the same with this MMORTS. Compare it to a straight RTS and it looks like you'll come away disappointed. But it's also employing the same technique as MMORPGs to get around that. One of End of Nations' most prominent features is, in fact, your bar of cooldown-centric abilities.
These might take the form of EMP blasts, airstrikes, cloaking technology or (and this is where it gets a little more abstract) buffs, debuffs and instantaneous repairs. So you're constantly engaged in the game, no matter how little control you actually have.
Another MMO shot in the arm is the sheer size of the battles. End of Nations will support up to 51 players in a single match, which isn't divisible by 2 so I am somewhat confused, but still! 51! It's a hugely appealing thought that you and 4 or 5 or 25 of your closest friends could drop into a PvE match and act as a solid unit, with recon and artillery specialists supporting the tank commanders as they take down some cartoonish goliath of a tank, and then all of you receiving a fat pile of experience and loot at the end of it.
As I said at the start, it is perhaps a shame that "the world's first" MMORTS should be such a clear-cut mix of a traditional RTS and traditional MMOG elements. On the other hand, the mix looks like it'll absolutely work. I'm curious to get my hands on this, and with the right launch I suspect it could end up being huge.