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Thoughts From Fallen Earth

Post-apocalyptic MMO Fallen Earth has been live for a few weeks now, and it's garnered some mixed opinions. We decided it was time to send one of our own sinister agents down into that canyon and see what he could find. Did Icarus Studios fly too high? Or have they earned their wings? Read onwards for splendid revelation.

Wrapping and moulding Fallen Earth to fit three words would be easy; it's just a matter of conjuring a certain picture in your head and pointing at it and saying 'That! That's basically it!'. Of course, that'd be incredibly unfair to the developers, and all but dismiss their game as a fan service. So it would be entirely wrong to call Fallen Earth Fallout: the MMO. But it's the thought on your mind when you begin to play, and the niggle that stays with you throughout you playing, slowly fading to a dull impression, until it's gone entirely.

Fallen Earth has all the staples that would make a Fallout MMO: it's a post apocalyptic setting where you're an outsider who has to learn the ways of the wasteland, and establish yourself a life there. It's hardly fair though, and is just as useful as claiming that World of Warcraft is Lord of the Rings: The MMO. Beyond a casual reference it doesn't hold any water.

Instead of creating such a picture in your mind, I'd be more constructive for me to start by saying it's a post apocalyptic MMO /in the same vein of Fallout/, which is entirely going to clear your mind of all those comparisons, right? The thing is, Fallen Earth has a very different end result. It starts with one of the most impressive set pieces I've yet seen in an MMO, placing you as a newly awoken clone in the Hoover Dam, and told that you're basically the last hope in saving a whole bunch of people. All before you've got the clone ooze off your skin. Scientists and their vats, man.

What follows is a quickly escalating fight that starts you off axing some guy in the back, and ends with you driving a tiny buggy with a huge bomb on the back of it down the belly of the dam, all so it won't explode and kill everyone inside. Except, of course, it kills you when it explodes. That was a pretty short game, right?

Shuffle forwards five years, and you're presented with a quick cutscene telling you about how great this cloning procedure the company came up with is, interspersed with flashes of the woman who was helping you throughout the starting section telling you about what has happened since you've been.. dead. Seems everything has gone to hell, kind of, and all the warring factions you met during your little escapade in the Dam are on better terms, although contempt boils under the surface. The woman wants you to get somewhere so that you can reactivate the rest of your clones. And that's it.

You pick a focus, be it pistols and swords, or big guns, or whatever, and the intro pops you out of the cloning vats in the best location for your choice. This then is Fallen Earth proper. You're placed in a shanty-ish town, complete with a sort of amphitheater and a broken rail station, as well as a wooden roller coaster and petrified dinosaurs. It's that sort of place.

It's at this post-intro juncture that some of the problems with Fallen Earth become apparent. Finding quests isn't as easy as it should be, and after the initial flurry you get from the guy conveniently waiting outside the entrance to the spawning room, you really have to search for people who need your help. They are on the mini-map as slightly worrying bright green radioactive symbols, but the vendors are also up there, as whopping great casino chips, which obscure the smaller quest givers into oblivion. It means you have to search around for someone with a sign above their head, hoping that you're the right level for whatever task they have to offer.

Which is another issue, or at least seems to at first glance. Leveling in Fallen Earth is surprisingly slow, taking about the same time to get from level one to two as it does to get from one to ten in most other MMOs. That's not necessarily a bad thing, given that there's a steady flow of action points from gaining experience and doing quests that mean you're not stuck as a feeble starting character for long. The real ramifications are that the first quest you're given, (to go reactivate your clones and thus make death irrelevant) is level ten, and that suddenly seems a long way away.

So instead you just establish yourself in the town, doing odd jobs here and there, attempting to rescue a magicians box of tricks, or uncovering a plot to kill the head of the town - the usual MMO fare. That most of these involve going somewhere to kill x number of y is a little disappointing, but there was enough variation in the type of quest to make it avoid the deathly feeling of griny quest attrition. Instead, you get the frustration of combat in Fallen Earth.

I say frustration, but it's perhaps more like bafflement. I experienced this when attempting to deliver violence to the various mutated wildlife and bandits that I was sent to kill. You've got two basic ways of hurting people; shooting them or whacking them. To shoot it's a simple matter of having ammo in your guns and then point and shoot, hoping the invisible dice rolls end up in your favour. Really, this would be the favoured method if ammo wasn't a pain in the arse to make or find. Sometimes the fickle nature of the dice frustrate, but for the most part it's efficient and, more importantly, safe, as you're out of range of whatever pointy sticks they've got to poke you with.

So you run low on ammo, and end up reverting to melee, which involves using whatever improvised weapon you've bought or scavenged to beat them into submission. The confusion comes up when you try to figure out how exactly it decides the hits and misses. It doesn't matter if you see yourself swinging at the guy; you've got to have your crosshairs on him when you trigger the attack for it to do any damage. This can be pretty hard when the bastard is bouncing around like a goon, but oh-so-satisfying when you wallop him and the game's ragdoll physics kick in, sending him flying.

Once you've figured out how this combat system works, it's actually a little more rewarding than most, despite the fact there's no blocking or dodging. It's essentially a slugging match between you and them, and as long as you've got the bigger stick, or lawn mower blade, or lead pipe, or sharpened spoon, you'll be fine.

The problem with it is that it's almost too like a third/first person shooter for its own good. You have to have your crosshairs over them, which is at odds with the fact that there are still those invisible dice figuring out whether you've got a glancing blow or a full on hit. You can lock on, but all this does in centre the camera, which just serves to mislead you further. It creates a sort of confusing hybrid that makes you think one way before entirely uprooting that way of thinking and making you do something else. It's jarring until you get used to it, and as such it's a significant issue.

Throughout the time I played the chat channel was filled with people talking about the tradeskills, something I'm never hugely bothered with. I find the tedium of harvesting ingredients and cultivating them into usable items beyond boring, especially when it takes up a good chunk of the time that could be used for leveling up and being heroic. Fallen Earth, however, takes a good amount of the bother out of it, presenting a system almost like EVE's skill learning; you queue up a bunch of stuff to be made, and the timer begins to tick, allowing you to go wallop huge scorpions with your stick, or something.

Tradeskills are also the main source of ammo - in that you make it yourself. It also requires you to make a saddle before you can ride on a horse (the main method of travel in the game, as fuel is scarce, obviously) along with countless other things. It's hard not to instantly ask the question of how your character is making bandages while beating up mutants, but at the same time, it's all in the name of fun, right? It's not like we all grow stronger in huge, sudden leaps in real life either, is it?

Considering whether to recommend Fallen Earth is a challenge. It's a quagmire of good and bad ideas - simultaneously enticing and daunting. Glancing at the icon on my desktop, I was constantly tempted to fire it up, but the thought of struggling to find my way through the minimap to actually pick up a quest stayed my hand more often than not. I did keep coming back and the sense of progression that came with just having a weapon that wasn't salvaged gardening equipment was interesting. As was finally being able to climb up onto a horse.

Fallen Earth has created something interesting in a world covered by a wasteland. The mutant animals that roam the arid fields are grotesque and intriguing, both novel and logical. To see the words 'mutant chicken' above a 4 foot ball of tumor and feathers is both terrifying and hilarious. It's this gallows humour that runs throughout the game that makes it an interesting place to explore and play with. That you aren't handheld through the game is both a blessing and a curse, but it certainly makes you feel a bit more like you're a part of this world, rather than just one of many running around doing the same quests over and over.

The investment in time it requires might be a stopping point for some, and the slow progression of your character could certainly frustrate, but if you can get over those ugly hurdles then there's definitely something there. And, despite it all, if you're actually looking for a Fallout MMO, you'll probably find something close to what you're looking for. Just saying.

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