Earth and Beyond seeks to be the first persistent MMORPG set in space with the player primarily in control of a spaceship, rather than killing medieval-esque monsters or fantasy inspired creatures. A cursory glance at its competitors indicates there's great promise for this type of gameplay. Nearly all other MMORPGs, even the highly acclaimed Anarchy Online, are really caricatures of the titles like Meridian 59 and the still ongoing Ultima Online. Unfortunately, many titles still do not match the complexity of the latter; the integration of a live supply-demand economy system, the development of more social aspects of the game and the ability to play the game in a completely non-violent manner. Fittingly, with Westwood Studios, a division under Electronic Arts alongside Origin, Earth and Beyond seeks to bring some of these principles to a space setting.
Earth and Beyond takes place in the 24th century when travel through the cosmos has progressed immeasurably due to the discovery of certain gates around red dwarf stars, one of the oldest stars in the universe. It is postulated by humans that these gates linked together a network of civilizations, possibly the creators of the gates themselves. Known human space is dominated by three different races, which you'll get to take part of when creating a character. Earth and Beyond calls these races but in truth, all of these are merely offshoots of the human race, conditioned and developed based on their homeworlds within the solar system. You'll choose from Terrans who hail from Terra, Progens who call Mars home and the Jenquai who reside on the moons of Jupiter. Sol acts as a neutral zone and your first training grounds. Beyond that, star systems are occupied by the different factions and all are in a state of cold war, creating prospects for the opportunistic player.
Earth and Beyond basically revolves around three types of professions: exploration, combat and trading. However, you are not exclusive to any particular one. The Terrans, for example, have a natural affinity to trading. The Progen are a genetically engineered caste geared towards warfare. The Jenquai are driven not by conquest or money but by scientific religious evangelism. They were the explorers who discovered the first gate. If you're a Jenquai, for example, you're simply better at discovering new objects but that doesn't exclude you from trading a bit on the side to gain some cash. Destruction of the enemy, profitable trading and the discovery of unidentified objects will trigger the game to reward experience points in combat, trading and exploration respectively. Classes can also interact with each other. An explorer can prospect some hot materials and give it to a trader who will manufacture unique products with it.
Learning a lesson from other games, Earth and Beyond features an extensive tutorial segment. In the beginning, you're coddled by a female computer AI called Meagan. She serves as your guide to help you familiarize your controls with the ship. Gameplay is carried out easily with the mouse and keyboard. There isn't a barrage of keyboard shortcuts you have to memorize since everything can be done with the on-screen interface. Afterwards, you enter a fairly lengthy training sequence with a variety of mentors who help you with the basic functions of the game. If you're a trader, for example, you'll have to task two trade routes and make a profit of 1000 credits. If you're an explorer, you have to learn prospecting. Meagan is still active afterwards, to help guide you through your first death but her voiceovers end. I hope they find a way to include her again because she's quite comforting and virtual digital assistants add character to the game, like the one found in Anachronox. Everything in Earth and Beyond is about accessibility. If you sell items at a loss, the game will actually warn you about it.
In spite of the premise of MMORPGs, the ability to play with other people, I always found virtual worlds to be fairly vacuous. However, Earth and Beyond looks very promising. In addition to the cold war between the three factions, you also have regular quests handed out by people milling around in the various space stations. One person, for example, was an InfinitiCorp employee waiting for a report from a nearby processing station. Upon traveling there, I found a warp interdictor shutting down a travel point and some enemy ships were preying on whoever was trying to get to the station. You could use thrusters and try to get there manually but being a trader, I had very little weapons on me so I ran back to my home sector trying to recruit people to help me fend off the threat. The developers have also promised some overarching storyline for the Earth and Beyond universe. Upon its release, a grand story detailing the emergence of an alien threat will slowly make its way across human space.
Every space station you come across allows you to dock and enter it. After that, you assume your character in third person mode and you manually move yourself to trade, do business and converse with other characters. In the beta testing right now, the facilities can be quite empty but already, there are many NPCs populating the area and in most cases, you can have meaningful conversations with many of them. Conversations in MMORPGs are highly derivative of Meridian 59, with the text-based chat window. Earth and Beyond offers some good old fashioned topic-oriented RPG conversations, which helps flesh out characters in the game. Characters, for example, can only talk to a few people at once; a nice touch of realism. Space lanes are also populated with both interactive characters, like command ships and mundane ones, like convoys of merchant freighters. The developers are also promising a CNN newscast type program to be available at every space station, integrating community features of an MMORPG inside the game itself.
Earth and Beyond features some smashing visceral graphics. Lens flare and celestial objects are rendered beautifully. The sound and music is distinct, unique to each faction you join. There are a few problems now with lag and the collision detection when docked at a station is not working quite as well as it should. I often walked right through solid tables. But these quibbles are minor as Earth and Beyond is still in beta testing. Dynamic in nature, Earth and Beyond avoids the tired feeling of MMORPGs; it doesn't seem like a game where you will go in, level up at the nearest dungeon to buy more goodies or gain more spells. The universe Westwood has made feels alive already, even without the guilds and player created atmosphere. The game looks to be massive and it will potentially take hours for you just to finish the training section. It looks like Westwood, previously the exclusive purveyor of RTS titles, is becoming one of the most innovative houses under Electronic Arts. After taking on the FPS genre with C&C Renegade, its foray into MMORPGs is looking even better. Taking a page from Origin's Privateer and mixing it with compelling background material, Earth and Beyond is shaping up to be a winner.
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