Aliens... AD 29,475. Omni-Tek, a 282 billion employee hyper-corp, is facing a problem. Its hold on the rights to both nano-tech and bio-tech are due to expire. Mankind, whose galactic empire is founded on these technologies, holds its breath. In a distant pan of the galaxy lies Rubi-Ka, lease-hold planet of Omni-Tek, source of wealthy minerals, burning under twin suns, panially terra-formed, partially tamed and the epitome of the conflict that is brewing.
Anarchy Online allows the gamer to enter the above setting at the start of a four-year story-arc. You choose your side - Omni-Tek or Rebels - and after that you're pretty much on your own. Well perhaps not. Unlike most other virtual environments, AO intends to keep the gamer within the storyline and it does this via its clever mission generator - but more on that later.
As with other games in the genre, you can choose not just the side you're on but a type of character - wave goodbye to dwarves and elves, thank God, and say hello to such 'Breeds' as: Homo Solitus, Homo Atrox, Homo Opifex and Homo Nano. All of these are genetically engineered humans that are specialised in different aspects of build, mind and so on. What is particularly good about AO is the actual character creation system. After choosing your breed and other details, you actually get to design your own character. We aren't just talking about what colour your pants are either - body build, height, head, hair - it's all customisable and to a very large degree. The morphing range given to the player is quite extensive and, at long last, is not confined to just creation - get yourself enough money and you can have a nip 'n' tuck anytime you like.
Outside of character creation, you discover that your choice of sides has more than just a superficial effect. Omni-Tek characters inhabit a world of high-tech goodies, cheap weapons, good armour and a large amount of bio-enhanced drugs. The Rebels have to make do with a decidedly lower-tech area and must scavenge what they can - a bit of a Mad Max scenario, in fact -but at least the rebels are free. Ah, good old freedom, it's so underrated.
Combat in AO is the primary source of interest - whether it's against the indigenous wildlife or other gamers or NPCs, but combat generation is not driven purely by chance encounters. AO has a unique system for generating quests for its characters, plus you can generate quests for others.
...Meets Mission Impossible...
The system generated quests are unique to the individual gamer: this means that you can get a quest, log off for however long and then come back to find that you can still complete it. They can also be tied in expressly to the overall storyline giving a deeper sense of immersion. This aspect alone makes AO attractive for those who can't spend 10 hours a day playing, but for those who require a more intense experience you can get a player-driven quest.
You can generate a quest or mission for a wide variety of tasks - the simplest example is an assassination. You set the target, the prize in terms of money, items and experience points, and then add a time limit, if any, and who can take on the mission (eg "Hey everyone - I'll give you my new mobile if you kill the editor before Monday!"). Of course, with so many people rushing to be first to get the task done you aren't going to want to log off or you'll miss the prize - and the sheer fun of it.
Combat itself is a mix of'magic' via nano technology, melee and ranged weapons. You won't see single-shot kills in AO as it would be unbalancing, nor will you actually be involved in combat at the most minute levels. AO combat is controlled by the server -so gamer tactics revolve around the appropriate usage of when to run, when to shoot and what to use.
I have to say that one-on-one fights can look a little silly - two guys run up toe-to-toe and start blasting away with laser guns - somehow it doesn't seem right. Take this up a level to group combat and it suddenly looks and is a lot different: Get a bruiser up close in armour with a bloody great axe, meanwhile your oilier chaps are blazing away long range with rifles. The enemy is doing the same - and it looks just great.
At this point in time, the ranges of weapons are relatively short - it's a balancing issue, but don't ever expect a Counter-Stiike-style sniper guy - you aren't likely to see one. If you need an analogy, it's very similar to players vs players in Asheron's Call - it just looks a lot sexier. The combat is also restricted in where and upon whom you can inflict it. Cities and the like are controlled with suppression gas that prevents combat, other areas allow you to hunt wildlife and others are entirely open for wanton slaughter. In the context of the overall theme, this makes sense -'civilised' areas are just that, albeit under the control of various mind-control gasses. While you can consent to a duel in specified areas, you aren't going to have to constantly worry about being taken out while you're down the local pub.
Skills are extensive, there are, erm... lots of them. AO uses a points/level distribution system - you choose what you spend them on after you have earned them by levelling (up to 200 levels). Caps exist depending on your breed and profession, but you won't be able to know exactly what others' abilities are simply by their level. You can also take a less combat-orientated role and develop trading skills - and given enough notoriety and money you can even get yourself a bigger pad to live in.
Every player will have their own room when they start - used as both a mini-storage area and a safe house. Your room is safe from all others, unless you give them your 'key'. Unlike a real key, this is your genetically-coded identity, which you can revoke at will. This makes your room a safe point for socialising and guild or clan activities. Of course, if you end up with a huge penthouse it's also got pulling-power - though unfortunately not in the real world.
AO is damn good looking both in its scenery, attention to detail and its character movements. There are some superb motion-captured 'emotes' that enable you to get across how your character feels, our favourites being Pulp Fiction and 'Moon' - even better you can script these and really have some fun with them.
With a cross between Dune and Star Wars as your backdrop and a single world that takes hours to cross, inhabited by up to 50,000 other gamers and the flexibility to allow for both casual and hardcore gamers, Anarchy Online looks like a sure bet. Work continues apace on all aspects of the game and an open beta stage is almost within sight. Within the next few months, we'll all be seeing a lot more of AO and that is definitely a good thing.
Let's be honest. Nobody expected Anarchy Online's launch to go smoothly. Traditionally, online RPGs have been plagued with problems of enormous magnitude in the first couple of months of release, and in some cases, way beyond that. Ultima Online was almost unplayable when it was first released, with huge lag problems and bugs of all shapes and sizes. EverQuest was similar (even two years down the line, Verant is still 'fixing' things that should have been addressed before launch).
In light of this, the furore surrounding Anarchy Online's release is understandable yet predictable. Yes, there are bugs, and plenty of them, but unlike Ultima Online's early days, AO offers an experience which looks promising, despite the problems in one very important area (see the Freeze boxout).
To give you some idea of the magnitude of the problems facing AO, Funcom extended the period of'free' time in the game to many subscribers, as it felt the product it had released was not sufficiently playable to warrant taking cash from its customers. While this is commendable, the mind boggles as to why it didn't just hold the release and fix the problems. It's not as if Funcom didn't know the problems existed. The Anarchy Online website turned into nothing more than a huge flame war between Funcom and hugely disgruntled subscribers.
However, the game has gone live, and having played it extensively for the last couple of weeks, I can confidently report that it has more innovative and ground-breaking ideas than Ultima Online, EverQuest and Asheron's Call put together.
Anything You Can Do...
It is obvious Funcom has taken note of the many shortcomings in its competitors' products and addressed all of them with its own title. The premise of the game is not unique (create a character in a futuristic environment and fight monsters to gain experience with increasingly impressive armour and weapons as you progress through the game), but it's in the execution of the game that Funcom has truly excelled. Teaming up with other players around the world is easily achieved, and communicating with group members and distributing the loot earned through battles is simplicity itself. The arguing between group members over who gets what loot that is noticeable in EverQuest is eradicated in AO through a command that forces team members to take turns looting dead enemies. The chat system is superb.
At a click of a button you can switch from chatting to people in your team to a channel exclusively for other people who are looking for people to team with. There's also a 'shopping' system where people buy and sell and initially, a 'newbie' channel where people who have just started playing the game can discuss their experiences and help each other through the early levels.
Perhaps the single most innovative feature in Anarchy Online is the way Funcom has gone about eliminating 'downtime' (time spent between battles waiting for mana to regenerate, or time spent simply with nothing to do because you can't find other people to group with). There is literally no downtime in Anarchy Online. You don't have to sit for ages in between battles waiting for your nano energy (mana) to refresh or your health to come back to full, because you can buy medical kits that refresh nano and health instantly. There is no downtime in between finding people to group with, because Funcom has introduced a mission generation system that gives random missions to players, which they can complete for experience and items. Admittedly, the missions are not particularly exciting. They are all similar in nature (travel through corridors despatching enemies as you go along), with basic mission goals (find an item, 'fix' something that's broken, assassinate someone and so on), but they go a long way to relieving the frustration of other games of this ilk when you literally can not find anything to do. Anarchy Online is designed from the ground up to be constantly playable and exciting, with a superb chat system and user interface making life as easy as it could possibly be.
Better Than The Rest?
You may be thinking at this point that Anarchy Online sounds too good to be true and is streets ahead of the competition. While in some respects this is true, in others it is prohibitively restrictive with many bugs hindering progress, and the now infamous lag problem making the game completely unplayable at regular intervals.
In short, the game is by no means finished. It's due for a UK release in September, and we will bring you a full review of the game next month. In the meantime, however, consider yourself warned that as it stands, Anarchy Online is a hugely frustrating gaming experience, and we recommend strongly that you steer well clear of it for the time being. There is always a chance that Funcom will address the single biggest problem (lag) by the time you read these words.
I suggest you go to an independent forum to find out if this is the case, and if it is, you can safely go ahead and purchase the game. Otherwise, wait until next month for our final word before you spend a penny of your hard-earned on it.
Why AO is more like a game of Musical Statues
Anarchy Online has many bugs, but they do not make the game unplayable. However, the unbelievable lag experienced when entering cities or other highly populated areas most certainly does. If you don't know what lag Is, imagine playing Quake III on a P75, and then imagine the kind of frame-rate you can expect. The world stands still, you jerk in slow motion and you suddenly find yourself facing completely the wrong direction while your machine struggles desperately to catch up with the information being sent to it by the game's server. It is not my Idea of fun,
and I am sure it won't be yours either. While the problem gets much worse at peak hours, even off-peak there are enough people online to reduce your bandwidth to a point where your frame-rate drops to zero and the screen literally freezes for minutes at a time while your Internet connection does its level best to keep you up to date with what's happening in the game. No matter how fast your machine, how good your graphics card, how much RAM you've got, or how fast your Internet connection is. At the time of writing new servers were being set up - we'll keep you posted.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode