Thursday, May 11, 2006

Auto Assault Review

Auto Assault, developed by NetDevil and published by NC Soft.
The Good:Car gameplay and theme is fairly interesting, good graphics with destructible environments, clear mission objectives, targeting requires skill
The Not So Good: Not much variety and too similar to other massively multiplayer games
What say you? A run-of-the-mill action MMORPG that features cars instead of elves: 5/8

Ah, nuclear winter. The inevitable end to man’s lust for progress, at least if movies and television have taught us anything. Countless films that take place in the future depict a gloomy outlook where mankind has destroyed most of the Earth. Continuing this theme is Auto Assault, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or, RTS) that takes place in the future after humans have destroyed the earth to eliminate the impure Mutants and Biomeks. This is primarily a car combat game, which is something different from the onslaught of knights, wizards, and orcs that seem to dominate the MMO galaxy. Will Auto Assault offer enough fresh and new content to make players switch over from their favorite current MMO? Where can I get a van with a missile launcher?

The graphics in Auto Assault are the best component of the game, and you can enjoy them if you fulfill the recommended system requirements. It’s obvious this was the area paid most attention to during development, and it’s no surprise: most gamers are drawn in by pretty pictures and shiny things. The environments are varied and detailed: snow-covered peaks, forests on fire, and generally bombed-out highways dot the landscape. Each of the models is also well done, from the individual cars to the characters. In addition, most everything can be destroyed: it’s nice to have a game with believable environmental destruction after a large battle, instead of static maps like in Battlefield 2. Everything about the graphics has a polish that years of worth went into, and it shows. The sound effects are average: the destruction sounds (including a satisfying crunch when running someone over) are good, but there is no voice-over work to speak of. You must read all the text describing the missions (which is small, causing some eye strain) instead of listening to the instructions from your superiors. Of course, not all games can be up to the level of voice-over work seen in Oblivion, but since most of the missions in Auto Assault are the same, some simple instructions could have been produced. It’s evident the developers are trying to wield in some players through the graphics and sound of Auto Assault, which is definitely understandable especially considering the bulk of the gameplay is merely average.

The first time you run the game, you’ll need to download the latest patch that takes around 40 minutes to download and install. So much for jumping right into the action! Auto Assault does feature the requisite MMO character creation options, where you can select the race, class, and appearance (which can be randomized to result in some interesting arrangements). Each of the three races has its advantages, such as the human’s holographic technology, the mutant’s natural regeneration, and the biomek’s large amount of hit points. Each of the three races has four classes that are essentially the same across the board: the grunt infantry, support unit, leader, and stealthy special ops. Unfortunately, each of the characters you choose are tied to a specific server (WHY?!?); this is especially strange considering the relatively low numbers of people playing the game. Why spread them out over four servers already? I would have just started with two servers and roll in extras if needed, but what do I know?

The controls in Auto Assault are the classic WASD first person shooter system. You can change them around if you wish, but there are a large number of keys and rebinding everything is just a pain in the butt. Selecting targets is as easy as left clicking on them, and right clicking fires all of your weapons. I do very much like the targeting system in Auto Assault, as it is both easy to use and induces some strategy into the game. Your weapons will automatically follow an enemy unit, which is necessary considering the fast moving car-based action of Auto Assault. Each of your weapons has a firing arc, so the skill in Auto Assault’s combat involves positioning the enemy cars inside your firing arcs and letting loose with a flurry of destruction. This is a lot better than, say, Oblivion, where you end up attacking friendly units more often than the enemy. Enemies that are defeated each drop precious loot, which can be money, a gadget, or crafting resource.

Gameplay in Auto Assault comes in two flavors: player versus environment missions or player versus player arena (or open air) battles. The PvE missions are not varied at all, and either consists of a fetch quest or a kill quest: that’s it. As you can imagine, this gets boring rather quickly, but it’s the only way to make your car powerful enough to stand the PvP game. The missions don’t have any hidden surprises or branching events (like Oblivion or Guild Wars) and also lack the punch or excitement of the other games. Most of the enemies you encounter are randomly generated and most of the difficulty results from extremely lopsided battles between your powerful car and 10-20 level 2 bad guys. I will say that the PvE missions have clear waypoints and objectives with no fuzzy interpretation of what you’re supposed to do. It’s great to have such explicit instructions for the user. The PvP game is just slightly better, as you can challenge real humans (that are hopefully smarter than the AI). Problem is, there are so few people playing that it’s extrodinarily difficult to find anyone to fight against. I waited for 30 minutes during what I would consider peak times for a match (and still didn’t get to play). There were other people looking (anywhere between 2-5) but I suppose the game matches up similar skill levels, and there just aren’t enough people playing. Still, it’s fun in theory. You can venture to the center of the map where anyone that is not of your race is considered an enemy, but this is really intended for high-level players, since there are no restrictions on who can venture out there.

Although most of your time will be spent out in the open environment blowing stuff up, you can get out of your vehicles in any of the game’s towns. In these areas, you can acquire raw materials and craft them together, purchase new cars, and fight in the arena PvP bouts. You can trade with other players in the towns are well, but I’ve found that most people just run around getting missions and buying stuff. One of the main aspects of Auto Assault is the crafting mode, which is essentially where you can disassemble existing parts, add parts you find scattered around the map, and reassemble a more powerful weapon. It’s an interesting idea, but I doubt that most people will mess with it, since crafting requires specific parts that are sometimes hard to find (and would require blowing up wave after wave of enemy units, and that gets boring after a while). A lot of the game mechanics are the same as other RPGs. You have a certain number of hit points and you are destroyed when they reach zero. However, unlike most RPGs, your character doesn’t die or lose any of their stuff: you just get transported back to the closest friendly base and retain your progress in your current mission. So, the only real penalty for being destroyed is the time it takes to travel back to the mission location. This is good for new players, but eliminates most of the difficulty associated with RPGs and will leave expert players feeling like the game is much too easy. Like most other RPGs, you gain experience through combat and completing missions and level up during your progress. When you level up, you can spend points to improve your attributes: combat, tech (armor), theory (power), and perception (critical hits). You also receive skill points to boost your skills, which work a lot like spells in more traditional RPGs. There are skills that are specific towards your race and your occupation. There are some cool higher-level skills available in Auto Assault, like viruses, chain damage, traps, and summoned allies. The combination of skills and weapons results in some crazy and intense PvP battles (assuming you can find one, of course). Once you do receive some damage (and you will), you can easily repair your vehicle on a repair station ramp, although since dying doesn’t cause any ill effects, it’s worth it to die and be taken back to the closest repair station instead of driving all the distance.

So what does this all mean? Auto Assault is your basic MMORPG that tries to fool you into thinking its drastically different by offering car combat. Once you play the game enough, you’ll find out that, even though there are some interesting differences in the game (such as targeting arcs and crafting), most of Auto Assault is exactly the same as every other MMO. The game is initially fun to play, but when you do the same mission 50 times over, driving around like a taxi service delivering wires and the like, it tends to wear on you. Auto Assault would be better with some more players you could challenge in PvP (where I think the real strength lies), but you still need to trudge through the sub-par PvE missions in order to compete against other players. I doubt that players who are currently subscribed to any other MMO will immediately jump over to Auto Assault, but there might be some new coverts who are drawn in by the car-based ambiance. Auto Assault is not a bad game, it’s just not as original as you’d think. Auto Assault is just missing that attention-grabbing feature that would set it apart from the rest of the MMOs already available on the market. And the fact that Auto Assault requires a monthly fee will probably repel most players who are currently investing in other games. It’s a nice game, but Auto Assault is just too late and not unique enough to gather a large following.