Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Fallen Earth -> Review








Originally published on Game People


Taking a familiar setting and building a compelling world is just one of Fallen Earth’s many successes. I was blown away by the depth and attention to detail this post-apocalyptic MMO portrayed and the manner with which I was drawn into its world. For a long time I have argued that online games cannot give a deep and meaningful experience due to their very nature - but there’s more heart and soul here than in many other recent games. Whether I was delving deep into the crafting system, following the story or simply taking in the haunting environments, Fallen Earth took me on a journey into a world I’ll never forget.


Bleak wastelands, nuclear fallout and zombies are some of the most overused settings in videogames and other modern media. For every highly original drama or existential art-piece there’s a thousand Mad Max clones and Fallout tributes all vying for the same space. That was the attitude that I went into Fallen Earth with; that no amount of unique gameplay or well-conceived online structure could rescue the game from painful and familiar mediocrity.


What a fool I was - because Fallen Earth drew me into its post-apocalyptic world with its atmosphere, gameplay, deep crafting system and coherent story. All within an MMO template that turned my preconceptions about what online games are capable of on their head. Not only is Fallen Earth a tremendous MMO, but it’s a stunning single-player RPG that’s as deep and involving as anything in recent memory.


What worked so well was how the game covered up most of the usual MMO conceits in a completely logical and coherent way. You can survive death because you're a clone and the multiple cloning factories will happily spew out replacements when you fall in battle. This does wonders for making the world feel believable. Though that’s an odd statement to make about a game that's played exclusively online - it shows that Fallen Earth has a quality that surpasses even my anti-social gaming habits.


The main reason for this is simply the environment of the world. Starting off in an instance set within the Hoover Dam complex and attempting to escape from an insurgent attack serves as an excellent tutorial and as a compelling jumping-off point. I'll admit that the first hour isn't perhaps as thrilling as it could be, but the final moments of this section when you realise how well death is integrated into the game is awesome.


It was only when I stepped out into the wider world of Fallen Earth that the environment truly hit home. The attention to detail in every location is just as amazing as the wasteland from Fallout 3. Abandoned airports, villages pieced together from the rotting remains of civilisation and the general sense of an old-west frontier town purveys the game in a tremendous fashion. The biggest different between this and Bethesda's masterpiece is how the sense of bleak loneliness doesn’t overcome the experience. I struggled with Fallout because despite its black humour, its despairing vision of the future was so depressing to play in. That same environment and humour runs deep in Fallen Earth, but the world feels far more alive and much more compelling to play in when you can see and interact with other human players.


That last statement is important because I find interacting with other players a sure-fire way to take me out of any experience I'm having. Nothing ruins a perfectly crafted fantasy environment by being messaged 'Get ur Gold 'ere, PM HaxorrX for cheap gold' all the time. But I found my experience heightened and improved by the active community that resides there. Why? Well, similar to Eve Online, Fallen Earth operates within a single server - you’re all logged into the same world all the time. While that leads to some technical problems in highly populated areas it gives a real sense of existence and uniqueness to the world.


That same coherent logic is present throughout the areas of the game. There are horses for transport because hey, it's the apocalypse and fuel is scarce - you can obtain an ATV but looking after it includes refuelling and repairing broken engine parts. There are factions and a loyalty system because that's exactly the manner in which humanity would degrade under such circumstances.


And this is all before I discovered how deep the crafting system goes. I must admit to having a schizophrenic affair with crafting in most MMOs. Either it feels like an afterthought and a worthless pursuit, or I get sucked into the professions - a la Lord of the Rings Online-style - and end up playing as a woodcutter for the majority of the game. I was more than happy experiencing the bleak wilderness that Fallen Earth portrayed so well until I decided to change my 'Old Nag' for something more mechanical. The path to making an ATV is complicated and long, but the results are worth it and this lengthy excursion into mechanics suddenly sparked my interest in the game's crafting system.


To say its deep would be selling this aspect of the game short by several degrees. It's a massive and highly involving occupation that fundamentally shapes the way you want to play the game. Being a go-getting kind of clone I wanted the ability to make my own weapons and specialise in rifles. As well as gaining XP in the usual manner the game also gives you Action Points (AP) for spending on skills, mutations, stats and tradeskills. These points help you decide what path to take in the game - whether to be a high-damage dealer, leader, medic, trader, pistoleer, etc. All this ties into the crafting system as you level up each skill and get more proficient at your chosen craft.


Learning books and blueprints, collecting a wide myriad of junk materials and finally crafting a hand-made crossbow or rifle is an effort that leads to a great sense of accomplishment -akin to creating objects in the real world. It reminds me a lot of the early days of Star Wars Galaxies when the path to making a Lightsaber was a mystical and special process, when you could become a Beast Master or an Entertainer because it fitted the feel of the world rather than being an arbitrary system for earning more money and XP.


All these various systems and points blend seamlessly together in Fallen Earth and I'm finding it hard, even after spending so much time in its world, to stop playing. It's kept me from writing this review because I've become so embroiled in my character and living out a frontier existence in the post-apocalypse. What I've touched on has already elevated Fallen Earth to become one of my most compelling games I've ever played, but its overall presentation and sharp visuals deserve a mention too.


When I first started the game the edges were definitely rough and the initial instanced tutorial was a shaky affair that had me worried at first. But taken as a whole, this grimy start fitted the style of the game and the fidelity of the outside world makes a tremendous and deliberate contrast when you finally step out from the cloning booth. The distinct lack of stylised graphics and models, like those found in World of Warcraft or Borderlands, helps to support that sense of reality and has been recently bolstered by an upgraded grphics engine.


Fallen Earth has been a revelation to me; not only has it been an MMO that's encouraged me to stay within its world due to the environment and setting, but it’s also shown me that the genre is far from the stagnant mess I thought it was after playing Aion: Tower of Eternity. Fallen Earth has come out of nowhere to become a game I can recommend whole-heartily, whether or not you're after a multi or single player experience. It has a depth and environment that most other usual releases simply fail to achieve; it's addictive, immersive and an experience I can't wait to get back to.







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