Earth and Beyond
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Earth And Beyond is unlike most other online role-playing games. It is set in a distant future rather than a fantasy past. It doesn’t kick off by overwhelming you with endless stats and boring you with weeks of mundane, soul-destroying tasks. It gets you out where the action is right away. It’s aimed at a broad audience, unlike the recent Anarchy Online or the potentially decent Neocron. But then maybe none of this is so surprising when you consider Command & Conquer creator Westwood is behind it.
Now, before we go any further it is worth mentioning that although Earth And Beyond looks like a space combat game, it doesn't play like traditional space combat games such as X- Wing or Wing Commander. The game is almost entirely mouse driven and success in combat depends exclusively on the skills your character has built up rather than on your own dexterity with the controls. Fans of games such as Freespace or Elite may well be a little disappointed at this, but in its defence the game has much more to it than combat.
Keeping Up Appearances
Customising your character and your ship is one of Earth And Beyond's strengths. Despite its aim of trying to get people playing quickly, you can spend a good couple of hours picking out foreheads and tattoos for your character or choosing a nice green hull for your ship. None of this has any effect on the gameplay of course, but not having to wade through stats and skill tables and having only to concentrate on your appearance makes the game feel that much more inviting.
To keep things simple there are only three races in the game, each offering a choice of only three professions; trader, warrior or explorer. Picking a side will depend primarily on what you want to be. Although it may just have as much to do with aesthetics as anything else since your choice of race and profession will dictate what ship you will have. And as much as I wanted to be a Progen Warrior, there was no way I was going to fly something that looked like it had been fashioned out of Duplo bricks by a two-year-old. I have standards, you know.
A couple of ridiculous looking spaceships aside, Earth And Beyond is a very good looking game. Each system is populated with jump gates, asteroids, planets, space stations, some bizarre alien jellyfish and the occasional spatial anomaly. As space games go, the world of Earth And Beyond is incredibly varied and packed with detail. More importantly, even at this pre-release stage it is incredibly stable, although at the moment the game isn’t particularly heavily populated. After about eight hours playing time I’ve only come across a handful of human players.
Having not had much chance to engage in combat it is difficult to gauge how battles will be conducted, but having played a couple of training missions combat seems to be wildly oversimplified. It’s a case of clicking on a potential target and if it’s at your level, you just keep pressing the key that corresponds to the weapon you want to fire until you win. The fact that death doesn’t have much consequence in the game adds even less urgency to the battles, but again I must admit to having very little experience so far. At the moment it looks like the battles later on are much more tactical than they first appear, as specialist skills and equipment have a much greater bearing on the outcome.
Brave New Worlds
As is typical with most Westwood games Earth And Beyond is deceptively simple, yet one would imagine hard to master and finely balanced all round. Less typical of the famous Las Vegas codeshop is that E&B boasts plenty of original features, not least of which is the fact that as well as space combat and exploration, you can dock at any of the game’s stations and walk around the interior on foot, meet up with other players, hit the bar, pick up a mission or just head for the trading floor. It all adds another level of interaction to the game, which together with the easy-to-use communications, should prove popular.
As Earth And Beyond isn’t even considered to be at the beta stage, it’s impressive that it’s already as stable as some established online games. Not all the ships are in yet, and the full depth of the game’s story won’t be explored until it is released later this year, but there’s already much here that sets it apart. For Westwood, Earth & Beyond represents a brave step into the unknown, and for thousands of potential online gamers who until now have been sidelined due to a lack of titles, there is much to look forward to. Hopefully Westwood will charge a realistic rate for the game because with Star Wars Galaxies on the way (as well as a space expansion pack), Earth And Beyond could be left behind very quickly.
Download Earth and Beyond
In The search for a unique twist on the online RPG phenomenon, Westwood has put its best foot forward with a third-person trading and exploration space combat game. After choosing from three races: Terran, Progen and Jenquai, and a total of six classes, which mix and match the trader, explorer and warrior professions, you're sent to your home planet for some in-depth training before entering the big bad world where all the 'real' players live.
If you've read the game blurb and you're thinking 'Elite Online' then you're barking up the wrong interstellar tree. Instead, start thinking about beautiful graphics and an excellent character development system which allows you to gain experience and level up your character either through combat, exploration (yes, you gain experience for just flying around to places you haven't been to) and trading (each time you make a profit on sales you gain experience).
This means you can reach a reasonable level (maximum level is 150) without fighting at all, although to reach higher levels you will need to get your hands dirty in all three types of play. There is no forced player vs player combat, probably because the combat itself is pretty average (point and shoot -that's it) but with the ability to train yourself up in skills from all professions and make your own weapons and items, there's plenty to do. There's a rumour that the in-game storyline warning of an alien race which will threaten the three existing races is going about to kick off.
With any luck this might wake up the game's community, which keeps to itself at the moment. As it stands it's a solid game with gorgeous areas to explore, but it's lacking that elusive spark. We'll let you know in an update how it stands the test of time.
Earth & Beyond is a sci-fi role-playing adventure game, the latest -- and perhaps greatest, so far -- of the massively multiplayer gaming environments. We barely scratched the surface; but judging by the chart of the known galaxy (a poster of which is included in the boxed version of the software.) there's a lot of beautifully rendered space on these servers to explore. Multi-user environments have come a long, long way since the text-based MUDs and MOOs of old and with the vast resources of EA behind it, Earth & Beyond is a realization of much of the potential in internetworking for creating virtual worlds -- or, in this case, parts of a virtual galaxy.
This title is rated Fans Only here but that would apply to many types of fan, including those interested in RPG, the sci-fi literary genre, multiplayer games and/or playing at online socialization. Fans of fantastic vistas might also want to check in for a peek. The galactic landscape in E&B can be breathtaking. A more general gaming public beyond that may not be too interested in what amounts to a fancy online club with an up front membership fee and monthly dues.
Too bad for them though. Great sounds and exquisite graphics are almost a given with good game companies these days but the visuals here are safely over the top. The game is stable and fairly nimble over dial-up connections. And rightly so, since all the hefty processing is done by your local machine. The client install takes a 2-gigabyte bite out of the hard drive.
Flying, grouping and fighting in this vast 3-dimensional galaxy are simple in the seamless interface. E&B also shines in the area of communication, essential for an online game. The choice of channels is highly granular, with game-wide chat channels available for New Players and for each race/profession combo, and you can set up password-protected private channels. Though social aspects of the galaxy are emphasized, you can, if you prefer, turn off all the channels and venture around without any chatter at all.
In sum, Earth & Beyond is a must play, and see, for those who value time spent adventuring out there in the virtual galaxy.
Note: This game is rated T(I) for Teen (interactive) but the terms of service on the web site mention that you must be 18 or older to have an account. And players must agree to a strict code of conduct, as they should be.
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