Horizons: Empire of Istaria
Mention dragons to the average man on the Clapham omnibus and you’re in for one of two reactions. Either, "Dragons! Cool. Coolest of the cool. Wanna see my collection of 20-sided dice?" or it’s, "Dragons? Pshaw, away from me you fiend. I pour scorn upon you and your geeky kind with your D&D ways. And besides, what the hell are we doing on an omnibus in the 21st Century?"
Atari is hoping that Horizons, Artifact Entertainment’s first foray into the MMOG genre, will attract the attention of the former rather than the latter, thanks to the inclusion of playable dragons. As in dragons, right, that you can play. You may whoop or shudder now, according to taste.
"The dragons are cool," says Horizons' creative director David Bowman. A world filled with fire-breathers wouldn’t be much cop, so a measure of balancing has been necessary. "Dragons start as juveniles and can only breathe fire at a single opponent. Since they don’t get to use the millions of different weapons, shields and other equipment, they instead place them in their hoards. A hoard’s value provides benefits and is one of the prerequisites in qualifying for the Adult Rite of Passage." Once passed, flight and widespread fire-breathing come into play. "There is also an Ancient Rite," adds Bowman, "allowing larger dragons, higher flight and frost, acid or electrical breath attacks."
Artifact is keen to stress that Horizons isn't just about the dragons - other races have unique abilities too. "I believe many gamers will try playing a dragon," Bowman suggests, "but, as we are seeing in our beta testing, the other eight living races are also cool and popular in varying ways." Yeah, but none sound like Sean Connery. On the face of it, Horizons seems like just another standard swords ’n’ sorcery role-playing affair. Standard EverQuest. But beneath the surface there are plenty of original ideas at work, the biggest of which being property development. We’re not quite talking the world’s first massively multiplayer online estate agency or anything, but buying land and developing your personal little empire is a key aspect to your prosperous life in the game world of Istaria.
"Many games have restricted players to one pre-built building or the player community is actually a zone, separate from the rest of the world," explains Bowman. "I understand the technical limitations that make this necessary in other games, but Horizons has seamless player-built communities with players making the choice of which buildings they want and deciding their positions and orientation on the property. You can construct as many buildings as you can fit and afford on property." Neither is it simply a pile of plots on a barren farmland in generic locales. "It was essential that the world of Istaria be truly three-dimensional," says Bowman. "The magic of the dragons allows their communities to be crafted from immense boulders suspended in the sky. Entire cities are on floating islands, which ancient magic has brought into being."
Frequent Flyer Miles
Istaria also benefits from being a seamless world, rather than a series of pre-loaded 'zones’. Travel from one majestic location to another takes place in a fluid manner. Or, as Bowman rather fancifully describes, "When you descend into the dwarven city of Aughundell, tunnelled into the rock of the world, you don’t enter through a portal or some other zone-hiding device. You walk through the mighty main hall and directly into the depths of Istaria."
As far as story content goes, Horizons is somewhat vague at present. There’s the usual 'looming evil sweeping across the land’ malarkey, although Bowman assures players that the world will be a dynamic one, constantly updating with new content. "We can, and will, change the world in real time around the players," he urges. "This will not be done capriciously but will reflect the ongoing story and the player’s impact on the world, while creating massive events that sweep across an entire continent." The extensive list of careers hints at a deeply involving game (players can travel along any job path at will), from standards such as paladins, rangers and sorcerers, down to specialists like tailors, miners and confectioners (Chocolate Eclair +3, anyone?). There are also game-specific job paths such as Flame Disciples, Bloodmages and Chaos Warriors.
Mainly though, it’s the dragons that Artifact is relying on to pull in the punters. With the November release date still looking firm, it’ll have barely half a year to find its feet before the big one, EverQuest II, arrives on the scene. Then we ll see whether Bowman and co manage to pass their own Adult Rite of Passage.
Beta Off Dead
The Testing Stages For Horizons Have Proven To Be A Boon For Artifact
The standard practice for any new MMOG is to run a number of closed beta sessions - sessions that journalists aren’t allowed anywhere near. In fact most have extensive sign-up sheets and non-disclosure agreements to sign that include outright "are you a filthy hack?" questions that cause alarm bells to ring and SWAT teams to descend upon you should you accidentally tick 'yes’.
Horizons has currently held three such sessions, with Bowman and the team learning bundles along the way. "The beta phases have been great in helping us refine our policies and procedures," he says. "We are just entering the first full content feedback phase and we'll see many changes in advancement, loot, quests, combat, community building, interface, etc, as a result. We’ve already added many features to the interface as a direct result of player feedback."
Download Horizons: Empire of Istaria
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Horizons is a huge undertaking in many ways. Artifact Entertainment is trying to create a world much bigger and more varied than Ultima Online's Britannia - to put things in perspective you can add all the lands of Norrath, Britannia and Derreth together and they won't match the total size of Istaria. But it doesn't stop there, add to this player-capable realms of Air and Water, with creatures such as Dragons, Demons and Limurians (an underwater reptile), and you get the feeling that depth is as much of a priority for the developers as size.
A lot of Horizons is still under well-protected raps, but info is sneaking out slowly and the 'final' engine graphics are out and look nice - imagine Everquest with a cartoony edge. Races are substantially different from the norm - the Elf lovers will not be disappointed, but there are also lizard types and Giants. Players won't be limited in warfare either: fight on land, sea and in the air, just remember that the Dragon you are hunting isn't Al, it's another player. An unusual aspect of Horizons is that players will age, have a family and will need to mature. This particularly applies to races like the Dragons who, although ultimately very powerful, start off very weak. How death is to be handled is not yet known but Artifact is promising many changes to the normal approach.
Wor/zons (Istaria) is split into independent realms ' which each have their own distinct politics, religions and .. attitudes. Furthermore, they will also develop their own plot-lines and players will have the opportunity to become involved in these - or not. Player-killing (PK-ing) is not detailed much, though vague promises of "something very different" keep coming from the team, with hints of a player's Deity coming to help him out if a high level PK attacks him - how does this work? Nobody knows.
Overall Horizons sounds great, but it's too early to say too much. One thing is for certain: you'll need a ninja PC to meet the minimum specs. PIII500,128Mb RAM, 32Mb 3D card, 3D soundcard... this won't be a game for the light-hearted (or those with a light wallet). Having said that, there's no projected release as yet (2002 is stated) and it's early days - don't be surprised if we don't see Horizons for quite a while, by which time the spec won't look so daunting.
Snapshots and Media
- All Points Bulletin
- City of Heroes
- Dark Age of Camelot: Darkness Rising
- Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach
- EVE Online
- EverQuest II: Kingdom of Sky
- Guild Wars 2
- League Of Legends
- Lineage II: The Chaotic Chronicles
- Nevermore 3
- Runes Of Magic
- Star Trek Online
- World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King