mmo-a-week: week 4: fallen earth

So I’ve actually got a game I want to report on this week. Holiday didn’t allow me to pick up a new F2P game and the first rule of Closed Beta is well, yeah. But Steam had an evil sale on like 300 games, so I buckled and snagged a few.

Fallen Earth is not free to play, and it is not in beta any more. But it was on sale for 50% off last week, so that – combined with the recent comments I’ve been reading on GamerDNA was good enough for me.

Well, that, and there were 15-day trial keys available from The Escapist last weekend. So… close enough 😉

traffic sign

Week 4: Fallen Earth

I’d tried FE near the end of their beta cycle… and hated it. The controls were brittle and confusing. It was easy to inadvertently unwield your weapons, etc… and I died twice and never finished the intro. The experience was frustrating enough that I played the game for two hours before giving up on it entirely.

Thankfully, they’ve fixed a LOT since then. It’s playable. There are still some rough edges, but they’re manageable.

Unlike the previous games I’ve looked at, Fallen Earth is actually rated M (17+) for subject matter and language. I have not encountered anything overtly objectionable yet, and the violence is downright cartoonish for an M title these days, but it’s a harsh wilderness out there…

This might read a bit differently from my previous mmo-a-week reports because I didn’t actually take notes this time – I was too busy just playing the game 😉 Also, I played equally on two different machines, so my screenshots are in two different resolutions (some are full 1920×1080 HD behemoths), so be warned when you click.

Registration and Download

Well, the download was trivial. Steam handled all the work for me on that front. The total disk space requirement so far is 5.2gb after patching, so expect a wait if you’re on a slow link.

Registration was fairly simple as well. I logged into the official site and added my serial and billing info to my old beta account, and that was that.

Installation and Startup

Patching… did not go as smoothly. Steam has a problem with launching the updater on the machine I played on initially (64-bit Vista), and complained of the game being “unavailable”. A bit of searching later, led me to learn that I could just launch the patch client directly and everything was fine (\\Steam\\SteamApps\\common\\fallen earth\\FEUpdater.exe).

It worked fine directly from Steam when I installed again later on a different (32-bit XP) machine, so YMMV.

Steam also gave me a bonus item serial that was easy enough to redeem in game. I just waited until after the tutorial and typed /key to bring up the serial submission form. This wasn’t entirely obvious initially, and I tried to apply the code through the web site – where it told me that the serial looked valid but should probably be submitted in game (but didn’t say how). A quick query to the ubiquitous Help channel later and all was revealed.

Research and Waiting

I didn’t actually do any research before playing this time around, I just jumped in and let the game teach me what it would.

The general backstory is almost textbook post-apocalyptia:

~30 years from now, the big uber corporation’s tech is ready. Fully functional clone system with live neural backup sync to the server is unveiled. The US government promptly moves to ban the tech but the legislation does not pass. Eventually the company grows sufficiently large and powerful that they declare sovereignty in northwestern Arizona.

~45 years from now, the Shiva Virus (seriously, it’s always either Shiva or Chimera…) wipes out what it doesn’t mutate. And whatever survives the nukes. Asia is wiped out. The United States falls. Cloning stations are distributed throughout the Grand Canyon Province (one of the last bastions of civilization on the planet).

~60 years from now, the Hoover Dam is taken by some military types who expel the corporation and establish a martial society. Clones start being farmed for organs and other such pleasantness. The dynasty is passed on to the General’s son.

~100 years from now, the Children of the Apocalypse (CHOTA) rise as survivors of the virus who have reverted to a primitive level of society. CHOTA eat funny mushrooms and refuse to play nice with the neighbors.

~115 years from now, the second General is killed and the dynasty passes on. New management is a complete nut job with anger management issues who succeeds in alienating himself from everyone. CHOTA attack the Dam and he decides to blow it up in response. The player stops this from happening but does not survive the process. In a petty fit of revenge, Sr. Crazypants wipes the servers (with all of the clones’ nerual maps) in stead. They did not have a good offsite backup strategy.

4 years later, the player wakes up in a fresh, level 1 body.

The year is 2156 and we’re gonna hunt mutant chickens with a 2×4.

First Session

There is nothing to character creation other than the choice of a name and physical appearance. The game is entirely skill and equipment based. Character levels don’t even matter very much except as a minimum gage of how many skill points (AP, advancement points?) one has accumulated and as a baseline for all of your stats.

The initial tutorial introduces you to most of the game’s important systems – and starts you off at level 40 to make you big enough to render accidental death rather unlikely. It shows you how to walk around and scavenge from garbage piles and spend AP, puts you in a handful of combat – and combat avoidance situations, makes you interact with npc’s (questgivers, other conversers, and merchants), and forces you to drive an ATV while under fire.

The tutorial continues after you respawn at level 1, and while this is optional, I encourage you to stick with it. The sequence of immediate missions you’re given rewards you with a number of abilities, some much needed equipment upgrades, and a horse.

It’s not a good horse, but it beats walking. Horses are vehicles, just like motorcycles and the like. The primary difference (aside from top speed, storage capacity, and the like) seems to be that a medic can heal a horse while it takes a mechanic to fix a busted up ATV. Horses eat grain, vehicles drink gas.

rusted car

Vehicles are persistent objects as long as the owner is logged in. When you mount your horse and ride across town, you leave your horse outside and must come back to it if you want to get back on. There is none of the standard MMO’s magical summoning action going on. If you ride your horse deep into the wasteland to dig copper and wind up getting eaten by a giant stink bug in stead, well… you will respawn in town and your horse won’t.

You now have the decision of either walking out to your horse (which is thankfully marked with a waypoint on the map) or of getting it towed back to the garage/stables like you would a busted old truck 😉

Speaking of “spawning”, you are a clone. You’re a little bit mutant, but mostly you’re just a normal person who happens to have their brain constantly syncing back to the server. When you die, it sends a signal that wakes up the people printer. A few moments later, assuming the vats contain enough biomass to work with, you’re standing in town, more or less the same as before you died. You lose buffs and probably have some walking to look forward to, but there is otherwise not really any death penalty at early levels. You keep all of your gear (which isn’t explained by the game’s lore, but I’ll accept that little freebie).

Every 10% of a level, you earn 2 AP. AP may be spent either 1 at a time on a handful of core skills or 5 at a time on your basic stats. Stats do a few of the expected things but mostly just determine caps (and baseline values) of associated skills. In addition to the 20 AP per level, you can also earn a number of AP directly from missions. It is estimated that there are almost 300 bonus AP available in the game right now and that max level characters will likely have accumulated about 200 of them.

Tradeskills (geology, science, cooking, etc…) are all improved by use and their caps are all determined by the same stats, so it is entirely possible to max out every tradeskill in the game on one character. Recipes are learned in sets, and it is not a bad idea to pick up every cheap (10c) recipe book you encounter.

The actual crafting process takes RL time. You can queue up items to be produced as long as you’re carrying the ingredients and the required tools for production and can then go about your business or log out of the game completely. There is no furniture requirement for crafting, but if you do decide to hang out in an appropriate facility, there is like a 25% speed increase – which can really add up when producing big items with multiple hour crafting times. But this also means you can make bandages or ammo in the field without much penalty.

One of the core activities of the game is scavenging. You loot the corpses you kill, but you can also dig for ore or sift through trash or harvest cacti. With the right skills and tools, you can also actually harvest meat and more valuable components from a giant lizard in stead of simply ripping off one of its teeth as vendor trash. Crafting and scavenging reward experience, so it is theoretically possible for a character to avoid combat as a rule and still earn the AP required to advance and learn to craft bigger and better things – though I suspect that’s the sort of thing that is better left to an alt 😉

armadillo 1/3 - stalking armadillo 2/3 - skinning armadillo 3/3 - looting

My character is currently wearing pants that were manufactured from a combination of: lizard skins, scavenged grommets, cactus fibers, and dye condensed from some plant or another. A total of four tradeskills were involved in the manufacturing and the whole process felt completely intuitive. I didn’t set out to farm mats for the pants, it just sort of occurred to me that I’d likely gathered enough junk to make something useful, so I walked to the armourcrafting trainer and asked for a copy of his entry level pantscrafting manual and was pleased to realize I had the materials on hand and was only a skill point or two away from replacing the shorts I had dug out of a trash pile on the edge of town.

Something like over 90% of the items in the game are craftable in this way. Even horses – it is not difficult to train your own mount once you have the right knowhow. Player-crafted persistent housing is officially planned but is neither implemented nor impending.

My first marathon session ended at around level 3 (60+ AP). I had talked with a lot of people (of the RL variety, the game’s Help channel is very active), investigated a disturbance in a mine, acquired a used horse, learned that crossbows stink in melee, scavenged more junk than I could carry, made a guy a sandwich, and treated a lot of NPC’s who’d been injured or infected or envenomed for one reason or another.

pulling into science shop broken rails embry overlook

Other Sessions

My second big session saw me actually exploring away from the town I started in (there are like 12 options for starter towns in the first sector of the game).

sandworms

The game world is currently divided into 3 sectors, 10 are planned. Each sector contains about 15 levels worth of content. So the current level cap is 45, and the planned cap is 150. Again, levels don’t really mean much more than the accompanying AP. One of the big towns in S1 is “Kingman”, which I assume really is meant to be the ruins of the present day NW Arizona city. The other towns have familiar sounding names… but don’t necessarily have RL analogues.

In addition to the standard minimap, you have a “strategic map”, which defaults to basically just a bigger minimap. On a large enough monitor, you can see quite a bit of the area around you. The map may be toggled out of overhead view to show you a paper map of your sector. Sector 1 shows the 20 something settlements, old freeways, and assorted scribbles. It’s a nice thematic touch and is still useful enough to get you between cities. There’s no fog of war for this sort of thing, you have a paper map.

strategic map and tradeskills

I hit level 4 while wandering the wastes – if you get far enough away from the roads, nothing much at all seems to spawn, but the roads cover most of the region so that doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

I died a few times, but that didn’t bother me much – since there’s a spawn location in every town and my horse served as a nice marker for my exploration and scavenging.

About this time, when I started to get really comfortable with the game’s combat and started making what felt like real progress, I almost expected to hear Three Dog kick in with news updates on the radio.

The world isn’t as dense as Fallout 3’s… which really is to be expected. If the content were that thick, so too would be the players, and it’s bad enough dealing with 8 other guys crowded around the bank vault at the same time without having to compete with those same 8 all camping Tenpenny’s spawn on that blasted narrow penthouse balcony…

riding through the wastes

I eventually realized that aimless wandering wasn’t going to get me much of anywhere – no exp for riding around in circles and decided that I needed to get back on task. I decided to follow up on the main storyline quest (which recommended level 5+ and wasn’t kidding, it was rough at level 4 without a heavy combat focus) and wound up collecting tissue samples from assorted species in the area with a deadline. Had I managed to stay alive the entire time, it would have been much easier, but dying meant walking, meant the 30 minute limit actually felt pretty tight.

Somewhere about this time, I won a goofy trivia challenge and was awarded with a pretty sweet rifle. Too bad it requires 75 skill to use, I have like 26. I stuffed it in a vault to prevent myself from accidentally vendoring it.

storage space
transmission completed

Once I hit level 5, I heard other players talking about building an ATV – which I remembered talking to an NPC about once when buying feed for my horse. The thought of motorized transit intrigued me, so I set off in search of the first mission of the story arc that would lead me to learn how to build my own vehicle. I delivered some records to another town on behalf of the bank, rescued a lost girl from the hills outside of town, killed bandits impersonating pony express types, and eventually stumbled across an encrypted book.

Raising my science skill and hunting down the encryption key allowed me to decipher the book and taught me how to build a transmission 😉 While scavenging parts for the transmission – all of which I had possessed at one point in time but either spent making crossbow bolts or grenades or the aforementioned pants – I decided that it was time to get a better horse, since the level requirement for the final mission in the ATV chain is apparently 11 or 12.

I had already acquired enough nature skill and spare chips (yes, the currency is in poker chips) to start on a very nice horse upgrade right away. So that was pleasant. I parked my nag in the stables and rode off on something with about 5x the stamina and suddenly found myself able to travel between nearby towns without having to stop to feed the blasted horse every single trip.

The final assembly time on the transmission was something like 4 hours, so I logged out in the garage and called it a night.

Gameplay

Combat is really my only gameplay complaint with this game. It spends 90% of its time in a standard western style MMO interface, and the other 10% as a sort of mutant FPS… thing.

The tab key or middle mouse button toggles you in and out of combat, and changes your mouse cursor to a targeting reticle. If you choose to, you can make the game auto-switch into first person mode when in combat. I’ve chosen and tend not to regret the decision – I’ve only been jumped from behind three times as a result of dropping into first person for better combat control… and have only died twice as a result 😉

You can equip a number of weapons on your person for ready access… you have 6 slots in total, so a standard sort of loadout might be two strings of grenades and a pair of pistols at your waist and a sword and a rifle over your back. Switching weapons is done via the Ctrl key + either your mouse wheel or the 1-6 keys. In most fights, I wind up switching at least once. While killing the fraudulent postal employees, I managed to cycle through all of my weapons in order to keep up with everything (since I was low on each type of ammo before starting the mission).

This whole system really takes some getting used to. Once in combat, it isn’t quite FPS. So while you have to aim shots at your moving opponents, there is an average level of MMO standard client-server sync latency to deal with, so a lag burst can make you miss a shot at a moving target and have to endure a few seconds of beatdown while you reload. It is also not uncommon to get stabbed by guys who haven’t quite entered melee range on your screen. There is also no “alternate fire” option – left button is shoot left hand, right button is shoot right hand (if you’re using a two-handed weapon, either button does the same thing).

On the up side, you have an MMO style actionbar to chug pills and activate specials from. You are a mutant, so you have some super powers, but initially, they aren’t much to write home about. There are separate stamina and “gamma” bars for fueling your normal combat specials and your mutant powers. Gamma powers are more powerful, but gamma also appears to regenerate a bit more slowly.

There are a lot of stance/aura and short buff sort of abilities to be had, and the combinations are nice. You can also get buffs from food and drink like one would expect from a modern western MMO. These make a huge difference in survivability, and I highly recommend acquiring a few of the cheaper ones as soon as possible. Even the lowest grade of craftable food (vegetable “relish” of all things) is something like 1 stamina per 6 second regen buff that lasts an hour, and an extra several stamina points might make a big difference.

Outside of combat, everything works how you would expect. The user interface is very flexible – everything can be dragged around and resized as desired.

Art and Music

You know… I don’t even know if the game HAS music. Huh. Never really thought about it. Would not be surprised if they don’t. I’ll have to check now…

Time passes while the game patches and I wait to log in…

Ok, sure enough, there is some occasional light background music. Nothing abrasive, nothing amazing. Just music to keep things from being completely silent. A little western ambiance. I like it.

The art is bog standard desert wasteland with rusted out cars, abandoned houses, and crumbling highways. But it’s not low grade by any means. And there are times where the cleverness of the level design and art team shines through. The animations are pretty standard, and while some of them are slower than I’d like (reloading a crossbow and mounting a horse take -forever-), they work.

amusement park rides amusement park dinosaurs
pagoda wind farm

The game has a day/night cycle. The stars aren’t very impressive, but the sunset/sunrise effects are jaw dropping (in context). Static screenshots do not do them justice. And they’re apparently a bit different every “day”. Every morning, players comment about the visual. Having lived in Arizona for approximately a decade, I can confirm that anyone else who’s ever witnessed a desert sunrise/sunset would have immediately disbelieved anything less awesome than what they delivered.

Oh, and it’s just the visual of the stars that isn’t terribly impressive (they look like planets). But they are actually astronomically correct. You can find constellations in the right parts of the sky as one would expect to see them from Earth.

sunrise frying eggs at sunrise

Stability and Performance

Other than the issues with launching via Steam on my Vista box, I’ve not had any problems. The client has never crashed or completely lagged out on me. The help line is full of people complaining of one bug or another, for which the standard response is to relog. I’ve never had to do so.

Well, correction. I did get hit with a poison visual effect that wouldn’t go away, once… but out of the dozens and dozens of times I’ve been poisoned, one visual glitch is pretty minor. I did eventually relog to get rid of it, but it didn’t impact game performance by any means.

On both machines, I enjoyed an average of 30 fps with spikes up into the 50’s and the very very rare drop down to 14-15 range (but I think that was my machine doing something else in the background).

There is no latency (ping) display available in the game, but I only rarely experienced anything that impacted my gameplay. Once or twice, I saw chickens warp 10 or 20 feet, but this never happened to me while in combat. Some other players complained of this sort of behavior on a much broader scale, to the point where they accused the chickens of being warp tainted by Tzeentch 😉

While the game doesn’t give a latency display, they do offer the refreshing option to display bandwidth usage. Most times, my bandwidth display measured less than 0.05K/s in either direction. The highest downstream spike I ever observed was to 3, and that was upon approaching a heavily populated town (with like 30-40 players milling about if I had to guess). I never observed very high upstream use. I’m assuming this number is in kilobytes, not kilobit. So that would be about 400 bytes per second on the low end up to only 24 kilobit on the high end (which means that like 8 people could probably play at once on the worst DSL connection money can buy).

Final Grade

From completely panning the game 4 months ago, this is a complete turnaround for me. I’m giving the game a 9 based on my experiences so far. They’re clearly paying attention to bug reports and have a very involved community. The game is steadily improving and is quite possibly even worth the subscription fee 😉

Pro

  • Welcome to the apocalypse!
  • The immersion factor is very high.
  • The dev team is clearly making great strides to improve things.
  • Available on steam, which means easy acquisition, download, and installation.
  • Steam gave me an in-game t-shirt full of plusses.
  • Sandboxy, lots of room to explore.
  • There is actually a vast wealth of quest content, I have not had to grind yet.
  • Classless, the entire game is skill based, but they still provide some guidelines in game for advice.
  • Horse at the end of tutorial.
  • Bigger better horses available later on, as well as actual motorized vehicles.
  • Vehicles/horses double as storage.
  • Very active help channel and gm’s.
  • Good community, lots of helpful fan sites cropping up.
  • Mini-dings, you earn ap every 10% of a level (and from quests) in stead of all at once.
  • Everyone can craft just about anything, eventually.
  • Crafting doesn’t require you to stand at a hot forge all day.
  • Crafting and scavenging reward exp.
  • Recipes come in batches.
  • Just about everything can be crafted, even horses (which are technically “trained”, but same system).
  • Overhead strategic map is awesome, paper strategic map is thematic goodness.
  • Paper doll of doom. 6 active weapon slots, innumerable clothing slots.
  • Quick change between weapons.
  • Pretty sunsets. Nostaligic visual elements for those familiar with the region.
  • Big plans for expansions all sound wonderful.
Con

  • Patcher didn’t like launching from steam on vista.
  • No respec system yet, but that’s not a huge deal since you can almost always just get some more skill points.
  • Corpse running to your horse in the middle of nowhere can be a bit of a downer.
  • Crafting some items can take hours.
  • The contents of recipe books are sometimes not entirely obvious.
  • Currency is hard to acquire early on and digging through trash piles trying to find 3 units of “weak antiseptic” can take a while.
  • Sometimes the sandboxy nature makes it easy to get sidetracked for a few hours.
  • FPS style combat is still a bit rough, expect to die while you figure it out.
  • Rifles stink in melee.
  • If you’ve seen one blasted postapocalyptic landscape, you’ve seen them all.
macbeth

Afterthoughts

I’m blown away with the improvements. Fallen Earth went from being a completely forgettable, poorly implemented, derivative attempt at a hybrid shooter/mmo to being a downright immersive sandbox mmorpg. I like it. I plan on playing regularly for the duration of my “free” month and will decide whether or not to continue the subscription based on the content they announce for January.

Oh, and I can make gunpowder. Now if only I knew how to wield a rifle 😛

What’s Next?

Not sure. I’m in one closed beta and am signed up for another one that I really hope I get into. If I can’t find anything terribly interesting tomorrow, I’ll probably be taking another whack at the first random kMMO that accosts me with a banner ad. Maybe Florensia? Dunno.

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