Now I can’t tell how you folks feel about MMORPGs but I can tell you that, in my experience, they haven’t lived up to their promises. From the beginnings of this second wave of MMORPGs that began with Ultima Online I have yet to find a title that really lives up to the claim of being a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing GAME. Instead I have found the titles that I have sampled to be a tedious chore, more an exercise in acquisition then any form of playable entertainment. Again I don’t know about you lot, but I look for something more engaging then standing around for hours waiting for some big meanie to spawn so I can engage in static combat. All with the sole purpose of getting some new item that won’t make much difference to my character and a tiny drop of xp in the yawningly empty reservoir of experience I need to gain that extra level. This with not much more to look forward to than repeating the same tasks, repetitively, albeit with larger numbers, until I wise up and do something else, or die of brain rot. Of course it need not be this way, but will developers ever have the courage to offer us something different?
So with this positive opinion of the genre let me shuffle you off in the direction of one of the newest contenders in the rapidly-filing arena of MMORPGs, all vying for your time and money.
Neocron does itself a lot of favours from the start in tackling my initial trepidations about the current state of MMORPGs. Firstly, and most famously, it attempts to introduce something different into the combat by placing some emphasis on FPS skills. Although the effect is minor it does help the gameplay in that you actually need to aim your weapons at the character, and can use scenery as cover. So much better than other systems where it is possible, even recommended, to leave your character swinging away while you go watch some TV or read a book. Although the system that determines hits and damages is still a stat based one it is a welcome attempt to do something different. The inclusion of the Nav-Ray is also another genius idea. This is a navigational aid which appears in your HUD; enter a destination, even a mission goal, and an arrow will point you in the right direction, turning into a line to follow as the target gets near. So handy for the 'noob' and useful even after you know your way around.
The setting of Neocron is also a first in the genre. The whole game world is centred on the city of Neocron, a sprawling 28th century metropolis of the cyberpunk style. Yes this is the first MMORPG which takes this most obvious and compelling of backdrops, offering up the possibilities of emulating your heroes from Bladerunner/Nueromancer/Shadowrun, etc.
There are only a few classes that you can choose from, the Spy, Private Eye, Psi Monk and Gentank. These classes cover enough of the RPG archetypes to allow you to get close to the character you want but some more would defiantly have improved things. The skill system is rather lacking, with few avenues to follow and a depressing difficulty to up any non-combat skills due to the combat heavy nature of the gameplay. Throughout my time in Neocron I was never really filled with a sense of developing my character through his skills, relying instead on new equipment to change my tactics. There is a rather nifty item creation system that works rather well, although it can be a chore to source the necessary materials.
The interface is a mixture of easy use; with hotkeys, an excellent help system, integrated forums and email, simple mission generation and a reasonable amount of settings options, to daftly muddled; switching between movement and character manipulation is a right pain, the character screens can become a cluttered, windowed mess and the whole thing could have done with much more thought put into it. The interface doesn’t let the game down but it is too often a hindrance to get my thumbs up.
The sound in the game is passable, with the announcements coming down from the billboards adding much atmosphere, yet the weapon and creature sounds are uninspired and flat. The graphics have their good points with the different regions of the city being well realised and a reasonable sense of scale is given when out in the Wastelands. However the creature models are again dull, as well as blocky, and the texturing throughout the game has a tendency to be bland and repetitive. The lack of visual styles available to characters has a negative effect as well. Quake 2 kept coming to mind.
Now to the real beef I have with Neocron. Even with its FPS leaning the bloody gameplay is the same as all the others – dull and repetitive. Now if you are into that kind of thing then Neocron has some other flaws which might scare you off. The missions are so routine and samey that the level of tedium which other MMORPGs took weeks to instil in me happened in Neocron in record time. There is also a big problem with the population of Neocron. Or rather, the almost total lack of it. There are four servers, with the busiest (600+ players) being the German speaking one. The three English servers have some players, but Neocron has yet to reach the critical mass necessary to make it a viable gaming world. This being said the players that are there are a friendly, helpful bunch.
If you are a massive fan of MMORPGs then Neocron will not put you off as much as it did to me. It has some fine points and does some things rather well. However if you are of the more casual persuasion, then I would recommend that you steer clear of this game, at least until it has been properly cleaned up and finished off. Even then I doubt that it will provide enough entertainment. I mean come on, Star Wars Galaxies will be out soon. Hopefully that game will reignite the passion I once felt for this genre.