From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Review: The First Taste Is Free (NeoSteam)

NeoSteam and the Free to Play MMORPG Model

The MMO (massively multiplayer online) space these days is a bazaar full of mysteries and exotic treats summoned forth to tempt the gamer’s soul in all of us. Whatever your appetite, there’s an MMO game for you, science fiction, space opera, horror, superheroes, fantasy, dating sims, war-games, anime, hard sci-fi, you name it, there’s an MMO out there or in development that is aimed squarely at your heart by way of your wallet. They all have a niche draped with suggestive banner ads and the sweet sweet perfume of “Free to Play” to lure you in past the threshold like a firefly answering the call of the bug-zapper. Like our metaphorical bazaar, however, the marketplace is also full of cheaply generated copies and knockoffs that are barely worth the time it takes dig through the shelves.

NeoSteam is another one of these “Free to Play” MMO’s out there, but contrary to my usual paranoia about anything with the word “Free” in the title, has thus far been worth the time to download. You sign up for an account at no charge and are able to download the entire game and install it right away. The “Free to Play” business model then offers you the option to purchase any number of items from in-game credits (guilder, gold pieces, chits, credits, whatever) to of some sort to special weapons, objects or even access to new levels of the game. I was expecting a fun, light RPG experience, not as deep or heavy as, say, World of Warcraft or City of Heroes.

When I got past the intro movie, however, the “newness” of this particular game became immediately evident. At this time, NeoSteam seems to be possessed of a mere two servers. Even if they are sharding, two servers suggests this is still very lightly inhabited. If you are a true “collector”, a person who enjoys the gameplay mechanic of completing quests and collecting “stuff” this means you aren’t going to have to worry about scarcity if items, even rare ones. If you’re someone who revels in the roleplaying aspects of MMO’s though, it may prove difficult to find people to join you. There is also no real way to tell what the load is on these servers, so at any given point in time you may find yourself the only person in a city full of NPC’s or one of a hundred milling n00bs all trying to kill the same rat.

The gameplay thus far is classic RPG, find an NPC, complete the quest, get the stuff, but if you are playing RPG’s this is part and parcel of the whole experience. It’s like playing an FPS and knowing that you have to shoot things, or playing a platformer and knowing the next puzzle is simply a matter of timing your jumps. The character customization is still extremely basic. You can choose from a handful of generic base characters to start from, Human (male), Taxn Human (female), Pom (male or female), Lupine (male) or Lyell (female). From there you have the standard series of talents or skillsets. In this case you have Warrior, Scout, Mystic and Mechanist. The characters are low-poly and fairly low detail, built with speed and efficiency of animation in mind. Loose robes, long hair, tails, anything that might any additional rigging or any sort of built-in physics engine have all been culled, presumably to save time and costs, however, because of the “Pay for Stuff” aspect of the game, you can improve these elements without a significant time investment if you want to pay the cash.

The fad recently has been to give the player an “intro level” a unique scripted adventure that appears fairly high-end in order to introduce them to the gameplay and to give them a taste of what’s to come. NeoSteam eschews this convention, preferring to drop the player right into their first set of basic quests. That’s not to say there’s no instruction given, but rather than make it something that shows you higher-level gameplay, they drop you right into the basic rat-killing quests (granted, in this game they’re not rats, they’re a Pokemon lookin’ critter called a “Furleaf” but they serve the same basic in-game function.

The key thing to remember about this game, and games like it, is that the developers have a vested interest in improving it over time. While I may be cribbing about things like polycount and low-resolution texturing, that’s the art-snob in me speaking. I know from experience that the longer the game runs, and the more members it attracts, the richer the experience is likely to become. The real question is whether or not you want to wait for that critical mass to arrive that will turn this into a proper contender for some of the more popular FtP’s (like Wizard’s 101).

Steampunk is not a new genre, but it has been building an audience and its own reputation over the past several decades. With authors like William Gibson (you know you ended up at “The Difference Engine” when you ran out of cyberpunk) and classic comic book artists like Phil Foglio working up series’ like “Girl Genius” this speculative fiction genre continues to expand with the grim determination of an epic in the making. NeoSteam has slipped a little far into the anime look for my personal tastes, but I can see how it’s bright-eyed visual style would have a broader appeal than the classic Victorian underpinnings that are the usual hallmark of the genre.

If you are the kind of player who likes to be first, who likes to hit level 50 before anyone else in the game has even had the chance to clear their first Epic raid, then you are going to want to pick this up as soon as possible, the uniqueness of the Steampunk theme is sure to attract new players pretty quickly. If you prefer more depth, both to your quests and your visuals, you’ll have to be patient.

After nearly 8 years working in financial services powerhouses like Morgan Stanley and Paine Webber, Kimberly Unger left to pursue her passion for videogames. As a producer she helped develop an initial proof of concept for a USAF operative training program using UT2k4 and has worked in both the entertainment and videogame industries as a texture artist and 3d modeler/animator on such projects as the IMPACT: Motion Simulator ride currently in residence at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the award winning You Don’t Know Jack: Mock II, Tetris Worlds for all consoles and a host of smaller handheld and mobile titles. She is now the CEO of the Bay Area videogame startup “Bushi-go” and has begun expanding her game writing and design expertise into other more traditional venues. You can follow Kimberly on twitter @ing3nue or find her blog at www.ungerink.com

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