The biggest revelation of this generation from a console point of view has undoubtedly been online play.
From communication, to digital distribution, to online store fronts like the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, to good old fashioned online frag-fests, Microsoft and Sony have put their online strategies at the front lines of the ongoing console wars.
And yet there's something missing. Where are the MMO's? With Sony Online Entertainment's John Smedley admitting that MMO's will become a selling point for the PS3, we decided to take a look at a few MMO's desitend for consoles in the near future.
Star Trek Online:
Developer: Cryptic Studios
Release Date: March 2010
What is it?: It's kind of remarkable that we haven't already seen at least one massively multiplayer online game based on a franchise as big and as popular as Star Trek.
It's true the franchise has suffered through some harsh times over the last decade or so, what with the lackluster critical and viewer reception of series like Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise, (the former of which inspired a couple of surprisingly good single player first person shooters) but it's experienced a renaissance under the stewardship of Lost creator, J. J Abrams. No, the reason we haven't seen a Star Trek MMO yet lies with a troubled development cycle that dates back to 2004, under the auspices of the new defunct game developer, Perpetual Entertainment.
In truth it's a bit of a mystery how a relatively new upstart like Perpetual Entertainment, founded only two years prior in 2002, managed to get their hands on a license as massive as Star Trek, but they did.
In retrospect, development never seemed to be moving along smoothly at Perpetual. The company went through several rounds of layoffs starting in 2006, and while the company interacted well with the fan community on its message boards, the first screenshots of the game, indicating a more stylised, World of Warcraft-esque artistic direction, were met with a healthy dose of skepticism and some disappointment.
The layoffs continued into 2007, and it wasn't long before Perpetual announced it was putting its other in-development MMO, Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising, on hold indefinitely while it concentrated production efforts and resources on the more lucrative Star Trek license. Shortly thereafter, Perpetual Entertainment closed it's doors for good, enter; Cryptic Studios.
A veteran of the MMO genre having already produced City of Heroes and City of Villains for Korean publisher, NCsoft, Cryptic Studios snapped up the rights to develop Star Trek Online, as well as use much of the pre-production conceptual artwork created by Perpetual.
Cryptic's plans for STO are ambitious, and the game's development has moved at breakneck speed towards an early 2010 release date, but crucially, things seem to be coming together remarkably well. . . for the PC version of game at least.
You see, from the beginning Cryptic had planned to bring Star Trek Online to both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. They've noted that the game itself and the engine are currently running on both platforms, so what's the stumbling block? In a recent interview with Eurogamer, STO executive producer Craig Zinkievich stated that he believes Sony and Microsoft simply don't understand MMO's:
"In terms of actually developing the game on the consoles?" asked Zinkievich. “I mean Champions runs on the console right now; Star Trek Online runs on the consoles right now; our engine - the Cryptic Engine - runs on the consoles. "
"So I can guarantee that internally I can have Star Trek Online running on the consoles because I know I can, and we've done it. But it's that [business] side that I can't speak for. "
Chances of it happening: Assuming Sony and Microsoft can sort out their issues with the business side of letting third party MMO's on their platforms, the chances of seeing Star Trek Online on consoles are pretty good, just don't expect to see a release alongside the PC version though.
Developer: Sony Online Entertainment
Release Date: 2010
What is it?: After a brief flurry of media activity following it's announcement in 2007, SOE's gone very quiet on its spy-themed multiplayer online shooter, opting instead to keep their heads down and show more when they feel the time is right.
Suiting up as a member of either the suave and sophisticated “United Network of Intelligence and Tactical Experts" (U. N. I. T. E) or the rough and ready “Paramilitary Global Operations Network" (ParaGON), players will be plunged into a world of secrets, subterfuge and stealth, heavily inspired by spy thrillers like James Bond, The Bourne series, and perhaps even a hint of Austin Powers.
In truth, SOE has been hesitant to label the game “an MMO", preferring to use the tag of “an online persistent shooter", mainly because while you'll certainly be able to party with up to three of your best buddies on missions and instances, the game uses a “hub and spoke" based world design system, with designated public areas, rather than a massive open world as you might find in a game like World of Warcraft.
Gamers will be able to choose between a first and third person perspective, and embark on missions of varying types such as assault, patrol, delivery, cross-over objectives, assassination etc. and change “classes" on the fly by suiting up with different gear specific to the style of play they wish to engage in.
If you're already having nightmare visions of rolling dice and bullets not hitting their targets despite the crosshairs being locked on, you needn't worry, SOE Seattle's Kevin O’ Hara, Senior World Designer has stated that “a headshot's headshot". While there will be certain RPG elements in the game (such as the inclusion of stat-bumping “Operatives"), the game will be primarily skill based, meaning even the greenest of recruits will be able to take down veteran spies. . . with a little luck.
Perhaps the best news to gamers ears though, will be that SOE is aware that “shooter gamers" and console gamers in particular just aren't used to shelling out $15 a month to play a game, as such, SOE are looking to have some sort of free-to-play model in place, with revenue coming from in-game item sales and in-game advertising.
Since the relatively lackluster launch of Everquest II, and the subsequent mishandling of Star Wars Galaxies, it's fair to say gamers have been guarded in their expectations regarding The Agency. That said, while the game does appear to be taking something of a PR backseat to the potentially more lucrative DC Universe Online (also in development at SOE), and barring the departure of a few high profile employees, development on The Agency would appear to be moving along rather well.
Chances of it happening: Following SOE's recent inclusion as part of Sony's Worldwide Studios (they were formerly, and quite bizarrely part of the motion pictures group) it would seem that The Agency is a definite lock for a simultaneous release on PlayStation 3 and PC at some point in 2010. The big question is, how will it fare?
Age of Conan:
Release Date: TBD
You've never played a massively multiplayer online role playing game like Age of Conan. . . unless you've played Age of Conan.
It's dark, bloody, violent, brooding and scandalously sexy. Funcom sought to differentiate itself from the average orc and elf infested MMO in every way imaginable, starting from a presentation standpoint, and continuing on to the very nature of it's brutal and gory real time combo-based combat system. Age of Conan does everything to embrace the license it's based on.
In development since at least 2003, anticipation for Funcom's gorgeous looking MMO reached fever pitch as the games release was pushed back not once but twice.
These delays proved to do little for the stability of the games launch however, as large numbers of players reported major technical glitches including bugs and performance issues. Those that endured through the early hitches were severely disappointed once they reached the game's high level areas, only to find that content rapidly evaporated, leaving them with nothing to do.
Despite selling an impressive number of copies and posting high initial subscriber figures, Age of Conan began to struggle shortly after launch as players fed up with the technical problems they encountered simply left. Drastic action was needed, and it came swiftly.
In a high profile move, Age of Conan's game director, Gaute Godager resigned his post, and was replaced by community fan favorite, Craig Morrison.
Morrison quickly set about fixing many of the issues identified by himself and the community, and over the course of the following year, Age of Conan slowly turned things around. Bugs were squashed, massive patches infusing the game with high level content were added for free, and game systems deemed to largely be “broken" by the community were fixed or removed entirely.
Age of Conan isn't the same game it was when it launched in May of 2008. It runs better, runs smoother, and has more than enough content to keep gamers happy for a long time, but what is it that makes AoC perfect for a console release? Combat. It's violent, visceral, and bloody, and it's like nothing in any MMO you've ever played.
Combat in Age of Conan is combo based, requiring the player to follow a series of timed directional button presses in order to maximise the amount of damage they deal. Battle stance is also far more important and intuitive than most MMO's, as a player will take more damage if hit from the side or behind, and also if attacked from an angle he is not protecting, It forces a more desperate form of combat in keeping with the game's world, and you're occasionally rewarded with impressive kill animations that result in you stabbing, disemboweling, or decapitating your opponent in fantastically satisfying fashion.
Chances of it happening: It's really hard to say, you can't help but think Funcom need to ensure the continuing survival of the PC version, including the launch of its first expansion, Rise of the Godslayer, before dabbling in the fickle markets of the console world. That said, we keep hearing the Xbox 360 version is still in production despite Funcom having multiple opportunities to admit its cancellation, as such, we're led to believe it's coming at some point. Just don't hold your breath.
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