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Earth and Beyond Online Preview
game: Earth and Beyond Online
posted by: Aaron Stanton
publisher: Westwood Studios / Electronic Arts
date posted: 09:10 AM Wed Jun 19th, 2002

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Orcs with green skin. Skeletons with no skin and bleached complexions. Creatures with multicolored hues of skin, sharp teeth, bad breath, and unpleasant and foul temperaments. These are a few of the interesting characters I had the pleasure of being introduced to while focusing my efforts at E3 on massively multiplayer online games. The sampling made it clear that we can expect a phenomenal amount of neat things down the road, and laid out a broad spectrum of treats we can expect to see marching over the hills in the next months. But these monsters, most of them it seemed, all fell into the modern day clich� of MMORPGs. Most were on vacation from a universe I think of as fantasy -- the type that includes wizards, fire breathing dragons, and short people with magic wands. Now, I happen to really like that sort of thing. The little guy with the magic ring that appears in The Fellowship happens to have been a traveling companion of mine on the flight down to L.A., conveniently travel size in paperback form. I was raised on The Hobbit, that's true, but as more and more massively multiplayer games make their way onto the screen, I can't help but long for another of my childhood favorites, one created not by Tolkien, but by another author named Orson Scott Card. Ender's Game, a book based in a future full of aliens, spaceships, and an interesting variety of warriors, first introduced me to the world of science fiction. I ate it up, with Star Wars following soon after, flying me around from planet to planet in a way I knew I could never really do... until now.

Earth & Beyond, brought to us from Westwood Studios, claims to be the first persistent universe to be featured in a MMP game, and it may well be just that. Even Star Wars: Galaxies presents itself less as a universe full of mysteries to explore than as a familiar world waiting to be re-discovered (though if you're interested in this sort of thing, it should be pointed out that EVE from Simon and Schuster is also breaking this same ground). Earth & Beyond places you in your ship, the locations dealt with in first-person dwarfed by the shear quantity of those seen through the cockpit, and lets you find, explore, and chart an environment full of black holes, nebulas, and ship-devouring space phenomena. The results are magnificent. The planets, not just items to fly by, can be visited, mined, and sometimes walked on. Your ships, designed by the same man responsible for those flying around the two most recent Star Wars releases and Terminator 2, can be customized to an astonishing amount of individualism. Combine that sort of talent with the sort already brewing in the heart of Westwood, makers of Command and Conquer, and what you end up with is an MMP unlike any currently on the market.

Like many of the MMP games aimed to hit in the future, individuality is being stressed to a higher degree than at any point in the past. The ships, which for a large part of the game identify you to other players, can be changed part by part. The tail fin can be one of many different tail fins, coupled with one of many different nose sections or what not, all assembled together like the multicolored Legos I used to play with when I was a kid (I had no sense of color coordination, but man could I build a cool ship). For your pilot, the actual you, you have control of race and class, up to three of each, in order to set yourself apart from all those thousands of others all pretending to be the last star fighter. Aside from the three races (all some variation of human, actually) -- who tend to naturally lean toward being warriors, traders, or explorers -- you can also select a class that either places you more firmly into your chosen category, or creates a hybrid. A member of the Progen, the warrior race, who specializes in trading, will be relatively good at both fighting and finding the best prices.

This is significant because many things in the game are based on your character's skills, not your own. Combat, for example, will be won not by the player with the best joystick or fastest reflexes, but instead by he with the most hard-core fighter and the bigger ship. You earn experience and skill through practicing within your chosen profession.

The universe is large, expansive, and unexplored. Within it you'll find worlds that are rich and full of interest. In the five-minute demo EA gave at E3, we stumbled upon an unexplored nebula with a history of absorbing ships like the Bermuda Triangle, and witnessed a prison break by pirates. I made sure to ask if the person being rescued from the space prison was a player. Turns out NPCs will be playing a rather significant role in Earth & Beyond. What's more, interaction doesn't just occur in space. Instead, your avatar also gets to wander space stations and docking ports in a classic third person, isometric adventure style. Once there you can trade, chat, discuss, or whatnot, all with other unique space aliens. Westwood has included a large array of animated emotes, too, so that even if two players don't speak the same language they can dance around like Sims and conduct complex trade negotiations. It'll be a nice way to stretch your legs a little after a long day in the cabin.

It's Earth & Beyond's ability to make the player feel surrounded by an infinite universe full of wondrous mysteries that makes it so appealing. Add in the ability to go anywhere, do anything, some dark hints of an alien race appearing in the far reaches of space, and you end up with nearly endless possibilities in a cross between Star Trek and Babylon 5. Westwood is known for its attention to detail and ability to string together elements into a concise and playable game. All it takes is a glance at the screenshots, the ones of the ships cruising their way over the planet based space port, to realize that Westwood is still one of the best design houses around. Earth & Beyond is due out this summer. Since that's a notoriously slow time for game releases, it sure is good to have something to look forward to.

Aaron Stanton (06/19/2002)