PC gamers for several years now have had the chance to play Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, enjoying the company of hundreds of other active gamers head to head in a real time environment. Most of these games tended to run with the same theme, however, emulating such fantasy worlds made popular by J.R.R. Tolkien's popular 'Lord of the Ring' series of books. Players lived their online lives as Dwarves, Armored Knights, Elves, and other mythical and medieval beings as they traveled around the massive computer generated worlds, questing and fighting. The creative minds at Westwood Studios have opted out of the traditional online Role-Playing theme, thankfully, moving the gaming experience from the archaic fantasy realm to the distant space-faring future of humanity. With Earth & Beyond players get the chance to experience a whole different form of online Role-Play gaming, putting them in command of their very own starship as they travel around the galaxy in search of adventure, action, and fun.
We here at The Laser were lucky enough to watch the design team at Westwood create and tweak Earth & Beyond for almost a year, as members of the various stages of the beta-testing team. Seeing the game evolve from the ground up was an exciting process to be a part of, watching as the game went from its early stages to the final product. The end result for Earth & Beyond is a unique one for the online Role-Playing genre, making it much more attractive to those looking for a massive multiplayer environment in order to game in, going far beyond the norm that has dominated the genre for so long.
Based on a space-faring future, Earth & Beyond allows players to take part in a sci-fi universe that allows thousands of others to come together at the same time online. Players have the ability to generate various types of characters for play within the game, initially choosing from the three various Human offshoot races that are available: the Earth based Terrans, masters of trade and mechanics; the Mars based warrior people known as the Progen, and the best explorers in the galaxy, the Jupiter based people who call themselves the Jenquai. Each race has its own specific set of attributes, skills, and physical characteristics that make them stand out, as well as a profession that can actually add to the role play situations that occur in the game (ship mechanic, weapons builder, ore refiner, etc.). Earth & Beyond comes with a character generation utility that allows players to choose from literally hundreds of character models and specifics, ranging from eye and hair color, to body type, size, and even clothing designs. Rarely will you see two characters online that look completely the same.
Although character personas are important in the game, most of the real gaming that takes place in Earth & Beyond happens in the cold vacuum that we call Space. Because of that, each character in the game can create their own ship to be used for whatever purpose the player deems fit. Each Race found within the game has several different ship classes that can be used, with each of those having a specific purpose in the fleet. For example, the Terran Tradesman vessel is the workhorse of the fleet, with its main purpose being that of trade and cargo running: not the best ship for all out fights, but a good choice for making lots of money. The Jenquai Explorer on the other hand doesn't have large amounts of cargo room, trading it for speed and stealth. The Progen Warrior ship tends to be slow and sluggish, but can give and take a heavy beating better than similar vessel classes in rival fleets. Similar to the character generation process, players have a number of available options in order to tailor the look of their ship. Various hull types, fin designs, color schemes, and visual displays are available to choose from, giving each ship found in Earth & Beyond a truly unique look and feel.
Though the character/ship design feature of the game is intensive, it is nothing compared to the overall gameplay that can be found in Earth & Beyond. Players are literally thrust into an expansive galaxy that is filled to the brim with activity, adventure, and even mayhem. Though free exploration is available, players can jump into any one of the numerous missions (quests, for those familiar with Everquest and other MMORPG's) that are scattered throughout the many star systems found within the Earth & Beyond galaxy. Two different types of missions can be engaged by players, allowing them to advance their character and ship skills to higher levels (which in turn allow for improved class abilities, better defensive and offensive capabilities, and other perks). The Personalized mission can be granted from any of the mission generators found in star bases and other areas of congregation. These generators basically scan the player's character and skill level, and return a variety of tailor-made missions that the player can engage in solo. The Crafted missions are slightly more elaborate, placed to advance the overall story that is woven throughout the game. All of the mission types range from combat scenarios (engaging NPC pirate ships, etc.), to exploring uncharted solar systems, and even trade situations. Missions are set up for specific levels of experience, allowing simpler missions for players of lower levels, and more complex and difficult tasks for those of higher ranking.
Although missions make up a large amount of the activity that can be found on Earth & Beyond, a lot of personal interaction tends to come to the forefront of gameplay during the general course of the game. Players can freely talk and interact with each other via the communications system over public and private channels and even form cooperative alliances for missions and battles. You'll see players asking for help from one another, giving guidance on some of the more difficult missions, or teaming up on the more difficult NPC in order to double their experience points. Overall, you'll find most of the players on Earth & Beyond quite friendly and outgoing.
Not only will you find outstanding gameplay on Earth & Beyond, you'll notice right from the start how incredible the graphics are in this game. The developers went to great lengths to produce a visually stunning atmosphere in almost every element found in the game. From the various planets, to the space anomalies, starships, and even playing characters: every aspect of Earth & Beyond is articulately detailed. Probably the coolest visual effect we found in the use of the various Jump Gates, which players use to move from one sector of the galaxy to another…it almost looked like a produced piece of film, the effects were so good.
In the end, we found Earth & Beyond to be a superb entry into the highly competitive world of Online Role-Play Gaming. With its solid graphics and incredible gameplay, players will no doubt keep themselves entertained for hours on end, and completely justifies the $12.99 monthly fee that is needed in order to continue playing. Also, the developing team of Earth & Beyond promises to update the game at regular intervals, giving players new areas to explore, battles to wage, and money to make. Westwood also plans to throw in a few surprises here and there to spark Role-Play among its players, keeping the theme of the game active and the storyline a progressive one. So, if you're a fan of the MMORPG genre and happen to be looking for a different form of gaming than the norm, Earth & Beyond is definitely for you.