Updated Wed, May 12, 2010 by Sardu
A phrase that I've heard tossed around in the MMOG industry with increasing frequency over the past few years is “easy to learn, difficult to master”. Most often this will be said in reference to something as core to the experience as combat systems, but I’ve also heard the phrase applied to any number of other gameplay mechanics. Yet I’ve only experienced relatively few titles where that phrase rings true when you get right down to the brass tacks. However, if there were ever a game that exemplifies a truly easy to learn, difficult to master experience, that game would be Fallen Earth.
In many ways, Fallen Earth harkens back to a much earlier point in the industry’s history when MMOGs were a much more complex affair and character advancement meant far more than new tiers of the same skills you started with being automatically placed on your hotbar. A time when exploration and the journey were integral to the overall experience perhaps even more so than the final destination of being clustered among the critical masses whiling away their days at the level cap waiting for the next expansion to arrive.
At the same time, Fallen Earth also feels light years ahead of many of its contemporaries for the simple fact that it does not attempt to fit neatly into any kind of preconceived notions of what an MMOG is supposed to be. There is an interesting harmony of balance hidden beneath the post-apocalyptic facade of the wasteland: for all of Fallen Earth's many complexities there are also aspects of gameplay that offer a high degree of instant gratification. For my gaming dollar, I believe that it's this type of balance that sets the true virtual worlds apart from the churning seas of surface level theme parks that the industry seems so hell bent on achieving.
With that in mind, when I first heard about Blood Sports, I didn't have all that hard of a time imagining where something like a simple game of capture the flag fits into the bigger picture of that particular virtual world. The controlled chaos of a fast paced CTF match is one of the best things since cybernetic brain implants and almost as awesome as Prairie Chickens. But the notion of classic arena based combat scenarios such as CTF, Survival, and Deathmatch, along with the Fallen Earth team's interesting take on team objective maps ala Assault does fall neatly into that category of pairing long term goals with more immediate and tangible gains.
Last week I reported on my visit to Icarus Studios and the team's take on the company downsizing, however a good portion of my time and the main focus of my visit was spent sitting down to take an in-depth look at last Friday's Blood Sports update. This, folks, is the kind of content where that phrase “easy to learn, difficult to master” fits snug as a glove made from scavenged scraps of leather you found stuffed into a bandit’s back pocket.
While a good deal of time was spent discussing many of the intricate details that went into the overall package of patch 1.4, what most intrigued me was the thorough walkthrough of the Deathmatch and CTF maps. One of my absolute favorite things is witnessing someone passionately present one of their creative endeavors, and the presentation of these maps given by Lead Environment Artist Cory Farris, Senior Game Designer Marie Croall and Lead Scripter Michael Broadwater certainly did not disappoint.
On the surface you may not realize just how involved a process it can be to create something as seemingly simple as a CTF map. However, the attention to detail on the Blood Sports maps is simply mind-boggling. Not only did Cory point out many of the graphical nuances that have been added to give each map a layer of visual polish that goes above and beyond anything the team has managed to create so far, but everything from the placement of sniper lofts to the height and shape of placed objects was carefully scrutinized to provide the most enjoyable and balanced experience possible.
For example, what appears to be a reflective surface in Deathmatch might actually turn out to be a two-way mirror masking the presence of another player who could then pop out and crack you over the head as you run past if you're not careful. But were you to approach that same location from another direction that player would be fully exposed and potentially even cornered if they're not paying close enough attention to their surroundings. Even simple objects like barriers were specifically made to be the same height as a crouching player, providing a much needed form of cover should you find yourself pinned down by rifle fire.