The Beginning of the End: Our First Hands-On Preview of End of Nations

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Ten Ton Hammer recently spent some time in the trenches with End of Nations, the ambitious near-future MMORTS project from Petroglyph Entertainment and Trion Worlds. With us were Senior Producer Chris Lena (EverQuest, Champions Online), Petroglyph President Mike Legg (Command & Conquer series, Star Wars: Empire at War) , and Executive Producer Gary Wagner (Supreme Commander).

During the demo, we created our characters and warmed up with some low level PvE play in Magadan (the demo area shown at E3 2010), continued with Oman (a level 50 PvE area), and ended the session with some 5v5 PvP on the never before seen Ground Assault map. End of Nations is still pre-beta, so this was an thrilling chance to be among the first to get our cordite-smelling hands on End of Nations and share the experience with our readers.

Roles of Engagement

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Sweet looking Artillery!
In End of Nations, player commanders belong to one of three distinct archetypes: Artillery, Tank Commander, and Assault. These archetypes affect not only the type of units available to a commander, but also his or her abilities (which progress and develop much like abilities in a typical RPG game). Though the three roles are nuanced and highly customizable, in general the three roles have something of a rock, paper, scissors relationship: tank beats assault, assault beats artillery, and artillery beats tank.

Artillery, as you might expect, deals damage from longer range than any other commander type and has a number of abilities that multiply the damage dealt, but artillery units are understandably slow and fragile when exposed to fire.

Assault units typically move quickly and fire while moving, but are fairly vulnerable to enemy fire. Gary noted that another game changing assault ability, the ability to go stealth, is still under discussion. Assault also seemed to have more group support abilities, especially repair skills.

Tank units are the most balanced class, able to take withering fire and respond in kind, but their ability sets aren’t quite as punishing as the other classes. For example, whereas one of a assault commander’s “superweapons” is a high altitude bombing run that decimates a huge chunk of the screen, the tank commander’s comparative superweapon is an A-10 Warthog’s column shaped hydra rocket assault. Both can be equally devastating if deployed correctly, but the abilities of the Assault and Artillery classes seemed to compensate for the difficulty of deploying the units effectively by allowing a slightly larger margin of error on the abilities.

Nevertheless, the tank commander was still the easiest archetype for a fat-thumbed EoN newbie like me, so tank was my role of choice. I chose an pre-fab avatar and a name, and just like that I was finished with character creation.

To the War Room!
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Time for war!
Upon logging in, we found ourselves in the “War Room,” which functioned both as an information conduit and gateway to the action. In essence the War Room is a lobby, but one with a slick cover-flow style interface.

While much of the screen was placeholder assets, Chris explained how the screen’s real estate would be used.  Players will be able to access statistics and leaderboards, watch games in progress, review current events, and jump into the World Map (where PvP and PvE encounters are displayed, along with a look at how the war against the Orwellian Order of Nations is progressing).

Along the top of the screen, we would be able to see Facebook-style updates on what our friends were doing in-game, and stretched along the bottom was a news channel-like ticker reporting critical events happening in real-time around the End of Nations world map.

Meanwhile, Back at HQ...
One of the tried-and-true methods to making the RTS genre accessible to a wider market is to move the base building and unit selection component of the game out of real-time combat. Otherwise, the tasks of building an army, defending your base, and accomplishing your combat objectives can feel pretty daunting.

The End of Nations solution was to give you a base in instanced locations you purchase (these varied in scenic beauty from desert wastelands to tropical paradises) and let you rotate and place structures within your base, from airstrips to R&D labs to gunnery ranges. Each structure contributes to your combat readiness - for example, an air strip might govern the size and frequency of the air assaults you can call in. The Armory is the core of every HQ, and this is where you can put together the sets of units you take into battle and customize their primary and secondary colors.

We couldn’t interact with the headquarters buildings in the demo build we played, but we did learn about one aspect of HQs that we hadn’t heard before. R&D buildings will research new abilities and upgrades using a real-time basis, much like research or blueprinting works in EVE Online.

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Magadan firefight.
For basic training, we pulled up the World Map and joined a battle raging in Magadan on the eastern coastline of Russia. If you’ve been following End of Nations so far, you know that Magadan was the first area demoed for the game, and it was fun to check out in person what we’ve seen on the screens at E3 and the March reveal.

The user interface mixes RTS and MMORPG elements. With a chatbox hovering above,  players have an RPGish set of hotbars sporting your hotkey-mapped abilities on the left and units (and their health) listed in boxes on the right-hand hotbar.

Also like an RTS, players can create sub-groups - Crtl+1, Crtl+2, and so on. But why is such granular control necessary when you only are working with a dozen or so units? We soon found out that different units move at different speeds. For example, every Commander class has an Uplink unit that has very limited (if any) offensive capability and moves very slowly. Despite that, this unit is hard to live without in PvP because it prevents your opponent from calling down a superweapon assault within a certain radius. A wise commander keeps slower, heavy hitting units together while using faster units.

In Magadan, we also explored a bit of EoN’s mission system. Mission starters were scattered around the port area, and one of the first missions required me to tag an Order of Nations blockade on a nearby bridge for an airassault. Having done so, new orders were radioed to me directly. Not requiring players to backtrack to complete mission objectives should be MMO 101 by now, and it’s nice to see that this (among a host of niceties) made the cross-genre transition.

We moved on to Oman, a level 50 PvE area in the Middle East that put our newly learned skills to the test. While the unit mix didn’t seem all that different (we were playing with pre-made templates) we had a lot more abilities, and enemy units seemed to respond much more intelligently (by fleeing towards allied units when low on hitpoints, for example).

In Oman we also encountered tougher unit types, such as Shadow Brigade units (which had substantially more hitpoints and offensive capability than comparable units - sort of EoN’s take on elite or heroic mobs), and a Panzer Hulk, a mammoth war machine with dozens of individual hitpoint bars.

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Light assault awesomeness.
Oman in general required much more group coordination for success than Magadan, and that makes a whole lot of sense. I would have been disappointed had this co-op RTS experience been do-able at high levels with lone wolves. That said, I’d have rather seen it as a demo because like any endgame encounter approached with a stock group of newbs, Oman was flustering. Without much in the way of unit saavy or group cohesion, our group spent most of its time chasing itself and being torn up by actively patrolling enemy groups.

By the time we actually rallied, our unit sets were ragged ghosts of their former selves.  I watched my units picked off one by one more than once, and when my set was totally wiped, I’d respawn at the starting point and have to go group chasing yet again. Thankfully, Gary explained that group-friendly systems like mission sharing are on the way.

We finished out the day with some 5v5 PvP action on the rainy Ground Assault map. PvP is a separate beast from the ongoing war with Order of Nations on the World Map: it wouldn’t do to have Rebellion forces wasting precious resources fighting each other. Lore-wise, PvP is a chance to hone your skills in simulated battles against opponents, and as occasionally frustrating as high-level PvE was, PvP was just as fun.

Ground Assault was a standard point capture map: two teams fought for control of five objectives, and scores tick upward faster corresponding to the number of objectives (and size of the objectives) a team holds. Visually it was a winner - tank headlights reflected on the saturated ground and rain streaked over the airfields, bunkers, resource areas, and sprawling center fortress.

For a twist, a nuclear weapon randomly spawned at one of the resource bases and, when used, was just as spectacular as you might suspect. Clear across the map, the screen went white, and a billowing mushroom cloud formed over the remains of someone’s unit convoy. Win button? Pretty much, especially if the same team happens to come across it a few times in a row. But the nuke can be a game-changer if the losing team can grab it and use it judiciously.

Hopes and Fears
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You want tanks? You got tanks!
Graphically, End of Nations is already a stunner. It’s become cliche to say that environments tell the story, but in EoN, environments tell the story of a what the next world war might look like, should the superpowers stop just short of pressing the big red button. Crash sites, bomb craters, beached battleships, ancient fortresses modernized with turrets and anti-vehicle dragonteeth emplacements, rundown airstrips, decrepit windfarms, and many more recent relics dot the landscape. And the level of detail is exquisite - rolling tanks leave tread marks which fade very slowly and tank headlights flick on in rainy or dark environments.

The UI is a point of concern at the moment, but it nearly always is at this point in a game’s development and should improve drastically with beta, given Petroglyph's attentiveness to even our early feedback. That said, there are major problems here. The buttons are far too small, and the icons, while distinct, fail to readily describe the effect of the ability. On the map, yellow select boxes appear beneath your allied players’ units and also AI-controlled allied units, making it difficult in passing to see whose units you should aid. Objective arrows appear and disappear for seemingly no reason, and both the minimap and full map are fairly inarticulate about mission objectives.

On gameplay, End of Nations faces the same problem that most run-and-gun style online games on big maps face: it’s incredibly hard to stick together and effectively work together as a group. With enemy groups attacking nearly constantly, there’s little time to rest and use one of the rejuvenate abilitiess (to bring back destroyed units) or use repair drones, then chat about what to blow up next. As a consequence, some form of voicechat will be required for EoN, as might a group of trusted friends for higher level content.

One thing is absolutely certain from my experience of End of Nations: as a co-op large scale MMORTS and as an accessible online PvP game, its got some rough edges, but it definitely works. Targetted for a 2011 launch, Petroglyph and Trion Worlds have plenty of time to focus on the game’s current quibbles, and I know I’m not alone in saying I can’t wait to see more of the game as it progresses.

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