The free-to-play market has had a tumultuous past, torn between the bi-polar rush for games like Runescape and Maple Story and the depressing lows for titles that didn’t quite gain entry into the hall of fame (here’s looking at you, Battlefield Heroes.) For those who prefer only more “refined” titles, purchased with heftier price tags at the check-out counter, the genre may be a joke. There’s no denying, though, that in light of recent profits and even their own section of the Steam store, free-to-play games have created an industry that’s here to stay.
And so, with an intense dedication by the developers and adamant support from a growing community, City of Steam aims to redefine the genre. Will it succeed? Last weekend, I got my first glimpse into what the developers at Mechanist Games are capable of.
First, let me say that in many ways, the folks over at Mechanist Games have truly outdone themselves. The best way to define their title in one word is cinematic. The opening sequence begins with your character on a train beset by demons. The train cars are filled with distraught passengers, and the dialogue is colorful, hinting at a deep foundation of lore. In the background, buildings and towers with glowing windows slide past, as your train zooms towards the city state of Nexus.
City of Steam’s opening is an action-packed and fun way to begin a game– laying the basis for a story, but keeping you on your toes as you fight your way through a pressing situation (much in the same way Jagex has recently deleted “tutorial island” in favor of a daring battle with a dragon.) As for combat, that’s another matter entirely– though more on that in a bit. Story and atmosphere in this game are thick enough that it’s actually possible to indulge in them, savoring small details of the world, as they’re more than just tools to keep the game progressing.
Sound and music are two aspects that went above and beyond City of Steam’s predecessors, and it might be the games’ forte. While other games, such as Runescape and Maple Story, have soundtracks that are decent, they simply don’t reach into the realm of the epic or orchestral– which is fine. The music is there, along with the proper sound effects, and they fulfill their purpose. But City of Steam’s music is closer to what you may find in a complete package such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. From soft vocals and piano tracks to fast-paced, industrial songs, the soundtrack (which can be sampled here) draws you into the world whether you’re completing your first “errand quests” or you’re slashing your way through a horde of enemies, deep inside a dungeon.
While the music might be great both inside and outside the dungeons, however, the visuals are not. Inside Nexus, the graphics portray a lively city where markets, venders, and city dwellers inhabit the grimy and technology-filled streets. Small details, like turning cogs and various gadgets, make the place seem alive. So I was sad to discover the dungeons don’t have such fleshed-out aesthetics. Upon entry, it’s immediately apparent that there is nowhere near the detail as applied above ground. There are some nice touches, though it’s mostly a straightforward dungeon crawl from start to finish. Some debris or overgrowth might litter the walkway, though there’s little else inside to make them feel distinct and original, which is something other games excel at (take Runescape’s haunted mansion in Draynor, for instance, or World of Warcraft’s Wailing Caverns.)
To make matters worse, the camera angling in the dungeon, “Old Courtyard,” was abysmal to say the least. The streets themselves aren’t so bad, but inside the tight and claustrophobic alleyways the only camera angle that worked was directly overhead. This made the targeting system a real hassle. MechAndrew, developer and moderator at Mechanist Games, assured me that was an issue his team is handling.
Several facets of the game really stood out in a positive way, however, and made me wonder why no other developers had done them in the past: user-friendly tools, such as automatic path-finding to a quest giver or the ability to easily swap between different weapon modes on one character just makes the game more interesting (two-handed weapons, dual wielding, or sword and shield, for instance, are all available right from the start.) Sometimes the game’s “in-progress” status showed quite a bit, such as the grouping system’s absence. MechAndrew also said the team is working on a questing queue at dungeon entrances, to easily begin questing with other players. Luckily, the community thus far is social and helpful, a major advantage in my book.
But the most important topic has been saved for last: combat. Fighting in City of Steam needs a facelift, badly. It seems to be a standard click-to-attack format, where you just wait until the enemy is dead before moving onto the next. Nothing special has been introduced and it’s something every gamer has seen before. If it weren’t for the quest objectives and loot, I wouldn’t want to engage in combat on my own time at all. Which is a shame because, as I mentioned, the game gets so much else right without having to improve the combat. While the learning curve is short, the game still manages to prove an enjoyable challenge, especially when questing alone. Still, combat should be a primary focus for Mechanist Games as they move closer to Beta.
For those players who are searching out a new game with terrific music, decent graphics, and an atmosphere that draws the player right in, City of Steam will suit you nicely. The game’s shortcomings don’t detract from everything it accomplishes so well. Mechanist Games has created a beacon of originality and great writing in a sea of free-to-play shipwrecks. Although the game is in Alpha, if City of Steam’s current state is any indication, the game will continue on to make a name for itself in the free-to-play genre.
This weekend, players can look forward to the debut of the Elven Elite, though gamers can still choose to play as Humans if they prefer. Look into Epic Brew’s first article to find out how to sign up.
Visit City of Steam’s official website and learn more.