What if someone created a massively multiplayer online role playing game and no one showed up to play? That's what we wondered as we walked the empty streets of "Neocron." This week on "Extended Play" we visit a postapocalyptic future and find that there's little new under the sun.
Although the instruction manual has more than 20 pages dedicated to the story of "Neocron," all you really need to know is this: It's the future. Lots of bad things have happened. People really like to wear shiny leather. This is a simplification, of course, but after you've spent some time with "Neocron" you'll realize that no one else in the game cares about the story, either. They just want to run around and kill things. Is this the state of modern role-playing?
"Neocron" offers four character classes, each associated with several specific job types. Players must also join a faction. Despite the game's best intentions, though, nobody seems to want to play in character.
It's an RPG that plays like an FPS
"Neocron's" feature list is filled with promise. Unlike every other massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG), "Neocron" incorporates elements of the first-person shooter genre. Combat occurs in real time, with the player responsible for movement, aiming, and attacking. There's no more pressing the attack button and waiting for combat to resolve.
The developers also took advantage of the sci-fi setting to offer features that make the game much less frustrating. You can use computer terminals scattered throughout the world to access your own in-game email account, so you can stay in touch with friends, and forums, so you can keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the game. Navigating the convoluted streets and alleys of the city is made much easier with the included "NavRay" tool, which will draw a path to your chosen destination.
There are several other impressive features. A working faction system entices player-created clans to square off against one another. You can purchase and use vehicles, including tanks. There are also trade skills you need for improving your character and its items. Expect to see researchers, implant experts, and players experienced in weapons construction plying their trade in the "Neocron" plaza area.
Despite all these fine attributes, "Neocron" falls into the same traps that have ensnared every other MMORPG.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it
Consider this. You've created your ubercool character and you're ready to enter the game with guns a-blazing. The trouble is, you're a runt with no armor, no implants, and no weapon to speak of. A quick perusal of the in-game documentation informs you that the sewers beneath the city are a good place to level up. And what horrid danger lurks in the sewers? Mainly spiders, roaches, and rats. That's right, your badass cyberwarrior is nothing more than a low-grade exterminator. This wasn't fun in "EverQuest," and it isn't fun here.
Much of this boring gameplay could have been avoided if there were interesting missions to play through. "Neocron" supports only the most rudimentary missions, and none is class-specific. You can either lug packages through the city or head into the sewer to kill critters for a bounty. Your spy character will have no chance to hack into the secure buildings of a corrupt corporation.
Once you reach a reasonable level and have outfitted yourself with better equipment, you can move away from the relative safety of the city and explore the great outdoors. This is where clan wars are likely to occur, thanks to the strategically placed outposts you can capture. But as you begin to dabble with the player vs. player elements of the game, you realize that "Neocron" is an excellent example of how a stat-based skill system doesn't mesh with twitch combat. Although you can run, jump, strafe, and shoot your way through combat like in a first-person shooter, the end result is still based heavily on your skill points. No matter how good you are with a mouse and keyboard, if your opponent has more hit points, a better weapon, or better combat stats than you do, you'll lose. This undercuts any sense of excitement you might get out of combat. The shooter element in "Neocron" is a cruel joke.
But the cruelest joke is the game's world. This game has so much promise, but it disappoints at every turn. The city of Neocron is a convincing take on the gritty "Blade Runner" future we all know and love. Each zone of the city looks unique. The upscale Via Rosso district is clean and orderly. Stroll through the neon red streets of Pepper Park, however, and you'll understand why this game deserves a mature rating. Even the subway system, which links different areas of the city, is believable. But it's all window dressing. Nothing aside from the occasional store serves a useful function. Bars and clubs are completely ignored by players. Dark alleys and abandoned buildings go unexplored because there's nothing to do there. Visiting your faction's headquarters leaves you wondering why it even exists, as it does nothing to enhance gameplay. Even the NPCs at the job center are dismissive, telling you to seek employment at a kiosk in the street.
Is anyone out there?
Maybe if there were more people in the game, there would be more life. Right now the population rarely tops 400. All but the most densely populated areas of the city look deserted. Head into the wastelands and you'll begin to wonder if you're even playing online. "Neocron" is a functional MMORPG and little more than that. If players had something to do, this might be a fun place to spend a few hours a night. Certainly the higher-level player vs. player content has potential, but it should be a crime to require a player to wade through hours of mind-numbing gameplay to get there. "Neocron" is a disappointment and gets two out of five stars.
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