When trying to write this review of Neocron, I was perusing my Rhapsody subscription database for something appropriate to listen to while I composed my thoughts. Drilling down, I happened into a category called darkside. Firing up some tracks from this category, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the synergy between this musical genre and the world of Neocron: the focus on electronica, the disturbed lyrics, the heavy, dance club styled beats...it was the perfect choice for introducing you to the dark and frightening world of Reakktor Media's Neocron.

Despite the glut of MMOs in the world, and regardless of what's to come, the sci-fi arena is largely untouched when you consider the different permutations that sci-fi presents compared to the typical sword-and-sorcery fare that we're used to with UO, EQ and DAoC. Anarchy Online presents us with a plausible future far, far beyond our current sight. Earth and Beyond and Jumpgate cater to those who dream of flying wingman to Luke Skywalker on his way to destroy the Death Star. One genre that is woefully underrepresented in any form--MMO or not--is cyberpunk, the bastard child of classic sci-fi that paints a depressing picture of where humanity is headed: technological enslavement, streets rife with violence, total loss of privacy and corporate dominance. It's thanks to cyberpunk that we have many of the concepts we consider commonplace today such as nanotechnology, cloning and especially the Internet. Because of it's reliance upon technology and computers, a title taking advantage of a cyberpunk setting is a given, right? Well, there have been a few (Shadowrun on the Sega Genesis, Rise of the Dragon on the Amiga, and even the Fallout series), but this genre is lacking in representation, which is why Germany's Reakktor Media's choice of the cyberpunk setting for Neocron is quite refreshing.

The Neocron story is classic cyberpunk: after a world war, tribal factions of humanity begin to rebuild with the help of recovered technological knowledge. One faction in particular sets up camp by creating a city called Neocron. As with most visions of this dystopian future, Neocron's citizens are crammed into small apartments in monstrous high-rises, are forced to walk dangerous and confining streets surrounded by neon and concrete. The government must jockey for position against mega-corporations with their own self-serving interests. Outside the city in the wastelands, any semblance of law is erased, and might makes right. Although this may sound a bit stylized for drama's sake, Neocron follows this motif faithfully.

One of the key aspects of Neocron is that it's the first FPS MMO. It discards the classic "click-n-pee" method of it's predecessors in favor of a more interactive combat experience. All you l33t CS d00ds out there might want to think twice, though: as Mindstrike found out in testing out the demo version, your character's skills will cut your real world skills, allowing those non-FPS players to compete with the badass FPS junkies depending on your skill allocation. I'm sure a lot of FPS players who were drawn to Neocron because its FPS based have found this quite maddening, but for someone who's not very adept at FPS games in any form, I'm glad that I will be able to hold my own, so long as my skills are higher. The FPS is handled quite well, with a number of factors playing a part in whether or not you hit or miss, and it's a part-time job finding the combination that works to your particular preferences.

That being said, Neocron takes quite a harsh stance on PvP: it's practically required. NC's method for separating the PvP from non PvP is a little something called the Law Enforcement Chip. This is an implant that all new players start with that makes you invulnerable to all player violence, even accidental. The downside is that your experience and cash gain from hunting and taking missions is severely reduced, making leveling even in the initial stages extremely difficult. Neocron city proper, the Viarosso District, is patrolled by COPBots, and practically no violence goes on there. Other areas, such as Pepper Park (home of the strip-clubs) and the sewers, are considered lawless, and PvP interaction can occur uninhibited. Although the LE choice is optional by allowing players to remove or replace it, the hit that you take for not wanting to have to worry about dying at the hands of another player is rather steep. Removing the chip is a perplexing decision for a new player, with risks and benefits on both sides of the argument, but considering that the cyberpunk genre mandates that life is cheap", Reakktor has done an admirable job of getting people to do something that they normally wouldn't do in other MMOs (myself included, and both Enforcer and I HAVE been griefed as a result).

The trade skill system is very well done, and is somewhat similar to the one used in UO, at least in concept. Skills in general are divided into five major skills, and each has sub-skills. For each level gained in a main skill, you obtain 5 sub-skill points that you are free to allocate in that category. Repeated use pays off in the early stages, thankfully, and new players (without LE chips, at least) can expect to crank their trade skills up to an actual useful level in a short time, something that is not as common as it should be in other titles. In Neocron, a craftsman can scour trash for raw materials, refine and combine them into parts and use parts in conjunction with a blueprint to construct a final product, making trade skills technically self-sufficient. Of course, doing it this way would take eons, so parts are available for purchase in many fine NPC shops. Skilled craftspeople abound in Neocron's Plaza-I (including Enforcer and myself), and the player economy is quite robust. Almost every item in the game can be analyzed and turned into a blueprint, which a skilled constructor can use to build a copy at different quality levels, illustrating the need to keep working and increasing one's numbers. Unlike other titles, however, Neocron has opted for specialization. No one character can recycle, repair, research and construct at high levels. The main skills have caps, which mean that the sub-skills are capped as well, so there are only so many points to be allocated. Since many complimentary skills like research and construction fall under the same main skill, each trade skill player must decide what area he or she wants to concentrate in. Once skill points are allocated, you're stuck with them, so you had better choose wisely (with a few exceptions).

The general atmosphere that NC presents is wonderfully cyberpunk and a total departure from the green forests and wide open plains that make up the fantasy MMOs. The "streets" are more like narrow concrete sidewalks, bordered by towering walls that extend up almost beyond sight. Catwalks and overpasses abound, and there are a myriad of small hallways you'll undoubtedly see one day only after having passed them ever day for months. The cyberpunk's neon fetish is represented here as well, especially in Pepper Park, where overtly suggestive signs lead you to the strip clubs. Graffiti covers many of the walls, and every now and then you'll hear an echoing announcement from an unseen loudspeaker announce Neocron propaganda, or reinforcing your "responsibilities as a Neocron Citizen". If you've ever seen Total Recall, you can appreciate the feel in the streets of Neocron, and can delight in Reakktor's well-done cyberpunk interpretations.

Overall, the NC community is pretty nice. Because of the necessity of putting oneself into PvP, aligning yourself with a clan is a must, for protection and support. Many clans act as "citizen police", rushing to the aid of new players who have been griefed in the sewers. It's nice to see the player-base policing itself in this fashion, but it wouldn't be necessary if not for the other, less desirable players who find that NC's griefing opportunities are like a dream come true. There's a lot of debate over PvP versus non-PvP, and then against RP-PKing and RPKing (Role playing player killing versus random player killing, or griefing). Camping a regeneration point is going on in some areas, and while many complain about it, the usual response is a sarcastic "put your LE chip back in" or "respawn somewhere else". The community has its good days and bad days, but by virtue of the fact that NC fosters PvP, griefers displaced by other, more restrictive MMOs seem to be finding a comfortable home here.

Neocron is a unique setting in a quickly overcrowded field, and should earn the attention of any MMO aficionado. Unfortunately, the title seems to be suffering from a sort of bi-polar disorder in that it cannot decide if it wants to be a MMO or just a large FPS. Certainly fans of either will find something to love in Neocron, but the two camps are rarely seen keeping the same company otherwise. This odd dichotomy may prevent many traditional MMOers from joining up, fearful of having reckless PvP subtract from their desire to play in their chosen style, while FPS players may be severely put off by the need to perform non-combat tasks in order to increase combat skills, and by the fact that a player's normal FPS skills are minimized by the need to have high in-game skill numbers. Cyberpunk fans should be wetting their pants, however, since Neocron offers them an immersive environment filled with technology, danger and a whole lot of weapons. Fire up your favorite darkside tunes and check out Neocron.