Review by: Richard Leader
Published: January 24, 2003
The phrase, “It’s a cold, hard world out there,” is certainly a cliché, but it’s an especially apt description of the cutthroat competition within the market of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. They certainly can be a lucrative enterprise, but with the number of titles increasing at a faster rate than the number of interested players, the price of failure can be equally high. While it can be tempting to cut the developers of new franchises some slack, being that they aren’t in the second or even third generation of their game worlds and lack the resources of powerhouses Microsoft and Sony, ultimately, they must sink or swim on their own merits. Into these troubled waters comes the German developer Reakktor with their flagship product, Neocron, entering into the burgeoning science-fiction realm of the genre -- coming in on the heels of the flailing Anarchy Online and in advance of the upcoming behemoth, Star Wars Galaxies.
Neocron takes place in the future, almost a millennium from today, a world that is the result of a cataclysmic war that took place in the year 2143. While the documentation goes into great depth about the causes of this conflict and the intervening time periods, being that the end result is merely a derivative form of cyber-punk that contains “latex-babes” in stiletto heels, it would be an insult to the reader to go into the history at length. Suffice to say, the city of Neocron is the one safe foothold left on the planet and is surrounded by a wasteland ruled by mutants and fearsome predators. However, all is not well in the city, which is governed by dueling corporations that seek profit at the expense of personal freedom. Some have forsaken the comforts of the city and have founded free enclaves that are buried deep beneath the rock of the wilderness, hoping that they will someday have the strength to battle for the supremacy of Neocron.
The world of Neocron takes place on four individual servers, each named after a planet, all of which are located in Germany -- reversing the typical pattern of lag that international gamers have come to expect. Players are allowed to have characters on any number of servers that they wish, as each of them functions independently. Jupiter is the oldest and the bulk of the participants are German speakers, as the game was released there first. The default language of the remaining three, Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto, is English; because of language and juvenile jokes about pronunciation, Uranus isn’t highly populated, to say the least. Saturn is the destination of many players, and is widely regarded as the best server, overall, even if Pluto draws the most to it with its own brand of mystique. Pluto allows for only one character per player, rather than four, supposedly making personal reputation a more important factor, although it certainly has the highest percentage of players willing to grief others. Several factions, primarily the wilderness based Twilight Guardian, somewhat unfairly received a bad reputation for such acts early on, causing many interested in those antics to flock to them. While this is great for keeping up historic rivalries within the game, it is often well removed from actual role-playing and borders on pathological animosity. Still, Pluto is the place to be as the population has snowballed, increasing one’s opportunities for interaction.
After players choose a server, they must align themselves with a faction. These run the gamut from drug cartels and mercenary forces to technology corporations. Though these don’t confer any specific bonuses on characters, other than determining where their initial apartments are located, it does shape which clans they can later join and the rivalries that they will experience. For the most part, these are logical, with Tangent Technologies and Biotech Industries being at each other’s throats, unless the Twilight Guardian shows up for a visit, in which case they are often able to put aside their differences to deal with the larger threat to the city’s stability. These rivalries are largely irrelevant to those at the early stages of the game, where they will often team up with supposed enemies as they hunt the sewers for easy experience. As they become stronger, however, the action shifts from player vs. monster to player vs. player, where they are able to leave the walls of the city and venture out into the wasteland, where wars are waged over factories and outposts.
Each character has five primary attributes, though they are somewhat strangely titled “skills,” making it occasionally confusing when speaking about them: Intelligence, strength, constitution, dexterity, and psychic-power function independently, each having its own level of prowess which can be raised through the use of various sub-skills within them. Some actions within the game make use of several sub-skills from different sections, allowing for the various classes of characters to increase in power in a reasonable manner. Firing a ranged weapon requires at least two sub-skills, the appropriate rifle or pistol prerequisite under dexterity, which affects damage output, but also “weapon lore,” under intelligence, which determines how quickly the aiming reticule closes when firing on a target. Using a ranged weapon that is considered high-tech would require that points be spent on a third sub-skill. Other actions such as using psychic attacks require multiple proficiencies as well.
While this keeps overlap between the classes to a minimum, making it difficult to level up non-critical skills (attributes), it does discourage the development of non-combat proficiencies to a certain degree. Every level that is gained grants a player five additional skill points to add to a sub-skill of his or her choice, although after the first fifty points invested in one, the cost is ratcheted up, requiring two points to raise it but one. Further penalties are given for those wishing to advance a sub-skill beyond both the 75 and 100 marks. Overall character levels are represented in a somewhat unusual way, by giving two numbers in a fraction. The second, or denominator, appears to be an average of the various main skills of a character. The first, however, is variable and dependant on the equipment characters are wearing or have equipped on their quick-belts. A 30/20 character is using an exceptionally powerful weapon for his or her level, while a 30/40 is lagging a bit behind the curve. This is never discussed in the documentation and players have many theories about how this “battlerank” works. It does have profound effects, however, as the numerator controls how much money and experience a character receives for defeating enemies. Using a weak weapon will earn money fast, while a powerful one tends to gain experience more quickly, even though the same monsters will yield less cash. Some classes are affected detrimentally by this system, especially the Psi-Monks who tend to have quirky battleranks that tend to defy all reason.