It’s finally out! After a Beta test that seems to have stretched on and on, Westwood made their release date and managed to get Earth & Beyond onto retail shelves on time. In case you have been hiding in cave for the last year or so, Earth & Beyond is the newest MMO title to reach gamers, only here you can forget your elves and dwarves, in Earth & Beyond you enter the vastness of space.With so many MMORPG titles on the horizon or currently on the market, Westwood knew competition would be tough, especially as this is their first venture into the genre. Having been playing the Beta for quite a few months now it’s been interesting to watch the game evolve into the final product. In case you are completely unaware of the game, we’ll kick things off with a general overview.In Earth and Beyond the human race has split into 3 different factions after centuries of conflict caused by the discovery of a mysterious StarGate created by an alien race and hidden away by the Jenquai. The Terran conglomerate Infiniticorp, realising something was amiss, sent out a spy who discovered the gate and leaked its secrets to the other 2 races. The 3 races went to war to seize control of the alien gate and after much loss of life a ceasefire was called and all 3 races agreed to share the gate. At this point Infiniticorp were busy reverse engineering the StarGate technology to create the Infinitigate. The three races have now divided known space between them and each race has evolved with their own specialties that make up Earth & Beyond and also colonised our known galaxy with the use of the new gates. So what now? The mysterious alien race still lurks in the back of each races’ mind, who knows, they may return to take the gate away, or take control of it. It’s here you join the story.At the start of the character creation process all 3 races are available for selection but you have to decide which path you wish to take in the game world. Each race are specialists at certain things but there’s also a bit of a crossover to make things interesting. I’ll list the options below so everything is clear.The Terrans – specialist in trading
Enforcer – Trader/WarriorThe Progen: – Specialist warriors
Sentinel – Warrior/ExplorerThe Jenquai – The explorers of the galaxy.
Defender – Explorer/WarriorFor gamers that may be new to the MMO genre you’ll be pleased to know that setting up your game is really very simple. Westwood have created a character called Megan who will talk you through the whole process, everything from registering an account on EA.com to setting up your game name and entering your CD key. While Megan was probably not really necessary she is a slick touch and she’ll greet you with a cheery welcome every time you fire the game up.The character creation process has always been one aspect of the game we’ve enjoyed. You can choose gender, skin colour, clothing, ear piecing and even your facial tattoo should desire one. As this is a space game, you also get to choose the look of your ship. When selecting a ship there’s a wide variety of choices based on various hull shapes and wing layouts which are different for each faction. The ship can also be coloured exactly how you want it and you can even add your name to the side of the ship for all and sundry to see in game, even if it is a little hard to see unless you get right up close. Ok so you’re all set and ready to go. Character created, ship chosen and engines warmed.One thing I always worry about with MMO games is being left high and dry wondering what the h** I’m supposed to do now I’m part of this vast world populated by other players. Westwood have clearly given a great deal of thought to how to ease the new player into the game and what they have done works very well. As the game starts you are taught the very basics of ship manouvering, targeting and navigation, all presented by the now familiar voice of Megan. Once you have mastered the controls you’re let loose into the game proper. Each race starts at a different location so there are different missions to carry out depending on your choice at the start.Westwood really ease you into the game gently by giving you basic missions to help you level up. This usually involves taking something somewhere or simply destroying various NPC space creatures. The fist few missions also help explain how the various sections of the interface work and how to interact with the NPC characters on the space stations or planet locations. At these stations you can buy/trade, take on new missions and most importantly of all upgrade your ship with better weapons and equipment.To give the player some sort of goal there is a level system split into 3 factors, trading, combat and exploration. As you explore the game world more your exploration level increases, as you fight more the combat increases and the more you trade, well you get the picture. At the start you tend to level up fairly quickly because you are bombarded with quests to ease you into the game but once you’re left to your own devices you become master of your own destiny by choosing which missions to take on.Controls and NavigationHopefully that gives you a rough idea on how the game actually functions so we’ll move onto the game controls. Earth & Beyond is controlled with the mouse and hotkeys. Flying is simple, just point where you want to go and hold down the mouse button, or to ease the strain on your finger just click the thrust button.Earth & Beyond is a pretty big game, but not so big you can’t make good progress around the galaxies quickly. To take the hassle out of long journeys you have a warp function. Each galaxy is split into various nav points and all you need do is target the nav point and click the warp function, it’s that easy. The only time I found flying about frustrating was on the planets where you can’t use warp so travel is slow. Unless you have a half decent engine, expect lengthy flights to your destination. Despite that, warping from one side of the game world to the other can take time, but remember, you are here to live the game so what does time matter ;)While I’m on the subject of navigation, the system that’s been employed works brilliantly. Rarely will you get completely lost thanks to the very cool pop-up navigation screen. On the screen you see a map of the system you are in and the nav points that make up different areas or locations in each system. All unexplored areas are highlighted with a ‘?’ and you can hop about these points with ease. The game comes with a huge map and it all looks pretty simple but not every gate links in logical order so you need to learn the routes to find your way around. After playing a few MMO titles. I’ve found this system the best so far, it’s simple and works very effectively.The c**pit interface is divided up into your targeting, skill/mission/ship information and the skill icons. Finding your way around is a breeze, it’s usually one click to get at the info you need. Info windows pop up which you can interact with using the mouse to either a*ign skill points, change ship equipment or view/cancel missions. Missions are all stored in your ship computer so you’re never without access to the information should you need a reminder. The ships computer gets updated with your progress and you get an audio alert should you achieve a goal.Skills and WeaponsAs you’d expect there’s a variety of skills and weapons available to you on-board your vessel. Weapons can easily be accessed by adding them to the skill bar at the bottom of the screen which in-turn are a*igned to hotkeys. In combat you can target an enemy, set it on ‘follow-mode’ so you automatically track the enemy and then use your hotkeys to fire off the shots. You can of course pilot your ship with the mouse for more cunning evasive manoeuvres. Should you die you can send out a distress call for a jump-start and hope another friendly player will rush to your aid or you can get a tow back to your latest point of registration (you can register at any docking station in the game) . The tow will cost though and you are penalised with an experience debt. That debt eats into your XP until it is removed or you can simply go offline for a few hours and let it work itself off. The combat at the lower levels is pretty mundane though, the enemy is no real challenge and it took a little too long at some points to gain the levels required to carry on with other quests. While it was a little frustrating, once you get past the earlier levels things start hotting up.Overall the game interface/control is top-notch, Earth & Beyond is a doddle to get into and that’s partly down to the interface and in-game information menus’ excellent design.Player InteractionPart of any good MMO is player interaction and Earth & Beyond offers numerous ways to keep in touch with your buddies. The in-game chat system has various settings of broadcast mode to filter your chat to players. Westwood have also added a group function so players can join into a group and work together. This of course has benefits as experience is then shared and it’s great if you have a decent mix of character types so warriors can help traders and gain trade experience and vice versa.Grouping and guilds are encouraged, and again communicating is easy thanks to the game’s interface. You can then fly in group formations a*uming you have been invited into a guild by a group leader. These formations allow the leader to fly the whole group as a unit around the sector, you only need to reform if you go through a gate. While this seems odd it makes sense otherwise people would be flying a group of people around the whole game helping them level up without them having to do anything.Once you’re invited to a guild there’s a guild overview screen and you can communicate directly with your guild member by changing the messaging to the ‘guild option’. Of course as a group you share experience and it’s a great way of leveling up, especially on your not-so-strong skills which depend on your character class. There’s no shortage of guilds looking for people either, we managed to hook up really quickly and get involved in some group fun. All the guilds are also part of the News Network in the game and you can look up any guild and find out who’s who from a terminal in any of the ports, it’s a very cool feature.PvP?With easy to use guild features you’d expect PvP to feature somewhere in the equation. Bad news for PvP fans as Earth & Beyond currently features no PVP which may come as a bit of a shock. After playing the game for a while, the inclusion of a PvP mode would really add an extra dimension to the game play. Who knows, Westwood may come up trumps and get it included in some form as the game evolves but currently it’s one feature we would love to have seen.VisualsThere’s been many space games over the years but never one in an MMO universe of this scale. With the game having to cater for loads of players and ships zipping around the galaxy you’d expect things to be kept pretty simple. Westwood have risen to he challenge and managed to create a fantastic looking game world. Earth & Beyond is not a black void with a few twinkly stars, it’s incredibly colourful and vibrant. The gates are fantastic looking with blue swirling effects and radiant beams, it’s a delight to watch.We’ve already touched on the graphics in the character creation process but once you get in the game it looks just superb. The 3D engine is pretty polished in the space locations and objects such as stations and gates look great and are also really well animated. The only time the engine looks a little ropey is on some of the planet locations.The game characters are brilliant and your character looks exactly how you created him/her at the very start of the game. It’s very cool standing in ports looking at all the different character designs and watching them perform their ‘emotes’ like waving or some of the other 20+ gestures that have been included for amusement.SoundThe sound lives up to the rest of the game with atmospheric music to accompany you on your journey through the galaxy. Weapon sounds, whether it be pulse weapons or missiles, sound great as do explosions. Not all the NPC characters have audible dialogue but the ones that do are well done, it’s a shame there are more.Boldly GoingReviewing a game like this is never an easy task, especially for a game that is continually evolving, such is the nature of today’s MMOs. Based on playing the retail version which shipped a week or so ago and also quite a lot of the Beta, we’re really very impressed with Earth & Beyond. Sure it has its little problems here and there but that’s to be expected in a newly-launched MMO. Overall though Westwood have created a really slick game that’s a lot of fun and very, very addictive and I stress the addictive here. As far as MMO games go you really don’t get much better than this, especially if you love space games which I do, it’s a must-have purchase that’s kept us literally glued to the PC screen.Right, the boys in the Elite Guard of Darkness are beckoning so I must hop aboard HMS Loadedinc and see what the gang are up to.