City of Steam beta: a rough, but promising start.

If there’s one thing that the developers at Mechanist Games wanted you to know about their freshman venture into the MMO genre, it’s that the game is not steampunk.  They think that setting is too limiting—it restricts their options by eliminating any overtly fantastical elements. They prefer the term “industrial fantasy,” because it gives them the freedom to build a universe where you can use machine guns to take down dragon. I don’t know if this game is for everybody, but the idea of fighting fantastical creatures with mid-19th century technology scratches a very particular itch, so when I heard about City of Steam I was excited to get into the beta.

[singlepic id=9962 w=320 h=240 float=left]The first thing you notice when you start up City of Steam is the music. The pre-title cinematic is played over a touchingly sweet piano score that does a great job setting the scene for the rest of the game and I’m happy to say that the rest of the music in the game is of a similar quality. The battle themes have just the right amount of uptempo bombast to keep the fights exciting.  Each area’s theme is unique, but never feels out of place. On a similar note, the audio design of the game is very satisfying. Another touch is that each area you visit has it’s own unique background audio. Walk past a train station and you’ll hear a voice announcing departure times and last calls. Stroll down to the shipyard and you’ll be met with the sounds of gulls, crashing waves, and heavy machinery as cranes load ships. This really helps make each area feel distinct, and adds a lot to make the games locations feel more lived in, despite the fantastical setting.

While City of Steam’s aural presentation is top-notch, the visuals could use a bit of work. Now, this is still only a closed beta so caveats apply, but it immediately struck me that the game world felt very drab. It’s certainly true that industrial settings tend towards using wood and iron, so you’ll expect a lot of rusty reds and browns and you certainly find those here as well. No, what’s missing is the gleaming copper and shining brass, the verdant trees and dark shadows. The entire game looks as though it’s been desaturated to resemble an old sepia-toned photograph.  Some contrast would really give the game some visual pop.

[singlepic id=9967 w=320 h=240 float=right]Putting that aside, the games graphics are technically competent. I had no problem running the game at the highest visual settings, and the game looked pretty good, overall. Textures were sharp, effects and explosions all looked convincing, which is more impressive when you realize that the game is played entirely in your browser. I’d never seen a browser game with graphics like this and I was amazed at the technical achievement.

That said, for an“industrial fantasy” game, the art design definitely skews closer toward the fantasy than the industrial. Towns have towering stone walls and huge open squares instead of the cramped alleys and streets I was looking for. There are definitely some features that bring the age of steam to mind—the skies are full of airships, huge cranes line the docks districts, and there are clock gear on almost any surface you can find. It’s just that it’d be nice to see that concept taken further. Everybody has seen fantasy settings, but an industrial setting would be something to new. To be fair to Mechanist, the beta only showed a few areas of the game, so it’s entirely possible that my wishes will be fulfilled in later areas of the game.

One of the most important parts about any MMO for me is character creation. I have a lot of fun messing with the character creation tools to get the exact look that I want for my characters, but the tools in City of Steam are still a bit lacking. There are quite a few races, but they’re all generic white people, and the inability to change skin color might annoy gamers who prefer a little more diversity. Other than that, however, is that there really isn’t that much customization. You can change your character’s hair, beard, give them a pipe or a hat, but that’s really about it. Hopefully by the time the game goes live there will be a few more options to customize characters.

[singlepic id=9965 w=320 h=240 float=left]It would also be nice to have a bit more information when choosing race and class about what stat bonuses you’re choosing. You’re given very little information when choosing a race, and it’d be nice to know what race is best suited to each build. This info can be found on the website, but it should probably be right in the character creation menus. Likewise, classes in City of Steam are a bit nebulous, as you’re only given a generic overview of what role each class fulfills. A bigger problem is that there’s basically no information about the class specialties. I chose to play as a warder, but had no idea what the difference between a fortification warder or a battle warder was. The descriptions of each were fairly non-specific and tended to have a lore and flavor-text instead of hard info. It wasn’t until I tried each class in the game I learned the differences in abilities and equipment. That information should probably right on the title screen.  Then again, the classes all feel really similar anyways.

Once you get into the game with your new character you’re dropped right into the story, and the good news is that the story is fairly interesting. A tower falls from the sky and unleashes a demonic swarm on the city of Delton and it’s your job to escape on the last train out. It’s a much better opening than the classic “You overslept” that plagues a lot of RPGs, and it serves as a really nice tutorial for the game. I tried a few different characters and was pleased to learn that the story in the introduction was dependent upon your race—each race has a slightly different experience while still covering the same ground. This also does a really great job of eliminating the problem in a lot of MMOs where the game insists that you’re the one person who can save the world—except for all the thousands of other people in the game. The main plot of the game was kind of lost after the train ride, however, as once you get to the first hub town—a sprawling refugee camp—you get sidetracked into helping the refugees from the now-ruined Delton, though I expect it picks up later in the game.

[singlepic id=9967 w=320 h=240 float=right]The quests themselves were a bit of a mixed bag. The best thing I saw was the inclusion of “Challenge Quests,” in which you’re given a short time limit to clear an entire area of enemies or to defeat a boss monster. Succeed and you’re rewarded with some special loot. Fail, and you’ll have to wait a whole day to try it again. Short, limited quests like this help give the game a “hop-in, hop-out” feel, which is nice for an in-browser game. Some of the other quests were pretty standard “go to X location, kill Y monsters” quests you’ll find in any MMO. The quest design reached its nadir when you’re asked to help a waitress clear a tab. After you do a bit of running around you get back to learn that the waitress simply misplaced the money. It could have worked if you were given a lot of dialogue choices and had to solve a mystery or convince the delinquents to pay up—or even if you had to beat the payment out of them —but as it was it just felt really mundane, even by MMO quest standards.

If I had to pick a single word to describe City of Steam’s gameplay, it’d probably have to be “unpolished.” I don’t know if the player characters were intentionally buffed for the beta, but combat was almost laughably easy. When I was playing solo as a warder tank build, I rarely if ever had to use a health potion, and I never once used a mana potion. Mana—it’s flavored as “steam” in the game—is far too abundant at low levels to be an effective limitation. A fairly powerful healing spell might cost 10 mana, but my level 4 character had over 400 mana to spare. Not only that, but the game’s cooldown times are far too short. What this means is that I could let a group of enemies beat up on my squishy healer build because I could actually heal myself faster than they could damage me.

[singlepic id=9963 w=320 h=240 float=left]In retrospect, I suppose that’s probably a good thing, since tanking seems to be a purely theoretical exercise in this game. A friend of mine was tanking as we played together, but enemies would completely ignore him and come running after the rest of the party—they’d literally clip through his character to get to the healer. I don’t know if this is a bug, but my friend was actually somewhat upset by his inability to tank properly despite staying far ahead of the rest of the party.

That isn’t to say there aren’t bright spots. The armor and weapon modding system were pretty deep, though I’m pretty sure the interface could use some polish to make it a bit more user friendly. The really interesting thing to me was the game’s unique bestiary. Not many games let you fight winged demons and undead skeletons only a few minutes after beating up on clockwork spiders and mechanical cockroaches. According to the developer I talked with the setting was originally conceived as a Dungeon’s and Dragons-style tabletop game, and it’s clear that a lot of imagination went in to creating the bestiary. My personal favorite baddies were the so-called “Mechanthropes,” people driven insane by the need to mechanically augment themselves. It’s a neat mix of technology, fantasy, and body horror.

[singlepic id=9964 w=320 h=240 float=right]All in all, I’d say City of Steam is off to a promising start, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. The setting and concept are unique, but the mechanics and the gameplay don’t use them as effectively as they could. While I’d like to see more style in the art direction, the graphics are technically very competent. Honestly, the graphics might lack great art design, but I would  never have guessed you get get this kind of game out of a browser.  The best things about the game were definitely the unique bestiary and the truly great music. Keep in mind that this is only the initial beta.. There are a few more beta events coming up, and I know I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Mechanist Games’ progress.

Special thanks for this article are due to Samson Lai, Courtney Kral, and Sirajah Raheem for their assistance in testing out the beta and for sharing their opinions with me.


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