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Platform: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP Publisher: Codemasters
Genre: MMORPG Developer: Codemasters
Format: CD-ROM Expected Release: Q4 2003

Preview First-Look
Timothy Duong
Timothy Duong

There’s little surprise in the fact that MMORPGs have taken over the realm of PC RPGs of late. With the increasing demand for persistent online worlds, many new MMORPGs claim to not only differ from those already available or coming soon, but to push the envelope even further.

Codemasters’ Dragon Empires is one such project that has the fans whispering. Boasting amazing graphics with a deep player-influenced world that promises to become more addictive as content is added, Dragon Empires looks promising. Though, let’s not forget that awesome graphics don’t necessarily make a great game: a fact that some of the most recent MMORPGs have made quite clear. Though, if the words "amazing graphics" and "incredible game" were synonymous, Dragon Empires would be one of the greatest games to hit the MMORPG scene thus far. Looking at screenshots, the untrained eye would believe them to be photos of a far-away land and not stills from a video game.

In this age of graphic eye candy, it is obvious that beauty is what captures our interest, and Codemasters intends to captivate gamers with an incredible terrain engine. This custom, fractal-based engine has been used to build and create the environment of Dragon Empires, a world known as "Fortitude." Featuring a full weather model to make players feel as though the in-game rainforest is alive and its blazing desert torched by an unforgiving sun. Imagine all of this in 484 square miles of a virtually seamless world.

Surprisingly, Dragon Empires has recently announced the introduction of races into the word of Fortitude, the Shadow and the Dragonblood. In both cases, their names make it obvious what their distinctions are from that of humans. The Shadow rely on illusions, concealment and dirty tricks to get their deeds done. They believe that no armor is the best armor, preferring the protection of magical tattoos. The Dragonblood are believed to be the descendants of a great warrior who was infused with dragon blood during the 5th Empire. They lie on the other end of the spectrum, using their size and brute force to get the job done.

Codemasters explains that the addition of races was to increase the diversity of their world. They hope to give players more options in which to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Fans will still be able to customize their appearance a great deal: everything from their avatar’s body-type to their eyebrows.

While Dragon Empires was originally designed to be a skill-based experience, the recent introduction of character classes may have hampered much of the freedom once thought possible. Thus far, Dragon Empires will feature five classes per race as well as a hidden class for a grand total of sixteen professions. What was the reason for such a drastic change? Codemasters realized that with limitless freedom comes unlimited possibility, and a huge increase in difficulty for players to find their perfect niche. They hope that with the implementation of the classes, players can focus on becoming the best in that field, but have no fear, these are mere templates in which the players will retain some freedom. Characters will be given the possibility to choose from three primary skills and a set of secondary skills. How much training that goes into each skill is entirely up to the gamer.

One of the more important gameplay aspects of an MMORPG is how player-vs-player (PvP) combat is handled. Each game in the genre has its own unique system and Dragon Empires is no exception. Bounty hunters, outlaws and contract traders are able to engage in inter-player combat, Civilians on the other hand, are free from all forms of player killing.

Bounty hunters will be free to attack any outlaw and will be rewarded if they successfully dispatch them. Players will begin as civilians and will need to get permits from non-player characters in cities in order to become bounty hunters. These slips have various durations and will likely be cancelled if the bounty hunter is killed. Bounty hunters who fail to complete their tasks become civilians and must renew their bounty-hunting permit.

Outlaws can attack any bounty hunter or trader for their contracted goods. There are many ways to become an outlaw, one of which is by murdering an empire’s venerated beast. These creatures are sacred to each empire and usually have their own treasure horde. Killing one of these creatures will result in becoming an outlaw of that empire and a bounty being placed on your head. Since each empire has different sacred beasts, players can hunt down these creatures, become filthy rich with their loot, and slither over the border to safely count their horde.

Traders will be free to defend themselves against any attacking outlaws to keep their contracted goods safe. Civilians can become traders by accepting contracts to transport goods between empires. These conditional "classes" will give different kinds of players the opportunity to participate in PvP and cooperative play on their own terms. This is one of the more brilliant PvP integrations I’ve seen.

Another interesting aspect of combat in Dragon Empires is the use of player collision. By making avatars physical objects in the environment, players will be able to surround and protect their healers or mages from charging enemies. This should add a great deal of strategy to the senseless hack-fest in most other MMORPGs. Not only goes this add strategy to combat, it gives players more incentive to group with the same people. Knowing how party members will react, what their strengths are, and what they need assistance with, will be given a whole new meaning.

Though player collision isn’t the only aspect which Codemasters hopes will make their game more strategic. Every monster’s AI will be behaviour-based. What this means is that each monster encountered by the players will react differently. They have a basic aggressive meter, which is then modified depending on circumstances. Some creatures only hunt when hungry, so if they’ve just fed on some adventurers, they’ll tend to leave others alone. Some will cry out for help if they are greatly outnumbers and even still, some will hunt in groups. Others will shy away from human contact while others will hunt them down like prey. This adds a level of excitement each time one goes hunting and allows a normally static part of the game to be realistically full of life.

The main goal for any player is to join a guild, conquer a city, and become rich. Cities are won by proving a guild’s worthiness in the eyes of the dragons that protect the empire. Once the guild has done so, they will engage in simulated fights over monuments in and around the town. There are 50 cities in 5 very different empires to choose from. These battles will be massive in number and Codemasters has just the remedy for lower end computers. They’ve placed an engine that will actually scale the level of detail subscribers can see in order to keep the frame-rate nice and high. This is a welcome addition, as any raider from other MMORPGs will concur with.

Once a guild has gained control of a city, its time to become political. It is the guild’s responsibility to set city trade specialization and tax rates. Trade specialization will help merchants and crafters create whatever product chosen with better efficiency. This requires less material and time, which results in more profit. With more profit and a nice tax rate, guilds will be able to keep their members well-equipped and cities well-decorated.

That’s right, guild leaders with be able to decorate cities by adding statues, banners and workshops. Not only that, they’ll be able to expand city boundaries with upgrades. This means that the world map will change dramatically as little hamlets become great trade centers. Codemasters has stated that more will be added to customize cities as the release date nears. But making a city beautiful isn’t the only thing that people will notice. In the world of Fortitude, one action can cause a ripple that could affect the entire player-base. Modifying the trade specialization of a town will alter its material intake. Which then molds trade routes accordingly and forces outlaws to break camp and look for a new hotspot. And where the outlaws go, the bounty hunters follow. Keep in mind that this can occur in only one city.

Guilds will also have to take tax issues into consideration. Increase taxes too much and merchants will be packing it up and moving to a nearby town. A smart guild with lower taxes will see merchants from all over flock to its doorsteps in the hopes of earning a bit more profit. Just the idea that a single player can change the world so greatly makes Dragon Empires that much more exciting.

Conquering a city isn’t the only way to becoming rich. Merchants, by nature, can set up a workshop in a trade-oriented town and make goods for players. Machines created by the players to build and upgrade items do most of the work, so crafters can stop cringing at repetitive tradeskill actions. These ‘bots will even buy raw materials and make the goods while an account is logged offline. Goods can even be enhanced or enchanted to increase its value in the client’s eyes. Each account will be allowed four characters per server, though only one of them are permitted to own a workshop.

For players who enjoy kicking player butt, Dragon Empires has the circus dedicated to just that. The Blood Circus that is: a gladiatorial-style festival arranged to entertain the dragon of any given kingdom.

Thus far, Codemasters has been very attentive to their fan base; so let’s hope this translates into an awesome MMORPG. With an economy primarily influenced by player actions, an innovative behaviour-based monster AI and absolutely stunning background graphics engine, Dragon Empires could very well be the MMORPG that fans have been waiting for.

Codemasters has scheduled the Dragon Empire beta to begin in May. All fans of the MMORPG genre who haven’t signed up yet, make sure to pay them a visit and register for the chance to be one of the first to enjoy the world of Fortitude.


© 2002-2003 The Codemasters Software Company Limited ("Codemasters"). All rights reserved.
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The peaceful mountains at dusk.

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A calm shoreline at early dawn.

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The scalding heat of the desert.

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A lush tropical oasis of intrigue.

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