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Platform: PC Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: MMORPG Developer: Westwood Studios
Format: CD-ROM Released: September 2002

Review
1/31/03
Brian Cavner
Brian Cavner

Space is a region relatively unexplored by modern humans. For a great length of time, we have looked up at the stars and wondered exactly what might be out there. We have pondered on the secrets that the universe might hold. Each square inch of blackness has the possibility to be home to a number of planets that could be barren or possibly teaming with life. Our obsession with this vast and unexplored vacuum has been steadily growing as the possibility for an actual journey into space becomes more and more of an attainable goal. With ships capable of breaking the speed of light, we could reach areas of the universe about which humans have only dreamed. We could explore to the corners of our galaxy and perhaps discover alien forms of life with whom to ally and establish friendly trade between our planet and theirs. Or perhaps we might overtake them by force.

But the possibility for deep space exploration, trade, and destruction is no longer a mere dream for the future. Contrary to popular belief, anyone with a personal computer has the ability to venture into the deepest regions of our universe. All you need is an imaginative spirit, a creative mind, and Electronic Arts' latest Massively-Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, Earth and Beyond.

An ever-stationary and static world of mystery

Earth and beyond plunges players into an era following what came to be known as the Gate Wars. In these bitter conflicts, the three human races - the genetically engineered and combat bred Progen of Mars, the shrewd and trade savvy Terran of Earth, and the knowledge-seeking Jenquai of Jupiter - fought over possession of the recently discovered star gate which contained the power to transport ships across vast distances in an instant. After nine years of death, a cease fire treaty was proposed, and the powerful capitalistic entity known as InfinitiCorp began developing gates of their own. Within a few short years they unveiled the InfinitiGate which enabled the three human races to explore and colonize far past what was originally available.

Fifty years has now passed, and the three races live in an era of unstable peace. But the question of a possible common enemy links these races tightly together. Would the original creators of the gate, a race of obviously superior intelligence, eventually return? And if they did, how would they respond to the colonization of what was first their region of space? The events that will follow are guaranteed to write chapters into the history books. Based on whether or not you choose to live wisely, you may trust yourself into playing a pivotal role in the proceedings that will soon transpire that promise to alter humankind forever.

Upon entering Earth and Beyond, you are presented with the opportunity to select from among the three human races. Your choice will determine how you will play for the rest of the game. Each race specializes in a specific niche in the game. The Terran excel in trade and know how to earn revenue through the transfer of goods. The Progen are a race of war and gain power through the crushing of their enemies. The Jenquai are explorers who seek to discover what treasure new areas of space might hide. Each race has two ships from which to select. One of the ships will allow you to fully explore the special capabilities of the race. The other will be a hybrid between your race's specialization and another, usually combat. Each class of ship has their own strengths and weaknesses. A Jenquai Explorer class ship, for example, is extremely weak in the area of combat, but has the unique ability to cloak and render itself invisible to all other ships in the area. A Progen Warrior class ship, however, lacks special abilities but makes up for them with brute strength. The choice is yours and ought to match your particular playing style, as it is very difficult to play outside of your target specialization.

Missions in Earth and Beyond are usually assigned by a leader or friend that can be found in one of a number of different space stations scattered around the universe. At times, you will simply need to raise your level before you can take advantage of the missions they have to offer. Many times, however, they will assign to you a task that will require the use of your class's specialized abilities. Side quests are also available at times from NPCs or at designated locations on space stations. These locations will offer a number of jobs from each of the three disciplines of exploration, trade, and combat. Upon successfully completing a task, you will receive credits and experience points.

The major problem I have with many of these quests is that they seem to be, at their core, not much more than a fetch quest. You take object X to location Y and trade it for object Z and bring it back to your original location for your reward. You then find out that object Z is radioactive, and you have to quickly take it somewhere else to get it disarmed. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Granted, because of the environment of Earth and Beyond, even the most mundane fetch quests were made enjoyable. But after a while, the same concept over and over began to wear on me.

Like many MMORPGs, there is no real linear story that follows Earth and Beyond. NPCs obviously cannot move around with you, as they need to stay where other players can interact with them. In this way, the entire world feels rather static and seems to just wait for you to come, do your little interactions, and move on. For this reason, many of the missions seem rather inconsequential, and you never feel like you can accomplish anything given that you can never fully complete a task because it must stay ready for another player to do your same feat. I realize this is inherent in the nature of MMORPGs, but it just seems to take away from dynamic involvement in how the world is shaped around you. It is a guarantee that the universe will start exactly the same way as it ends despite your best efforts to make an impact.

The quest to become the best…at anything!

Characters and Advancement

Character advancement is probably the most fun thing about Earth and Beyond. Unlike many RPGs where experience points can only be gained from fighting and are thrown into the same pool, Earth and Beyond separates experience by the three different disciplines. In other words, a Jenquai explorer might find himself with 12 exploration levels while only having 5 in trade and 2 in combat. This is perfectly acceptable as a number of Jenquai stills only become available after attaining a certain level in exploration. However, unless this player decides to enter combat more often, he will be unable to gain other abilities that require combat experience. This translates into giving players the ability to earn levels how they want instead of forcing all players regardless of specialization into constant combat. Terran tradesmen would survive and thrive without ever firing a single laser pulse. This also prevents players from gaining strength in an area that they are neglecting. Progen Warriors cannot expect to fight all day and still be able to learn how to become skilled tradesmen. In order to learn some of the skills under the trade discipline, he or she would actually have to engage in trading activity and build his or her trade levels.

As you can imagine, this provides for quite a diversified playing experience and removes the clich?that fighter races are always the best. While non-combat races may not enjoy all the same benefits that may come from destroying other spaceships, they will also reap benefits unavailable to the large and clumsy warrior ships. Thus, the opportunity to actually play how one wants and to follow the history of his or her race is completely opened. The idea of separating the experience system into three different disciplines is a wonderful addition and is probably the greatest strength of Earth and Beyond's gameplay.

Combat

Combat in Earth and Beyond is handled differently than one might expect from a space simulator. Unlike many games with aerial combat, this one does not rely on your smooth flying skills and ability to barrel roll out of the way of an oncoming projectile. Instead, combat is handled a bit more strategically.

All ships come equipped with a certain number of ports for weapon installment as well as a place to put in a shield. When close to a hostile enemy unit, the player simply clicks on the ship to get a lock. Once the target is set, he or she must move their ship within range for whatever weapon they would like to use. Once in range, they need only click on the weapon they wish to use and it will fire. Weapons take varying levels of time to recharge, so having more weapons is a definite advantage as it allows you to fire many more shots before your opponent. Incoming fire, if it successfully hits your ship, will take away health from your shields. Once your shields reach zero, your hull will start to take damage. If your hull reaches zero health, you die. Shields will recharge over time, but your hull will only repair if you dock at a space station, so you will have to be careful not to allow your shields to drop to zero else you may find yourself in trouble.

All races and classes regardless of specialization can engage in combat, but there are certain classes that are better in it than others. The Progen warships, for example, come with more bays for weapon installment than any other ship. In addition, much stronger shields are available for use on a Progen ship. This means that Warrior class ship from this race will likely be able to fly directly into combat with several gun turrets or laser beams firing and simply absorb damage due to their shields.

A Terran trade ship, however, has only medium quality weapons and shields available. A pilot of this class, then, cannot expect to go toe to toe with a tough opponent. Instead, he or she will rely on special skills such as the ability to recharge shields in order to remain competitive. A Jenquai Explorer, having the weakest weapons and shields, will have to rely on his cloak to allow him to quickly hide and move to a more strategic place before re-entering the battle.

Just as the six different available classes allow specialization in their specific areas, so too do these skills modify how one will respond to various scenarios such as combat.

Death

When hull strength reaches zero, your ship will explode and you are left floating helplessly in space. At this time you can do one of two things: Either send out a distress beacon which will alert other player ships in your same zone of your predicament and may result in a friendly player coming to 'revive' you, or you can be towed to the last space station you visited. Both choices will result in an experience point penalty, however opting for playing help will reduce your punishment.

Penalties are handled very differently in Earth and Beyond than they are elsewhere. Instead of losing experience, you incur what is called an experience debt. Every time you gain experience in either one of the three areas, half of that experience is lost to pay off the debt. Another twist comes in the fact that your debt automatically depreciates over time, even when you are logged off. So if you die right before you plan on going to bed, you will likely wake up the next morning and find your debt totally gone.

I find this method a lovely alternative to the typical experience loss as a result of death. Not only is it fresh and new, but it makes death feel like less of a debilitating punishment and more of an inconvenience as a result of carelessness. I have been encouraged to explore and take more risks because I know that my character won't be totally destroyed if I get into a dangerous situation that I cannot get myself out of.

Movement

Movement in Earth and Beyond is one of the most fun, and at the same time most frustrating tasks. You have two ways to move around the universe. The first, your impulse drive, is slow but is what you will use when you have to interact with objects in space. The second, your warp drive, is used when you want to travel long distances. Every engine upgrade comes with two different speeds for these two modes, and over time you may end up doubling what your speed was when you initially started the game.

Warping around and blazing through space is fun to do, but it does eventually get quite tiring. Even at warp speed, moving from one place to another is a lengthy process. Case in point: the asteroid belt that takes you from Saturn to Earth takes several minutes to cross, even at high speeds. During these several minutes, you can do nothing else except maybe chat. This is one of the reasons why it is good to play with a friend. My advice is to play with a book beside you, so that you can easily pick it up and begin reading during long expeditions to far places. A fairly high level Jenquai Explorer has the ability to create a wormhole to far places, but the other five classes are stuck warping from one place to the next. Due to the amount of time it takes to get from one place to another, you will likely not be zipping back and forth regularly. Expect it to take upwards of about ten minutes to get to distant lands.

Initially, the amount of time wasted warping did not bother me too much, since the game was so much fun to play and the graphics were so beautiful to watch. But as time passed and I got used to the graphics, I found myself wanting to actually play rather than warp. Even with a fast engine, I think I spent more time warping than I did actually playing.

Space like you have never seen it before

The visual experience of Earth and Beyond is certainly a great one. Planets are large and beautiful, asteroids are richly detailed, and ships look wonderful on the backdrop of seemingly limitless space. The shear ambiance of the entire experience was simply wonderful, and I did get the feeling that I was actually in a space faring vessel exploring the far reaches of the universe. I found myself turning my ship toward the massive maelstrom near Swooping Eagle just to see and feel the danger of it. I flew over Saturn's massive rings and gazes at them in shear awe. If actual space looks as beautiful as it is pictured in Earth and Beyond, I am really anxious to get out there and start snapping some pictures.

Some of the neatest looking graphics come in the form of the ship models and in the character designs. Upon starting the game, you are free to design your ship using a number of textures, hull designs, decals, and colors. While traveling around in Earth and Beyond, I cannot recall seeing two ships that looked alike. At times, I would complement other players on their ship design because some of them looked so wonderful. In addition, you are also able to customize the hair, face, dress, and accessories of your human character that will be shown as you walk around in space stations. You are given a number of options here as well, and the combinations that you can make are numerous.

For those who grow tired of the way their ship or human looks, there are locations aboard space stations that allow you to change the look at shape of either of these two for a price. While I felt that the price was a bit extraordinary, I can understand the reasons for discouraging players to swap their pallets around at a whim. But it is nice to know that the option was available if I ever got tired of my look.

Looking at the screenshots alone are simply not enough to fully understand what Earth and Beyond feels like when you play it. You need to experience the game in order to understand how much it absorbs you into the world. I cannot express the level of disappointment I had when I looked out my window and saw little more than the sky and a few clouds rather than the moons of Jupiter shining back at me.

The only real problem I encountered graphically is that there appears to be no collision detection at all. This creates some odd effects, like the ability to literally fly straight through a space station, or to be stacked on top of five or six other ships upon coming out of a star gate. In terms of gameplay, I can see how it would create problems when many players decide to congregate in a single area, however it did diminish some of the graphical realism for me. While admittedly a minor problem, anything that detracts from realism this substantially must be considered.

In space, anyone could hear the whirring of your engine and the firing of your laser

The ambient music really heightened the whole experience of being in space. Whether it was from the deep and foreboding tunes that would play when in regions of deep space far from civilization, or the light and Cantina-esque songs that would play when entering the lounge in a space station, I really felt involved in the entire game due it its involving music. The quality of the scores being played was wonderful, and I often found myself turning up the music contrary to my usual habit of doing just the opposite.

While purists may argue that it is impossible to hear sound in space, I am glad that Earth and Beyond ignored this minor detail when putting together the palette of sound effects. They blend seamlessly with the background music and fit the general theme quite nicely. The electronic sound of the doors opening, and the pulse of sound that would be emitted when I activated my cloak all seemed appropriate and were done nicely. Not once did I encounter an auditory glitch with the sound effects, and my experience in this area was quite wonderful.

While most minor NPCs do not come equipped with much more than default vocal effects, many of the major NPCs come fill a full set of audible speech. I am a fast reader, and can usually whip through dialogue pretty quickly, but the voice acting in Earth and Beyond made me slow down to listen to what was actually being said. I really enjoy it when I can actually hear NPCs talking, and it really enhances the feeling of being immersed in the game.

A spaceship that does not require a degree to operate

Control is simple, easy, and clean in Earth and Beyond. Right from the beginning, you are treated with a simple, menu-driven interface that allows you to complete even complex commands with relatively little effort. In addition, you are instantly greeted by an in-game tutor who will quickly help you to become familiar with the controls. Unlike the typical helper NPC which will give you longwinded explanations of how to execute commands that will often leave you feeling overwhelmed, Earth and Beyond's helper quickly guides you through what you need to know and makes you feel quite comfortable behind the controls. I was fluidly flying my spaceship around within about 10 minutes of starting the game, and I had a solid grasp of the interface immediately.

Players are able to take advantage of keyboard hotkeys to quickly execute common commands. And while it is quite possible to use both the mouse and the keyboard at the same time, it is not really necessary to respond with fast reflexes or quick commands. Earth and Beyond relies on strategic approaches to situations, and providing that you planned well enough for your encounter, you should find yourself able to fluidly adapt to any situation without mashing buttons or clicking wildly in a frenzied haste. I like to leisurely play my role-playing games, and I really like the fact that Earth and Beyond lets me do this.

A space MMORPG for all to enjoy

An EverQuest clone this is not. While I have never had much of an interest in Massively-Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, nor have I ever gotten to into space simulators, Earth and Beyond was able to get me fascinated in both. After spending some time with the game, I was eager to discover what else was available in both genres. I was unfortunately unable to find anything that interested me as much as this game did. If you are a fan of MMORPGs, or enjoy space-based games, you will certainly find quite a bit to enjoy with Earth and Beyond. Even if you are like me and relatively new to both genres, you will find it easy to integrate yourself into the new atmosphere and will likely end up wanting more.

While there are a few debilitating flaws such as the all too common fetch quest or the boring warp sequences, I found enough to enjoy about Earth and Beyond to keep me playing for a long time. If you are ready to immerse yourself in a wonderful universe full of hostile alien creatures and exciting new technology just waiting to be discovered, this is just the game for you. Be prepared to lose a great deal time to building the ultimate spaceship either for deadly space combat, capitalistic trade missions, or expert cartography. Wherever your interests may lie, Earth and Beyond is prepared to fulfill them.



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© 2002 Electronic Arts
Graphics: 95%
Sound: 97%
Gameplay: 87%
Control: 96%
Story: 82%
Overall: 88%

Click to Enlarge
Combat is strategic and fun, especially in groups.

Click to Enlarge
The graphics are simply breathtaking.

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Players can customize both their ship and how their character looks when aboard a space station.

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Each ship has its own strengths and weaknesses.

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