ZAM recently had a chance to take the new 2029 Online, a Sci-Fi themed MMO developed by IGG, out for a test drive. The game's development cycle progressed at break-neck speed, going from its Alpha-to-Beta-testing phases from May to June. But that’s IGG's style, and 2029 Online—while certainly a unique and interesting new MMO—proves no exception to the company’s "push-to-release and carpet-bomb with hype" strategy.
2029 Online is the newest addition to the IGG lineup (following its usual free-to-play model), with a standardized portal site similar to its other games. It serves as the main hub for the 2029 client downloader, game news, forums and the Item Mall (the game's micro-transaction store). Being a free-to-play MMO, you can download and install the full game at no cost, with no heavy-handed limitations on actual gameplay. We'll get back to that aspect of the game in a bit. The most important questions are "What kind of game is 2029?" and, of course, "Is it fun?"
If you're not familiar with IGG or its previous games, the company launched back in 2005 and jumped head-first into the MMOG market—like many others around that time—hoping to carve out its own niche in the burgeoning new industry. IGG developed and released Myth War Online, a launching pad to later games like Wonderland Online and Galaxy Online. You might notice a trend; the "online" suffix in most of IGG’s game titles. Loosely speaking, it exemplifies a concurrent theme of IGG’s releases, which could be described as "mainstream genre games with an MMO spin." They’re a bit analogous to standalone, retail-shelf games—whether it's an RTS, RPG or action-combat title—that have been converted into MMOs.
One of the first things I noticed about 2029 Online—even before I had actually played it, based on screenshots—is that it's designed isometrically. That's something you don’t see very often these days, save for the occasional retro-RPG throwback. If you're not familiar the term, an "isometric" game is one that's graphically-designed to emulate three dimensions by using a two-dimensional "axis" of sorts. The most popular example would be the Diablo series and subsequent RPGs around the same era. Many gamers simply dub it "the 3/4 view."
But as we've seen before, isometrics are still proving to be a viable, modern way of designing a game without detracting from the gameplay itself. In 2029, it actually manifests a little better than you’d expect; incorporating a hybrid RTS-styled design with all the modern things you'd expect from an MMO.
Starting with character creation, you’re given the choice between three different races, which also double as the game's classes: Humans, Electronic Elves ("E. Elves") and Dryads. In a nutshell, Humans are ranged classes, using pistols, rifles and explosives offensively, while utilizing more traditional technology for other abilities. E. Elves are hybrid tech/magic classes that are crazy about electromagnetism, using both tech and magic for attacks and abilities. Lastly, the Dryads are a melee-oriented, Shamanistic class; using a bit of bio-technology and drawing power from nature for their abilities.
All three classes end up meeting the standard MMO class-paradigm halfway; you'll see attacks and abilities that seem nothing less than obligatory for an MMO, but they’re also designed with less of the group-dynamic functions prevalent in most games. I had the impression that this was—in part—because of the "mercenaries" game mechanic in 2029. You're able to summon a team (even from your first level) of mercs to help you in battle, in both fighting and healing capacities. The "Mercenary System" is a really appealing feature of the game, because you always have the option of calling them to arms if you need help with a quest or fight that you can't handle on your own. If you can't find any live players to group with, you can just use your mercs (provided you have the basic reagent gems to summon them). You can summon a few different offense-based mercs depending on the situation, like ranged gunfighters or soldier meat-shields. There's also a "nurse" merc class that serves as your pocket healer, and even tanks—actual, vehicle tanks—at your disposal.
2029 exists in a persistent world—represented by the "Helen Continent"—on an alien planet. It's your basic war-ravaged landscape scenario, although all three classes play alongside each other throughout parts of the game. Players begin in the aptly-named "Newbie Zone;" the low-level starting area. Interestingly, there are instanced starting zones for low-level players called "Newbie Camps," where higher-level players can join their low-level friends (40 or below). Lower-level players earn faster experience, while veterans earn money. (You need to clarify who gets the faster XP, low or high level players.) There are several Newbie Camps for different level tiers, and players can only enter them once per day.
From an accessibility and design standpoint, my initial reaction of the game was tenuous. Controlling your character with the mouse, RTS-style, takes some getting used to when you're accustomed to keyboard-based movement. It's not that the user-interface is that buggy; it's just awkward until you really spend some time at it. As seen in many free-to-play MMOs, almost all of the social aspects of the game can be accessed directly from the UI, just a button-click away. In-game mail, the auction house, various merchant functions…they're all instantly available no matter where you are. The only exception I noticed was the bank, which you have to find in the city.
Speaking of gear; there's a lot of it. More than I expected to see in a free-to-play MMO. After just an hour of questing, I found myself having to dump items just to fit new drops in my backpack. You can't use weapons and armor that aren’t specifically designed for your race, but you can sell them to vendors or in the auction house. You'll also find a bunch of materials dropped from mobs, which can eventually be used to produce new items with the game's crafting system. You can find more information about crafting and other game systems by talking to NPCs in the big cities like Jungle and Bright City.
Although many of the game elements are comparable to the RTS genre, you'll find the combat system pretty familiar and MMO-like. Combat is in real-time, with all your attack skills and other abilities available on an action-bar (usable via mouse clicks or key binds). You have an "auto-attack" option that allows you to instantly respond to combat by using your basic attack, while the rest of your skills follow the usual cooldown model. I found that the cooldowns for most abilities seemed longer than average, even for what could be considered "basic" spells or abilities. In particular, your weapons in 2029 have an inherent "special ability" of their own (like a powerful AOE attack), with a painfully long cooldown.
Beyond the hack-and-slash questing is where the RTS elements really begin to emerge, especially in PvP. The game is self-described as offering a unique "Four Features" new to the MMORTS genre. The first of those features—the RTS element—is described as a mix of "information access, base building and combat tactical maneuvering," claiming the pinnacle goal to "build your heroes, destroy your opponents' armies, then roll over their cities and take them with no mercy."
This early in the game’s release, I haven't reached those scenarios yet. Whether or not it truly lives up to those lofty claims remains to be seen. But judging from preliminary info, screenshots and gameplay videos, the base-building and vehicle-combat mechanics seem like they might offer a pretty cool and unique angle for this MMO. The remaining three of the "Four Features" involve the "DiY-Vehicle" system, an emphasis on tactical diplomacy and an upgradeable, guild-based warfare mechanic that functions beyond your typical social-gathering.
At this stage, if you're wondering if 2029 Online is worth a try, I'd suggest giving it a shot. If you're a fan of any of these genre subsets, why not give it a whirl? The micro-transaction model allows you to play through most of the content without paying a dime, and with a final installation only a little over 1GB. Plus, the IGG team is still promoting the game like crazy, sending in-game items to players in the mail for free and offering limited-time goodies. Whether IGG's target player base fully embraces 2029 or not, the game definitely has its own niche appeal, whichever way the wind blows.