Taking a break from tinkering with his own inventions, engineer Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer docks his airship with City of Steam's closed beta.
I’m honestly surprised. I’ve seen Google Chrome pull clever stunts, like music videos rendered in 3D using HTML5, or multi-player Facebook games powered with Flash; but a full-fledged MMO? I’d argue that it couldn’t be done.
It’s taken Mechanist Games to prove me wrong. Their current endeavor, City of Steam, looks and behaves just like any other MMORPG I’ve played. Sure, the character models are a little simplistic and the color palette is a little brown, but it works. The beauty is in accessibility; I can be logged in and exploring this industrial-era fantasy world in under ten seconds.
As the introductory cinematic explained how the World Machine is built from continent-sized cogs and gears, Communications Manager Gabriel Laforge agreed to guide me through the first few stages of City of Steam’s Closed Beta.
For a pocket-sized game, City of Steam offers plenty of choice when creating a character. Ten different races are available, ranging from various types of human through to greenskins, elves and dwarves. Classes are more straightforward: Arcanists and Channelers drift toward fantasy-inspired magic; Warders are for those who take delight in slicing, dicing mashing and pulverizing; and Gunners stick to firearms. Further refinements are also possible, including your starting weapon and style of combat.
Furnished with a sharpshooting Stoigmari (a human of dubious accent), I arrived in the neighboring city of Delton just in time to witness its destruction. A Mythstrike event had unleashed some form of malevolent winged entity known as The Brood, forcing the city’s own giant golem Guardian to activate in self-defense. The ensuing battle, like some Victorian reenactment of a Tokyo Godzilla movie, left the City Guard with no choice but to signal an evacuation.
Laforge tells me that each race has a slightly different route through the downfall of Delton, and that there would be race, class and faction-specific storylines throughout the rest of the game. All of this seemed a little deep for something so streamlined, until he shared the game’s peculiar history with me.
City of Steam has existed, on paper at least, for almost a decade. The concept first saw daylight in 2003 with the publication of The New Epoch, a series of three tabletop role-playing sourcebooks. As General Manager and Lead Designer at Mechanist, David J. Lindsay has since been looking for a way to bring his original creation online. Starting out with four people and a rough turn-based format, City of Steam is now a real-time MMO backed by a 35-strong development team.
Leaving the ruins of Delton behind, I boarded a train for Nexus, City of Steam. As the chimney stacks and tall buildings rushed by, I reflected on that industrial-age-fantasy aesthetic. There’s no doubt that having volumes of ready-made lore helps City of Steam feel different to other games and franchises set in a similar era, such as the original Bioshock or the comic Girl Genius. I asked Laforge what the response from Steampunk fans had been.
“Surprisingly positive! We were reluctant to approach the Steampunk communities out there, because we know they can be pretty hardcore, and they really like Steampunk to be a certain way. For the Steampunk elements to it, there’s enough of it that most of the fans that came and talked with us, said they love it. They love the airships, they love the steambikes, all the gears and clockworks and everything.”
Those elements creep in to almost every aspect of the game. Alongside health, each class uses Steam as their ability resource. Armor and weapons can be upgraded with gears, pistons, springs and all manner of other mods, with tinkered additions being visible on the item. Even the machines and contraptions exude thick grime that’s often the hallmark of meshing moving parts.
My train ride came to an abrupt end at The Refuge, a district of Nexus that housed those fleeing the demise of Delton. It gave me a chance to stretch my legs, take in the scenery and try out some instances. In a break from convention, dungeons in City of Steam begin as simple challenges, with goals ranging from smashing breakables or opening chests, to exterminating mobs or reaching a flag. These two or three player challenges usually have a time limit of a few minutes, making them quick and easy to repeat.
With these challenges geared for casual players, I asked Laforge if some content would be tuned to more hardcore players. “There will be a lot more endgame and elite content for hardcore gamers. Unfortunately there’s not much of it in closed beta. But we like to keep things light as well. The loading times are light, the levels aren’t super long. Casual players can still jump in and feel like they’ve played a good session.”
All Challenge Mode dungeons and some quests reward players with Challenge Orbs. These orange-red balls of fun are tokens that provide spins on the Transmuter – a slot-machine style contraption that pays out when three or more matched symbols appear. With careful use of holds and a little luck, it’s possible to exchange the ‘Chorbs’ for something useful.
Smashing crates, exterminating Ratlings and dismantling Clockroaches are all fun, but I was eager to find out what else Mechanist has planned. Laforge assured me that “There’s a lot more to come. What we have in closed beta is just a fraction.”
Despite being firmly rooted in Victoriana, Mechanist itself is a mix of cultures, being based in China but with a substantial number of Western developers. It means that City of Steam has a range of influences, from Diablo-esque dungeon crawling to Neverwinter-style open world exploration. But would this rich melting pot result in a pay-to-win free-to-play game?
According to Laforge, absolutely not. I was told that many of the team previously worked on pay-to-win titles and “hated it”. While there is an item shop, most of the focus is on cosmetic and aesthetic items. This approach will even extend to steambikes – craftable mounts that provide faster travel. It doesn’t end there, with Laforge eager to reward members of the community.
“We reward them for playing, and getting deeper into certain aspects of the game. But also, it motivates them to help us test certain things, like the challenges and especially the shillings. Whoever gets the most shillings wins a prize, so if people find exploits to get shillings, they win and then we ask them what exploit the used. They tell us, and we fix it.”
My adventure in the City of Steam ended with the Refuge, although I’m told that more content is in the pipeline. When it arrives, I’ll crank up my browser and have another spin. Until then, I mustn’t tarry – the airship race awaits!
Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer, Senior Contributing Editor