We do like a nice stompy robot here at KiaSA, Melmoth calling for a mech based MMO (and incidentally anticipating Dust 514) back in the dim distant past (of 2008), and just recently Front Mission Evolved sparked some debate on the correct German designation for a mech (conclusion: “Größer Klanka-Klanka-Baumm Gerschtompen” is infinitely better than “Wanzer”.) Tesh mentioned Perpetuum in the comments, a robot MMO that’s been cropping up in the news as it moved through various beta stages, and their press people were kind enough to send us (and much of the rest of the MMOG-o-blog-o-sphere) codes for early access to the game as it prepares to launch, so I popped in over the weekend for a look.

Creating an agent in Perpetuum firstly involves sculpting a face with a wide range of sliders for cheeks, brow, jaw, earlobe gradient, nostril hair length etc. Pivot the result around to find your best side, and that’s the headshot that represents you in the game. Then you select one of three megacorporations to join, followed by further schools, professions and corporations within it, each selection granting or improving certain skills in areas including engineering, weapon usage and industry. With the agent created you deploy in your starter robot onto the surface of the planet, and you have a window listing nearby players, NPC drones, points of interest etc; selecting an NPC drone from this list you can approach it, hit a “Lock” button which takes 12.5 seconds (give or take) to lock on to the target, after which you select one or more of your turret weapons to open fire. Beaming into an outpost you can equip your robot, with options including scanners in a head slot, weapons in turrets, and additional armour or speed boosts in leg slots. There are research and engineering options, and a market with supply and demand information.

So to confront the elephant-shaped spaceship in the room: yes, Perpetuum is a lot like EVE, something frequently mentioned in comments on stories about it. Despite statements in interviews like “the Perpetuum dev team is mostly quite unfamiliar with EVE“, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and has four turret hardpoints for short-range ballistic weapons like a duck, it probably is a Duck-class light attack robot.

If talking about a new game, though, and the opening paragraph went something like…

“Creating a character firstly involves selecting a race, then a class. Choose from a few hairstyles and a couple of beards (or piercings). After creating a character you start in a village with some spells or abilities on a hotbar. If you run into town there are NPCs to train you in new abilities as you level up, a bank to store items and an auction house to buy or sell items from other players.”

… nobody would have batted an eyelid over the similarities of Fantasy MMO #3498 to EverQuest, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Craft of EverWorld, Quest of Online Wars, Advanced Shoot Goblins With Fireballs Simulator and Reginald Maudling Online. Perhaps more surprising than Perpetuum’s influences is that, with EVE’s success, nobody else has really gone after the same audience before.

With broad similarities the more subtle differences can be crucial, and from that perspective I’m probably not best placed to make judgements as my EVE experience is limited to a ten day trial a few years ago and I’ve only run through the tutorial of Perpetuum and the introductory assignments, hardly scratching the surface of either, but for what it’s worth…

Coming in to the Perpetuum character creator cold is a bit daunting, as each step affects your starting skills (or “extensions”), of which there are about 462. I just selected anything that looked like it might be to do with guns n’ shooting, other paths seemed to be more focused on industry or management. I presume that if you completely change your mind about what you want to do in the game it’s just a matter of training up different extensions, so at most you’ll lose some time, but you might want to do some research if being optimal in your role as soon as possible is of great importance to you.

Entering the game itself you’re popped into your first robot, a multi-legged spider-y ‘bot. The graphics are pretty decent, your robot looks nice, though movement is smooth, the legs rapidly scuttling rather than a heavy-footed whirrrrrrrr-stomp, and with little to give an idea of scale it doesn’t really seem like a giant robot. Being it’s only the starter robot this might be something that develops through the game, I never bought or saw the larger assault robots or mech. A tutorial covers movement, the standard WASD driving keys being an obvious difference from EVE, and terrain isn’t often something you have to deal with when flying through space (if it is, you’re much too close to a planet). To be honest I mostly found the mountains, valleys and buildings to be a bit of a pain in the bum, occasionally forcing lengthy detours, but they might well have a more tactical purpose in more advanced combat (I only ever used short-range direct fire weapons).

The combat tutorial is pretty straightforward; get near a hostile robot, target it, wait for 12.5 seconds to lock on, shoot until dead, repeat. Your robot can hold multiple targets, so you can be locking on to a second opponent while shooting the first, but there’s no direct control over your weapons. This can be slightly frustrating when you’re literally sitting next to an opponent, waiting for a timer to count down before you can actually shoot, even moreso if you’re on an assignment to hunt down 7 of a certain type or robot and three or four people are competing for them at the spawn point. Speaking of sitting next to an opponent, there’s no collision detection with other robots, so ramming isn’t option.

After the combat tutorial, the mining tutorial is slightly more involved. I have to confess I wasn’t paying a lot of attention; I think it’s something like loading a certain type of cartridge into your scanner to do a wide area scan for a particular resource, then loading a different cartridge for a deeper local scan, then uploading the results of the scan to your map at which point you get a visual overlay showing concentrations of the resource, then you target a suitable tile, activate your mining laser and sit there while your hold fills. It doesn’t quite feel right, having a massive robot of death sitting there mining (especially using a laser; you could at least have a humanoid mech with a huge 30 metre long pickaxe, hacking massive chunks out of mountains). Still, for a player-driven economy raw materials are essential, and if robots are the only thing on the planet then I guess they’d need to do the mining. I’m presuming, like EVE, it’ll be an optional part of the game if you don’t fancy it.

The final tutorial covers the options you have in an outpost or station; adding and removing components from your ‘bot, checking your pilot profile and assigning skill points (like EVE you accrue these all the time, whether logged on or not; unlike EVE you don’t have to be working on a specific skill, they go into a pool and you can assign them whenever you like), and using the market and assignment terminals.

After completing the tutorials there are a series of introductory assignments to put your new found combat and mining skills to the test, along with tasks like transporting cargo from one outpost to another and using a chassis scanner. None were too tricky, and they provided a bit of starting cash plus an assortment of new weapons and equipment, and a couple of slightly upgraded ‘bot chassis. The final mission might have been a bit hairy, having to destroy seven pretty aggressive NPC ‘bots, but there were three or four pilots all going after the same opponents, which cut down the incoming fire to much more manageable levels.

I didn’t even look at the industrial side, research and prototypes and manufacture, and my exploration of the market was largely confined to buying a bit of ammo, and looking at mechs that either weren’t available at all or cost way more than my meagre bank balance, but there are definitely lots of windows and numbers and stuff to play with if that’s your bag.

Overall, though, I don’t think it’s the game for me. Perpetuum isn’t a Mechwarrior MMOG in the same way that EVE isn’t an Elite (or X-Wing, or Privateer) MMOG, it’s not about lining up a set of crosshairs and zapping laser death upon the enemy, it’s more about the world as a whole, and I haven’t really got the time or inclination to immerse myself in it. If you’re burnt out on EVE it’s probably not the game for you either, unless the reason you burnt out was excessive spaceships and not enough giant robots. If you’re curious about EVE, well, EVE itself might be a better bet. So what does Perpetuum offer? Well, the giant robots (Achtung! Gerschompten), but perhaps more importantly the chance to be there at the start of a game where players are at the centre of everything. With the offline skill progress of EVE new players will always be lagging behind people who’ve been there for years, and though skills are more about flexibility than inherent superiority to other players, and though relative newcomers can still play useful roles, for some there’s still a nagging frustration that they’ll always be “worse” than someone who’s been playing longer. The EVE universe is established as well; power blocs shift, you get occasional galaxy-shaking events where alliances are torn asunder, game updates (and/or exploits) can throw markets into turmoil, but by and large it’s pretty stable. Perpetuum, in contrast, is more of a wild frontier at the moment; it might not turn out well, it might be a great success, either way you’ve got a chance at making your mark, if that’s your goal.