BigPoint in 2011

Bigpoint had a number of games on show at GDC and I was invited to try two of them out: Ruined Online and Battlestar Galactica Online. Both games are browser-based and can be played online, for free, right now. If you are IN ANY WAY undecided on whether or not you’d enjoy playing them, I urge you to try them out for yourself and form your own opinions.

Seriously though, you should really consider giving them five minutes before you continue reading. That would fulfil my implied obligation to generate interest in the games and – more importantly – give you some personal insight into the following observations.

Ruined Online is a class-based, free-to-play, third-person deathmatch shooter, played in your browser. The official line is that it is a Massively Multiplayer Online game, although I fail to see how anyone could say that with a straight face – much like Battlefield Heroes, Quake Live and other such games, play takes place on decentralised servers, typically hosting up to around a dozen players at a time. There are currently three different maps available to play on, each set in and around San Francisco where the game is being developed by one of Bigpoint’s newest development studios. If there was such a thing as terroir game development, this would probably almost qualify.

There are six available classes: a mutant covered in spines, a disciplined cyber-samurai, a hulking, brutish thug, a gadget-laden mad scientist, a scantily-clad female assassin and some kind of overzealous Judge Dredd style enforcer woman. I was told that these were the only six classes developed for the game, which sounds slightly unbelievable but I’m prepared to take their word for it. The classes appear to have different stats and unique special abilities, but they apparently share a common pool of available weaponry. I really think this weakens their sense of individuality, but makes some sense given the nature of the game’s payment model.

As with most ‘free to play’ games, there are a ton of upgrades, special weapons and other perks available for anyone who is willing to pay. These items are also available on a temporary basis for players who save up enough in-game credits, which goes some way to alleviating the shock and outrage that accompanies any ‘unfair advantage’ given to paying customers – you know, because it’s so totally unreasonable for publishers to try and make money from the games they produce. Paying for items will permanently add them to your account; since characters share weapons, this means your paid items are not locked to a particular class, so you shouldn’t feel so permanently tied down to any one character.

I was initially unimpressed that the two female character choices were a boobalicious chick with an impractical dress sense and a massively uptight bitch who punishes people for crimes they haven’t committed – women issues, much? I have since come to think that I may have been looking too kindly on the male characters, who are all apparently little more than mindless killers – the only possibly exception being the samurai, whose has such a mysterious background that his character bio admits that they have no idea why he in the game.

For that matter, I’m not entirely sure why ANY of the characters are in the game. There is an elaborate backstory about a utopian society building a ‘perfect’ city, and then leaving their undesirables to fend for themselves in the post-apocalyptic wasteland outside. Apparently the six characters of Ruined Online are fighting in some kind of gladiatorial arena situation, for the entertainment of the Elite society. They all hope to gain access to the utopian city by becoming the arena champion, although quite how that translates into the game is a little beyond me – since characters don’t appear to have any kind of permanence between matches, I don’t think you can reach a stage where you qualify for entry and the game ends. I’m pretty sure this is all supposed to be some kind of cyncial twist whereby the Elite society is lying to them and they’re all just killing each other for nothing, but again I am unsure how this would be expressed in the game. Maybe in the fact you keep playing forever and never seem to get anywhere? Now that I think about it, that would be pretty dang clever.

But anyway, what of the gameplay? I found it a little difficult to play, but this is probably because of my slightly ridiculous approach to deathmatching – the one thing I can say with authority is that melee attacks in Ruined Online are not as powerful as one might hope. Once I started experimenting with ranged weapons, I found the third-person view troublesome but not game-breaking. My main problem was that it seemed difficult to aim with my character obscuring a large area near the centre of the screen. A Bigpoint representative suggested that they might allow players to customise their appearance in the future, but until that comes about I don’t really understand why I need to look at my character’s back all the time.

Weapons are highly varied, as you might expect given that they will form a large part of their micropayment revenue. Besides the usual assortment of shotguns, rifles and rocket launchers, you’ll find some weirdo sci-fi gear like lightning rifles and flamethrowers. Despite my best efforts – and believe me, I really tried – I couldn’t find any way to kill people with the shield gun.

Map designs vary in quality between ‘not bad’ and ‘confusing’. The different arenas actually contained a lot of interesting features such as destructable terrain and jump pads and the like, but overall seemed a little 1996 if-you-know-what-I-mean. Basically I’d say the problem is that the layouts are too realistic. The Golden Gate Bridge map was readable, but the prison map was cramped and full of spaces you can get stuck in – it is a prison, after all – and the fort arena was very symmetrical and repetitive, and surprisingly easy to get disorientated in. More maps will be added to the game as its player based expands, and I can only hope that they learn to rip off Valve’s map design principles as time goes on.

All in all, I found Ruined Online to be a strange experience, and not something I would choose to play over some of the other FPS games I already own. That said, it only recently entered beta – any complaints to be made about the content at this point could (in theory) be addressed by the developers over the next few months and ironed out. But, given that it’s free to play, it’s worth considering if you’re looking for something along these lines to play on a slow Sunday afternoon.

Battlestar Galactica Online is an online space combat RPG-of-sorts that reminded me of Freelancer, which is funny because I’ve never played Freelancer. Based on the TV series (CAPSULE SUMMARY: a fleet of genocidal robots endlessly pursue a flotilla comprising of the last surviving humans across the galaxy, following a nuclear holocaust), players assume the role of either a Colonial fighter pilot or… uhhh… well, some kind of Cylon AI personality ident, I guess? In layman’s terms, you can be a human or a robot, and the aim of the game is to fly around in space doing missions and stuff.

As you complete more missions and stuff, you gradually earn the the right to pilot fruitier ships. Besides the usual Vipers, Raptors and Raiders that do all the dogfighting during the show, Bigpoint’s team of imagineers have developed over a dozen new frigates and destroyers with which to upset canon-obsessed nerds. This brings me to my main observation about the game. It is described as taking place during season two of the TV series, which any Battlestar fan with a good memory will remember for being really uneventful. The initial shock of the Cylon attack and general scene-setting has run its course by the end of season one, and the paranoia and backstabbing that dominates the latter half of the series doesn’t really start until season three.

I asked a Bigpoint representative whether there was some clever reason why they chose this particular time period for the game’s setting. Would the events of season two appear as plot points within the game, for example? I was told that they picked this series precisely because nothing happened in it – it was just a nice, stable period where both sides are just endlessly flying through space. MMOs tend to have static worlds so that players don’t get to upset each others’ game experiences too much, but with such a rich story to poach from, and so many fans who would enjoy stepping into the universe, it seems like a wasted opportunity to not expand on the established storylines.

That said, as with Ruined Online, the game will no doubt undergo ‘refinement’ over the coming years as players provide feedback. If you generally like the sound of the game but have a few things you’d like to see change, it could be worth signing up and getting involved in the community.

Both games are currently in open beta, both games can be played for free, and both run in the Unity web browser plug-in, which you ought to already have installed by now because it is good.