Monday, March 5, 2012

In The City : City of Steam

I don't believe we've yet seen a really satisfying Steampunk MMO. Fond as I am (was) of NeoSteam, an eight-foot-tall tiger flattening balloon rabbits with a beer-barrel impaled on the end of a scaffolding pole does not scream 19th Century techno-noir to me. I've not revisited Gatheryn since beta so for all I know it may have changed out of all recognition but I remember it mostly as a Victorian-themed fairground portal for some uninspired mini-games. Echo Bazaar is wonderful, of course, but it's more Surrealist than Steampunk and more card-game than MMO.

Half the supposed high-fantasy MMOs that I've played have Steampunk elements. Airships drift, glide or rumble across the skies in WoW, EQ2 and Warhammer. The Empire in Allods is is almost post-steampunk, pushing into the mid 20th Century with its totalitarian politics and constructivist architecture. The Defiants in Rift look to have taken their entire aesthetic from the James Whale Frankenstein . How well technology of this order sits with high fantasy is debatable, although by now it's apparent that once you let gnomes into your fantasy world there really isn't any point trying to hold the line against clockworks.

Until yesterday I'd never heard of City of Steam. Massively posted a news item about a pre-beta "Sneak Peak" that looked interesting but supposedly you had to have registered on the CoS website before the 28th of February when the event began. Massively right on the case there, then. A bit of digging around turned up a website that still had a few keys left from some cross-pollinating offer and with one bound and several registration forms I was in. (Looks like they might still have a few left, although a lot more have gone since I nabbed mine last night).

The Sneak Peak lasts for two weeks so there's a week left. The question is, is it any good? Well, yes it it is, rather and since there's no NDA here's what I've found so far.

City of Steam is in great shape for pre-beta. I've put several hours in and I haven't run into a  single bug, unless Clockroaches count. There's plenty of content in place, all running smooth as gnomish machine-oil. Not that there are any gnomes. Or dwarves. No, wait, hang on there are dwarves but they're clockwork. I think. I spoke to one and he chided me for forgetting about his marvelous clockwork city, tragically now overrun by undead. Nice twist.

The writing is very good.  Mechanist Games, the studio behind the game, may be Chinese but the opening credits name one David Lindsay as both Creator and Producer and the English throughout is impeccable. The text and dialog isn't just grammatically correct either. It's idiomatically comfortable, literate and witty and there's a wealth of interesting detail which I found endearingly old-school. Every item has a mouseover tooltip that reads like an entry from a tabletop rpg rulebook from the 1990s.

The UI is first rate. Elegant, clear and responsive. Can't fault it. I found it intuitive, familiar without being generic and a pleasure to use. The game runs in a browser but looks like it's running from a client. Masses of detail, very gritty feel. There doesn't seem to be a first-person view option but the camera is well-behaved. Movement is click-to-move, which is fine by me. Maybe they'll add WASD at a later stage.

"None" includes Your Reporter
Visually City of Steam is gorgeous. I couldn't get it to run full-screen, which is a shame because I would love to be able to get an even better look at the dirty buildings, moss-covered cobbled streets and juddering steam-powered vehicles. Airships and even flying steam-locomotives cross the skies above the sprawling city in which you begin. It really is a city, too. Seen from above in the opening cinematic it reveals itself as port city that has spread back into the surrounding hills like a stain. Reminded me a bit of Bilbao.

Thus far I've spent most of my time taking screenshots and exploring. At the end of various streets or bridges an option sometimes popped up inviting me into some suburb where the City Guard's writ no longer runs, or down into the inevitable substrate of sewer and crypt. Instanced dungeons, in a word. Two words. For a pre-beta there seemed to be quite a few  already,  stretching at least into the high 20s.

Click here...
... Go there.
One feature I really liked was the signposts. You can click on the destination and your character will make his own way there. I've played plenty of MMOs that have this autoroute feature activated from the quest journal or the map but for some reason having it on a large sign in the gameworld itself seems much more immersive.

Ah, there's that word. Immersion. Some MMOs attain it effortlessly, some couldn't find it in the dictionary. I suspect City of Steam has it and if it does it's down to something I can't show in a screenshot. Sound. The sound direction is about the best I've heard in an MMO. The music is sweeping, elegaic, bittersweet but it's not the music that builds the pervasive atmosphere, it's the ambient sound. Train whistles hoot mournfully, sinister functionaries make mysterious announcements over a distorted tannoy system, dogs bark somewhere in the maze of streets that stretches into the distance all around. It's like being somewhere.

And with that I think it's time to take a break. More on City of Steam to come. Probably. So many MMOs, so little time. I think this one deserves attention.


  1. Wow, I saw this and figured it was no good. I'm very interested now... I'd love to hear more on the gameplay/ PVE game design. I'd hate for it to be a mindless mob/quest grinder.

    I also hate the auto navigation in most games, but the way they implemented it fully changes my view of it. The writing sounded highly impressive too... wow, I would of never thought this game would even be half decent. It sure sounds like they have the right idea, or about some things at least.

  2. I tried Gatheryn awhile back, I liked the mini games a bit, is that one even around still?

    City of Steam sounds really cool, I'll definitely keep my eye on this. Always up for something new, something with a different feel. I guess that is why I play so many of those F2P eastern games these days, hehe. Great screens too, looks like it has a nice steampunk vibe to it!

    You ever get Zentia working? Let me know if you do XD

  3. I spent about three hours doing the level 4 dungeon in City of Steam last night. It was unbelievably vast and I don't think I got anywhere near the end. Some guard gave me a quest for another dungeon that required me to get something from the 20th level!

    I took a ton of screenshots so there will be a post in detail but not til the weekend I imagine, by when the "Sneak Peak" will have finished.

    I have all the manual files for Zentia downloaded - I just need the time and willpower to install them!

  4. Hi, my name is Ethan and I work for Mechanist Games. Great to find your commentaries here, thanks for your compliment for a game which is still at its early stage. Now we are sprinting to the Alpha.

    We received bunch of constructive feedback and player input (if you are one of the contributors, thank you), and now are digesting most of them. We already released a list of changes we're gonna make in our Design and Coding dev journals on City of Steam official website. Please check out and stay connected for more updates.


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