End of Nations may well be the largest multiplayer RTS we've ever played. Rift creators, Trion Worlds and the ex-Westwood veterans at Petroglyph are making a free to play real time strategy game, and they're making it big. Its largest maps will let two teams of 26 players fight with up to 20 units each. That's 1040 troops on a single battlefield, controlled by 52 different people. End of Nation's campaign will take place on an even greater scale. As a member of one of End of Nation's two factions, every victory will count towards an ongoing win/loss competition that will let your clan take take and hold territory on a grand strategic map of the planet.
The 52 player maps weren't ready to be played when I met up with Trion to get an early look at End of Nations recently. Frankly, Trion wouldn't have been able fit enough people into the demo room to show it, but I did spend some time with a few of End of Nation's other modes including a co-op survival map and a tense 4v4 control point arena. End of Nation's grand war is driven by fast, accessible skirmishes between highly customisable units. Every kill earns experience, which allows for advancement along detailed tech trees bristling with powerful new tanks, VTOLS, infantry squads and robots. It's smart, addictive, and fun. If you have a "ones to watch in 2012" list, you'll want to add this one with a big fat marker pen.
There's no base building in End of Nations. Once you've chosen your troop line-up your entire army is air-dropped into your team's deployment zone. Whenever a unit gets blown up, you can call them back in using points earned defeating enemies and capturing points, a system that will feel very familiar to World in Conflict players. With no mining, gathering or base building to think about, my focus for most of each game was on the constant fighting for control points carefully positioned around the map.
That's intentional. Trion and Petroglyph want to strip away the battlefield-wide micromanagement associated with traditional RTSes so that players get on with the fun bit: turning the enemy army into smoking wrecks. After the demo, I spoke to Trion senior producer, Chris Lena about the decision to cut out bases and concentrate almost entirely on combat. He hopes that this direct approach will bring disaffected strategy players back into the fold. "We think a lot of people over the years that used to play strategy games and RTS games have moved away because the genre hasn't changed," he said. "In some ways it's become more hardcore over time. We think we've solved some of those problems."
End of Nations battles don't rely on the kind of precision, timing and resource control that dominates the average StarCraft 2 scrap, it's all about fast micromanagement. Each type of unit has a unique special ability. My mammoth tanks could go hull-down, sinking into an immobile defensive posture to better guard control points. My flimsy artillery could sit at the back and throw down a circular overwatch area that they would shell repeatedly, perfect for putting pressure on chokepoints like narrow streets and bridges. I also gradually gained access to a suite of general commander abilities as my artillery continued to obliterate the hordes of incoming infantry. These would let me repair vehicles quickly or call down big area of effect buffs, improving the resilience of all allied units.
Smart use of these abilities can win fights, and they can become game-changing as you use them in co-ordinated attacks with allied commanders. Teamwork is essential, and End of Nations is built to encourage players to form squads. "We're fans of MMORPGs and other games that have been getting a lot of people together" said Lena after the demo. "I think recently a lot of games the most fun is other people, right? That's definitely a big part of it."
That's where Trion's MMO experience comes in. "We find that what's really worked is a lot of the social features," Lena says. "like clan mechanics, chat, friends lists, being able to find groups together. We want as manypeople as possible in the game because it makes it more fun for everyone else." As we talk, we end up using MMO phrases like PvP and PvE time and time again, partly because of Trion's MMO background, but also because End of Nations is making a determined attempt to bring the scale of a free-to-play MMO to the RTS.
That means PvE, too. Once they've rolled out the End of Nations multiplayer build this summer, Trion say that Petroglyph will be readying up a massive co-op campaign offering squads massive co-op missions. These will pit armies of players against the AI controlled Order of Nations faction. Lena says that some of these will let 52-player armies take to the field together in huge areas akin to MMO zones, to take on environmental hazards and battle multi-stage bosses.
Factor in the massive levelling system, the in-game currency that can be spent on customisation and unit upgrades and the grand war for control of Earth, and there's going to be plenty to get our teeth into when the first build of End of Nations rolls out later this year. We'll have to wait and see exactly what the microtransaction scheme will be like, but for now Lena assured me that it won't be a "pay to win" game.
End of Nations is shaping up very nicely indeed. There have been attempts to create massively multiplayer strategy games before, but few with this much ambition. If those 52 player rumbles can live up to our expectations, End of Nations could be pretty special.