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Sprinkled across the loading screens and chapter headings of Warhammer 40,000 games you often see cheery thoughts of the day from the Imperium of Man, its dystopian fascist future of humanity. According to one of them, “Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.”
That will be a sentiment familiar to anyone who followed Dark Millennium Online, the Warhammer 40,000 MMORPG that Vigil Games were developing before publisher THQ went bankrupt. To be honest it’s a sentiment anyone who follows the development of MMOs will know well. It’s not usually a genre where it’s worth getting your hopes up early.
And yet, there’s hope for Warhammer 40,000 fans coming from an unexpected source. Canada’s Behaviour Interactive isn’t known to many unless it’s as the company that used to be A2M—until somebody googled the name realized it referred to something pornographic. For the last two years Behaviour has been working on a Warhammer 40,000 MMO that’s recently made it into Early Access on Steam. Eternal Crusade isn’t a standard MMORPG though, as executive producer Nathan Richardsson and lead designer Brent Ellison are at pains to explain.
“We don’t have mission-givers with a question mark on top of their heads!” Richardsson says. Instead Eternal Crusade will be a game about territorial conquest, the map split up into sectors that can be taken over by its four factions. It sounds a lot like Planetside, but if you fire Eternal Crusade up now what you’ll be playing is something closer to the early Battlefield, games with 16-a-side matches that see the two currently available factions fighting over a handful of control points rather than a persistent world.
“The Early Access alpha is very much like a lobby shooter,” Richardsson explains, “because that’s what we want, to get the core shooter first, right? If that doesn’t work the rest of the MMO doesn’t matter at all, it’s going to be a boring game.”
“Right now we’re just doing individual matches and stuff,” says Ellison, “but in the game every battle takes place at a point that’s on the strategic layer of the map, and will cause territories to flip and ownership to change. On top of that we’ve got a social area where you can go to train and have other people around, we’ve got persistent character progression, we’ve got PvE challenges.”
Those PvE challenges will be where the Tyranids come in, NPC alien bug-dinosaurs who live under the surface of the planet everyone else is fighting over and who can be fought in co-op missions a little like a game of Left 4 Dead. “Certain territories can start to have an infestation level and in order to clear it out you do these underground missions against Tyranids with your faction,” Ellison says. “You take up to five people initially, we’ll expand to more later, but you take up to five people in, complete a series of objectives while Tyranids are spawning on top of you. It’s not just about slaying the Tyranids, it’s about completing the objectives. More like Mass Effect 3.”
Combined with the planned social space and training area, Eternal Crusade will be the kind of MMO that’s about letting groups of friends get together and then play multiple modes, “which is basically the same as model as Destiny,” as Richardsson puts it. (“Guild Wars 1 actually,” Ellison interrupts.)
Introducing the Eldar
The two playable factions in Eternal Crusade right now are the Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines, with the Eldar to be added next, followed by Orks (and more after launch). The Eldar are an unusual species in Warhammer 40,000—basically theatrical zen space elves. The long-lived survivors of a fallen empire that grew so decadent it accidentally birthed a god of sadomasochistic pleasure, the Eldar protect themselves from falling back into their bad old ways through ascetic devotion and focus, making them hyper-specialized.
That’s an easy philosophy to translate into game terms. “We have seven different classes for the Eldar,” says Ellison, “which is more than we have for the rest of them, and each of them has a very specific role. They have a few weapons available to them but fewer than you would see on Space Marines or Orks or whatever. To give an example, the Howling Banshees are good at one thing—that’s charging at the enemy and chopping them up. So we’re giving them tools they need to do that, but that’s exactly what the Howling Banshees do and if they try to do anything else they’re going to be in trouble.”
The other classes available to Eldar will be Dire Avengers, point-capturing troops armed primarily with shuriken catapults, Fire Dragons, who have anti-vehicle ‘melta’ weapons, Warlocks for psychic support, Dark Reapers with heavy weapons, Striking Scorpions for melee infiltration, and the gliding Swooping Hawks who excel at aerial harassment. “That’s the key there, maneuverability and specialization. When I say maneuverability I also mean they will be able to turn faster, move faster, that sort of thing.”
Motion capture for the Eldar was completed in December, and Ellison was impressed with the results. “The stuff that the actress was able to pull off was awesome, the wirework and things like that, really cool. A bit more inspired by Platinum Games and stuff like that as opposed to the brawlers that the Space Marines and Chaos are.”
True to the setting, with its chainswords and power fists, Eternal Crusade is a shooter where hand-to-hand combat is important. If you ever played the multiplayer in Relic’s third-person action game Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine there’s been direct inspiration taken from that, and your first death will probably be to someone with a jump pack plummeting out of the sky to cut you in half. (Your second and third deaths are liable to be similar.)
“When you play the classes which are heavily melee-based they aren’t just limited to a very simple play experience,” Richardsson says. “It’s deeper than you see in other games which are shooters. We’re not a melee-only game which has very complex systems, but as Brent likes to explain when you have ranged weapons and melee at the same time you’re not gonna see a duel at dawn where they’re standing against each other for 12 minutes because someone’s going to run by and shoot you.”
“Just approaching the enemy in the context of a battle that’s going on around you with tanks and sniper rifles and everything is part of the challenge,” Ellison adds. As for those tanks, the Eldar apparently hate wheels. All of their vehicles either walk or float. While the Marine vehicles trundle around on their frumpy treads the Eldar will have fashionably hovering ‘grav tanks’ in the colors of their sub-factions.
Each faction currently has five sub-factions to choose from, which will eventually have their own combat barks, equipment options, and branches in the progression trees. Primarily they’re a cosmetic difference, but a characterful one. “We did this event to have the players pick what the fifth sub-faction would be for each of the factions and for the Eldar they picked the Altansar,” says Ellison. “Their Craftworld was trapped in the Eye of Terror for centuries and they only recently came out. As a result of their experiences there they only speak in whispers and they never remove their helmets. We’re going to respect that so they’re getting their own voice pack.”
“But they suck at communication because they whisper,” Richardsson adds. “You can hear them say INCOMING! with a grenade, it’s like incomiiing,” he whispers. “Then they blow up. So that’s their flavor. No, I’m kidding.”
Eternal means forever, right?
As an MMO Eternal Crusade will of course continue to grow after its launch, with a plan to leave Early Access later this year. “We have free expansions every three months, that’s our goal here in terms of adding more things,” Richardsson says. One of the first of these will be the heavy armor Terminator class. For the Eldar, that class will take the shape of the Wraithguard, who are robots made of psycho-plastic material piloted by spirits of the dead. So that’s nice.
Another planned post-launch feature will be a free-to-play mode that allows players to try Eternal Crusade without buying it, but limits them to playing as Ork Boyz, the cannon fodder hooligans of the game’s fourth faction. “It’s not going to be at launch, simply because we serve our paying customers first,” says Richardsson. Free-to-play Orks were announced when Behaviour was aiming to have battles with “a thousand Orks just coming at you” but expectations have had to be reduced. While players will eventually see bigger conflicts than the current 16-a-side scrums, the technology isn’t there to simulate the full Green Tide of the Orks.
There’s another terrifying influx coming though, and that’s one of humans. Eternal Crusade recently jumped from closed alpha to an open one which bumped up player numbers, and there will be another bump when it’s released. Anyone who plays online games will be familiar with the phenomenon of a game’s friendly community of early adopters turning toxic as it grows larger. Will that happen to Eternal Crusade?
“Nah, I have no idea what you’re talking about! There’s only nice people on the internet,” says Richardsson with a laugh. “It’s a good question. I’d say we have a very mature audience right now, which has been around for a long time with Warhammer, right? But opening it up to a larger audience doesn’t equal everything going haywire and it becoming horrible. You won’t even get that far in the gameplay that we’re trying to foster and reward in the game itself by being an asshole. While we can’t change the world we can do our part to encourage certain behavior at least in-game.”
“One of the big benefits of early access will be us figuring out all the things that can go wrong as players try to do terrible things,” says Ellison, “so I think we anticipate putting in more and more measures to counter really the worst stuff, like griefing, team-killing, etcetera.”
To get to the point where that’s really a concern they’ll need to make it to launch, which some fans burned by Dark Millennium Online have been publicly doubtful about. “People ask us, why are you going into Early Access, do you lack money?” says Richardsson. “There’s a lot of different reasons. Do we need money? No, we are funded till our launch this year. Would we like more money? Well, of course. What a silly question; then we can do more as part of the launch.”
He sighs. “Everybody is afraid that we’re gonna blow up like other 40K games.”
“We would already have blown up,” says Ellison. “We’ve had opportunities to blow up, but we haven’t blown up yet.”