July 17 2008
You are the pilot of a high-tech fighting machine called a Mechanaught, which has customizable weaponry and rapid movement capabilities. Your mission is to take a big gun and slaughter other Mechanaughts in PvP arenas, capturing a few flags along the way. Story? We don't need no stinking story! Go on a killing spree and earn yourself a bigger gun, then pwn some noobs - there's your story.
How Free Is Free?
"Free game" is not quite as simple as it sounds these days. Totally free games, such as Wolfenstein: ET, are becoming less common than games like Exteel, which are supported with microtransactions and ads. You can play Exteel indefinitely without buying any NCcoin, and you will earn some decent rewards through the experience system, but you will obviously get to the good gear a lot sooner if you spend a few bucks.
Encouraging people to essentially buy an in-game advantage is a fine line to walk. If the items you can purchase are too good, new players and players on a budget won't be able to make much progress, get discouraged, and leave. If the items for sale aren't good enough, players won't buy them, and your revenue will dry up. North Americans are only beginning to warm up to the idea of being able to purchase an advantage, which still offends some people's sense of fair play. Of course, having money to spend is ultimately not much different than having time to spend.
Exteel has struck a pretty reasonable balance in this regard, as the gear you can earn is just as good as the gear you can buy. The catch is that to earn the credits you will have to play a lot of matches. There's no fixed ratio as the credits rewarded varies from match to match, but I'd guess that $10 worth of NCcoin would be equivalent to at least 50 or 60 rounds of credits earned through playing. If you like Exteel enough to play 100 matches to earn an item, you probably like it enough to buy a little NCcoin. It's definitely a strong incentive for people to open their wallets.
Graphics and Interface
Built on the Unreal 2 graphics engine, Exteel is largely what you would expect a multiplayer third-person shooter to be. Although it's not loaded with eye-candy and some of the maps are a bit plain, the Mechanaughts look cool enough and there are some spiffy particle effects. It can't compare visually to the latest batch of high-end FPS games, but it will run well on older systems and the download is only about 350 MB.
Controls include the immediately familiar WASD keys for movement, mouselook, and mouse button triggers. Where Exteel differs from the average shooter is that double tapping a movement key activates a booster that propels you along very quickly until you run out of energy. It works with the jump key as well to give you some serious upward mobility. This adds another layer to the game's combat without making the controls exceedingly complicated.
Joining a Match
When you're through with the tutorial, you'll find yourself in a chat room with a game browser, where you'll see a list of matches being played. Here you can join or create a room, buy and equip parts for your Mechanaughts, or allocate the skill points your pilot has earned. Matches are limited to just 16 players maximum, so it's a long way from "massively multiplayer," as some sites have described it.
The gameplay modes in Exteel at the moment are very routine, consisting of deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and territory control. There is also Last Stand, which is a cooperative mode played against bots.
There are a lot of guns in Exteel, but the game also has melee weapons, and you can even carry a shield. All weapons are prone to overheating, which renders them inoperable until they cool off for a few seconds. This forces you to use them wisely despite having unlimited ammunition.
The targetting system in the game is noticeably different than what you find in most shooters. Passing your crosshairs over an enemy causes ranged weapons to "lock on." You must be locked on to score a hit, and you can only lock on at the range defined by your weapon. This has the peculiar side effect of causing you to miss despite perfect aim, simply because you haven't locked on to your target. Because guns have a minimum as well as a maximum range, this can happen even when you're standing right next to your opponent. As counter-intuitive as it is, you do learn to adjust over time. While FPS purists may not care for this, as it takes some of the twitchiness out of dogfights, others will like it for the exact same reason.
Along with your two weapon loadouts, special skills (bound to the number keys by default) can be acquired. Using these successfully in battle triggers unique combat animations like grabbing a foe by the neck or making a rapid-fire maneuver with your guns.
Customizing Your Mechanaught
Although there are no vehicles other than Mechanaughts in Exteel, they are highly customizable.
As you can imagine, the large variety of armor and weapons makes game balance a delicate matter. The latest patch made some changes that were not particularly well-received by the community. Although this is pretty much a way of life with online games, there's a good chance the developers are aware of the problems and will try to address them in future patches.
The Bottom Line
It's a little difficult to rate games like these because, ultimately, the players themselves decide how much they want to pay for them. Some will pay nothing, some will get great mileage out of the $10 or $20 worth of NCcoin, while others will end up spending as much or more than they would on a standard retail game. I think for most people, a shooter like Call of Duty 4 or Team Fortress 2 is a better value, but then again, they don't have Mechanaughts.
If fast-paced mech battles appeal to you, there's a lot of fun to be had in Exteel, and you'll find yourself getting very attached to your Mechanaught after a few upgrades. A deep reward system will keep mech pilots coming back for more, and the sticky targetting system may appeal to people outside the usual stable of shooter fans. The sweet thing about this revenue model is that you can jump in there, start blasting away, and leave the decision about how much cash you're willing to put into it until later.