Is That an Elf in My Steampunk? City of Steam Is an Unusual MMORPG

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City of Steam is an upcoming free-to-play MMORPG set in a steampunk fantasy world that mixes grimy industrial settings with elves, goblins, and, literally, "go into the sewers and kill ten rats" quests. Cash shop plans are in the works for, at this writing, a shop of cosmetic or utility items; the designer I spoke to insisted they are opposed to 'pay to win'). City of Steam is currently in an Alpha state, so this preview is based on my experiences with a very early version of the game, including both a developer-lead guided tour and some free range playing during an alpha weekend.

City of Steam screenshot
Grit! Grime! Zeppelins! City of Steam, currently in alpha, is well-stocked with steampunk staples.

The general look and style of City of Steam is nice. The smoothness of play and the level of detail for the graphics is impressive, especially for a browser game. I was able to see several zones, and they are richly atmospheric and visually distinctive. The blending of Victorian technological elements with other visuals was well handled. For example, one zone had giant gears and mechanisms in rusted ruin, partially overgrown by the intruding green. Look upwards at various points, and you might see giant airships drifting by.

City of Steam has many nice touches of graphics and animation; at this early stage, though, character customization is limited. Only some of the races and classes are implemented, but the basics are there: The usual Tolkienesque blend for PCs (minus hobbits), and the three iconic Warhammer-esque greenskins of goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs, though the current setup does not place the races in direct war. Indeed, you begin in a city which holds refugees from all races, all segregated into their neighborhoods, something that MMOs do with such frequency that I'm surprised no one's written a dissertation or two on "Propagandizing the renormalization of segregation via cultural conditioning" or some such.

Each City of Steam character is promised both a race and class plotline, in addition to the public quests. One nice touch is that you begin with an instanced home, and various quests to clean it up and decorate it. There's the usual quest journal and quest tracking, and, continuing the trend in MMOs to streamline play as much as possible, you can actually auto-run to quest turn in points or key NPCs.

I experienced a few personal issues with the interface. You use click-to-move and also click-to-target, which can lead to problems. Tab-targeting is implemented, but, at the alpha state, unreliable. The default attack is bound to the tilde key, meaning you need to hit two keys to attack with it, or click on the monster, which means you might accidently run instead of attacking. Monster pathing and line of sight is still a little wonky, but, again: alpha. Looting involves clicking the various items that explode from monster corpses; there is no looting control mechanic yet in play (such as need/greed/pass dialogs or a master looter). The developer's response to my queries about this was, in effect, "Don't group with jerks." The dialog interface is also unusual, with the NPC dialog on the top of the screen, then the main UI in the middle, then your response options on the bottom. Feedback from alpha and beta testers may change these decisions, or may confirm my tastes are not in the majority.

Overall, City of Steam at the current state shows a lot of promise. As an alpha, it's less buggy than at least some MMOs I've played on release. The theme is, if not completely unique, at least not quite yet completely overdone, and there's a tremendous amount of background lore and detail which offers a great deal of room for expansion. The marriage of Diablo-style clickplay and deeper MMO mechanics is, at this stage, still a bit rocky, but they've got time to get it right. It will be interesting to see how City of Steam evolves over the development cycle, and I hope to do a proper review when it's officially released.

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