Exteel Review

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Exteel Publisher: NCsoft
Developer: Team Beam

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: 800 MHz processor, 256 MB RAM, nVidia GeForce 4 series video card or equivalent, 1 GB HD space, internet connection, Windows 2000 or XP

Giant fighting robots called "Mechanaughts" meet in sporting arenas or cityscapes to determine who has the biggest gun and the superior pilot by slugging it out with high-powered weaponry and melee weapons the size of small trees.

Kyle Ackerman

I'm predisposed to love giant, fighting robots. Admittedly, robots in Exteel are Mechanaughts and have more of an Asian (anime or manga) look to them than the classic BattleTech behemoths that I've always enjoyed. (If BattleTech doesn't ring a bell, think MechWarrior.) But that's fine. I can have fun with giant, fighting robots, even if they have heads that look like they came from a feudal Japanese soldier and wield a giant sword and shield. They're giant freakin' robots... that fight! But Exteel managed to diminish my love of giant fighting robots, just a little bit.

Exteel is hard to get into, and even harder to enjoy, especially if you aren't prepared to sink some real cash into it. The introductory experience is the biggest hurdle for Exteel. First, it was difficult to get the game going. It won't run on a Windows Vista machine, and had various conflicts with the two Windows XP machines I tried it on. One was a mid-range system and the other was just better than the minimum system requirements for Exteel. That was frustrating, and it became more frustrating that both systems suffered from occasional glitches, either freezing or encountering display problems.

A Handy Introduction to a Muddled Battle

Once I got the game installed, there was a useful set of tutorials to introduce me to the game. It showed off all the important features, from movement, shooting and melee combat to how to capture Aerogates (capture points critical to some matches). Completing the advanced (harder) tutorials even net me some cash and weapons with which to outfit my Mechanaught. But beyond the basics of the tutorials, nearly everything in Exteel is cryptic. Documentation is minimal, so you'll want to spend some time on the game's forum boards if you want to figure out, say, what pilot advancement means or what to do in terms of skills.

The basics of the game aren't hard. Fundamentally, it's similar to plenty of other multiplayer online games, with the addition of persistent character development. As a combatant, you can participate in basic arena-style deathmatch or team deathmatch games, territory control (that has teams fighting over specific Aerogates), capture the flag and "last stand." Last Stand is of particular interest, as it pits a team of players against regular onslaughts from AI drones.

Last Stand is absolutely the best way to start playing (after the tutorial), because you aren't (directly) competing against other players. That way you can get some practice and advance your pilot without being smacked down by more advanced players. Because however much something with as many configuration options as Exteel may seem like it's about building a kick-ass Mechanaught with an interesting configuration and piloting that Mechanaught to victory, strategy is, at best, of the rock-paper-scissors variety. As long as you have a minimum of coordination, he with the most expensive Mechanaught and most experienced pilot wins.

Technology That Seems Old Beyond Its Years

A lot of the problem comes from the technology. Even in the older MechWarrior games, it mattered where you put weapons, how you dealt with heat and what you shot. Exteel's weapons can overheat, but targeting is like the earliest of online games. It only matters that you target somewhere near your victim. If you are in range and pointed in the right direction, you will automatically lock on and can fire until you overheat. There are melee weapons. You can swing at your enemies with a big sword, but this is really just a matter of maneuvering near your target and swinging for the fence. It's not hard and it doesn't require real skill. Exteel seems primitive.

At the same time, there aren't hit zones. Most of the interactions that happen are automated so you don't have to go to the effort, and the network code doesn't get strained. You can't blast at your enemy's legs, immobilizing him. You just hold down the mouse buttons until you or your opponent is dead. So here's the problem: When there's little skill in moving and aiming, and no real strategy in configuration (beyond attacking an enemy using long-range weapons with a sword), it comes down to who has the best Mechanaught. There is a small amount of skill required to use melee weapons (Mechanauts' swords and spears), but given how glitchy and jumpy the netcode is, skill just isn't the dominant factor.

Winners Get Stronger... Losers Get Stronger, But Not As Fast

It's true that in online games like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, people with better twitch gaming skills will destroy an inexperienced player. But even in games with persistent character development, like Call of Duty 4, a new player has a chance... at least if they practice a bit and study the maps. Exteel tries to get around this by segregating game by pilot level. But a low-level pilot who has spent more than you will still, on average, kick your ass.

It's a problem of "positive feedback." People who've developed their pilots and Mechanaughts have a head start, and when they win, they get further ahead. Not only are the people already playing the game better than you (well, at least they've had more practice, even if you are strong in the ways of the Force and have better twitch skills) , but they'll stay further ahead, unless you spend cash (in this case, NCcoin) to close the gap.

Outspend and Outlast

You can earn the in-game cash necessary to compete against someone with a lot of NCcoin just by playing the free game, but that involves enduring regular, painful losses. And even then, good items wear down and have to be replaced. That means either a constant stream of cash, or lots of play time (possibly on the loosing end of the cannon) just to get the good stuff with which to compete. Aside from the fact that causing items to decay guarantees an income stream, there are ads streaming in-game throughout matches. In fact, it's as if NCsoft has done everything a publisher can possibly do to ensure a steady income stream except provide a robust play experience that makes everyone feel competitive.

On the bright side, if you wanted to pay cash for the best the game has to offer, putting yourself on par with the top-tier equipment others might be sporting, a reasonable estimate is that you'd have to pay around $10 to $15 per month. That's assuming you wanted a good Mechanaut, and that you replace or repair your weapons based on how fast mine were being used in combat, and wanted to supplement your efforts with a few (extremely useful) skills. Also, many items simply have a limited use period, so you'll have to repurchase them after a certain number of days. On the darker side, I had problems with the store. After spending a lot of NCcoin on a hefty Mechanaught, it took a while to figure out that the set parts were distributed in my hangar, not as a new mech, but as components. The store could stand some clarification and simplification. In the last few days, items have finally been sorted, but more clarification is needed.

Anyone who is a fan of modern online multiplayer games has a lot of better options. Anyone with a remotely modern gaming PC or a console has a lot of better options than Exteel for online multiplayer action. Only if your machine is old, or if you don't care about the quality of play as long is at looks like a robotic ancient Asian warriors hacking one another to pieces, should you play Exteel. Fortunately, the game is free to try. You don't lose anything but time trying Exteel out for yourself. What I can assure you is that if the game seems primitive and not to your taste when you first try it out, it's going to stay that way.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 26, 2008 6:08 PM.

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