Fallen Empire: Legions Hands-on Impressions

Much like its confounding two-part title, Fallen Empire: Legions really consists of a combination of two separate elements.

On the one hand, GarageGames has fashioned an accessible time waster, the next generation of Flash-like gaming. It runs in a web browser, looks great for it, and can be played and quit in the span of a coffee break.

On the other hand, Fallen Empire is a hardcore online shooter, a game any Starsiege: Tribes fan will immediately recognize. It has chainguns, large maps, and is entirely centered around jetpack-based flight combat.

In the end, you'll need two quick hands to get anywhere in Legions, because if this game is anything, it is fast.

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Things are speedy right from the get-go. The game is loaded and played in a widescreen, 980x551 in-browser window on the InstantAction web portal--though fullscreen is supported for actual play. Starting the beta up for the first time takes a mere minute, and subsequent loads are measured in the sub-ten second range. Once in the menu, players have the option of either starting a new match or joining one already in progress. Either way, you're off to the races with a few clicks.

And what a race it is. Those who have played Starsiege: Tribes are already familiar with "skiing"--the result of a bug that allowed players to gain enormous speed by flying high and then gliding along the down-slopes of hills, rocketing across the ground at extreme velocity. In Fallen Empire, jetpacks default to a ground-based boost, only running out of fuel if used to travel vertically. This means that players can constantly and instantly glide along the ground, only running out of momentum when rocketing upward to attack an enemy or grab a flag.

In effect, skiing is free in Legions. You will still need to carefully time your jetpacking in order to beat an opposing player, a game of managing your jet fuel in order to avoid contact with the ground and present yourself as an easy target. But beyond that, gaining momentum and zipping to an enemy base is now achieved in seconds. The end result is a much faster game, but one that still retains the basic gameplay of Tribes combat.

Despite its humble in-browser nature, Legions looks quite respectable when played in fullscreen mode. Graphics are sharp and character models detailed, with little touches like swaying grass and the ability to see your own feet adding to the polish. The Akira-like streaking of jetpacks is a brilliant artistic touch, each player swiping another brush stroke across the sky, turning the ballet of Legions' combat into something visually striking. Environments and ground textures are simple in comparison to player models, but present a consistent, visually interesting look that is altogether satisfying.

In fact, Fallen Empire is mostly a basic game in its beta form. A choice of two maps and two game modes are available, allowing for the option of either a snowy or grassy map to be paired with standard deathmatch or capture-the-flag play.

Weapons loadouts are bare-bones. You have a chaingun, laser sniper, rocket launcher, and grenade launcher to play with, each loadout varying which two weapons are paired for use. The chaingun is self-explanatory, your meat and potatoes rifle that overheats if used for too long. The laser sniper must be charged for a good four or five seconds, the initial ranging beam clearly visible to anyone attempting to avoid it. Considering the game's speed, you'll have to be one hell of a sniper to pluck enemies out of the air.

The grenade launcher behaves more or less like the Tribes variant, with the quick-firing rocket launcher filling in for the Spinfusor. Yes, fear not, Tribes fans: mid-air rocket hits take all the same skill of a good disc-launcher shot. In Dynamix's game, there was nothing quite like blowing someone out of the sky while moving at high speed, flag in hand, judging your next landing while assessing potential targets. Legions captures this juggling act perfectly.

Altogether, Fallen Empire seems the result of an ambitious, yet focused project, with the goal of taking jetpack combat into a fast, portable realm. To that end, the larger pieces are already in place.

But as a huge fan of Tribes, I can't help but miss all the extra bits that made it such a deep, rewarding game to master--the loadout stations, the armor classes, and the deployable turrets. I wish Legions had giant honeycomb bases, and varied game modes, and vehicles. It could use a little more of that Shazbot flavor.

That being said, it's still early. At present, Legions captures the speedy essence of Tribes combat, distills it down to a basic presentation, and throws it up in an easy-to-play format. It may not have fifty bells and whistles yet, but it gets at the core of what I loved about Dynamix's series, and the speed at which it allows you to jump in and enjoy a fast-paced round of FPS combat is unrivaled.

Even if Legions were to never evolve beyond its current state, I would still be a happy member of the InstantAction tribe. The team plans a live-development release, with new features added as they are completed. Give me armor classes, deployables or vehicles, and I may never work again.

The Fallen Empire: Legions closed beta expands later this week, with a full release expected later this year.