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Preview: High-octane power of 'Motor City Online'
Motor City Online


(IDG) -- Name changes and concept re-inventions, engine overhauls and near-death experiences -- it's been a long and bumpy road for "Motor City Online," but EA's ambitious racing game finally looks like it's ready to emerge as one of the most promising titles in the upcoming onslaught of persistent online universes.

10 Million Miles from Brittania

Aside from being the first online racing universe, "Motor City"'s got another thing goin' that makes it stand out -- a keen sense of classic style. The whole game is built around a retro theme, and based around vintage Ford, Chrysler, and Chevrolet from the 30s through the 70s, from classic Thunderbirds to GTOs with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. The game will ship with nearly 60 base model cars (fully customizable with over 1,000 parts), with even more of each available as time goes on. INFOCENTER
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Even though "Motor City" is a million miles and a million years from the "Ruins of Kunark," you can't help but think of "Motor City Online" as an online racing RPG -- when you buy the game and sign up for the service, you create an online persona that exists on one of the game's many servers scattered throughout the country, in a model that closely resembles "Ultima Online"'s shard system. You'll be able to have up to five personas per "shard," and each persona has his or her own bankroll, garage, and community loyalties. Play one persona as a raging jackass who likes to swindle newbies; play another as a delicate female mechanic with a penchant for go-go dancing, or just play yourself -- it's all up to you.

The City That Never Sleeps

Since the world of "Motor City" never sleeps, Community will play a huge part in the game as well. The meat of the game lies in Sim World, an ever-evolving place where you swap cars, make bets, earn a salary form unions, and race against opponents from around the world. Aside from the EA-hosted deals and special "event" auctions offering rare and unique new vehicles, players can swap and trade their cars either on the fly or using an eBay-like auction system. Think your tweaked-out Chevy Impala stands a chance against your friend's; hey, who knows, maybe he forgot to change his tires for a race in the rain. Lose the race, you might just lose your car and a wad of cash as well.

An intricate club system is under works as well, complete with turf wars (where top Clubs can "own" and defend one of the game's 24 tracks), rankings, and leader boards. EA envisions players taking on roles as specialists, with legions of mechanics, buyers, traders, and expert racers fleshing out the whole team experience. But if "UO" taught us anything, it's that nobody knows what players' imaginations will come up with. It's a free world, baby -- go ahead and start that Club for Blue Edsel Owners Who Love to Crosshatch in Arizona if that's your dream. Of course, if the pressure in Sim World is too high, just head on over to Arcade Mode and race just for the fun of it -- the only thing at stake here is your pride.

Grease is the Word

The graphics in the pre-alpha preview build we first saw were powered by an enhanced version of the "Need for Speed" engine, and they looked great -- complete with detailed car models, and excellent environmental lightning, rain, and headlights effects to bring up the level of realism. And while the graphics engine may be a "NFS" tweak, the rest of the engine is a whole new monster -- EA has developed an all-new 4-point physics engine for Motor City. The controls in the slightly-advanced build at E3 were solid and tight; a nice blend of true-to-life, realistic physics and more tweaked arcade-like handling whenever the game threatens to become bogged down in the petty annoyances of reality. Plus, the different cars definitely feel very different while driving, as light or as heavy as you'd expect them to be -- EA's trying their best to make sure your best-laid tweaking plans aren't all for naught. And while the level of customization doesn't appear to go as deep as "Gran Turismo"'s oh-so-delicate "I wonder what changing this angle does, whoops, how come I can't steer anymore" fine tuning, the ability to swap in over 1,000 auto parts means there's still plenty you can do to tweak out your vehicle.

Rocky Roads Behind Us, Uncharted Highways Ahead

With "Motor City Online," EA is looking to bring something completely different to the online gaming mix -- a persistent global racing world, steeped in the classic culture of muscle cars, malt shops, motor oil, and pure, uncompromising horsepower. The game was slated to go into beta on June 11. Prepare to take a nice, long ride when it hits stores later this summer.

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