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Otherland: Is this the most impressive free-to-play game ever?

After six years and $30m, the amazing looking MMO looks ready to raise the bar...

Say free-to-play game and most people would probably assume that the game in question would be low budget, with lots of time-consuming grinding to get to the next level, poor writing and dodgy graphics. Otherland is none of those things. It's been six years in the making, has a €30 million budget, is based on the science fiction novels by best-selling writer Tad Williams, uses the Unreal Engine 3 and looks amazing.

Developed in Singapore by Real U, co-published by Gamigo and dtp and due for release in Europe and North America in Q3 2012, Otherland is currently in alpha, with closed beta testing not too far off. We were allowed to get hands on with it for the first time at a Gamigo event in Hamburg.

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Otherland is based on the door-stopping tetralogy (because sometimes a trilogy just isn't enough) written by sci-fi legend Tad Williams. Tad's also been heavily involved throughout the game's development to make sure he's happy with how it's all coming along.

The 'Otherland' is what they're calling a virtual reality multiverse simulation - what the Internet will become in the future - a massive, sprawling series of virtual worlds where you can do anything and be anything you want to be. While most current MMOs are limited to one type of genre - be that fantasy, science fiction or historical, Otherland is going to be all of the above and more.

We start off in the Lambda Mall as a metamorph - kind of a shiny, metallic crash test dummy. With neon advertising and towering skyscrapers everywhere, the Lambda Mall is the hub world, the place where you access all the other universes. It's a futuristic shopping and social centre, where you'll be able to buy and furnish your own apartment as well as buy a staggering variety of different goods and imbibe in virtual drinking (drinks can be bought from any bar and act as buffs). Most of the Lambda Mall is a no fight zone, but there are "darker" areas where anything goes, including PvP.

The first few quests in the game are set in Lambda - you step into the world through a shimmering portal, and there you meet virtual engineering professor Renie (one of the major characters in the novels). It seems you're in some kind of danger and Renie instructs you to go and hide in the pub (always a top plan, I've found).

First, you'll need to choose a body, a class and... put on some clothes. For the preview, we could choose to remain as a metamorph or become a human or alien. Aliens looked to be the most interesting, with a madcap choice of different skin colours, like all over zebra stripes. You can choose to be male or female, tall or short, fat or thin and play around with different faces and features.

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Two classes are currently available, Rage (melee) and Gunner (firearms). Clothing wise, although we started out with enough money to buy a complete outfit, we lacked the appropriate points to be able to equip both of them, forcing journalists to pick whether their characters would be naked on the top or bottom half. Thus (in)appropriately attired, we made our way to the English Pub, where the friendly bar steward plied us with free drinks before turning all nasty and demanding we run some errands for him in 'payment'. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

As well as following the main storyline or stumbling across side quests, we could take a break and travel to one of the mini game areas. Two games are currently confirmed, Dog Fight - where you control an aeroplane and shoot others out of the sky, not watch a pair of rabid rottweilers duke it out, and Roswell, where you fly a UFO and the aim is to be the one that kidnaps the most cows.

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