When I previewed Auto Assault back in January, it was clear from the Beta that it was a game of great potential. With a grand scale, riotous combat, three-way PvP action and a unique setting in the MMORPG genre, Auto Assault was a title that had my saliva glands almost gushing in anticipation of the retail release. Now that I've had an extended play of the final version, it's with some regret that I have to inform you that the game remains one of great potential, but no more: to use an automotive analogy, it's like a car with a dodgy wheel bearing - technically, it's still perfectly functional, as the wheels still turn, but there's always a squeaky annoyance reminding you that something's not quite right and that maybe, just maybe, the wheels might fall off.

Whilst everything I loved about the Beta is still there, it seems that all the reservations I had are still there, too. Normally I wouldn't start off a review so negatively, and I'll get on to the actual gameplay later in the review, but from a technical standpoint, I feel obligated to tell you that the game isn't quite there. If you're going to make a game as combat-oriented as this, where you're going for visceral satisfaction rather than any sense of complexity or multi-layered gameplay, you've got to get the basics right. Unfortunately, the limitations of the graphics engine are cruelly exposed by the introductory movies, highlighting the limited draw distances and the blandness of the environments; and it doesn't get any better in game. Granted, perhaps the devastation of a post-apocalyptic world doesn't necessarily predispose itself to eye candy, but even if you install the high resolution option, the terrain textures are worryingly drab.

Likewise, the sound effects are a little weak, and there's precious little musical score to enjoy as you make your way around the game world. If that weren't bad enough, the game's a chronic system hog, and suffers from frequent frame rate problems, even with low server populations and with the more demanding technical options (such as shadows and particle effects) turned off. Clearly, a lot of the performance optimisation you would expect to have been done for a title in the MMORPG genre either hasn't been done, or hasn't been entirely successful. Technically, the game is barely improved over the Beta I played in January, and that's terribly disappointing, because with a little spit and polish, there's a real gem of a game here.

It's refreshing to see an online game attempt a different setting from the traditional orcs 'n' elves fantasy, because it's hard to see anything toppling World of Warcraft from its lofty perch at the top of the fantasy MMOG genre for the time being. As game concepts go, Auto Assault is a winner: there's nothing most gamers like more than fast cars, excepting perhaps fast cars with guns. Couple this with outrageous Hollywood stunt physics, explosions aplenty and one-touch combat, and you've got a recipe for arguably the most accessible and playable MMOG ever created.

If there's one reason to buy Auto Assault, it's for the combat. The fast, almost frenzied pace from the Beta is still intact, and thanks to a little tweaking, now has a bit more cut and thrust. The more powerful weapons in the game now generate more heat, meaning that you can't simply hold down the right-mouse button for extended periods of time to wipe through the opposition. So you now need to duck out of combat range once your weapons overheat, or use coolant flush power-ups to extend your battle endurance. Boss battles in particular will test your ability to manage your power reserves (used for combat abilities, such as spawning support bots or unleashing sneak attacks) and how well you can prevent your weapons from overheating, whilst employing other power-ups to repair your vehicle mid-fight or to buff your targeting abilities.

Auto Assault just isn't the game it could have been

Vehicles can equip weapons on no less than four separate hard points; the first being the roof-mounted turret, which tracks enemies once you select them. Once you've gained a few levels, you are then able to acquire a front-mounted weapon, which essentially doubles your firepower, provided you're pointing at your target. Around level 10 (give or take a level or two) you will be able to equip melee weapons, which allow you to ram enemies for significant amounts of damage, and finally, somewhat later in the game, rear-mounted weapons can either be bought or looted, adding further to your vehicle's lethality. The more weapons you have, the more damage you do, but that comes at a cost of greater heat generation, meaning you have to manage combat more effectively, firing only when a target is in range, and within the tactical arc of your armaments. Some weapons are able to target more than one enemy at a time, or provide bonuses to your character stats and are particularly prized, or can be sold on to other players, if they're incompatible with your vehicle. Perhaps the most valuable weapons in the game are the mortar-like turret weapons with an explosive effective range, causing collateral damage to anything within a certain radius of the targeted vehicle, and are especially useful against large clusters of enemies. Once your ride is pimped out with weapons, you can then set about customising it with 'trick' parts, looted from enemy mobs. These vary from bloody tank-track treads to carbon fibre air scoops, depending upon your character's race, and with a little imagination, you can truly create a unique looking vehicle. Other vehicle hard points, for armour, tyre sets and power plants, add further to the customisation options, and also give you the opportunity to boost your character's stats. Equipment comes in varying grades of rarity, and less common hardware may have tinkering slots, which allow you to install various upgrades that may modify damage or resistances, for example.

Forming convoys can be fun, but the game structure doesn't really encourage it

Vehicles can be traded in for superior models as the levels pass by, with higher level cars giving you more inventory space when you're not in town, or being faster or more robust than earlier models. Even the cars may be tinkered with, providing you have a customisable chassis and a suitable upgrade, though this will prevent you from selling the car on to another player, once you've bought a more potent vehicle. In keeping with the post-apocalyptic scenario, there's a "make do and mend" theme in the game as well, allowing you to salvage scrap from the game environment, refine it, and use it to repair broken items looted from the game world or bought from junk vendors. Whilst this crafting element may be appropriate to the game setting and the MMORPG genre, it's unfortunately largely redundant and distracts from the real core strength of the game: i.e. chucking your car around the landscape with reckless abandon, blasting Scavs to bits.

Auto Assault's developers have made much of the implementation of the Havoc 2 physics engine into the game. Indeed, the physics did attract my attention, though perhaps not for the right reason. Newton's laws of motion and gravity don't seem to apply as I remember them from my A-level Physics classes. It's more like they've been given a makeover from Jerry Bruckheimer. I'm pretty sure that a two-tonne car travelling at 72 miles per hour shouldn't be stopped dead in its tracks if it hits a tent. Not unless said tent is made out of depleted uranium, anyway. Yet in Auto Assault, this happens. Not very often, but sometimes, and there are plenty of other occasions where the physics will get a bit flaky. You'll be pitched into spins if you so much as hit a pebble, but you can steam through metal fences with no problem at all... the inconsistency is baffling.

It's this kind of frustration that's indicative of the general quality of the game. All the ingredients for a life-consuming MMORPG are there, but the implementation has gone a bit awry. It has the quest structure of World of Warcraft, coupled with the freeform roaming and Hollywood driving physics of Grand Theft Auto, but barring a couple of the Boss battles, there's practically no incentive to team up and form a convoy to quest. Nearly all of the missions can be done solo, and when you do form a convoy, you're likely to be stymied by the myriad of technical problems. In the space of thirty minutes, I've had convoys be disbanded more than once because people have crashed out of the game during region transitions or because the chat channel simply stopped working and we couldn't talk to each other anymore.

You can customise the look of your ride using 'trick' parts found in-game

The game simply isn't up to scratch technically, and an example of this is the TIE-Fighter style power management dial in the user interface. It has three settings: "Speed", which gives you a bonus 20% to your speed at the cost of reducing your defence and offence bonuses by 13% each (not exactly what I'd call a fair trade); "Defense", which offsets your speed and offence bonuses for a boost to your defence by the same amounts; and "Offense", which works just as you expect. So what do the buttons on the power management dial say? "Defense"-"Speed"-"Defense". Well, that's what it looks like, because with the font they're using, it's very hard to see the difference between an "O", a "D", and an "F" and an "E". The dial is in fact labelled correctly, but with just a little more thought over something as simple as a font choice, this wouldn't have confused me for over 40 levels of game play. Other little oversights and annoyances include the fact that the pedestrian avatar animation (for when you're in town) is absolutely risible and there are no character emotes - which in a post-WoW world is stupefying.

There are just too many little flaws to be able to give a wholehearted recommendation. Yes, the combat is fast, thrilling, spectacular even; the environments are large and you're free to roam them at will; but it's graphically underwhelming and lacks atmosphere thanks to a minimalist musical score and weak sounds effects. It may be treading different ground from traditional MMORPGs, but it doesn't have the technical panache of WoW or Guild Wars, nor the social focus. Worse, with the three competing factions, Auto Assault is perfectly suited to Player vs. Player gameplay, yet you won't even get close to a contested zone of the game until you're most of the way up the eighty-step level ladder. The game has so much potential, but you can't mark on what the developers may or may not do to the game as it evolves over the next year or two. Unfortunately, it's the early adopters who will pay the price; who will pay the monthly costs of developing the game into what it really should have been in the first place. As it is, Auto Assault is a distraction - a bit of massively multiplayer fluff - not the genuine competitor to World of Warcraft people hoped it would be.

Editor's Comment: A mistake was made regarding the power management dial that is found in the lower left corner of the screen. This is labelled correctly, and the review has been altered since publication to reflect this.