Allegiance is a superb and innovative massively multiplayer space combat simulation from Microsoft that pushes the genre's envelope in many areas.
In contrast to most multiplayer space combat games, Allegiance stresses the importance of team-based decisions and strategies than mere reflexes. This excerpt from Strategy Gaming Online says it well about how innovative the game is:
"Allegiance is team based, multiplayer only space combat simulation from Microsoft Research. It focuses on expanding your faction's zone of control through numerous sectors of space, all of which are connected by a web of wormholes (here called Alephs). Players fulfill a variety of different roles for their faction, though surprisingly not all involve piloting spacecraft. Most of the action is presented from a first person cockpit view, where players can pilot a wide range of customizable fighters, capital ships, and turrets. For those with more strategic leanings, the role of commander is ambitiously rendered, using a more traditional RTS interface and sector map.
Allegiance challenges team-multiplayer genre conventions in many areas, but also recognizes the great strides made in titles like Team Fortress Classic and Tribes. An example of this (with impressive results) can be seen in how Allegiance handles respawning after death. Unlike almost every multiplayer game where fatalities are a common (and frequently consequence free) occurrence, Allegiance requires something of a toll to paid upon death. When forced to eject (which occurs upon your ships destruction), you enter the void in a life pod. This pod is slow, sluggish, and defenseless.
You are offered a number of options at this point. The first and most prevalent choice is to take the long ride home. Another option is to try to avoid being 'gunned down' in your pod by a bounty collecting enemy. The more damage you do as a combatant, the higher the price on your head. While the enemy team will be hurting it's efforts by killing you (once your life pod is destroyed, you're instantly teleported to a friendly space station), they also get the benefit of a cash infusion. In short, if you're a good player, don't be surprised if you find yourself instantly teleported home. Yet another option is to call for assistance from your teammates. If a friendly ship comes into contact with your pod, you're rescued and teleported back to base.
This simple feature is an example of whereAllegiance truly innovates. It takes what can barely even be called a feature in other games (respawning) and fleshes it out into something that really enhances and balances the game. Good players, who by simple fact they're talented, may often be out of action the longest on those lonely flights home from the front. It also promotes team play, in that now a whole new role is created for players to embrace, search and rescue. They also use this as a method of differentiating the various in-game factions. The Bios have the ability to ripcord (teleport) from the life pods, an ability that only some full ships have in other factions. This mechanism adds richness to an area of game play many titles simply skip over. While it's debatable as to how enjoyable the solitary trips are, what's clear is that respawning is an overlooked opportunity to take more control over the gamer's experience.
While it shares the genre with games like TFC and Tribes, the game plays much more closely to a military flight sim. Key to this is the fact that all vehicles in the game have radar signatures (sig). For those unfamiliar with the way this works in flight sims, your signature correlates roughly to how easily you're spotted by enemy detection methods. Increasing your signature (in military flight sims is achieved by high G turns, loaded weapon mounts, lowered landing gear, etc) increases your chances of being detected. Allegiance simplifies this mechanism while keeping the interesting game play elements it introduces intact. Basically, you're ship is given a percentage that determines at what range an enemy can 'see' you. A ship with 100% sig, can be detected at 400 meters, whereas a ship with 50% could be detected at 200 meters or one with 200% could be detected at 800. Allegiance allows players to alter their load outs with an eye on maintaining a low signature. One can also rotate high signature devices like shields and missiles off an active pylon into your cargo bay, with a corresponding drop in sig. Hiding behind asteroids and avoiding the use of high speed boosters can lower your sig as well. There are even classes of ships that focus on low signature combat (stealth fighters and bombers), who can activate a stealth generator to approach an almost invisible sig. This allows for some extremely interesting game roles to become viable. Hunting enemy miners with a stealth fighter is one of the most satisfying game experiences I've had. Unless the enemy is completely undermanned, you'll have escorts to contend with, as well as the nervous AI piloting the unmanned harvesters bugging out at the slightest sign of trouble.
The communication suite for team coordination is well executed, allowing players a fairly large vocabulary. By tapping a series of keys (many of the more common communications become second nature), you can plot with or against, insult and taunt those in your game. In a particularly nice touch, there is actual audio with the messages, so you can hear the other players as well as read what they said (a la Tribes). When playing at a high resolution (where the onscreen text can become tiny), this is a very nice feature.
Allegiance does a good job of populating the vastness of space with interesting terrain. In many space sims, considerable weakness in your tactical options stem from the fact that space is primarily empty. Here, you not only have asteroids of various shapes and sizes to contend with, but a wide range of space stations. While they don't sport any self defense mechanisms, they do allow for tactical retreats and surprise attacks.
After playing Allegiance for a few weeks, I strongly feel that Microsoft should be rewarded for creating a truly unique and gripping gaming experience. Their contributions to such specialized multiplayer game mechanics (like respawning and user configurable game roles) will no doubt inspire future games and designs. As an evolution of the recently conceived genre of multiplayer only games, it is a resounding success. "
The best news of all (and a rare decision from the software giant) is Microsoft's decision to release the source code to the public, and you can now play the game free of charge at FreeAllegiance.org. Overall, Allegiance is a modern-day classic that makes strong contributions in respawn design, inner-player communication, and non-combat player roles. As an in-house Microsoft release, it is surprising the game is not more successful - it remains relatively unknown compared to Tribes and EverQuest - probably due to steeper learning curve and a more "niche" gameworld. Whatever the reason, the freeware status of both the game and its source code, combined (hopefully) with my review here, should entice a new generation of armchair pilots to this superb Hall of Belated Fame member. A must-have.