First impressions of Worlds Adrift: Innovation, Zelda, open-world PvP, and that sinking feeling
Worlds Adrift has been one of those games I’ve been closely watching but trying not to jump into until it was ready. I tried one of the alpha weekends, and while it was playable, I could tell I needed to wait, and wait I did. I had faith that once the game would hit Steam (“early access” shield be damned if you ask for cash to play your game), it’d be something that’d move me. In fact, I called it out by name when discussing possible future MMOs that could tackle griefing with a moral system.
Today, I’m here to eat my hat, good sirs and madams.
While Improbable has been trying to “save MMOs” with SpatialOS, this being the first big MMO that uses it doesn’t wholly impress me. Some things work well, and yes, there are some good ideas, but as a PvP fan, I think there are some glaring mistakes that are going to send a lot of MMORPG players heading for the hills. Let’s dig in.
What in the Worlds is right
I want to start out positive with Worlds Adrift. There clearly is something that attracts people here. We already knew the style was to be reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, a title I sadly never finished but spent hours exploring just for fun. Even better, the character customization is adorably flexible enough for me to be able to recreate some well known classic RPG characters, like Crono of Chrono Trigger and basically every hero from the Dragon Quest series. It’s rare for an MMO to evoke that specific nostalgia from me (my kingdom for a Chrono MMO!).
While we may not be sailing on the seas, we’re sailing the skies, and that’s just as cool, especially with flying whales (another Zelda link to the past). Without experience point grinds. Or classes. Or trinities. Or auction houses. Or NPC vendors. Or dungeons. Or quests. Just build, explore, and adventure. My god, the description alone is getting me hot and bothered.
Even live, some of the good ideas shine out. Gathering is active. As you aim at your target to harvest, it breaks apart and can fall into the abyss. See, all land in Words Adrift float, as the game’s name implies. Between the game’s awesome grappling hooks and climbing option, dangerous harvesting on the bottom of a floating island is totally a thing, and knowing how to gather without losing resources to gravity is a true skill, making player-skill gathering a real thing to be proud of.
Shipbuilding is another. Perhaps the biggest thing to understand about Worlds Adrift is that it’s a physics-based game. It’s not ultra hardcore about it, but it’s deeply ingrained, to the point that I think a lot of the bugs I experienced are precisely due to physics issues (you will die a lot just by trying to grapple or climb objects, only for the game to freak out and smack you with damage). While crafting ship frames have preset dimensions, you’re free to change them, as long as you understand that it changes the physics of how that ship will fly too.
Yes, this is actually a game that’s got a lot of crafting involved, and it’s player-skill based, not avatar based. You get better not just by doing it repeatedly but by understanding what you did right or wrong. That’s without considering the different materials and their properties, which I’m sure Star Wars Galaxies crafters can appreciate.
Avatar skill-wise, players must gain “knowledge” to unlock new recipes. Knowledge, as in real life, is hard to come by. I can’t imagine anyone being able to specialize in every kind of crafting, especially when so many recipes also seem to randomly spawn in chests found throughout the game. Specializing in engines means something, especially if you also understand the value and benefits of the materials you’re working with.
Combat is relatively simple, but again, it’s physics-based. I’m a terrible shot, but I did kill a guy by crashing his ship on him by destroying the device that held it up. I mean, I died in the wreckage too, but I’m still going to count it as a win.
Theoretically, this all sounds exactly what the genre needs. It’s what some people have said they want from Sea of Thieves, and have even suggested it’s what SOT needs to do. I can kind of agree with that. But it’s not without its own issues, and I’m not just referring to the game’s archaic, obtuse UI, lack of a formal tutorial, and 1990s “drag and drop X to Y and press ‘use’ for anything you want to use” input method.
Killing vs. looting
Many readers have complained about the game being open-world PvP only. Some even suggested the game could simply have PvE servers. Those people probably have never made a game or don’t understand how physics in games work. I’m no code monkey, but I do know a few things, and I know that Worlds Adrift uses Spatial OS because a deep physics-based MMO with a persistent world needs to track everything in order to work perfectly.
Let’s go back to my example of indirectly killing a player with a ship. Let’s say the ship is in a tree. The game essentially has sticky notes on me, the tree, the ship, and we’ll say Bree and MJ. It knows we exist. When I destroy the tree, the game knows that the eight segments of the tree may break apart depending on how fast and from what height it falls from. The ship and all it’s, say, 20 parts do the same thing. Taking into account their size, weight, and velocity vs. the tree and ship, any falling pieces will damage Bree and MJ, possibly killing them.
As the ship falls, Bree may shoot her grappling hook to the mass and use that to swing out of harm’s way. MJ risks using her harvester and breaks the tree into pieces that fall away from her. Both ladies survive to gank me and harvest the tree and the wreckage.
Now, some of you say, “Just make it so there’s a PvE option!” Now what you’ve done is made it so that at every step we just discussed, the game has to also decide between PvP and PvE modes and how those physics will play out. We’re talking, conservatively, about 30 player-like objects. These aren’t like your World of Warcraft spells, an outcome of animation decided by a hidden dice roll you have no power to control. You can dodge, swing, and manipulate these items in real time. And that’s just in your section of the world. This could be happening in tons of places at once, in a non-instanced, persistent world. Assuming we go with an all PvE server, that means every step of these scenarios gets bogged down with the game having to add another sticky-note.
Even if the game were to handle that well (and really, very few MMOs use these systems these days, and not to this scale, so we’ve got major innovation here already), when and how would these flags happen? Does the tree follow PvP rules because I struck it? What about the ship which I didn’t hit but is affected by the tree? What happens if PvP-enabled MJ runs under Bree for cover – does the ship bounce on her head, or does it pass through Bree to smash MJ? If it passes through Bree, does that also mean Bree cannot interact with the object now? What of Larry, who was sitting on the ship without a PvP flag? Does he simply get to float, or is he going to have to take fall damage, and if he’s falling, can he interact with the PvP-enabled objects to possibly reduce or avoid damage? This is without considering a pure PvE mode, in which flagging every step means PvE players are immune to the game’s physics, nullifying a lot of the exploratory gameplay.
In short, trying to use different rulesets for a physics-based game is intensely problematic. The developers have mentioned this issue before, and frankly, hearing the complaints really makes me feel like people don’t understand why Worlds Adrift and SpatialOS are so exciting from a tech perspective. These are things that just aren’t possible in other games. Essentially asking for something this new to do multiple other tasks on top of that is like asking a juggler to also walk to the grocery store. Sure, it could be done, but it’s too demanding given the situation.
And let’s be honest: In all games, you’re going to die. Period. There’s no helping it. The problem is, how is death handled? People die all the time in Elder Scrolls Online and Overwatch, and it’s not a big deal. When it happens in, say, Age of Conan, you lose anything you had on your person. Maybe your house gets burned to the ground too. That sucks.
But it’s worse in Worlds Adrift. When you die, not only do you lose almost everything on you (except wearables, which stay in your belt pouch), but your ship becomes vulnerable. Your ship is like your house, mount, spawn point, portal hub, pet, guild meeting spot, and ultimate attack all rolled into one.
The value of your ship can’t be overstated. It’s your whole game. Without a lot of combat (there are only guns for players, no melee), gameplay is basically craft a ship, get better materials, get knowledge and more materials, build better ship. Maybe do some pirating, help friends, engage in turf patrol, barter for parts, chat with friends – but all of that requires a ship, a ship that has to remain in the gameworld unmolested for several minutes before it’s successfully logged out (only if the ship is complete and not in a dock). That’s the whole game. When the ship is your only way to escape griefers, the lack of a ship is painful.
A captain with no ship
This is where Worlds Adrift truly falls apart. While I had some pleasant starter experiences while learning the game, it became apparent that I was lucky. I spent my first few hours just gathering supplies and learning the game. In alpha, I’d already learned that I’d need mountains of resources and time/space to build my ship to ensure nothing unfortunate happened. I’m used to this kind of thing as a hardcore PvP player and fan of open-world PvP sandboxes like Darkfall.
Then he struck. Some random killed me right before I could get a spawner on my ship. I was sent back to the nearby spawn point, but by the time I’d gotten back, he’d destroyed several ship parts and taken most of my loot. This seemed fine, as I still had the spawner, I hid it on my ship and began gathering resources. Just when I thought I had enough, he struck again, dry looting me.
At this point, I had a few options. First, I could log out. That would leave my ship vulnerable, and this person had already proved he was looking to destroy what I had. Not a great option. Second, I could try to reason with him, but if it’s not obvious, that’s something I do all the time anyway, and this guy wasn’t responding to chat at all (no voice chat here, it’s all text!). I could teleport to another island and hope it was griefer-free, but I’d already seen another newbie mention he’d used that option already. Not a good sign.
Finally, I could fight back. My enemy had an advanced gun, allowing him to get off multiple shots in the time it took me to shoot once. While I’d gotten some good hits on him, I couldn’t zerg-rush him fast enough to get a kill.
I contacted several neighbors who were friendly enough not to KOS me, but even when they were in a group, they did nothing to help. Even when he picked a few off, everyone was too busy trying to solo build a ship so they could get away from that floating hell. In any ground-based MMO, you can always find some corner of the world to hide in. In Worlds Adrift, though, you are palpably stuck. The realization that you and your neighbor are stuck in a war where the winner maybe gets a chance of escaping hours more of ganking is depressing. Loss means enduring more of it.
I don’t quit easily. While I didn’t win, my neighbor had enough close calls to hastily repair his ship and take off… only for another griefer to immediately move in. This is the guy whom I eventually crashed a ship into before meeting the original owner of the site, who’d tried visiting other islands as a respawn option, only to return to our shared hell.
This is not a system that encourages new players to stick with a game! The game world, before the early access launch and after, was constantly littered with half-built ships and abandoned workstations. I’d thought most of this was because of the sandbox nature of the game and lack of direction beyond the vague “build a ship!” There’s very little that tells you what gives you the main avatar customization currency, Knowledge, your ship may not work for a variety of reasons you won’t understand, the controls are unintuitive (resources are gathered with “1”, but for some reason, Atlas Shards, which come from gathering nodes, must be collected with “E”).
That may have been part of it. The other half, though, is the ease with which one can ruin his fellow player’s day, so easily and so early on. Maybe it says something about the modern gamer, but among newbies in other MMOs I’ve played, I could always find people who would band together against a player killer to stop this scenario from playing out.
In Worlds Adrift, the desire for a ship and the potential for salvation seem to make people desperate and selfish. After so many of my “neighbors” stood by and allowed me to take the brunt of a griefer’s attack for hours, all I wanted to do was return the favor on them once the real gankers were gone, though I’m an adult and chose not to. The only “help” I was offered was someone who wished to “help” me with trying to figure out how to launch my ship. I immediately pulled out my gun and told that person to get away from me and my ship, considering what had just transpired. I felt terrible, but also didn’t want someone else flying off with the ship I’d finally completed.
Maybe if I were playing in a group it would have been easier, but what I experienced in World’s Adrift was worse than my most painful past PvP experiences. I could bank in those games. I could run into the hills and grind out sub-optimal experience and make slow and steady progress with which to eventually retaliate. I could make friends and forge alliances. But here, in nine hours of play, using all my MMO and social gaming experience, I felt completely powerless. Any new player could walk up to me with a gun and send me back several hours. And that would continue unless I was able to stay logged in, complete a ship, and fly it to safety in the same gaming session.
That’s ignoring the buggy physics, sudden slowdowns in performance at seemingly random moments (which could be issues with SpatialOS), obtuse game design, and the multiple accidental deaths you’ll suffer when physics strikes without you considering it (watch where those trees fall!).
Unlike survival games, WA has no private server to turn to in order to experience faster level gains or lower populations. Bossa Studios’ idealistic belief that finding other people should be rare isn’t working out yet. Maybe down the line it will, but as of now, I can only recommend the game to people who have friends to play Sea of Thieves with but want a more challenging and persistent game to play in. If I, a hardened FFA PvP player, came away dispirited, I can only imagine how a regular MMORPG player accustomed to modern PvP protections will feel.