Can a survival sandbox game be an MMORPG? Until recently, the answer has been pretty much a big nope. Mostly that’s because the game worlds haven’t been massive by any means. Amazon Game Studios’ New World, however, appears to be changing that by increasing both the world size and the number of players within it. Even more, there are other MMO elements in or planned for the game, enough so that the studio calls New World a sandbox MMO. Make no mistake though, it is still very much a survival sandbox at heart. But with an active NDA and closed testing, how do we know how this PvP-focused game will play? We haven’t much more to go on than dev diaries and interviews. Until now.
Thanks to a special preview event in San Francisco this week, I got to experience a bit of the small scale survival and PvP first-hand. I sat back and played some New World, then sat down and talked with the devs. Here is what I learned during that session.
Before we begin, I need to make clear that our session was only a few hours, and the initial gameplay was guided to show off the most features in the shortest time. But I still learned a few good nuggets of information and more importantly got a feel for the game that piqued my interest more than it has done since its original announcement. I will be watching the game more closely now!
I have to admit that when I hear of a new survival game, I don’t exactly get excited, even as the resident survival sandbox columnist here on MOP. We’ve got a slew of them already, and I simply can’t play them all. So what is going to entice me to play a new one? Will it be shining, shimmering, or splendid? Is it a dazzling place I never knew? There needs to be a catch to draw eyes away from all those other titles offering a similar survival experience. In fact, it needs to not be a similar experience. Yes, technically New World is not billed as a survival game. But it is one. You start off with nothing in a harsh new land and need to build your skills, gear, and power in order to conquer the environment and other players. That sounds like pretty much every other survival game out there.
So what can set New World apart? The MMO stuff. (Yes, all that stuff I miss from games like lore, story, vast lands to explore, and vital roles other than soldier/killer.) Also, the criminal system and the scheduled PvP wars.
Since info and answers about New World have been obscured or missing in the past, I have dispensed with my usual story-flow style and I am just going to fire out these impressions with less filling (but hopefully it still tastes great!).
Although it hasn’t as yet come close to reaching that 10,000 player number we’ve seen bouncing around, New World can currently hold 600 on its server (the peak reached in testing so far), which is quite a bit higher than most other survival games. The server can already handle more, and the number will continue to increase for a while. Our little trial was only a few people.
The world itself is also a larger land mass than many survival maps, and it will expand over time. I already saw the outlines of more land mass on the map ready to be developed. Devs indicated that the cap of players on servers will be determined by how many territories can be claimed. There will be multiple servers, and devs will consider alternate rulesets (such as roleplay and PvE), but those will not be a factor at launch.
Something many survival games are missing is story, but New World will have it soon. So far the game is set in a historical setting with a supernatural twist. It is the 17th century, so players are settlers racing to claim the newly discovered continent. The funny thing is, you learn that the continent is not newly discovered at all; in fact, there have been a multitude of folks show up before. It appears that people have been discovering this land for thousands of years — just no one has ever left. This part is what caught my interest, and that’s the mystery players will get to try to uncover as they play, if they want. I want.
Why haven’t they left? I am guessing that is where the supernatural comes in. (That, and I fought ghosts!) As the devs described it, the feeling of the land is an Eden that has fallen from grace, but you don’t know why. Lore is expected to start releasing in the not-too-distant future to help players discover the driving force and purpose behind the continent. I wish I’d been able to experience the lore, but I did enjoy the spooky atmosphere of various encounters on the map.
One very important part of MMOs for me is the social aspect. It’s also super important to the team, so going forward the devs want to give more ways to interact and tools to structure those interactions. Alliances are one of those tools they want to get to. A company is limited to 50 people (to prevent one company from overrunning the map), and an alliance system could be a way for solo players to hook into the war system. Devs are also exploring going deeper into contracts, such as mercenary contracts where companies can pay players to become a part of their forces temporarily.
While “roles” may get people thinking about the holy trinity of classes, here I am referring to the ability to have meaningful gameplay other than fighting. One of the three foundations of the game according to the devs is the ability to approach and play the game in different ways. (The other two are having a persistent, permanent impact on the world through building and territory claiming, and PvP that will change the geopolitical landscape.) Yes, it is a PvP-focused domination game, but the devs believe players will be able to carve out their own destinies, be it as an explorer, a crafter, a hunter, or a gatherer. You can even be a farmer. Not everyone will have to be a soldier, though devs do expect many will want to participate in those massive battles.
How viable is this? While I obviously did not have to time to delve deeply into this part, there are some features that appear will help facilitate it. One of my favorites would have to be the ability to scout. This is the first game to really impress me with its stealth mechanic. When I crouched in brush, enemies could not see me. There was no magic spell, and I didn’t become a clear outline. To me, I looked like I was just sitting among some foliage and honestly felt a bit conspicuous still. However, three times during the battle I had an enemy step within inches of me yet and completely miss that I was there. The first time it happened felt like a fluke. The second was surprising. But on the third one, I was blown away. That guy literally ran over me; my screen was filled by his backside as he stood for a moment then moved on to try and attack someone. I went from feeling like a sitting duck to a sneaky threat. I really felt I could use cover to move more securely though the game.
Crafters also can ply their trade safely at Sanctuaries. These safe zones have crafting stations and sanctuary-specific storage. No one can hurt a player within the boundary of the sanctuary unless the player has flagged themselves a criminal. In that case, folks in the sanctuary can attack and kill the criminal or the murderer, but the criminal or murderer cannot attack anyone back until they he or she leaves the safety of the sanctuary.
Can there be more to the game than kill or be killed? It appears so. There are a number of features I was able to experience a bit of or learn about to help ease worries of a gankfest.
There is no friendly fire in game for your company (guild) or group unless you purposefully flag yourself a criminal, so there is no accidentally going on a killing spree. (Hint: I’d recommend rebinding the default U key to keep from turning criminal when you think you are typing!). And being a criminal is not just a whisper of a nuisance that players will brush off. This consequence actually has some teeth, and devs noted that the population has this far in alpha testing maintained a low proportion of criminals. They are pretty happy with the balance of the criminal system right now.
Besides the Sanctuary feature, criminals can’t just log out to avoid justice. Anyone flagged a criminal will remain in the world for 15 minutes after logging. That means any player who comes along and finds your prone body can kill you and relieve you of your gear. Criminals drop everything upon death! To prevent insta-logging during combat, players in combat will be in the world for five minutes after disconnecting. Everyone else will leave the world within 30 to 60 seconds of logging out.
I also like the fact that declaring war on another company’s territory has a preparation time that is announced prominently across the screen. The mega PvP is not free-for-all all the time, so no offline base raids destroying everything while your guild sleeps. And fun fact: After the timer counts down for the preparation, the defenders get to pick the actual time the battle can begin.
Claimable territories are set locations, although players can build them up how they want. Building can happen both on and off protected territories. However, only those things constructed within the protection ring (it resembles a salt circle) of the claimed territory will be protected until a war is declared. Devs noted that there will be more news about building for solo players coming soon.
Don’t stand near a barrel of explosives about to go off because barrels don’t care who is an enemy and who is a friend. You are all fodder! Watching the wall come down after all the explosions was fun though.
Placing your campsite (with rez point and beginning crafting station) is as easy as pressing Y right from the beginning. Holding Y will destroy it wherever it was and you can place it again. I loved the ease of this feature.
Character creation isn’t robust at the moment, but customization does exist with a few choices. Fun fact: Female characters can have mustaches and beards. The skills, however, are more robust, allowing players many avenues to customize to their preferred playstyle.
Contrary to many survival games, you do not die from hunger or thirst. Food and water are still important, however, giving you buffs that will keep you alive longer. So you do want to eat and drink up to fill those bars.
The game was really lovely visually. I especially liked the fog effects. Yes, I am going to enjoy exploring (I really want to go find that glowy tree again!). I also really enjoyed little touches like bending down to rummage through a sack whenever you open your inventory.