Back in 1999, I lived out in Colorado Springs and basked in the wide-open spaces, the scenic mountains, the towering mesas, and the feeling of more nature than people. The west was a place that always made me want to get out and explore, even if it felt vastly larger than I was.
This is probably why I’ve been craving a good western MMO in my life, more for the feel of the wild frontier rather than the specifics of the genre. Oh, don’t get me wrong, cowboys and shaving with long-bladed knives and barging into saloons demanding whiskey has a cool factor to it, but I’d been hoping that sooner or later, a game might come along that would deliver on the promise of wide-open vistas that beg to be explored.
Is Outlaws of the Old West, the new survival sandbox from Snail Games, destined to be the game experience that I desire? It’s really hard to tell this soon into the early access experiment, but I will say that despite a lack of direction or thorough polish, there’s a sparkle of gold to be panned out of this one. Read on for my first three days of surviving (or not) in this game.
Following a rather lackluster character creation screen with odd options (my profession can be “farmer,” “carpenter,” or… “none?”), I find myself dead. Well, lying inside a coffin that’s been dumped out in the wilderness for no explained reason.
“No explained reason” would be a good subtitle for this game, because Outlaws of the Old West doesn’t feature any narrative that I encountered. I kind of expected to come out of that coffin with some semblance of direction, perhaps from a main quest, but nope. I just start out somewhere and have to do something. Survive? I guess?
Aside from an overly twitchy mouse control (I set the sensitivity down to zilch and the camera still swung around too quickly), it wasn’t hard to get a handle on the basic controls. It’s all very standard, and soon enough I was meandering to and fro, picking up random rocks and sticks and wondering what I should be doing. The map was a bigger disappointment, with fog of war everywhere and no great detail on the regions that I did explore. If I could make a suggestion that would be sure to fall on Snail’s ears — if snails had ears — it would be to invest in a much better UI map.
Having some familiarity with this genre, I know at least part of the answer, which is “to survive.” Outlaws has a bunch of need meters hanging up there at the top, including thirst, hunger, and temperature, but at no point did I ever feel like I was in danger of running low on any of them.
At least I found the cannabis! Or hemp, but really, I had a laugh at seeing these random tall plants sticking out in the middle of a field. I got all of the “hemp” I could carry and wondered if part of the game involved becoming a sleazy drug dealer behind a 7-11.
So obviously, the most important thing in these games is to hoover up everything around you and start crafting stuff to help you (a) survive and (b) thrive. The crafting UI is functional if not overly detailed or well laid-out. It’s another element that could use a lot of polish if it wants to be attractive and more functional. Still, in short order I was able to make stone age-level tools such as an axe, pickaxe, torch, and spear. Truly, I felt like a cavewoman roaming the prairie in my unmentionables.
After an hour of play, I saw my first animal, a sheep, and decided that it was going to meet the pointy end of my well-honed spear. I started running after it, and the AI kicked in and fled before me. We both ran like that for a while before the titular outlaws came out of nowhere and started shooting the crap out of me. As I started to accumulate many torso holes, I pontificated that it felt unfair for the game to tackle me with bandits when all I had was a stick.
Then I died, lost all my stuff, and started over again in a random place. Was I close enough to regain my lost supplies? Was that a thing that could be done? The in-game map wasn’t telling me, and so I resigned to collecting and crafting all over again.
I about wept with joy on my second day when I spotted an actual structure near a river. I thought that this was perhaps an NPC outpost, but when I got close enough, the tooltips informed me that it was some player’s abode and I could just scram. It was too bad I couldn’t see inside or get any useful tips of how to advance to this stage of western flourishing, but there wasn’t anything to be done. I turned and followed the river to see where it might lead.
I have to say that while confusion and frustration reigned during my first few days, the scenery occasionally made up for it. It’s passably pretty, especially when you’re able to look out and see mountains and hills and forests a long, long way away. This kind of view is only possible with the elevation changes that the west holds, and I appreciated that touch.
I did get down to business to see how far I could advance my gathering and crafting skills while making a useful campsite. I started hacking down trees and boulders to accumulate all sorts of materials that I assumed would be useful at some point (if I didn’t die and lose them all), I started up a campfire and cooked some meat, and I even fashioned some fish traps to lay in the river for supper. I must have done something wrong, though, because no fish ever visited my five traps despite me checking about a dozen times. I am a poor virtual fisherman.
With a camp established, I began to spiral out from it (the map at least lets you set a single waypoint so you can find an important location again). During my explorations, I saw a pair of bison munching on grass and looking far too secure in their dominance over this landscape. I figured what the heck, raised my paltry slingshot, and started plinking away at this 1,000-pound hairy tank of a beast.
I took some damage, but wouldn’t you know it, after about eight shots the bison took off in another direction trying to flee. I figured it was wounded and pursued, taking shots when I could and finally felling the beast. With a slingshot. The way mother nature intended. I returned to camp laden with hide and slowly spoiling meat, feeling as though I had accomplished something of note.
Still, it’s all early adventures in Outlaws of the Old West, and I have no idea what actual content lays out there. I appreciated that there was the option to roll on PvE official servers as well as PvP, because I’m going to die enough to the computer as it is. My play sessions left me craving three things that could do a lot to juice up the fun here: social contact (a chat channel, please!), better direction (and maps!), and some sort of arching quest to provide story and guidance.