The funny thing about our ongoing pandemic is that it didn’t really change the way video game previews are done. It turns out that the problem with preview events wasn’t the travel expenses, the noise of the crowds, the limitations of a new PC setup, or the exhaustion of the developers. The problem is just that the best MMORPGs are not pick-up-and-go and by design never can be, so it doesn’t matter whether you do them at PAX Wherever or in your own living room on your own rig. Also, cat-herding is hard, even for the cats.
I was reminded of all this during the press demo for Amazon Game Studios’ New World last week. We were invited in to be the first press to get their eyeballs on Amrine Excavation, one of the brand-new expeditions – small-scale dungeons – in the MMORPG’s alpha. Amrine, in fact, is the first expedition players in general will enter as they level up through the game. At level 30, it’s meant to be players’ first introduction to this type of group content; as an underground ruin, it’s supposed to pose a dramatic contrast with the open-sky overland content gamers will have trekked through up to that point.
Not having ever tested New World before, I didn’t quite feel that contrast, but I definitely enjoyed the ambiance, since this is a game that is plainly not afraid to play with color and light and dark. Amrine Excavation is, as it says on the tin, a ruin that’s clearly been partly excavated by a group of archaeologists who vanished under mysterious circumstances into its depths long ago. Your task is to figure out what happened to them (and loot everything in sight, natch) while dodging horrifying shambling brutes, shimmering ghosts, and ground bats with superspeed.
Amazon had no way of knowing, but archaeological digs are literally my favorite dungeon motif in video games, full-stop. It has a long tradition in MMOs in particular; World of Warcraft’s Uldaman or Elder Scrolls Online’s Depths of Malatar spring immediately to mind (and this won’t be the last time I mention ESO). On top of that, ghosts are my favorite mob type. It’s as if this dungeon had been designed for me personally. It should’ve been a real delight.
Unfortunately, I think we ran into the usual demo struggle of trying to learn an entire game, character, control scheme, combat system, and dungeon all at the same time, while trying to record video and take notes and snap screenshots and chat too, and that become painfully evident in the group combat. As my colleague Eliot has previously written, there’s nothing particularly unusual or bad or challenging about New World’s combat, and it’s not going to stymie the typical MMO player with a little practice (especially by level 30), but it is effectively an action-MMO rather than a tab-target MMO. Classic MMO fans might be put off by this; frankly, I prefer tab-target myself in MMOs organized around dungeons, particularly when I’m the healer. And here, I was the healer.
So as we descended through the map, the overall feel of combat was intense, chaotic, slapdash, messy – the type of grouping experience I usually expect from Guild Wars 2, or again, ESO, complete with a similar weapon-oriented choose-your-own-role character building system. The mobs were zinging around the room, buffeting us while we cast. They seemed blurringly fast; I felt sluggish and slow while rolling and dodging around, with no easy way to ditch aggro or help our tank get it back. Weirdly, though you equip two weapons and can quickly swap between them for a total of six available skills (I had two per bar on this run), I felt simultaneously as if cooldowns for my heals were too long for the amount of damage my group needed replenished but also not long enough to make swapping over to my bow in between worth the clicks or the multitask loss of mental focus.
Please don’t misunderstand me: My action-combat friends out there are going to love this to bits. It’s extremely popular right now and ports beautifully to console. In retrospect, I wish I had played a tank or DPS toon instead; I really don’t enjoy PvE healing in a game where the UI isn’t designed explicitly for it (or isn’t yet modded for it). I quickly grew annoyed, for example, at needing to scroll through my team to select the target for each spell, requiring a keypress, scroll, and then mouse-click, and if there was a cleaner way to do this, it wasn’t immediately evident in our brief session. Some gamers feel this mode of combat makes them feel powerful, but more than two decades of playing MMOs has made me realize I just feel helpless instead, as if I’ve been plunked down inside a traditional trinity design (and Amazon specifically referred to it that way) without the necessary tools to execute on it well enough to control the flow of fights. I prefer a slightly more tactical style where I have half a second to think and make choices. Ironically, I think this more hybrid type of healer and combat works much, much better in a more fluid PvP MMO – which, of course, New World once was, so maybe that’s no accident.
The experience helped me learn that if my guild jumps in at launch, I definitely will go for a different playstyle and make them heal me.
Ultimately, I still had an enjoyable time, in no small part due to the cheerful attitudes of my press party, led by Amazon’s inimitable Critshot, who must have felt about us the way I feel about cat-herding my little kids through an MMO map (sorry, Crit!). The experience wasn’t actually terrible, and no one even complained about our struggle with the last boss, whom we failed to take down largely because our gear was wrecked and we were on a time crunch to scoot off to the press Q&A.
Moreover, the spooky dungeon design and encounter pacing is absolutely freakin’ fantastic, and the art and level design team deserve a raise, especially given that this zone didn’t even exist a few months ago and seemed remarkably polished. If you cut our characters out of the scenery, this could easily have been a top-tier dungeon straight out of Elder Scrolls Online, both visually and in terms of the story advancement and puzzles. My six-year-old, peeking over my shoulder, even literally asked me if it was ESO.
In fact, if I subtract all of my personal issues with the group combat design, everything I saw in the expedition itself was extremely polished. Granted, I’d assume that’s because Amazon intentionally didn’t allow press to see anything still under extreme construction, but then I think back to the character creation and customization, which seemed startlingly anemic for a AAA MMORPG in 2021, so I don’t think that’s it.
All told, this press preview has made me significantly more hopeful for the game’s chances when it launches in August. Look, New World has been delayed multiple times, and the delay a year and a half ago was one of the most controversial to hit the genre in 2020, as Amazon admitted it was chucking its original gankbox-PvP-is-the-spine-of-the-game plan in favor of a more holistic and classic PvE-with-a-side-of-consensual-PvP template. The announcement made basically no one happy, as FFA PvP players felt abandoned and PvE players (rightly) objected that there was no way Amazon could pull that off in time for a launch last year, that it just wasn’t enough time to create the required piles of PvE content to keep PvE players engaged.
They were right, as it turned out, and we got a few more delays. But I think the question of whether a team assembled to construct a PvP game is capable of changing gears to put together respectable PvE content has now been resoundingly answered.
Will it scale? Will it be enough? I don’t know, not without seeing a whole lot more of the game – and I’ve seen just this tiny slice in person. But even if it’s not, the company plans to be “building New World for years to come,” or so Amazon’s Scot Lane vows. If the team keeps building it like this, it could turn out to be a worthy rival to its closest cognate in ESO after all.