Vitae Aeternum: The ups and downs of New World’s revamped story


In the early days, I made the argument that New World‘s narrative, while minimal, deserved more credit than it was getting. Since then, however, Amazon Games has poured an immense amount of time and effort into overhauling the game’s story.

With the completion of the main story revamp on the horizon, plus two post-launch zones and three seasonal stories in the rearview, I thought now would be a good time to take stock of what the current state of story in New World is after all these changes. Note that this column will contain story spoilers by necessity!

My overall opinion of New World‘s story is much the same as it was back in the beginning: It’s not amazing, but it’s better than the community at large would have you believe. I think it helps a lot if you already have an interest in real world history and mythology, as I do. A lot of the appeal is simply the cool factor of seeing all these different historical and mythological stories crossover with each other.

But even if my view of the big picture is the same, there’s a lot of difference when it comes to the nuts and bolts. The way this game delivers its story has changed immensely, in both good and bad ways.

In the bad old days, New World‘s story was like a jigsaw puzzle. It was there, but you had to put it together yourself by diligently exploring and collecting all the lore notes. If you went to that effort, there was a good story there, with a uniquely dark and mysterious flavour, but that was understandably too much work for most people, and even if you did go to the effort, it left you hungry to see that story explored through more than just flavour text.

New World‘s story-telling techniques have advanced by a truly amazing degree since then. We’ve got fully voiced quests nearly across the board. We’ve got some pretty spectacular solo boss fights in the form of soul trials. We’ve got cutscenes of both the animated and in-engine varieties.

But there was a certain allure that the story had back in the day that seems to be missing now. Some of that is the natural effect of the “new game smell” wearing off, and some of it is that it’s easier to sell a sense of mystery when so much of the story happens off-camera, but I do think there’s more to it than that.

To be clear, I don’t want to go back to the way things were at launch. Let me put arbitrary numbers on it: If the story being told is 20% worse now, the way it’s being told is about 300% better, so what we’ve gained is definitely greater than what we’ve lost. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t lost anything.

My biggest issue with the story these days is that it increasingly seems to be veering toward the light fantasy adventure that we see in nearly every other MMORPG on the market. I have nothing against traditional high fantasy — it’s my favourite genre of fiction — but there are already so many MMOs offering that. New World is appealing because it promises something a bit different.

You see this most in the recurring seasonal stories starring the Silver Crows mercenary company. While the season two and four stories were a lot better than their abysmal introduction in season one (season three had no Silver Crows story), they still weren’t super memorable, and I think the biggest problem is that these stories are offering nothing you couldn’t get elsewhere.

“A bunch of quirky misfits band together to seek glory and profit” is one of the most bog standard fantasy tropes. It’s something that any random MMORPG could do, and many have.

I got a bit hopeful in season four when Rima introduced the possibility of trying to redeem Mordred rather than defeating him with violence. I liked this idea not because I had much for Mordred, whom the writers worked hard to present as unlikable, but simply because that would have been a type of story you don’t often see in gaming. But sadly, Rima’s plan proved fruitless, and we just wound up clubbing Mordred over the head as we do with every other video game bad guy.

Again, it’s not the worst story I’ve seen, but this game is capable of so much more.

For an example of a post-launch story that does make good use of New World‘s setting, look to the Brimstone Sands MSQ and the character of Imhotep. The oldest human on Aeternum (that we know of), Imhotep has been alive so long that his mind is breaking under the weight of his memories. He can’t remember which version of himself he is from day to day.

It was a genuinely compelling story, and it’s not the sort of thing you see in most games. The only thing similar I’ve encountered is Lilith in The Secret World. Nothing’s truly new under the sun, though, and it’s much better to feel like a retread of one game than dozens, especially when that game is my personal gold standard for video game story-telling, MMO or otherwise.

Another good example is the lore around Artorius, his failed kingdom of Avalon, and the role Myrddin played in its downfall. This has been part of the game’s story since launch, but originally it was an obscure tale hidden in some lore notes. The revamped MSQ has given it far more attention, and it has me hungry to see the story expanded on in the future. It’s pretty hard to bring a fresh take to Arthurian mythology these days, but I think “Lovecraftian doom prophet Merlin” might just qualify.

I’ve said before New World often seems like a spiritual successor to The Secret World. What TSW did so well was seamlessly weave together real world history and mythology with its own brand of cosmic horror, and at its best, that’s also what New World does.

I really want to see the game double down on that kind of story. This is a game where Sir Galahad and Morgan le Fay team up with 17th century explorers to battle extra-dimensional horrors and ancient aliens. This is a setting where the greatest danger is not death but losing your very humanity through lifetimes of accreted trauma. Don’t be afraid to lean into the strangeness. Get weird with it!

Something else I miss about the story of New World‘s early days is the darker, horror-adjacent tone it struck. This hasn’t entirely gone away, but it has softened. Some of this is due to the shift in the tone of the writing towards swashbuckling fantasy adventure, but gameplay also plays a role.

New World has gotten a lot easier since launch, with major nerfs to open world mobs and high end gear becoming much easier to access. A lot of these were positive changes in isolation, but the side effect of making the game so much less dangerous is unfortunate. Mobs staggering players with nearly every hit was infuriating, and I don’t want to go back to that, but there should have been some compensatory buffs to mobs’ other stats to keep the danger alive.

When I interviewed game director Scott Lane a few months back, he talked about how much he loves the idea of Aeternum as a hostile setting. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like, “The island doesn’t want us here.” I love that idea, too, and that’s why it was so disappointing to me that the Elysian Wilds proved so toothless in practice.

In fairness, balancing challenge with accessibility is a struggle for all MMOs; there are few easy answers. I rarely praise Lord of the Rings Online, but I do wish other games would copy its open world difficulty selection system. And New World does still offer more challenging open world and solo content than most MMOs.

But I do feel this is another area where the game isn’t doing all it could to capitalize on its unique identity. There are lots of light-hearted fantasy MMOs with unthreatening worlds. There’s very little competition for the niche of a darker, more mature MMORPG where the open world is actually dangerous.

I try not to fanboy over specific developers too much, but I do wish Amazon’d bring back former TSW Joshua Doetsch to do more writing for game. Or, if not him specifically, someone with a mastery for horror and weird fiction.

The net effect of New World‘s post-launch changes is that story-fans are much better served. But some of what originally made the game compelling got lost in translation, and I really hope that one day we can reach a point where we have the best of both worlds, with well-designed quests, high production values, and stories and gameplay that fully embody the grim mystery this game originally promised.

New World’s Aeternum is a land of many secrets. In MassivelyOP’s Vitae Aeternum, our writers delve those secrets to provide you with in-depth coverage of all things New World through launch and beyond.
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