First impressions: Final Stand Ragnarok is not Camelot Unchained, but it’s a fun romp anyway


At the top of 2020, when City State Entertainment’s Mark Jacobs first announced Final Stand Ragnarok – called Project Colossus back then – it was major news here in the core MMORPG genre. Just as COVID was first poking its tendrils across the ocean, Jacobs sat for a massive interview with us, complete with a hands-on, to accompany the reveal of his new project, which he made during a livestream to his fans. And if you were just a regular, mainstream gamer who didn’t know anything about the history of CSE or Camelot Unchained, you probably thought, “Hey, cool game,” if you noticed it at all. But if you were an MMORPG player, it was a bit more complicated.

I’ll get to that historical context in a bit. First, I want to talk about how FSR plays right now in 2024, just before it’s launching into what is by my count its third early access, because that is most likely what you came for to satisfy your curiosity. I got my hands on the latest build alongside a few other press last week, following up our original preview from four years ago, and played two sessions with a combined group of devs and journalists.

I must tell you upfront that I am not the target audience for this game. I run an MMORPG website. I play MMORPGs, mostly sandbox and sandpark MMORPGs, and write about them full-time, and if I’m not playing an MMORPG, I’m playing some other sandbox/RPG/ARPG. I don’t really play shooters and MOBAs and battle royales and tower defense titles. My main interest in this game is its overlap with Camelot Unchained, with the engine itself, and with its impact on the MMORPG public.

But I still played FSR during the demo, despite feeling mostly out of my league. And I’m almost surprised to report that it was actually fun.

The setup here is that you’re in a small party taking on huge waves of mobs and bosses across various timed maps that include offensive and defensive objectives to guide the flow of battle (“huge” being the operative word, since this game is a showcase for an engine that can purportedly hold thousands of people in battles). Jacobs calls it a “fun, old-school style hack and slasher or looter slasher,” focused on “beating the snot out of all the forces of hell” at an insane scale driven by the studio’s Unchained Engine. It’s all set against a Norse mythology backdrop that skillfully appropriates western interest in pop legend and dodges any troublesome IP entanglements.

As an MMORPG player, I can really only give you the closest gameplay cognate I know: It looked like SMITE, but it felt like playing World of Warcraft’s Alterac Valley, back during those couple of years when mechanics and patches incentivized Horde and Alliance to ignore each other and race to the NPC bosses and objectives to hit them as quickly as possible. PvP was considered a hindrance to the race to mass-murder the NPCs in a big devouring swarm of players. It was hilarious fun.

I don’t make this comparison to insult AV or FSR. I actually loved that version of AV, even though it technically failed as a PvP battleground during that era. I played it hundreds, probably thousands of times in my title grind. And that’s how FSR feels, minus the PvP: like you’re racing against the clock, killing as much as you can, hitting objectives and just trying to stay alive. It was intense and fun. Maybe not amusing, but enjoyable and flow-inducing. It’s the kind of game I could easily see playing with my guildies – or my husband and kids – particularly because it scales up in players so well.

In fact, I thought it felt better in the smaller group (something I heard echoed on chat too), but Jacobs says the team has successfully run 40-person crews and is currently still testing up to around 20 players: “The takeaway is that the number of players that can play in an FSR match will scale as the designers want versus what is restricted by the engine.”

I’m positive that with a few hours of play, the controls – over-the-shoulder aim and mouse-clicking frenzy a la shooters, not MMORPG hotbars – would become more comfortable to me and I’d stop thinking about them. Even after an hour, I was feeling okayish in there as someone who actively avoids games like this. That suggests to me that this really would be a fantastic pickup co-op game: If I can absorb the basics fairly quickly even as an old-school tab-target MMO gamer, then it’s clearly accessible for a broad gaming population. People already at home here will just slide right in seamlessly, but the rest of us won’t need too long to catch up.

Swapping characters after my group of devs and fellow journalists wiped out on our first run improved my experience significantly too. I initially chose the spear-wielding valkyrie (Gwen the Spearmaiden) and never really meshed with her playstyle, but once I got my hands on the fire-arrow archer (Aella the Amazon), I felt way more in my element (y’all know how much I love pure archers, especially fire archers – this toon was made for me). Our second run ended in a full victory, I’m happy to say, and I died only a few times.

Death, incidentally, is something I hope the team expands on. While I thought the spectator mode was great (wish we had it in more MMOs!), the death timer was pretty harsh, and I’d rather see downed players be able to do something a la Guild Wars 2. For a co-op game, that’s a no-brainer.

I do have some caveats. It was way too easy to get tunnel vision while playing because of how many mobs you’re dealing with and how much is going at once. That’s not a complaint, really, as masses of mobs represent the crowning achievement of this engine. But if we hadn’t had developers reminding us to actually, you know, complete the objectives, we would not have succeeded. The chaos of hundreds of mobs on the field made it hard to sort out “oh I should pick up the thing” and “oh we need to guard the other thing” while you’re literally surrounded by mobs trying to just stay alive (and enjoying the thrill of blowing up huge groups over and over, cackling madly… or maybe that was just me). I enjoyed the hell out of that rush, but I would definitely need to sit down and study the maps and objectives at some point outside of the battle – the way I would with an MMORPG raid or battleground – to make following the gameplay arc rather than the mayhem second-nature. I don’t want to be that jerk fighting on the road instead of the node, but it was really easy to find myself doing that.

There’s also no minimap in the game – something one of my fellow testers asked about, so it’s not just my MMO-loving self who missed one! I have a much harder time getting oriented with a compass bar and prefer a map layout. (The team said it’s considering one.)

I also want to talk about game performance and the way combat and animations actually felt. Jacobs has been clear that the game is designed and optimized to run on fairly old machines and and has been playtested across the globe without latency. My desktop isn’t old, but it’s not cutting-edge either, and I had zero problems with lag or framerate. Gobs of mobs on-screen and no problems there whatsoever.

But that’s surely because this is not the most graphics-intensive title I’ve ever seen. It reminds me a lot of an MMORPG, really, in that even the newest MMO looks ever so slightly out of date, and yes, the characters feel floaty. “Glidy” is the word I wrote down in my notes. I didn’t feel much connection between my character’s feet and the ground, and it seemed as if the mobs were slipping across the world rather than charging. This is all something I can easily overlook and forgive, as I am used to far worse in classic MMOs, plus the recoil and feedback on the weapon attacks was so meaty and satisfying that I wasn’t really fussed over not feeling grounded to the world. But other folks grumble about that in a modern title, so I have to point it out.

Moreover, we saw only the one snow-encrusted map with undead ghouls and liches to mow down, which means I really have no concept from this demo alone what the rest of the game looks like, nor whether it appeals to long-term players – like the MMO gamers we are here. After an hour or so, I was feeling pretty numb. I don’t think I could do that and only that for long stretches.

Map variety will hopefully help; though I didn’t get to play other maps, Jacobs did show me footage of the beta testing of the Arena, which puts the players in a big wide enclosed map studded with obstacles and hiding spots as waves of mobs. I suspect it might be an easier map for newer players because the objectives seemed simpler (in exchange for reduced visibility), though of course the combat against waves of enemies is the same.

Similarly, I got a peek into the work-in-progress Dungeon Maze, which is exactly as it sounds: an indoor map with twisty, cavernous stoneworks filled with waves of mobs (so many spiders). Ironically, the Maze looks the most like an MMO dungeon as the player group hangs together much more and rushes through packs of mobs and unlocking “encounter rooms” to get to the boss (which makes sense since some of this tech is, again, destined for CU’s content too). If I didn’t know what game this was, I’d assume it’s an action MMO.

Now, while we know FSR hits early access this week – on March 14th – we don’t know how long it’ll be in early access to get all that new content; the team apparently means to “play it by ear” and “see what happens” as it rolls out new heroes and modes. Jacobs says he “couldn’t be happier” with where the studio is on FSR and Camelot Unchained, though he admits he understands why people will find that hard to believe. His plan is still to release FSR and then CU, and his main goal is “to build an engine that can drive the kind of large-scale battles that [he’s] always dreamed of” and pushed in his earlier MMOs.

Ultimately, I liked the game. I was impressed, even, with how far it’s come since 2020. I don’t know whether it will take off – if we could predict the next Fortnite or even the next Palworld, we’d all be rich – but if its entertainment value alone is your only measure, then it deserves a look.

But MMORPG gamers are going to want more context than that, owing to the history of this game’s predecessor: Camelot Unchained, the spiritual successor to RvR MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. Jacobs and CSE (now rebranded Unchained Entertainment) originally pulled in $2.2M from MMORPG players on Kickstarter to fund CU way back in 2013. Its development has been agonizingly slow, but Jacobs kept it going seemingly by the power of his own charisma and deep pockets as he put in far more of his own money than he raised from gamers along the way. His wholesome, down-in-the-trenches interaction with the MMORPG community, plus the fact that he offered refunds to (almost) any backer who asked, initially shielded the game from the skepticism heaped on similarly delinquent crowdfunded titles and helped the studio survive multiple delays until it finally rolled into its “beta one” phase in 2018.

And then, at the top of 2020, Jacobs announced that his studio had been working on a second game too: Colossus aka Final Stand Ragnarok. To his credit, Jacobs swore that no backer money was used on FSR, that work on FSR was not detracting from work on CU but rather speeding it up, that he had no plans to license out the engine (though there’d been interest in it), and that FSR was coming in 2020. As Jacobs told me in our interview at the time, “We’re going to fully own this decision, and if people are unhappy, don’t want to play Colossus, and don’t want to wait for CU any longer, we will of course give them a refund.”

Unfortunately, the MMORPG fanbase collectively flipped a table. Our own thread clocked in at 427 comments as CU backers demanded those refunds, and across social media, many of those demands turned into abuse (at both CSE and us). The situation eventually prompted a stream in which a clearly repentant Mark Jacobs apologized. But the refunds turned out to be harder to resolve, as they seemingly took years to work through. At one point, Jacobs streamed himself personally granting refunds to calm down furious donors who, fair or not, were convinced they’d been bamboozled by an MMO founding father using their pledges to fund an engine and a non-MMORPG.

Eventually, Jacobs stopped addressing refunds at all and visibly retreated from the broader MMORPG community, meaning that for the last few years, players haven’t gotten much more from the studio beyond press releases about investment hauls, streams, and newsletters without significant forward motion on CU, all contributing to more distrust and confusion. That’s not just my opinion; Jacobs told his backers last week that he knows that it looks like “nothing much has been going on with CU for many months” but that “the truth is quite the opposite.”

Meanwhile, FSR actually did enter “first access” in December of 2020 as planned, followed by a $20 Steam early access in November 2021, but it’s never had more than 37 concurrent players; with no formal marketing efforts (until now) and the MMO public arrayed against it, it never stood a chance. It might now.

All of this is to say it’s actually been several years since even I spoke to Mark Jacobs, so we had a lot to catch up on when we chatted a few days after my demo. Since we now have two hands-on with FSR four years apart, I had to ask him what specifically the investors saw in the game to merit yet another investment blast now. And the answer is easy: It’s the engine, specifically the fact that Unchained Engine can do something nobody else’s engine can do, which is hold truly massive numbers of people together in battles without capsizing. He explained that the investors know it’s a gamble – every video game is – but if FSR should fail, they’ll keep right on supporting Camelot Unchained. In other words, Camelot would be bolstered by FSR’s success, but FSR’s failure won’t spell doom for the MMORPG. The investors are backing everything.

Moreover, in spite of all the speculation (even mine), Jacobs has long maintained he’s not making the engine to sell it or market it, though it might be a possibility in the distant future, and he says that’s still true. “We have zero intention of trying to license [the engine] this year or next year,” he told me. It’s chiefly because it would take a lot of work to prep the engine for that, and his teams are laser-focused on FSR and CU right now. He doesn’t want anything else to interfere with their development.

Jacobs didn’t want to talk too much about Camelot Unchained on the record yet, but it’s less because there’s nothing to talk about and more because he’s just not ready to unveil everything his team has been working on, which is admittedly frustrating, but it’s also probably for the best because as FSR demonstrates, these games show so much better when they’re closer to done. Right now, as he’s alluded to in his backer missives, the team is ramping its way up in player-count testing; current test phases can reliably pull off around 250 real humans, 250 human and 250 ARCs, and 250 humans and 500 ARCs. (ARCs are the “autonomous remote clients” that are designed to be equivalent to 83% of a real human’s network traffic and CPU usage. Past tests have run up to 1500 and 3000 ARCs, though that probably won’t be needed in actual practice.)

The takeaway for CU is that the studio’s immediate goal is to produce a real, playable slice of the MMORPG, hopefully with a reasonably full gameloop, by the end of this summer, so that’s when we can expect to see some serious forward momentum – depending on how hiring continues to go. (Yes, they’re still hiring – for both games, but especially for CU.)

As noted in the PR back in February, Camelot Unchained is now slated for a late 2025 launch, which even we were skeptical about. But Jacobs genuinely believes it’s doable, and the principal reason is that so much of CU’s infrastructure is already in FSR, meaning that FSR is moonlighting as a way to test everything from CU’s server balancing to netcode. The Dungeon Maze in FSR I mentioned before, for example, represents the core tech behind CU’s The Depths, so building and testing one is also work on the other. He always told backers there’d be overlap and parallel development, and it turns out to have been true.

The other reason is that Jacobs has brought on a new co-lead, along other other staff, to reorient and push Camelot Unchained itself to launch (FSR has an entirely different set of leads). Jacobs would not even tell me who it is, but it’s apparently someone who knows what he’s doing here in the MMO space – and was willing to bank his rep on the late 2025 date.

And just to bring everyone up to date: The business models for FSR and CU haven’t budged. FSR is a strictly buy-to-play title with buyable seasons, while CU will remain a buy-to-play MMORPG with a subscription. Jacobs was absolutely adamant during the press event and to me about keeping NFT/crypto stuff out of his games as well, so no fear of that.

I know that there’s been a lot of drama with CU, and I’ve been baffled about its development strategies myself. But even when I’ve been irked and even bewildered by the game’s slow progress, I still do not believe Mark Jacobs is a liar or that these games are a scam, and I have to assume the investors who keep pouring their own money into them aren’t idiots either. Any truly broke or greedy studio would’ve just canceled CU long ago and focused entirely on the engine; everyone who lost money on Shroud of the Avatar and Chronicles of Elyria knows Kickstarter devs are untouchable in court, so there’d be nothing stopping Jacobs from just bailing if he wanted. But he hasn’t done that. This damn game has very obviously been his swansong for a decade. He’s going to launch CU. It’s just gonna be a lot later than anyone – including he – ever wanted.

But I also know that in this genre, the grudges have grudges. It was MMO players who ponied up the initial cash for all this in 2013, and it’s MMO players who will eventually be needed to populate CU servers, meaning it’s MMO players Jacobs will need to persuade on the road to launch. “I do think we’ll get [Camelot Unchained]; I’m just worried the playerbase will be gone by the time we do,” I wrote back in 2020, and that remains my fear. I hope FSR is the stepping stone for the team – and the MMORPG – that Unchained Entertainment needs it to be.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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