SGF 2024: Hands-on with New World’s controversial Aeternum reboot, which is still an MMORPG


How’s everyone recovering from all this New World Aeternum news coming out of Summer Games Fest? It’s been kind of a confusing time for me, as I had spent a chunk of time prepared to see an actual new game as Amazon told us and not, well, Tyler’s turf.

But that’s not all bad. In some ways, I’m what Amazon may be chasing with this console port and image reboot: an MMO fan who lately is stuck in casual solo-mode with a background in console action games, especially RPGs. My reception should hold a different kind of weight than someone who’s already a fan or even someone who previously played and disliked the game, since I’m a blank slate. I know Aeternum isn’t a new game, but it could be new for the audience Amazon is clearly chasing.

TLDR: This is still an MMORPG

Let me lay out where I’m coming from in my hands-on. I had never played New World prior to SGF, and in terms of action RPGs, I’m a big Monster Hunter fan who can mostly keep up with hardcore Japanese players, so I can handle challenging, combat-heavy games that require material prep work. In addition, I had hands-on time with a few other action RPGs at SGF, such as Path of Exile 2, so my opinions aren’t coming from the void.

So please understand that when I say New World Aeternum felt like a normal MMO, I don’t mean that to disparage anyone. I say that because the sum of all its parts feels like an MMO: The cutscene and dialogue scenes feel like they have an MMO processing restriction budget, the onboarding process is what I expect in an MMO, the light challenge from combat felt like an MMO starting zone rather than a swift kick in the butt ARPGs tend to start me off with, and even though I could solo everything, seeing fellow players in the open world reminded me it’s an MMO.

Maybe some of this feeling will change when there are fewer placeholder screens for cinematics that I guess weren’t ready for my demo, or maybe later sections of the game will be more demanding of my attention, as I felt myself wishing the game had adopted combat closer to For Honor or even MH.

From my demo, though, I know trying to escape the MMO title is confusing, and trying to appeal to the action-combat console crowd as if New World isn’t an MMO seemed like, well, a good way to turn eager console purchases into disappointed refunds. For those on the fence about New World Aeternum, I would say you have nothing to lose by waiting until there’s some more late-game gameplay out, as despite my constant deaths, POE2 scratched my ARPG itch more.

In any case, as someone who should be in the target audience for the Aeternum reboot, here’s what I experienced.

Going into the guts

Both in terms of the updated character creation and revamped tutorial, the game still feels like a standard MMO but with decent graphics for a western title. I got a few hours of time in with New World Aeternum during my demo and tried both the new Soldier archtetype (sword and shield plus one-handed axe) and the Occultist (fire staff and ice gauntlet). The descriptions were a bit sparse for the Occultist and Mystic, but basically Occultist is a nuker and Mystic can be a healer.

Entering the game world immediately puts you into a fight. You learn your basic attack, heavy attack, block, dodge, and I believe the target lock-on, though it’s super subtle in terms of being visual, as it’s no more than a white dot on the mob you want to focus on. Often times, if I wasn’t hovering over the target with my reticle enough, it just reset my camera angle, making it feel as if I had to prep for combat constantly instead of just being able to pull whenever. It also made surprise attacks harder for me to tackle, though I don’t think I had a single death on either character I tried, as it was easy enough for me to flee.

The Soldier was solid enough, but for the life of me I can’t really remember the moves I tried. It wasn’t bad, per se, just basic, like a heavier version of Guild Wars 2 but with more action options and fewer hotkey options, even when I focused on unlocking all my skills in two classes.

I did go more in-depth with the Occultist despite not usually playing mages. As in many games, the elemental typings have similar feelings with a twist, such as both having projectiles but ice doing slows and fire doing more damage. They aren’t just slightly different, though. The Fire side had a move that had me dashing through enemies while Ice had an invuln-state mana regen I could see being mixed in with other weapon types. Fire seemed mechanically a bit more interesting even though I tend to prefer ice thematically. The Occultist certainly felt fresher to me than the Soldier after all the other melee combat I’d done in other game demos at SGF.

In general, archetypes are just fantasy tropes; you’re not beholden to them. Just as in the original game, if you find a bow, you can start working on your bow game. Archetypes just help speed up the process of gaining skills you want and point newcomers in the right direction for a workable build.

I didn’t get to personally experience this, as there’s still a good amount of tutorial-esque gameplay at the start (get some mats, make a knife, skin a boar, make some food, etc.), and I wasn’t allowed to explore the map at my pleasure (sorry for offroading so much, Brian!), but it was good to see that this isn’t exactly a Star Wars Galaxies NGE “break everything” style of update. Even so, waiting until October for all this and having a content-light summer (following a content-light spring and winter) does make me glad I’m not a current player, as when I take a break from a game, that’s usually the end for me.

Speaking of advertised new content, I had really been looking forward to the “revamped story dialogue experience,” as I hoped it would be something huge like BioWare-style branching options/story, or maybe even more like GW2 at release where there would be some minor differences. But in reality, it was basically like a more cinematic World of Warcraft experience. Part cutscene, part “Got it, collect some sticks and stones, skip!” (yes, you can skip through dialogue, thankfully). The voice acting and script weren’t really bad at all, with the former even being above-average for the various accents used, but it just wasn’t engaging enough for me or really doing anything more than assigning quests with some spice than teaching me about the game world.

Again, as someone who is coming from outside the game’s fanbase, being told this is an action RPG but getting fairly basic modern MMO story/dialogue experience would probably make me question the value of the purchase. Maybe current players can appreciate it more, but it felt like another sign that Amazon should have gotten their current playerbase on board first instead of trying to chase new players.

As for the story itself, it’s still strongly clichéd, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Heck, as it’s also strong in the survival genre, there’s clearly an audience for it – it’s just not for me. As in so many other games, you wake up, don’t quite know where you are, but are above average in strength and given the freedom to save the citizens of the world. If that’s your thing, great, but again, this didn’t feel like a strong enough feature to really sell me on New World Aeternum as a new, non-MMO action RPG, especially without a higher combat difficulty/depth level.

The one other thing I knew I had to try was swimming, and it’s certainly functional. Not having a stamina/drown meter meant I could technically swim wherever I wanted to go had it not been for testing restrictions (again, my apologies to Brian, who had to keep me within the permissible testing areas). It’s a small thing, and pretty basic, but giving players the ability to overcome simple barriers like water does a lot for immersion, especially in an MMO. Plus, gamers have been asking for it for years.

Lasting impact

Again, I know there’s an audience for New World Aeternum, and I’d argue it’s more with MMO players and the current playerbase than the console action RPG crowd. Especially because I was at SGF, I was reminded of the plethora of options gamers have these days, not only from AAA studios but also indies. Aeternum would have gotten a better reception (and maybe scored a few points in my book) had Amazon been more forthcoming in its reveal.

Calling it a new game would be like if Capcom tried the same with the new Monster Hunter Stories 2 non-Switch port: There may be some bonus content, but it’s not new. An expansion or update, sure, fine. I think the way gamers took the announcement would have beeen vastly different had there been less spin and much more communication, particularly with the current playerbase.

I’d love to be wrong and find out that New World’s new content attracts a whole new crowd of players that can enjoy crossplay with the current ones. But as it is, New World Aeternum just comes across as an attempt to update and rebrand, kind of like Elder Scrolls Online’s One Tamriel and other games have done in the past. It really didn’t register as a strong action RPG to me, especially compared to on-site competition that we may cover but doesn’t fit into the traditional MMO box. New World Aeternum does, and I think if players go into the game expecting an MMO, they’ll be satisfied with what they get. At least, if you’re a new player. If you’re genuinely expecting an ARPG, or you’re still angry over the marketing switcharoo, well, that’s another story.

MOP’s Andrew Ross was on the ground at Summer Game Fest 2024 – catch up on all our coverage!
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