I stand on the sandy shores of another world, one that is my new home, surrounded by men and women in battered cotton clothes. The tide rolls across the sand behind me, and a man in a fancy coat is pointing waving from the treeline. I am here in Tera Vitae Aeternum, this is the final slice of the unknown world, and all the men and women on the shoreline around me are here to carve their fortunes as they may in these shores.
Welcome to the New World
While my avatar, a young woman named Tara sits on the sand, flanked on all sides by men and women dressed in rags, I am in a quiet loft in downtown San Francisco. Several thousands of dollars worth of high-end monitors, capture cards, PCs, and gaming peripherals are spread out on tables down the length of the little loft. Men and women in New World sweatshirts are chatting amiably with the others who walk in, a large-screen television sits at the front of the room showing a splash image from the game. At the back of a room, a table spread of fruits, cookies, candies, and drinks sections off a bit of the back of the room, and several staff members are smiling and greeting everyone.
I am at a preview event for Amazon Game Studios’ upcoming MMO, New World. I was among the first to arrive, sitting next to one of the stations where the game is already open, and a lush-looking grassland is splayed out in front of the avatars.
After a bit of milling, more writers show up, and we’re called to the front where head of Amazon Game Studios Orange County, Patrick Gilmore, is standing in front of the large television. He explains that New World is a game set in alternate-history 17th century. The age of discovery is winding down, with just a tiny slice of Bermuda left uncharted in a world of now finite boundaries. In the last corner of the unexplored is the island of Aeternum, one final piece of unclaimed land.
Players take control of the island’s new residents, leaving their old homes, selling their possessions to afford to sail, and set off to make their fortune on this island with just the shirts on their backs and the sense of adventure in their hearts.
Amazon bills this game as a “Sandbox MMO,” explaining that it’s the neatest label to define what it’s about. New World is a game that has by design avoided scripted sequences and moments, instead letting player freedom and emergent stories be the driving vehicle that propels players to log on, to carve the world into the shapes of their whimsy, and to experience the construction of civilization.
Back on the island, I’m behind the eyes of Tara, and the other new residents are sprinting around the stand wildly, getting used to the controls, which were provided helpfully by a packed print-outs sitting on top of our multicolored keyboards, and throwing punches into the air, running in aimless patterns, and spinning around in graceless circles. After a bit of orientation, we find Mike Willette under the handle “Berserker Mike,” who teaches us the basic mechanics of putting down camp, crafting, and finding materials to build resources.
Our characters are all fantastically over-leveled. Although we lack high-level equipment and resources, we seem to have high crafting skill, great combat skill, nice combat durability, and a handful of other perks that would translate to being high-level in games with a traditional leveling system, which is something this game lacks. Instead of levels, players gain experience in specific crafts: blacksmithing gains players levels in blacksmithing. Fighting gives players levels in fighting. In short, each stat the game tracks has its own level system, rather than the character as a whole having that level.
Together, we’re directed north to a basic crafting area. Inside the walls of this little blacksmithing outpost, we’re in a what New World calls a Sanctuary: a place safe from any player-based combat. We’re introduced to crafting stations, shops, and the basics of stamina. Forges, tanning racks, and such placements are necessary to use those trades, and those stations come at varying levels. Ostensibly, higher level forges, tanneries, clothiers, and so on will not be found in the wild, and must be built by players.
Once everyone had time to bump into walls, climb railings, and hurl ourselves off of the parapets (where I quickly learned that I could take fall damage), Mike pointed us at our company’s base. We slogged through the swamp, slowing our travel, gathered some more resources in transit, killed a few wolves, and on arrival used the company’s armory to equip ourselves for combat.
We were told the combat we were arming for would be a demo of the game’s war system. Players can gather in companies, New World’s equivalent of guilds, in groups of up to 50 players. These companies could stake claims on certain portions of the map, in which players could build compounds including crafting stations, storage barracks, respawn points, walls, and other defenses to stave off attackers. Companies who wish to take over enemy positions would have to declare war. So, war was declared. While it normally comes with a 24-hour timer to give both sides time to shore up their defenses, our timer was accelerated to a handful of seconds. With some direction from Berserker Mike, we crept our way over to an enemy base staffed with other members of Amazon’s development team who were waiting on the parapets with bows and muskets. War on, we planted kegs of explosives next to the outer walls of their fortifications, and with a few seconds pause, detonations sounded the first beat of the war drum, and we flooded into the base.
What transpired during the skirmish was familiar territory. From the inner walls of the base, archers and musketeers rained hell from above, ground warriors with maces and swords flanked us from the sides, and we made war while our demolition team continued to plant bombs and punch holes in the enemy’s walls.
In motion, New World felt a lot like modern action MMOs. Despite being in alpha development, the actual nuts and bolts of the game felt fluid. Movement, dodge rolls, melee, and ranged weapons had good response times seemingly uninfluenced by communicating combat through the internet. Everything felt punchy, immediate, and violent. Attacks that connected illustrated the amount of damage dealt in crisp red, the third-person camera kept just enough distance to keep things clear without taking away from the immediate threats all around, and striking and being struck felt like it had weight as skirmisher fought and killed for glory.
Amazon let us win, I’m sure, but we managed to destroy the central pillar that secured their base, and plant ours in its place. The base was now ours.
After our little war demo ended, we were encouraged to forge our way north through a section of map called The Great Cleave, a frozen valley packed with undead-seeming settlers who’d settled in the wrong places, arctic wolves, and doubtlessly other aggressive dangers the deeper north we could manage.
Outside of combat, New World offers players some alternatives to raw swords-and-guns. Foraging resources seems to be a large part of how to craft high level equipment. The deeper in the island players push, the better the resources that can be extracted from the earth. So, in order to make high-level swords, shields, and spears, players will need to have high-level blacksmithing. In order to build the higher tier equipment, players need high levels of crafting to refine the raw, mined material into useful forms. In order to even create items with the high level materials, players need high level crafting stations. Skills are layered this way, but since companies are made up of many trades, each of these could be covered by different players. It seems in order to do high-level work, players will either need to keep many equally high-level friends, or commission high level tradesmen.
Weapons seemed to come in five flavors: Wood, Iron, Steel, Starmetal, and Orichalcum. Represented as Tiers I through V. As the tiers climb, the weapons and armor become better, both in terms of damage output or mitigation, and in durability. Higher level blacksmithing and refining increased the chances of pushing items to higher qualities—for example, a Good quality Iron Sword will be better than a Normal quality Iron Sword, and so on.
Although the game has some shared DNA with survival-crafting games, there is no way for players to dehydrate or starve. Hunger and thirst systems exist, but staying well-hydrated and well-fed offers buffs to the players stamina and health recovery respectively. It isn’t mandatory to keep their characters from dying.
One of the things integral to the apparent intent of New World is vulnerability. Most of what a player carries with them will be dropped at death. These items can be collected at any point after a player dies. Aside from Sanctuaries, players are at risk of death everywhere they go. Be that from wild animals, ghosts, corrupted settlers, or from other players. Players with the intent to become criminals can do so and attack any other player at will. However, this isn’t without risk.
Players can equip 3 weapons or tools at a time in their quick access slots, as well as four quick-use items (food, bandages, and such). These items are secure, and will not drop when players die, however, anything else they are carrying that is not equipped will fall. Criminal players, those who’ve assaulted other players with murderous intent, a manually toggled state, will gain criminal notoriety. Criminals are not safe in Sanctuary zones and drop all of their equipment on death, even the equipped items. Although being a criminal is a way to play, they have no respite at almost any point.
After eating a lot of cooked meat, drinking a lot of fresh water, and repeatedly getting killed by roving bands of skeletal corrupted settlers, I got the opportunity to chat with the developers.
The 17th century feels like an unusual choice for a setting, particularly for a game like this, so I asked the developers what about it drove them to it. One of the quotes that popped up was “the last gasp of the blade, the first breath of the gun,” a moment where swords hadn’t faded from use, but guns were beginning to become an inescapable part of the landscape. Scot Lane, game director, explained he and his team were stuck on the idea of building society, but didn’t want to feel nailed down to the collapse or post-apocalypse. “What if our game was about the opposite, the construction of society?” That way there would be both the structure of a civilized world, but also the freedom to let players make their own freedom.
Given that most of civilization seemed player driven, I had some apprehension about the nature of starting fresh later into the game’s life. Could a new player spill out onto the shores of the island only to find an oppressively colonized land, full of claimed area and strip-mined of resources? When I brought up these apprehensions, the developers seemed nonplussed. By design, the game was meant to have a bit of a race to capture territory. “There will be boom towns. There will be land rushes.” However, they explained, since players couldn’t form companies of over 50 players, it seemed unlikely that a single company to claim vast enough swathes of land to outright force out all competition.
Also, I learned during these chats, that building company territory was limited to a few predefined spots on the map, and there will always be unclaimed landmass for players to explore without having to step on any one company’s territory and toes.
Finally, I asked them what if they had any interesting stories to tell from playtesting. They offered me the story of a narrow thoroughfare that had been taken over by a criminal company. Any player that tried to make their way through it would be killed, their items taken, and if they returned, they would be killed again.
These players, fed up with it, formed up a company, and stormed the criminals. The result was a bloodbath. The criminals couldn’t face so many opponents at once, and given their attackers were not criminals themselves, could face their few casualties with their equipment intact, so they could swing back to combat quickly. The criminals, down to their underwear after their first death, could do little but throw punches and take fire as they respawned to die and respawn again. To die again.
After that, I said my thanks, and the event was over. Tara and I parted ways.
At its heart, New World is entering a crowded MMO landscape, and there’s a lot out there players can invest their time and focus in. With as much risk of loss as there seems to be, it can hard to delve into the island when the combat-focused players seem to hold all the power and face the least risk. Though there are a lot of options for non-combat roles, those with the power to punch hard seem to be in the best position to keep from being slaughtered while going about their business.
That said, I find myself wanting to return to the island to see if I can tinker with the systems, maybe explore the lush, swampy, arctic, and picturesque landscapes once again; even if I know it’ll be with a gun in my hand and a sense of adventure in my heart.
At least for now, I cannot promise I will want to settle here.
Disclaimer: Writer was flown out to the San Francisco event to preview New World at no cost.