New World: Grindy? Check. Repetitive? Check. Fun? We hate to say it... but check

Goddamn it, Jeff Bezos' lot can make a passable MMORPG after all


The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our (sometimes) monthly gaming column. At long last, New World is out and we've been diligently grinding our faces off to answer the question: Can Jeff "mountains of cash" Bezos make a decent MMO?

On 28 September, Amazon Games released its first serious, big-boy-pants-on video game: New World. Why does this matter? First of all, it's Amazon. Not content with anything short of global domination, Jeff Bezos' e-commerce and cloud computing juggernaut has had a sticky start with gaming – two titles prior to New World, Breakaway and Crucible, were scrapped – and people would love to see the venture fail. I would love to see the venture fail.

Secondly, New World is an MMORPG. That's "massively multiplayer online roleplaying game" to the untainted. As far as game development goes, it's hard to think of a more complicated and ambitious genre, especially as this has transpired to be Amazon's "debut" outside of the mobile platform.

Let me start off by saying that MMORPGs are not typically good games. The "massively multiplayer online" bit means that thousands of people play simultaneously in a shared world over the internet. "Roleplaying games" we have covered a lot in this column. Very simply, the player assumes the role of a character, often one of their own creation, and completes various feats that result in them growing in power.

Balding and glorious red beard – my character's likeness is pretty spot on

Balding and glorious red beard – my character's likeness is pretty spot on

The issue with MMOs, however, is that in order to gain experience and better gear, NPCs (non-player characters) must issue quests. Quests in MMOs fall into one of a few categories.

  1. Go here and kill X number of enemies.
  2. Go here and pick up X number of items that fall off the corpses of defeated enemies.
  3. Go here and collect/activate X number of items.

And so on and so forth.

And yet MMOs are also utterly addictive. While many other kinds of games could be said to be based around "go here and kill things", the MMO needs to do it in a flatly consistent way due to the online shared world – hundreds of players running around the same sort of things – so they cannot be presented in a particularly interesting way outside of some flavour text.

However, the joy of MMOs is not really in questing, but in overcoming major challenges in co-operation with other players, seeing those attribute numbers going up, your equipment slowly improving, your damage output growing, and eventually gaining that best-in-slot gear.

Blizzard's World of Warcraft has remained the de facto MMO standard for 17 years. SEVENTEEN. That is a long time and now another challenger has appeared when it was needed most. The genre has been screaming out for some viable competition and, as any long-term WoW addict will tell you, Blizzard has been driving the game into the ground since its acquisition by Activision. That's without mentioning the toxic environment the developer has become.

Can New World pick up the torch? Based on our playtime after a month (much more than I'd like to admit), the foundation is a bit basic right now – MMOs evolve and expand as years go by, after all – but more than steady enough to build upon.

Set in the 17th century, New World refers to Aeternum, a mysterious island hidden to outside eyes. Nonetheless, some intrepid explorers – players included – have managed to plot a course there to colonise the landmass. Once you arrive in Aeternum, which is wreathed in a deadly storm, you cannot leave, but due to the island's magic there are countless reasons to stay.

Chiefly, nothing really dies on Aeternum. If it is killed, it comes back to life. This includes players, enemies, and resources. This is a serviceable in-lore explanation for why everything respawns when in reality it's a basic function of an MMO (foes reappear so the next player can complete the same quest). It also makes the island bounteous in terms of natural resources if they keep growing back after being harvested. As a result, colonists have built major outposts in each of Aeternum's 11 territories.

Gazing out over the Great Cleave

Gazing out over the Great Cleave

But it is far from Eden. Though Azoth – a mineral with miraculous properties – courses through Aeternum's flora and fauna, the island is also under threat from a malign presence known as the Corrupted, which wishes to dominate the world and serves as the game's major antagonist.

As a new player, you wash up on the shores of one of four starter regions and are immediately thrown into a basic tutorial. This quickly sets out how New World differs from World of Warcraft. In the latter, you'd basically stand next to an enemy while your character swung their weapon about automatically, leaving you free to strategically fire off additional spells or abilities. But in New World, there is far more control and movement in combat. You can dodge and block as well as click to attack or hold to perform a stronger but slower blow, all of which makes fighting that bit more fun and interesting. This can mean that even if you meet an enemy of a higher level, you could have a chance to defeat it by skill alone, while in World of Warcraft you'd probably be one-shot.

There is no lengthy preamble where you agonise over what species and class you choose. Every character is human, female or male. You select how you want to look and it's go time. Another thing that differentiates New World from other MMOs is that purports to be "classless". What that really means is that classes are not locked in from the beginning but are determined by what weapon you use. Everyone starts with a sword and shield, but there's nothing to stop you from picking up a musket and training with that, then switching to a war hammer when the feeling takes you.

Hashing out a strat for a boss in the Depths

Hashing out a strat for a boss in the Depths

But to be effective with a given weapon takes time and "mastery". The higher your mastery, the more perks and abilities you unlock, which makes you better in combat and more valuable when it comes to New World's "expeditions" – up to five-player co-operative instances filled with elite enemies and big rewards that are analogous to "dungeons" in other MMOs.

The neat thing about this system is that while, yes, you do have to invest some time into a weapon and therefore adopt a classic MMO role – tank, damage dealer, or healer (which we picked) – as you progress you will be able to hoard optimal gear and effectively switch classes on a single character, though not without hefty respec costs.

Smashed settler ships litter the shores of Aeternum

Smashed settler ships litter the shores of Aeternum

Aside from the player-versus-environment (PVE) aspect, player-versus-player (PVP) is a major component of New World. Three factions – Covenant, Syndicate, Marauders – compete for control of regions and settlements. This has benefits such as cheaper Azoth costs for fast travel, more items gained from gathering resources, and reduced trading and housing taxes (yes, you can buy a house). Control is contested by completing PVP quests (very much like ordinary quests though you must have PVP activated, which creates combat flashpoints in certain areas).

If a faction completes enough of these to gain influence in a territory, they can declare war, which is decided by a 50-vs-50 battle over a fort at a set time and date. Players can sign up to these at the war board in the relevant town, though they always seemed to happen too early for me to take part. There's also a more casual PVP mode called Outpost Rush, which opens up at level 50 (60 is the current level cap) – though this is currently disabled.

You'll be doing a lot of this

You'll be doing a lot of this – and logging and fishing and harvesting and...

If you hadn't guessed by now, gathering and crafting is a huge part of the game. Everything you mine, harvest, and skin awards experience points (XP, the measure by which the character gains another level). Everything that can be gathered can be combined and crafted into other more valuable or more useful items at the various workshops found throughout each outpost. Crafting items also gains XP so it's crucial that players don't neglect this too much. The system is mind-bogglingly expansive and, frankly, exhausting because to level up the many professions involves intensive farming, which can distract from the main thrust of the game. If you're so inclined, it is possible to gain entire levels just from gathering and crafting – but powerful weapons and armour await the most obsessive grinders.

Graphically, New World is head and shoulders above the competition, and runs fairly well too if you don't turn everything up to 11. WoW's 17-year pedigree has brought visual improvements, but it is still a 17-year-old game, and a cartoony one at that. New World is realistic with great animations and at times jaw-dropping world design. Built in Amazon Lumberyard, another CryEngine fork now known as the Open 3D Engine, jungles and forests are dense with undergrowth rippling in the wind, mists shroud the mountaintops, and sunshine gleams off the roofs of 17th century-inspired outposts.

The 50-60 area Edengrove is beautiful

The 50-60 area Edengrove is beautiful

But it isn't without weirdness and odd decisions. For one, characters can't swim. If they get into deep water, they will walk along the bottom, and you have about 20 seconds to stop doing that before you drown. Why some limited form of swimming hasn't been implemented is baffling. The engine should technically be able to do it, but perhaps it is a way of preventing players from trying to take shortcuts. It's strange any way you look at it.

There is also no "dungeon finder" function. If you are given a quest to enter an expedition, you must resort to the rather old-school approach of spamming the game's "recruitment" text channel. Here you'll see hundreds of players spouting acronyms like "LFG" (looking for group) or "LFM" (looking for more) followed by the kind of role required or the name of the expedition desired.

China-inspired Ebonscale Reach is also impressive

China-inspired Ebonscale Reach is also impressive

There's something nostalgic about doing it this way, and it forces players to communicate with each other effectively, whereas in WoW picking up a random group for dungeons eventually became an automated process. I'm in two minds about this after organising an expedition to the Dynasty shipyards in Ebonscale Reach took almost two hours.

New World also makes little effort to break from the "go here, do this, come back, win XP and items" structure. Though the game starts off with NPC quest-givers fully voiced, this declines over time to the point that side quests just have some text. At no point did I find myself engaged in a certain storyline or subplot – it's just the common MMO trappings of skimming through the quest text, yada yada yada, follow the map to the waypoint, start kicking ass.

We went with a life staff and hatchet specialisation

We went with a life staff and hatchet specialisation

At the moment, there's no raiding either – raids being the accepted term for where a guild (a player team, called Companies in New World) might take on a larger-scale PVE instance. Player groups max out at five and there currently seems to be no way to merge them into a "raid group". This is odd because one of the most fun world events has come to be known, on our server at least (Nav EU), as "corruption trains".

As the antagonistic force in New World, the Corrupted sometimes attempt to invade territories where player actions have upgraded an outpost. These create warps in the environment where demonic enemies pour through until all waves are defeated and the breach is banished.

Players arrange to meet outside settlements in vast numbers then run across the countryside together, closing each breach one after the other for decent XP, Azoth, and item rewards. Such events would benefit massively from raid groups – and yet they are not implemented. For now anyway.

Charging at breaches with a load of other players is joyful

Charging at breaches with a load of other players is joyful

Some other observations:

  • There are only six abilities to play with in combat over two weapons, which realistically means only three at time. This is not a lot and few playstyles have much synergy between them when you switch weapons on the fly. Compared to something like WoW, which is bloated and overcomplicated these days, it may seem like blessed relief – but there's also not much variety to what you can pull off. The simplicity also suggests that a console release may be on the cards.
  • Enemies are copy-pasted. The first time you meet one kind of enemy, that's it. You know how to beat it. The move set remains the same no matter what level the enemy is. The only difference is that they're going to hit harder and have more health at level 60 than they did at level 2.
  • Locations are copy-pasted. The haunted village, the ancient ruins, the corrupted camp or mine – these settings are repeated over and over throughout multiple regions. Even if the territory has its own atmosphere or cultural inspiration, these same areas keep cropping up, often in the same layout. As with enemies, this could and should be tweaked with patches and expansions.
  • Some territories are samey. Between Brightwood and Weaver's Fen, or Everfall and Windsward, I couldn't tell you which is which. Fortunately, higher-level regions like Ebonscale Reach and Edengrove are gorgeous.
  • Not enough expeditions. New World has long periods of downtime between dungeons where you're trying to level up fast enough to do the next one. The first, Amrine Excavation, isn't available until level 25, the next at 35, 45, 55 then the last two at 60. This results in repetitive runs of the same ones over and over, particularly when you start Depths at 45, which can get tedious, especially if an item you want doesn't drop.
  • Azoth. The aforementioned wunderstuff is also used as a currency for fast travel and enchanting crafted items. But if you are reckless and run out, it can make life extremely difficult, and it's not easy to win back.

New World had a predictably rough launch. As with anything that might be pitched as a World of Warcraft killer, interest was at fever pitch. On the first day, Steam suggested more than 700,000 people were trying to get on at once. This led to queues of thousands of players on busier servers, often several hours long. This went on for days and it should be embarrassing for the leading cloud infrastructure provider that such capacity issues were not anticipated. This has cooled off a month down the line.

Corrupted breaches look cool

Corrupted breaches look cool

It would also be remiss of us not to mention some poor coding during the beta that had potentially expensive consequences for gamers. Some oversight meant that the menu was running at 9,000fps, which essentially melted some 3090 Nvidia cards. EVGA was singled out for this and the manufacturer happily offered free replacements for bricked GPUs, though other models were affected too. We can thankfully report that the issue appears to have been fixed – otherwise we wouldn't have been able to write this column.

Despite the multiple bugs, oddities, and frustrations, New World is generally a well-made game. Since I last quit World of Warcraft during the Battle for Azeroth expansion, it's been what I hoped for – another MMO to get lost in.

While it lacks the character and iconic world design of Blizzard's cash cow, it has been a blast to level through (57 at the time of writing) and I'm keen to see how it develops or dies off over the years. Note that there is no subscription fee, just the one-off cost of the game, though the map suggests more regions lurk off the edge, meaning expansion packs in the works. Amazon aims to sustain the project by selling cosmetics. Whether this will be enough remains to be seen.

In the bowels of the Amrine Excavation

In the bowels of the Amrine Excavation

The best thing about getting in at the ground floor with an MMO is that New World hasn't been theorycrafted into oblivion yet, it hasn't been "solved". You can't go to a website and read the definitive min-maxed answer to how a class MUST BE played to be viable. Everything is new, everything is exciting, and no one really knows what they're doing yet – which makes now the ideal time to start. Just don't let it get to the point that you neglect your professional and familial duties. You have been warned. ®

Bootnotes

The RPG is happy to note that World of Warcraft is not the only MMO in existence, it's just the one we've played most. The free-to-play RuneScape launched in 2001 and continues to have an enormous audience. The only problem is that it's fugly. Final Fantasy XIV has experienced a renaissance of late thanks to problems with WoW and Blizzard. The Elder Scrolls: Online is also popular and probably the closest comparison to New World with its console-friendly design. Even Guild Wars 2 is still receiving fresh expansions. There's Archeage, Black Desert, Star Wars: The Old Republic... and EVE Online is in a league of its own for intense levels of nerdery. There are many, many more, but like we said, MMOs are not typically good games.

***

Rich played and will likely continue to play bits of New World on Twitch as ExcellentSword. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.


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