I was sceptical at first, I must confess: the Meridian 59 website is a total shambles, festooned with dead links and apologetic placeholders that, I guessed, had been gathering dust for a while now. Surprisingly, though, the email sign-up process was remarkably efficient. From there, the process was simple: fire up the free client, choose from a selection of faces and hairstyles, and adjust my stats and abilities on percentage sliders.
Like Ultima Online, Meridian 59 is skill- rather than class-based, so you're given relative freedom to create, say, a mace-wielding fog-spawner, or a monk-like brawler with an aptitude for transforming elderberries into hearty dinners. The level of choice on offer was a little daunting, so I rolled my default: your basic meat-and-potatoes warrior. Then it was an unceremonious dump into a Raza tavern, where I was immediately compelled to go and visit the local blacksmith. Leather armour purchased and equipped, I breezed through the empty town and ventured into the tomb that was, so I've heard, infested with undead.
Meridian 59, it must be said, looks a lot like Doom - or Heretic, if you prefer, which used the Doom engine in a fantasy setting. Certain characters, like the blacksmith, are static sprites; others, like myself, other players, and monsters, can be viewed from six different perspectives, giving the whole thing a kind of pseudo-3D mien. Despite the 2004 botox jab, the game obviously hasn't aged well, and I must confess to being a little put off by this. It's not so much of a problem in cities or even dungeons, but the wilderness zones, which are essentially corridor mazes with tree textures on the walls, are immensely frustrating to navigate, and I frequently found myself submitting to the moist, pungent maw of a giant groundworm just so I could respawn somewhere more interesting.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The mausoleum is my first experience of Meridian 59's combat system, and as far as combat systems in MMOs go, it's not too heinous. I hammer the E key whenever I enter a mummy's vicinity - no zombies here, Chop Chop - and my little animated arm swings its little animated sword. The zo... mummy fires off its repartee, and we continue in this fashion until one of us is dead.
I'm not too concerned about the outcome, because as a resident of the newbie village, I'm able to revive myself with minimal repercussions. In addition, I'm also unwilling to judge Meridian 59's battle mechanics based on these soporific early encounters - PvP, apparently, is where they really shine. Having had my fill of Meridian 59's tutorial content, I make my way to the portal which will deliver me into the game proper.
Another day, another tavern, but this time in a larger village - Marion - and with a few real people milling about. Helpfully, some kind souls have deposited a few of the basic adventurer amenities (weapons, food, and so on) of which I was cruelly stripped upon leaving the tutorial. I'm not sure who I should be thanking, though, so I just take what I want and furtively walk outside. Marion has a decent roster of NPCs and accompanying quests, which range from chicken soup delivery to rat extermination. I tool around with this for a while, but I can't escape the sensation that I'm rather missing the point of Meridian 59 as it stands today.