A sandbox fantasy MMO seems an unlikely prospect in today's landscape. And it is. Nevertheless, Mortal Online has wandered over the horizon without a second glance at current trends. It's an open-ended fantasy MMO where player interaction - not PvE - is at the forefront, powered by Unreal 3, talking about the good old days. It's a strange sight.
To understand this oddity you have to look a little further back in the mists of MMO history and realise that it's an attempt to build on former glories. The main protagonist in this earlier epoch was called Ultima Online, which was the first of the great MMOs. It's still going today, albeit much diminished from its original finery. Unlike the lineage of online RPGs that followed EverQuest, including good old World Of Warcraft, the original vision of Ultima was to allow players to mess around in an open world. The idea was to give players various tools in this virtual world and see what they got up to. That meant few constraints on PvP, player-built housing, bits and pieces of clever emergent activity, and lots of crafting.
This was, for many gamers, a freedom the like of which they had seldom seen in any game, never mind a multiplayer one. It was, however, a slow, time-consuming experience, and unforgiving on solo players. MMOs are complex and time-hungry at the best of times, but UO demanded a different level of commitment, precisely because it modelled so much of the world. The Ultima design philosophy hasn't found much traction in MMOs that have followed, with only games like EVE Online, and now Mortal Online, stooping to pick up that heavy gauntlet.
Mortal, being developed by Swedish studio StarVault, is focused on creating an experience that lives up to the legacy of Ultima Online: returning to that philosophy of freedom and player co-operation while at the same time carving out its own niche with modern tech. Mortal Online is powered by the Unreal 3 engine - employing a new landscape engine to create an immense terrain - and is played with a first-person camera. While StarVault has evidently been galvanised by the Ultima way of doing things, its game has a look and feel of its own. You might be able to grind up resources like in UO, but exploring a 3D world is quite a different experience.
StarVault's community manager, Alexander Politz, is careful to balance expectations in his description of this synthesis of new and old: "A lot of our systems are following UO very closely. We had to bring them to the 'next gen' of course, and augmented them where we had to. Already a large part of our player base are what you would call UO-vets and we're getting very positive feedback from them. That does not mean that we are simply copying UO of course. There are a lot of things that make Mortal Online unique but yes, we like to think of our game as a spiritual successor to Ultima Online in some ways."
This means creating a game that has astonishing scope. A huge selection of diverse skills, dozens of possible interactions, and possibilities for all kinds of crafting, trade, and co-operative combat. "We are building a true sandbox game in the spirit of the first true sandbox out there," says Politz. "I would say the biggest thing we are emphasising in the game is immersion. That's why we went with first-person view and all game systems are built in a way to give a more realistic feeling. That being said, it all comes down to player interaction."
Player interaction seems like an easy buzz-phrase to throw out there, but play a bit of Mortal and you realise StarVault are not joking. This is a very serious attempt to do things differently. You simply can't expect to solo your way to victory. You need to make weapons from scratch, and you will soon realise that buying them from a specialist, while you make money some other way, is the best way to succeed. This process reminds me, in some ways, of the early days of EVE Online, with a lot of clueless people arriving in a world that has still got a long way to go. Those who overcame their inhibitions and started learning to work together began to make progress.
Like EVE, or Ultima, Mortal is fairly daunting to beginners. You're thrown into the world with just a hand-axe and a cheap smock to your name, and you're going to have to work hard to develop your many skills if you want to make any progress at all. Domestic pigs are terrifying, and experienced players in armour seem like gods. All this means that when you do start to progress, it's doubly exciting. Not least because, like Ultima and EVE, the world is so threatening. You might get some protection from the guards in certain towns and villages, but stray into the wild and you're all alone.
Politz explains: "Mortal Online is a free-for-all, full loot game. In essence that means you can attack anyone everywhere - even NPCs. There are no PvP zones and thus no real safe places - there are however places that are safer than others." The optimum way to ensure safety, of course, is to learn to fight for yourself. That takes practice and many trips to the local priest to resurrect yourself.
This is a tough game, doubly so because there's an element of skill involved in combat. You're moving in real-time, which suggests some worrying possibilities for lag-death in the future. "Gear is a factor in a fight but not as big as in most other MMOs," says Politz, who points out how much skill factors into a first-person game with real-time weapon actions. He also explains that the PvP system will depend on a flagging procedure that will represent the kind of violence you are likely to deal out to people. There are always repercussions, however, and the likelihood is that a reputation for naughtiness will mean violence is dealt out to you. "If you kill, plunder and steal, you better be a hell of a fighter or fast on your feet because players (and some NPCs) will deal out justice the hard way if they catch you."
As I wandered around Mortal I began to see a bit of what StarVault is up to. This early development version of the game - StarVault is still preparing for a proper beta - has blank areas that are clearly intended to be filled in by player activity. Just as EVE created the blank slate of its galaxy and slowly burned in the details through a mixture of player actions and developer patches, so Mortal is a world waiting to be furnished by the partnership with players. Politz explains a bit more about this idea: "You start as a nobody, one out of many. It's totally up to you if you become a well known crafter or the best duellist on the server. Players in Mortal Online will have the chance to shape the game world - truly shape it.
"Just for example: our 'boss-mobs' don't respawn, if you kill the mighty dragon, it's dead and stays dead. This will alter the course of the world, and thus make history. You and your guild managed to start a rebellion and kill the emperor of Tindrem? Gratz, you just changed the world for ever. Things like this, actually shaping the world, the lore, the future history of the game is what players can achieve - if they want to. It's all about choices and consequences."
Choices made by StarVault are, of course, going to have consequences of their own. Right now Mortal Online is a big barrel of potential, but how that gets meted out into gaming experience will depend on the decisions StarVault makes for its players, especially those design choices made in the coming weeks as the game approaches release. "As we will release with our core systems in place, we really have our work cut out for us," says Politz. "Polishing those systems until they are (nearly) perfect is the vital step for the next weeks. After that the world will become more lively and even more immersive. For example, the day/night cycle and closely following the dynamic weather system are things at the first spot on the list post-release. We are listening closely to our great community, so our fans and followers also make up for an important part in Mortal's development."
It's what happens to that community, as they make their home in the game after release, that will really dictate the lifespan of the game, of course. StarVault is following a route not unlike that taking by CCP with EVE Online. "Future expansions (which will be absolutely free) will first of all give the players more land, meaning more continents. I don't want to go into too much detail at this point but it boils down to: a lot more sand, shovels and toys in the sandbox." Whether players will take the time to figure out how to use those toys and build their castles in the sand remains unclear, but, for once, I'm feeling pretty optimistic.