The west is an empty, lonely place in this well-timed release - but that's not exactly what you're after from an MMO.
You'd think that a few more hours out in the wilds - trotting through the scrub, listening to the world as dusk spills across the sky - would be enough to take the edge off those rough first impressions of Wild West Online. The sad truth, however, is that the more time you spend galavanting around in this world, the easier it is to spot its flaws, and the harder it is to overlook them. For all its bluster and promise, Wild West Online is a desperately hollow, cheap experience, and wholly unworthy of those three little letters: MMO.
Having pulled back on its promise of a PvE experience, the Steam store description of Wild West Online does, in fairness, now tout this as a PvP adventure, insisting it "isn't a story-driven MMO with deep narrative and AI opponents to solo-grind" but rather a "PVP action MMO game where you duke it out with other players in a persistent PVP combat world."
That said, it's important to remember that this is now considered a full release, entirely out of Early Access. And that's what makes all the rough-edges - the placeholder text, the imperfect graphics, the shallow gameplay, the glitches and crashes - all the more difficult to endure. Add on to that the game's incessant demands that you shell out more money to unlock some pretty fundamental features, and everything starts to feel more than a little unpleasant.
It's the promise of Wild West Online that's so unbearable, though. There's so much it could've been - so much it has been, in previous iterations. The world itself may not be the most exotic thing you've ever seen, but it's certainly pretty enough, and trotting across the map, discovering new places as you go, is a good way to get familiar with your environs whilst unlocking XP. But it's so empty, this place; metaphorically, and literally, too. There are no animals leaping over the plains, no people gathered on the streets or elbowing for room in the saloon. Each town you'll happen upon offers the same collection of dusty buildings, each one desperately soulless and lacking any distinct landmarks or features to make it memorable. The interiors of buildings, too, share the same fate, seemingly copy-and-pasted from town to town. It's like being in Groundhog Day, but in a stetson. Unless, of course, you're playing with a vanilla cowboy like me, in which case you won't even have one.
Wild West Online not only lacks even the fundamental features you'd expect from a MMO, but it's also sorely lacking in basic shooter mechanics. You'd expect the gunplay to be functional if not exemplary in a game rooted in the wild west, but this is sadly neither. Despite many hours with the game the arsenal is still woefully thin and much of the gunsmith's wares remain frustratingly out of reach. And with neither strong combat nor that delicious MMO loop to snag you, what's left to do? There's only so much meandering you can do out on the plains.
To its credit, there is a skill tree. It offers three different types of activities grouped loosely as Settler, Explorer, and Maverick that boost your abilities in crafting, exploration, and combat respectively. But while some - such as the increased backpack space and damage reduction - are indeed helpful, I'm unclear what kind of tangible impact the other perks have in-game.
For every positive feature, you'll uncover three negative ones. Your gun sometimes mysteriously unequips itself when you die. Dismounting from your horse always, and inexplicably, turns you around to face the opposite direction. Some vendor items are still outrageously overpriced or forever, perpetually, ad finitum, sold out. Hailing your horse is a lottery; sometimes it's right beside you, others it'll take a 30-second sprint to reach it. Even if your health is fine but your stamina low, you can't even step over a curb, which makes retreat in combat almost impossible. And I know, I know - they're not terrible, these things, not on their own. But pile them up together and throw them onto the heap with the other less-than-desirable aspects, and it paints a grim picture of a game that doesn't care much for you, your interactions, or your experience.
Anything that could help you build a meaningful experience - better guns, character customisation, a homestead - is way beyond the scope of the humble vanilla player. The game's plagued with unsteady glitches and twitches, poorly realised physics, and a repetitious loop that's neither fun nor deliciously addicting. Cheating seemingly remains rife, and despite many players calling out dodgy cowboys in the chat, it seems little's been done to address the issue (last night I was caught in a constant spawn-and-snipe loop in which some guy was sniping me from 19 metres away with a bloody shotgun and no, that's not an exaggeration: the actual distance is displayed on your death screen).
The handful of fetch quests - clean those headstones, gather those animals (astonishing, really, given I haven't seen so much as a single critter grace my screen), pick fruit; all riveting stuff - are tiresome from the off, and certainly don't become any more enjoyable as you wade further into the game. You can mine for gold, which does help newbies bolster their wallets early on, but again, it's an empty, time-sink activity that's not particularly fun nor memorable. Within minutes of being tasked as a sheriff's deputy, the c&p'd sheriff of each town will ask if you'd like to quit, even though you've done nothing - literally nothing - to either earn your place nor necessitate being fired. Turns out this whole feature has been removed, and while there are plans afoot to reintroduce it, why offer it at all if it's meaningless now?
In its latest update (22nd May, at the time of writing), the development team has outlined plans and promises for the game, including better matchmaking balancing (there are plans for a novice servers for players up to level 20), a redesigned shooter wheel and hot bar, a better rewards system and economy, and a new - and desperately needed - trading system for players. Factions will be removed, and the current PvP events - town captures, relic hunts etc. - will instead see the Sheriffs fight the Outlaws rather than the current MacFarlane and Steele Industries battles. And it's great, seeing the team continue to seek improvements, but so much of this feels too little too late.
Maybe you'll come back to Wild West Online in six months time and it'll be unrecognisable, stuffed with creative quests and engaging PvP - and PvE - events. For now, however, it feels as though Wild West Online has been pulled out of the oven several months too soon, and remains desperately bereft of content. But who has the time - and money - to invest so heavily in an empty MMO in the hope it'll improve eventually?