I was encouraged after playing Amazon's New World MMO yesterday. A few things grabbed me. One, it was much more robust than I'd expected - I realise we were in a fairly controlled testing environment but it handled a 50 versus 50 battle without any kind of hitch. Two, it did it all while running believable collision detection on the server which made a real difference in battle. Three, it was very handsome and the spell effects were wonderful. Four, it was fun. And five, it didn't feel as out of date as I thought a fairly traditional MMO, in 2020, would.
New World was unveiled at The Game Awards last year. It's an online world inspired by the Age of Exploration but based around fiction rather than fact. You're not discovering America but sailing to an island in the Atlantic Ocean called Aeternum instead, a place where a magic called Azoth comes from and shapes the world. It's a setting that allows the game to have both gunpowder and magic, and swords and arrows.
I realise none of that sounds particularly exciting, but New World has some interesting ideas. The most exciting revolves around territory control, whereby guilds - companies - can own areas other players can live in, levying taxes and building those areas up and, of course, fighting over them. Or, rather, Warring over them. And this is what I got a chance to try: a War, a kind of instanced, 50 vs. 50 fight involving a few capture points and a fort.
Players sign up to a War in a town, putting their name on either the attacking or defending team, and arranging themselves into Armies and within them, Groups. Then they are teleported to a holding camp where they can buy ammo for siege weaponry, and potions and food for themselves, until the countdown is over and they can begin. Then, the holding camp doors open and the carnage begins.
Again, other games have done this, but what helps New World feel fresh is how it works. Most importantly, tab-targeting has gone, which means there's no free-floating cursor to select other characters with and cast spells on them, as you can in World of Warcraft. Here, you have a crosshair and you need to aim your spells (or arrows or guns) at people, either as projectiles or ground-targeted abilities. What this means is combat is far more involved and brings your eyes back into the middle of the screen, away from health bars and hotbars.
Also, you can block. It sounds ridiculous that I'm excited about such a mundane feature but I don't remember other MMOs allowing me to do it. It means, if you're a spellcaster, you don't have to simply run around soaking up attacks from whichever character has closed the distance on you, you can actually do something about it (other than try to cast a defensive spell). You can press the right mouse button to hold up your staff and block incoming attacks, assuming you're facing the right way. It felt so alien to me, it took almost the entire demo to sink in.
New World goes a step further than this, too. You can pull out a melee weapon on your attacker and go toe to toe with them, using skills exactly like their own. That's right: you can be what you think of as a healer (sorry I'm targeting this at healers by the way but that's usually what I am until I work up the courage to be reckless) as well as a fighter as well as something else, and it's enormously refreshing not to simply be the squidgy bullseye at the back for a change.
You can do all this because New World uses a classless character-build system based around weapon ability trees. You simply switch your weapon in combat to switch to a different build, and you can go fairly freely back and forth between your three equipped weapons with only a slight cooldown.
What you can do depends on what weapons you're specialised in and what skills you've unlocked in their relevant trees (you gain points by using the weapons). I pumped points into the Life Staff tree and Protector path, which constitutes fairly traditional healing (I'm sorry I'm so boring). Life Stealer seemed more interesting but I'd spent my points by the time I realised this. I also pumped points into the Pyromaniac path in the Fire Staff tree, and could have pumped points into a third path but, again, had spent all my attribute points on castery attributes by the time I realised this.
By pressing 1, then, I could use my three active healing abilities. A pulsing ground-targeted area heal, a burst ground-targeted area heal, and a wonderful dome of protection sustained over my head like Gandalf holding off a Balrog, projectiles soaking into it with a hollow boom. Then, by pressing 2, I could switch to my fire build and access my flamethrower ability, my point-blank fire swirl thing, and my ground-targeted, large area meteor strike. I could also use the left mouse button to fire projectiles from my staves (the healing bolts damaging or healing depending on who they hit) either for a little mana if I tapped it, or a lot of mana if I held the button down and charged it up. Elsewhere, Spacebar produced a dodge roll and Shift sprinted, and stamina and mana governed how much of all of this I could do.
Combat, then, is much less about playing hotbar piano and more about being physically present in the battle. Come to think of it, physicality was an overriding theme of the demo I played. Everything had tangible impact: arrows, meteor fragments, melee weapon swings, projectiles from siege weaponry - there were literally massive machine guns and cannon you could pummel the enemy with - and in the heat of battle I was knocked around like a pinball, recoiling from projectiles and being knocked over by huge two-handed hammer swings. Yes, sometimes it was annoying, but I think this had as much to do with my adapting to it, and blocking and dodging, as it did the design of the game itself. Also, war is chaotic.
For a game like this to realise physicality so confidently was enormously impressive and it bodes really well for the rest of the game. But I've seen so little of the rest of that game it's impossible to pass any kind of judgement yet. What I've seen, these 50 vs. 50 Wars, are only one small part of what New World will offer. I don't even fully understand how they sit within the territory control system, nor how territory control works. And to be honest, a lot of the siege weaponry and the objectives of the battle went over my head as I struggled to keep up with what was going on.
But Wars are apparently middle-to-late-game stuff. There's a whole one-to-60 levelling experience in New World I haven't seen, although I did briefly have a fight with a large alligator outside town, and a huge lion-like cat, which attacked with the same kind of physicality players did, and I really rather liked it. There's what appears to be a very in-depth crafting system, and there's something called Invasions at the endgame I don't know much about. In other words, there's a lot. This is a broad and wide-appealing MMO, albeit with a PvP heart.
I still have my concerns. The New World setting leaves an icky colonialism taste in my mouth, however much the team reassures me it's not what they're going for. I spoke to game director Scot Lane about this when the game was revealed, and asked him again about it yesterday in light of the Black Lives Matter protests which echoed around the world this year.
"We're constantly, as the world changes, reviewing and looking at our game designs," Lane told me yesterday. "But I want to be clear that Aeternum is this island that's lost in time, and one thing you're going to see as we add more content to the game, is some of that. We've already given a tease of the Romans and there's more to come that are from different periods in time. The comparisons to North America [are] because of what you're seeing in some of the outfits people are wearing, but this is its own place, it's a supernatural island, it's magic, it's really nothing to do with colonialism."
I'm also still concerned about how exciting an MMO will be to people in 2021, in a world where battle royales like Fortnite rule the roost. Then again, maybe it will be exactly what some people need. And I'm encouraged by what I've seen. It's solid, it's chunky, it's confident, and the recent delay to spring 2021 means there's still six months to go. I'm quite excited to see more.
(Incidentally, if you want in on the first-look event running from today, you will have needed to sign-up for beta before 9th July, or have pre-ordered the game. The New World website has more information.)