Our review of Wild West Online will be with you next week. Ahead of that, here are some early impressions of this frontier MMO.
Wild West Online couldn't have come at a better time, could it?
Whether by accident or design, Wild West Online arrives on the coattails of HBO's phenomenal Westworld, and is an early appetiser to those of us aching to lay hands on that Red Dead Redemption successor and are struggling with the wait. And thanks to someone cleverly (or irritatingly, depending upon your perspective) dropping that screenshot onto GTAforums this time last year, it sparked a lot of interest, enough that the developer DJ2 Entertainment no longer needed to crowdfund financial backing.
Anchoring a rich, expansive MMO in frontier times - a time ripe for exploration and discovery - is a masterstroke, of course. And that's the most frustrating bit here, really; despite a great premise and some truly lovely environments, within only a few hours Wild West Online is already repeating itself, unable to conceal its shallow experience behind the majesty of its backdrops. And it's brutally tough for anyone new to its universe.
It's supposed to be rough in the Wild West, though, right? It's a time of bandits and lawlessness. And to DJ2's credit, it's a beautiful place, this. Though it's out of Early Access it nevertheless retains a beta-esque vibe, most assets lacking polish and finesse, but there's lots of lush grassland to giddy-up along and an endless supply of cotton-candy pink sunsets. Yes, exploring WWO's world is inherently satisfying - not least because it's one of the best ways for a newbie White Shirt to gather XP - but it's just window-dressing, really.
Although every vanilla player starts their adventure as a "Townie", there's instant pressure to shell out more money on top of your £30 investment when you're offered a chance to upgrade to either a "Pioneer" or, if you're feeling flush, a "Collector".
And let there be no doubt here; the lowly Townie is shafted every which way possible, awarded just 50 slots in their global inventory and that's it. The pay-to-unlock Pioneers and Collectors on the other hand? They're given in-game account badges, treasury notes, garment bags, gun engraving kits, and small land plot deeds, which instantly put their characters at an advantage, not least because gathering this stuff in-game is laborious.
There's no supportive tutelage (unless you count the YouTube video the game links to when you launch, which I don't). No opening quests or missions to get you warmed up. You'll spawn in a town and be utterly left to your own devices. There's nothing wrong with this approach, of course; sometimes the best experiences are those we've uncovered ourselves, and there are few things more tedious than a game that won't let you get on and play it. But not holding a player's hand doesn't necessarily mean you should leave them utterly rudderless, either.
The character creation options are deeply unimpressive, too. You can only play as a male (I guess this is, to an extent, historically accurate - Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley existed, but there were inevitably more male cowboys than female - yet I'm perplexed why a gender option is offered at all if it's locked), and the customisation configurations after that are lacking in both scope and variety. While you can choose ethnicity, most other options are - yep, you've guessed it - locked, too, so you'll more than likely spawn beside another guy with the same face as you - only a handful are available - and the same haircut. They're probably wearing identical clothes, too.
WWO was initially touted as a MMO with both PvE and PvP components. PvE has mostly been stripped away now, however, which means you'll mostly be encountering other players in PvP missions, and that will result in your death. A lot.
There are a small selection of public events available at present, ranging from heists to relic hunts to town captures. Every player is attributed to one of two factions, and to succeed, you must work cooperatively with your allies. While the town captures are undoubtedly most satisfying, you'll usually find them outrageously one-sided, making any attempts to redress any imbalance wholly futile. And they get old pretty fast, too, especially given the game's surprisingly basic combat. But while you might be able to forgive that, WWO's punishingly unfair balancing issues means you'll routinely be pummelled by players dozens of levels higher than you, all touting better weapons, on snazzier horses, and with fancier threads. By the time you've even lifted your gun to shoot - the perspective slipping into first-person, the screen tearing as it does so - you're dead. Again. Rad.
And it's boring, not having stuff to do. Want a homestead? Sorry, you need a land deed first. Want to unlock a hideout cabin for fast travel? Oh, you'll need Cabin Keys for those, and the game doesn't tell you how to get them. Most crafting skills are only available from Level 25 onwards. And so far, I've been perpetually stuck with a basic handgun because the gunsmith's wares are either level-locked, grossly expensive, or seemingly out of stock (and not once in stock during the several hours I've invested so far, either).
You might see stuff to loot after a town capture, perhaps, but your agonisingly tiny backpack won't accommodate more than 12 - and latterly 14 - items. (Related: an overflowing backpack even prevents you from participating in town captures, as having a full bag apparently inhibits you from carrying the town riches on your back?). So it's mostly just you, your horse, a crap handgun, and being habitually mowed down by OP veterans hour after hour. Where's the fun in that?
It lacks stability, too, crashing once or twice an hour. But there are other issues, as well, including rubberbanding, screen tears, and the game's sudden and inexplicable inability to acknowledge mouse input, necessitating further forced reboots. And either there's prolific cheating going on, or some lucky cowboys have rockets up their horses' arses.
The most frustrating bit? This is such a wonderful sandbox to play within, with the seeds of some truly excellent ideas. But it's so hard to experience any of the fun because most is vastly beyond a beginner's capability, or locked behind a level cap that feels impossibly far away. It's not that I hate grinding - I just hate this kind of grinding, a deliberately slow and thankless grind that bleeds joy from the experience.
It'll be interesting to see how the gameplay changes as I level-up, and whether the regular patches will address any of the issues currently plaguing the game's stability. Because when I spawn in, listening to the world and watching as the smoke of a nearby town curls up in the distance, this adventure is everything it should be.
And then I'm shot dead by a level 48 spawn camper and wish I'd never bothered.