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Pirate survival MMO Atlas is brutal, buggy — but intriguing too

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Atlas isn’t for everyone, but there’s the start of something fascinating

A drake swoops in to attack enemy ships in Atlas. Wildcard Studios / Grapeshot Games

The early-access pirate survival MMO Atlas promises a life of adventure: navigating islands, catching a wind on your mighty vessel and cresting over waves, fighting monsters and spooky ghost ships at sea, and building your own pirate empire. All of this content is in the game, but don’t expect to experience it immediately, if at all.

The bulk of Atlas so far is built towards the mundane preparation and legwork it takes to experience those promised high points. The game still needs a lot of work done, as the promise of being a pirate legend seems out of reach in favor of desperately monitoring your vitamin levels and looking for islands that have yet to be clear cut and strip mined.

My first session of Atlas was largely fruitless. At this point in the launch cycle, I can reliably get online, although the game disconnects me every third launch or so. When I first loaded into the game, I was provided with tutorial text. The game suggested that I talk to a merchant to purchase my first raft, but then warned me that I’d need to gather a lot of supplies to do so and even more to reliably survive once I set sail in the world. A block of text continuously hovered in the top left of my screen with a full explanation of combat, but I couldn’t find any combat in the freeport’s walls — just other confused players wandering around.

General chat was surprisingly polite, but no one could tell me how to purchase a raft from the docks. People were more concerned with why using a bed would lock them into a white screen from which they could not escape.

“Yeah, beds are kind of a problem right now,” one user sympathized. I decided not to ask again. The bed problem sounded far worse then my dilemma.

Atlas - the view from a starting viewpoint reveals dozens of rafts.
My first sight upon reaching the docks in Atlas.
Studio Wildcard / Grapeshot Games

My first session of Atlas felt almost uncanny, like I was playing one of the fictional games that show up in cable crime procedurals about cyber-hackers and New York cops. It’s the mix of the dated graphics, AI of nearby beasts, bad UI — Atlas feels like a game out of time.

After 20 minutes of reading the provided tutorial text, running around the freeport, figuring out how to level up and allocating my initial skills, I finally hopped a fence and started punching cacti to get supplies. It wasn’t the smoothest-possible way to join a game, but Atlas borrows enough from other survival games that once you start gathering supplies and figuring the basic systems out, you’re likely going to find the path to the next step of progression. It’s a little like being fluent in Spanish and trying to navigate an Italian city; things aren’t quite what you’d expect, but there’s enough of the same language there that you can puzzle things out.

The sea, which looks promising and fun, also seems worlds away. Once you set off on your humble raft, the time comes to find a plot of land to claim and build a shipyard at. I’ve found a company who will invite me, and based off their Discord, the attempts to build that land into a settlement with shipyards and civilization are coming along nicely. As that company coordinates the construction of protective walls and mining, I looked at my own map, where everything in sight seemed to have already been claimed.

Atlas - A player moves past a sign reading “Water” into the wilderness.
My first steps outside the freeport on a trip for supplies.
Wildcard Studios / Grapeshot Games

Furthermore, the game’s Reddit paints a bleak picture of what happens to players who manage to set up plots of lands. Higher-level companies can storm and take your holdings, with weapons like shovels and torches being oddly effective against defenses. Large Chinese companies have worked together to claim massive parts of Atlas’s world, and are strip-mining resources from islands that are not respawning quickly enough to provide windows of opportunity for companies in different time zones. Constructing ships in the shipyard is a tricky art; players have sunk time and effort into preparing ships that are immediately dashed upon the friction of stone and dock, leaving them with nothing.

Even the basic survival systems are controversial. Eating isn’t enough; you must monitor your vitamins, which is an opaque and frustrating task that is such a struggle, players are advising that you just go ahead and die rather than try to wrestle them to some acceptable range. It’s not quite the pirate fantasy you envision from a vitamin level; instead of scurvy, players are just starving to death over and over in rebellion against the developers.

Despite my negative impressions of the game so far, I can see that the game does have sea legs. The game is being actively patched, and the developers are listening to the community keenly. More importantly, this game is meant to work in a similar fashion to EVE Online, with territory constantly shifting. These early days are rough, but the companies working together are just a germ of the mighty empires they may become. The name of the game may shift from claiming land to renting it. Alliances will form from companies, and the focus may shift from lone players struggling to build their first raft to companies mass-producing ships and sending them to war.

Right now, Atlas feels early in every sense of the word. Not only are the mechanics and UI rough, as you might expect from a title in active development, but the community also still lives in a petri dish. There are active cultures brewing and forming, but nothing meaty that I can sink my teeth into quite yet. There are no doubt players who find the nature of Atlas and its high-competition, high-connection nature fascinating and intriguing. In the end, I’m glad this title exists, even if it’s not for me; I hope it can grow throughout the Early Access period to fulfill the glimmers of promise I’ve seen so far.