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New World impressions: not quite new, not quite a world

Amazon doesn’t quite capture the magic of an MMO

New World - an armored player wielding a giant two-handed axe swings down on an enemy player with a sword and shield. In the background, a magical pillar hangs in suspension mid-shatter. Image: Amazon Game Studios
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

New World promises a lush and strange continent for players to explore and conquer, full with dangerous enemies and the promise of glory and treasure. It’s a modern MMORPG in every way — absolutely gorgeous, surprisingly stable for launch, and well voice-acted. There’s also an extensive network of constant player communication. While the queues are piling up, and players are trying to join the same server as all of their friends, once I get online I enjoy a smooth ride through developer Amazon's world of adventure.

New World feels like the first MMO designed without World of Warcraft’s DNA as a core feature. It’s not concerned with killing Blizzard’s goliath, but rather, content to be something of its own. Early on, the game manages to capture the best part of embarking on a new adventure. I found my feet, and then looked out at the horizon of a vast world waiting to be explored.

Large parts of New World are polished and competent. I start out as a shipwrecked sailor on the shores of Aeternum, a mythical island full of treasure and curses. My Captain is consumed by the dark, roiling mists of the island, so I must fight my way through my former crew, now corrupted and ghoulish, to the safety of an established settlement. No one can die on Aeternum, and so all the survivors of doomed voyages have decided to buckle down and try to build a civilization out here.

New World - a blacksmith hammers out his work on the forge Image: Amazon Game Studios

Combat and levelling feels great, and New World throws punchy choices at me without overwhelming me. As my sailor advances and turns into a travelling mercenary and marauder, I choose to focus on hatchets and sword-and-shield combat. I can also switch my weapons at any time. Tired of being a tank? I can equip a life staff or ice gauntlet and become a mage. The environments are beautifully designed, and I trek through lush wildlands or delve into haunted caves to slay hideous monsters.

It almost feels bad to complain about the rest of the game, because the production values are so high and there are ubiquitous signs of care in textures, diaries, and monster models. But the character creator, for one, is extremely boring. One viral negative Steam review simply reads ‘no catgirls.’

The player character in an MMO lets us create the lens through which we see its world, but there’s not a lot of variety in the people I see around New World. There are no elves or bunny girls or Twi’lek; it’s just a lot of humans, some of whom have a cool hat or scars, running around in their various bits of armor. Some of them have names like Gideon Greyhawk and John Holland; others are called things like Swaglord420 and Weebscum Uwu.

These silly names hurt my immersion, and the island of Aeternum is difficult to connect with already. From my time in game, it seems that Amazon has scrubbed the lore to address early concerns about colonialism, and so when I arrive in the first settlement, I find that it’s run by good natured women and people of color. They need me to kill monsters and maddened beasts, which is the objectively correct thing to do when living on a magic island. The game is determined not to be controversial at first blush, but in the end, it’s still a game about exploring and colonizing a new continent. It feels disjointed to the point of being naive.

New World - a couple of players confront a misty revenant in the middle of a gloomy ruin Image: Amazon Game Studios

The game’s faction system, on the other hand, is one of its most compelling offerings. There’s the sneaky, scholarly Syndicate, the driven and fanatical Covenant, and the brutal, warring Marauders. The faction isn’t a permanent choice — you can swap, albeit with a 120-day timer — and if you want to join a player company — the equivalent of a guild in other MMOs — they have to be under the same banner. In short, even if I don’t get much interest out of fighting various supernatural beings, whether they be my fallen shipmates or gnarled monsters emerging from the mist, I can at least take joy in besting another player or claiming a town.

The settlements in the world are up for grabs; factions can fight over them in Wars, which are 50 vs. 50 PvP battles. If a faction claims a settlement, they get to control things like the tax rates and buffs in the local area. Players can opt-in and back out of PvP, so they can leave a settlement without getting instaganked.

When these systems work well, it’s satisfying, like the polished triple-A version of a survival game like Conan Exiles or Ark. There’s room for rivalries between players and back-and-forth battle, whether that’s jumping on an unfortunate solo player under the Syndicate banner, or fleeing when I see a squad of Covenant with muskets coming over the horizon.

The success or failure of New World is going to rely on the social scene that’s already building around the game, which is driving much of its early gameplay. Players pile into Discords to coordinate which server they want to roll on, and which faction they want to join up with. People ignore the provided lore of the factions, and create their own, choosing who they think would make a glorious victor or satisfying underdog. There’s even a fan-made Zillow for the game’s real estate market. The immersion isn’t the point; it’s a social arena that only MMOs can properly offer, and games like New World are few and far between.

Will the early wave of players stick around? It depends on whether New World can stand up to their machinations. If each server becomes dominated by a single faction, or the PvP can’t hold people’s attention, the game seems doomed to wither on the vine. The game itself isn’t really the main indicator of New World’s success — it’s the vibrant scenes built up around it in Discords and social media, where players are planning their best approach to claim the island against all takers.

The next level of puzzles.

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