I’m back in one of my happy places: loitering in an hours-long queue, twiddling my thumbs, waiting to log on to the overloaded servers of a massively multiplayer game. Soon enough I’ll be back inside Amazon’s latest video game, New World, where I’ll be mining ore veins, skinning animal pelts and turning over 10 ghoul heads to a featureless character who promises a reward of experience points and a longsword juiced with a modest dexterity bonus. It’s been a long time since the mid-00s apogee of this genre, when countless World of Warcraft facsimiles broke on to the scene, eager to replicate its runaway success. (Warhammer Online, Tabula Rasa, The Matrix Online. All of them failed, it was a bloodbath.)
The business model was declared dead as studios pivoted to the Guild Wars or Destiny multiplayer format – a few hub zones populated by the spectres of thousands of players that you scarcely see or hear. This makes New World, the first game from Amazon Games since its shooter Crucible crashed and burned spectacularly last year, hilariously out of date. And yet, this RPG has managed to reinvigorate a rich, dormant genre, one that had been left to ferment for decades as the well ran dry. The numbers are mind-boggling. New World racked up 650,000 concurrent players upon release, making it the most played new game on Steam and one of the true surprise hits of the year.
A vogue like this is difficult to ignore. After all, the best MMOs are primarily powered by oppressive Fomo. So, I plod through the waiting room, crunching the integers on my talent tree, scrolling through guild recruitment notices posted to the subreddit. I can’t believe it. It’s like I’m in high school again.
I still don’t know if I’m actually enjoying New World or if I simply relish the chance to indulge in many of my most repressed gaming instincts. Your character washes up on the shores of a fabled island called Aeternum, which is swaddled in a remarkably generic tropical-colonial aesthetic, and weighed down by paper-thin lore. (There’s a lot of talk about some sort of centrifugal malignant force called, sigh, the Corruption.) I brandished a battered shield and a water-damaged sword, while a band of survivors ushered me to the first questing hub.
From there, New World revealed its staid fundamentals. A shipwreck nearby is home to a roving pod of ghostly sailors, and someone at base camp wants me to cull the herd. I slice through a dozen and return to the quest-giver, who dispenses a slightly better weapon into my hands and reveals next step in the quest chain: there’s a different shipwreck elsewhere on the beach, and now I must dispatch some slightly beefier enemies in pursuit of another marginal armament.
We’ve all been executing this same loop since EverQuest, and New World isn’t eager to shake up the formula. Instead, the game buttresses its conservative MMO trappings with some other elements ripped directly from the Steam charts. Aeternum hosts a whole ecology of trees to chop, plants to harvest and stone to pick. The fruits of the land quickly accumulate in your inventory, until they’re spindled together in a wide, interlocking network of blueprints. You get the idea. Minecraft DNA has seeped into every corner of game development, so nobody should be shocked that its made landfall here.
The upshot is that New World feels like a proud, remorseless grind – the absolute zenith of watching numbers go up. You can increase your character’s level, but you also have treadmill regimens for each of the game’s weapon types, which are required to unlock hugely impactful combat abilities. All the different trades (cooking, fishing, leatherworking, and so on) have their own tiers of expertise, which slowly unlock the best recipes in the crafting menu. Also, your reputation must be maintained with each local township in order to score favourable tax rates. New World ensures that you’re always tantalisingly behind the curve.
I am a longtime World of Warcraft grognard, and that makes me especially vulnerable to these kinds of heuristics. I’ve spent endless nights farming up the potions, reagents and materials necessary to optimise my biweekly raid nights, so a video game that asks me to chase an endless variety of carrots is well within my wheelhouse. That said, even as someone who once played an MMO like a second job, New World’s exacting demands have quickly worn thin.
My sessions with the game are frequently punctuated with a trip into town – checking off the task board, smelting out a payload of iron, all for a pittance of XP – as if the game wishes demonstrate just how far I am from the promised land. Want to craft bullets for your musket? You’ll need to track down charcoal, linen, flint and saltpetre, all of which are isolated in their own corners of the island. Good luck! I once possessed the willingness to sacrifice all of my free time on the altar of progression; but right now, I’m questioning if New World deserves to absorb all of my weekends and holidays.
Amazon tempers some of this drudgery with great combat. There is no blase auto-attack here – all of the thrusts and ripostes are mapped to the keyboard. This makes New World decidedly more modern than every other MMO on the market. Your character’s power level scales with both the numbers in their stats and the player’s ability. I’ve heard rumours in the chat of players around, say, level 30, taking down adversaries at the level 60 cap. This adds a fascinating wrinkle to fighting with other players, which is already pretty ruthless. Everyone on a server is filtered into three distinct factions, who are constantly skirmishing over territory on Aeternum. The player-run guilds within those factions can wrest control of certain settlements, where they set the tax rates and earn passive income on the commerce. There is a riveting anarcho-capitalist experiment lurking inside New World – but you’d need to stick around for a long while to see it.
Maybe that’s why I keep coming back. Despite New World’s obtuseness and intransigence – despite the fact that I will likely need to sink another 80 hours into this game before I begin to orbit its many intriguing late-game elements – I still have a journal full of quests burning a hole in my pocket. Amazon clearly understands people of my stock; it knows that we’re suckers who love to watch our cooking skills go from 13 to 14, and then 15 after that. (Hey look! I can make butter now!)
The chat box in the corner of the screen teems with constant activity, as my fellow players search for groups and advertise their wares like the good old days. What a joy it is to revel in an MMO at its apex. The excitement is truly palpable. New World is tedious and overbearing, but it also happens to be absurdly popular in a way games like this haven’t been in decades, and so it still brings the Fomo.