In MMORPG land, there's a secret conflict. A street brawl that has gone silently nuclear. Like in West Side Story, two gangs line opposite sides of a street, each shuffling to the beat of their own cat calls and whistles. Only even less macho. It's themepark versus sandbox. It's linear versus non. It's the horn blast to the rest of the world that if you in fact understand the aforementioned: you are indeed a nerd. And isn't it glorious?
Lining up for the side of sand castles and dreams is Wurm Online. A fully transmutable, build-athon, with skills, thrills, and wild crocodiles that will give you many a "heavy bruise". Since 2003 this MMORPG has been in development, entering beta in 2006, and finally maturing into a fully fledged example of what one can achieve with Java, a few ideas, and a shovel.
The concept of Wurm Online is simple. There are no heroes here, not a single evil terraforming dragon, or even a busty elf in sight: you are as ordinary here as you might be in reality. The goal is to simply survive, and maybe if you have time, do a tiny bit of flourishing to boot.
Whether you achieve this by sticking close to allies or heading for solitude in the woods, you must drink, eat, and stave off any stray wolves that might come your way. And many, many wolves will come your way. Skills are built on an action by action basis. Cutting down a tree will build strength and woodcutting, while fashioning an arrow shaft will improve carpentry. Eventually you will have built up your character's know how enough to take on bigger construction challenges, as well as being the "ultimate badass".
And within all this you will also find time to build a small pioneering settlement of your own. Hunkering down is key, with needs such as food and drink a constant concern. You might build a small homestead that consists of a few rickety gates, and find it blooming into an affluent farming village - or indeed a fortress of stone and terror.
These are the choices of Wurm Online, and give or take a few character traits erring towards the sadistic, I can say right now, it's very good.
It's hard to talk about Wurm Online without dipping into superlatives. From the moment you step out of the tutorial section, the game world is one long list of hazards. The heavy strokes of the environment will hit moments after crashing into one of the strongboxes that dot the maps of each server. From the minute you start, your wits must be well and truly about you.
My first stumbling steps into Wurm Online went thusly: I wandered around the opening areas curiously, right clicking this or that, and keeping an eye out for anything not nailed down. Soon I came across a small box with tools sprouting from the top. Inside that was a whole bounty of tar, and a single iron saw. I felt a hot flush of genius come about me.
Looting the cumbersome tar like it was black, sticky gold, and the saw to boot, I made off like a bandit. If my lifeless avatar could smile, or indeed blink, I'd be smile-blinking into the woods that appeared before me.
Sometime later, deep in a thicket I came across another small holding. Horses sat in paddocks, while a small enclosure was stripped of trees, the only landmark that remained being a dozen stumps. Scouting the area for a short while, and weaving past the various NPC guards, I noticed a sizable amount of raw meat on the floor.
Your hunger bar is ever gurgling for nourishment, and so like the tar-situation, I once again delved into the right-click menu and, once again, made off into the trees like a two-time sticky bandit.
But now something of a predicament struck me. Laden with tar, meat, and an extra saw, I was moving slower - my stamina depleting quicker and quicker as hunger sapped my tired bones. Moving further and further into the wilderness, I decided that I had journeyed quite far enough. Resting my weary head for a second, I made camp.
A campsite, as in real life will do two things. Cook delicious food. And make anywhere look like a homely settlement. I opted for both choices, and began roasting my meat, and set up chopping a tree with all of the merriment I could muster.
A few minutes passed and I stood looking on like a proud father. I had chopped a tree to nothing but splinters and logs. I had roasted the crap out of meat and a pottery bowl. And I had dropped my tar into a neat box. I was the master of all I surveyed.
Proud as punch and delirious with my own success, I started to make designs of the land around me. This would be New Woodbury. I shall be the new Governor, minus zombified daughter. I shall also find a one armed man which I shall call Merl. Merl will serve me.
Just as I got round to choosing my nemesis, Wurm Online decided to throw me a different hand to play. The combat tab spluttered into life. A Bear had just thrown a glancing blow that bounced off my armour. How curious.
A few seconds later, I was stumbling through woods, bleeding (lightly), bruised (heavily), and cursing the day Mature Hungry Bears were invented. Slowly my stamina depleted. And ever so slowly did the bear tear out my eyes and devour me.
Death in Wurm Online is as harsh as you might expect. With no map, or guiding light to show you back to your slain corpse, there's something of a challenge to be had returning. I wrote it off as a bad job. That tar shall remain like the jewels guarded by Smaug himself (ahem, Peter Jackson if you please) and I will start anew.
Wurm Online at its heart is a very basic game. The aesthetics are bland, and the animations barely there. Like a graphical MUD, the heart to this sandbox relies on your imagination. Building and playing with the tools requires patience, but for those looking for this kind of experience, it is exciting and entertaining in equal measure.
It's hard to get a clear glimpse of how the game truly plays within a few days of play. So far the gameplay on offer is an amazingly immersive experience, with survival being a theme not particularly explored by other MMO developers.
It remains rough around the edges as it has done since its 2006 beta, but the flashes of refinement here and there are apparent. Cows for instance, now look like cows. Villages look like wonderful medieval recreations. And a lava spider will always frighten the 2.4561 Fighting skill out of anyone.
Next week we will explore construction, and really delve into the sandbox, PvP, friendship et al.