Scurvy, paranoia, and more scurvy. That's what the pilgrims had to deal with. When they weren't burning people at the stake, they were coughing up exotic piles of bile, and cursing the day they left good old England - or that's what we of the Old World liked to tell ourselves; why would you want to leave jolly Birmingham? I hear the Americas smell of blow-offs.
Present-day developer, Seatribe see things a little differently however, and their latest MMO Salem provides their vision. Building on their previous adventure Haven and Hearth, this craft-'em-up fuses an Animal Crossing aesthetic with permadeath, open PvP, and general bastardry.
My opening gambit was wrong, it should have read "Scurvy, Paranoia, Murder, Robbery, and Smooth Stones." I almost got it right.
A New World
I'd imagine that settling in a strange, mysterious new world would be difficult. You need food, shelter, and perhaps a pointy stick to keep the locals at bay. Not so here. Since I arrived on the shores of Boston, I wandered aimlessly out of town, stopping occasionally to pick a flower, or gawp at a deer. It has been rather pleasant, and not the slightest mention of indigenous genocide.
Although still in very early beta, I have managed to spend some quality time with Salem over the past few weeks. Unlike most MMORPGs, this game proclaims itself as a crafting-centric experience. There is little emphasis on PvE, and no mention of a conventional levelling system. Instead, like its title would suggest, it focuses on exploring a new land, surviving, and flourishing.
In terms of gameplay, Salem's closest cousin (other than developer stable mate H&H) would be A Tale in the Desert. You build things, and gather materials, and try to rough it out.
Starting out in port, your avatar quite literally doesn't exist, and you must birth them in to the world. Don't worry, a 3D interpretation of "funky time" doesn't ensue, instead you simply click an NPC and you pop into the world, naked.
Several clicks later, and you have boarded a ship, bobbing across the Atlantic to the new colony. To keep immersion up, Seatribe have taken to the edict that all things in game must seem realistic in a sense. Character creation is achieved through real-time gameplay, and as such, their isn't really a tutorial to speak of - or at least not at this point.
Arrival in Boston will be heralded with excitement, if not a sharp jolt of confusion. Like most indie-MMOs, Salem suffers from the curse of keeping all mechanics close to its chest, forcing a player to fumble through, or seek guidance from the Internet.
Several YouTube guides later, and you will be fully boned up on pilgrim life, and can start to comfortably fill the role of a settler. The town of Boston is largely a hub of NPC trade, as well as a "safe zone" from the unwanted attentions of other players. To progress, you have to step out into the vast world.
Seatribe have opted for simplicity, and so the landscape you will begin to explore look akin to something Java rendered. Textures are basic prints of grass, leaves, rocks, or sand, and the only flourishes that dot the map are trees. And this is where you will spend the majority of Salem.
Starting out, you need to fill skill categories in order to train new abilities such as "Fishing," "Foraging," "Colonial Tradesmanship," and so on. Essentially what these allow you to do is gather more materials, and craft more items. The way to obtain them however, is a little different to the norm.
Salem's progression system works on "inspirationals." Rather than endlessly grinding woodcutting, you gain points in the 15 individual proficiency categories by studying a certain object. The first of these items is the smooth stone. Why exactly a pilgrim needs to intensely analyse a rock is anyone's guess, but in doing so you will fill up so many skill categories, allowing you to purchase an ability.
The interesting, and sometimes infuriating, thing here, is that once you chose to spend your points, all others will disappear. Progression is a one shot thing, so remember to choose your path wisely, or you might spend days looking for more smooth stones.
To make things easier, as you advance you can start to craft your own inspirationals, by gathering certain items. For the most part, the early stages of Salem will be filled with the incessant gathering of materials to gain more skills, and more abilities - which becomes a poor showcase for the game's talents.
By taking their experience away from the traditional levelling system, Seatribe have opted to be different, but the reliance on inspirational brings it back towards standard grind. Although in beta stage, it is an ominous sign for Salem, and I hope that the designers manage to reach an easier comprise by perhaps hybridising the existing systems, with more traditional ones.
Other than grinding skill points, there is a lot more to content yourself with. Almost every piece of scenery can be picked, mined, or farmed, meaning that there are a lot of things to make within the world. Contextual crafting menus allow you to make clothing, different food stuffs, as well as equipment such as fishing rods.
Player needs and limitations will also keep you busy. Every avatar has a stat bar at the top of the screen denoting "Blood," "Phlegm," and "Black and Yellow Bile." Essentially these are your governing stats like health, stamina, and the ability to study. Food will replenish these categories, so keeping an eye out for a meal is always important.
Aside from the shortcomings of the skill system, Salem is shaping up to be a very exciting prospect. Once you have skilled enough to create better items, you can start to forge a small holding, building structures, cutting down trees, and creating a role for yourself in the world.
While still in early days, the potential for Seatribe's product is huge. Players can build towns, become merchants, thieves, and even bandits. If the Swedish developer can work out the kinks, and find a way to make everything fit together, this could be a contender for the sandbox MMORPG crown. Watch this space for more news on Salem as it develops.