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Red's Read: Last Oasis - Interesting Finish

Red details his experience with the survival MMO Last Oasis

Red Thomas Posted:
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Video games are often like Scotch in an unexpected number of ways.  Each person tastes them individually and the flavors are all highly dependent on previous experiences.  Another similarity is in the varying levels of complexity in each stage of the testing.  Some games start off spicy at first glance, mellow through the sip, and leave a bitter after taste.

There are games like Last Oasis that seem interesting from the description, but then you take that first sip and the worlds spins a little on you.  What you initially believe to be complex, you quickly find to be simple.  As the initial sip from the digital decanter slides past, you realize that simplicity was equally misleading and unanticipated depth begins to reveal itself.

I gave Last Oasis a try, had some initial bumps, and then had a chance to actually play the game a bit more.  I was unimpressed and nearly walked away to find something else, but then I was drawn back one more time and after an initial slog through the tutorial, I found something far more interesting than I’d expected.  Let’s explore that odd experience a bit together and pick apart some of where my initial feels made that surprising turn.

Fiery Open

My first exposure to the game was a failed launch.  The developers killed the servers for the first week to address some hosting issues that were causing problems for the game.  They offered refunds to players, but it was still a rocky start for the launch into Early Access.

Knowing a bit about business, project management, and software development, I wasn’t really prepared to take them to task over a delayed launch.  That sort of thing just happens occasionally, and you just have to wait to see what happens before attributing any significance.  The developer, Donkey Crew, is a Polish company that seems to have been formed just for this specific project from a core group of modders, so we’re not really talking about the most experienced corporate team in the industry.  They’re going to get things wrong.  That doesn’t bother me, and their response to the problems showed a level of integrity that makes me more forgiving in general, as well.

Reporting a rival walker off in the distance to my clan, who later ambushed them from over a dune.

I was still excited to try the game, despite the setback.  The concept of a post-apocalyptic Earth with endless deserts and giant articulated mechanical walkers is just too unique not to be interesting.  Beyond the generally fascinating theme, there are also really smart mechanics at work in the game.

Day/Night cycles are one year long on a no-longer rotating Earth, which the game is supposed to represent by slowly destroying zones on the eastern edge of the “world” map and creating new ones along the western edge.  This is an ingenious way of creating dynamic content, and the in-game explanation is nothing short of brilliant.  It addresses the most problematic issue with survival games, which is stagnation.

The problems with the launch seemed to only fuel that hype, because so many players wanting to be in game at launch offered evidence that the game wasn’t pure hype.  Plus, the classy way the developers handled the problem and their offer of a refund showed confidence in the product.

That potential left me super antsy to try the game out and not being able to do so for a whole week just heightened my excitement that much more.  If the first part of a game is the theory-crafting and world-building that goes on before you play it, my experience with Last Oasis started off with all the fire and excitement of a young Irish whiskey.

Muddled Sip

My initial experience in the game may have been marred by the self-hype, but it was rather dull and unimpressive in a lot of ways.  Partly, it’s because you start off in an isolated canyon with only two types of creatures around you.  The early crafting experience seems a little underwhelming, and that led me to quickly worry that the game wasn’t what I thought it was.

The tutorial could stand to be improved a bit, as well.  Now that I’ve played the game more, I appreciate it more than I did at the time, but I think the early part of the game and the tutorial pace each other down in a way that is a bit detracting.  It’d be nice if we could go back after the fact and listen to voice over or at least read the transcript for the lore.

Part of the problem is that the game world is different enough from the norm than it’s not as intuitive as you’d expect.  Typically, you expect to be able to hit rocks with an axe to get some stone, which you can use to build a pick for getting more stone in a more efficient method.  That’s not how Last Oasis works.  In fact, I wasn’t able to build my first pickaxe until I’d been in the game for several hours.

Death comes a little too easy as the combat system is a little rough, but there are also some good ideas there, too.

I also found myself confused when I couldn’t kill a rabbit-like creature and skin it for hide.  I saw hide as an ingredient in the crafting tree and I’d somehow gotten hide at some point.  I couldn’t skin the rabbit and I couldn’t find anything that looked like a skinning knife early in the tree, either.

That, along with a number of various resources around me which I couldn’t harvest, left me feeling really confused.  It was a problem that was exacerbated by poor UI design.   There are elements of the UI that I like, and some I like a whole lot, but the tooltips could be a bit more informative.   I also had issues, and am still a little confused, with how the weapons work.  I have slots 1 and 2, which I couldn’t drag items into, but I could equip them to get them in those slots with a right-click.  I didn’t have a lot of control over what went into which slot other than the order I right clicked them and that didn’t seem to be consistent.  Slots 3 and up seem to work the way I would have expected, though.

Whatever they were going for there, it didn’t really work.  It ends up being confusing and frustrating.  Frankly, it’s rather counter-productive, so I think that’s one thing I’d change quickly about the game.

The crafting system was also hard to get into at first because recipes are locked in the same system, but there are two crafting menus.  Hitting B lets you craft things like structures, vehicles, and eventually crafting stations.  Hitting C allows you to build a lot of other things, like bandages, weapons, or tools.  The menus for either could stand a little work and look more like place-holders, and with the confusion created by the strange item selection process and the deviation from normal survival game systems, it created enough dysphoria that I really just got frustrated and started to walk away from the game. 

I have another game in my inventory that has been eating up a ton of my time over the last week, and I seriously wanted to just get back to that, which obviously made me less tolerant of problems than normal.  Between having another option that I knew I liked a lot and the current option, it just felt too bottom shelf to want to try it again.  I obviously changed my mind, though.

Complex Finish

One of the online clans I play with on occasion had gone into the game together and seemed to be having a pretty good time.  Since I need to get some pictures for the article I was planning to write anyway, I decided to at least play the game long enough to meet them in the zone they’d moved to, far to the south.

The Sun sets once per year, but occasional eclipses replace nighttime.  They also create opportunities as fires can be seen a longways off in the desert.

The process of finishing up in the starter zone and then getting south to meet the others revealed a delightful complexity hidden under the initial surface of mediocrity.   Everything is there in the first taste; you just don’t recognize it for what it is because you don’t have enough experience in the game yet.  I am so glad I set myself that goal and pushed through because there is so much in this game to enjoy, and it’s just going to get better as the developers have more time.

To begin with, the crafting system is far better than I’d first thought.  Many of the resources you need are in some zones and not others, which gives you a reason to travel from one zone to another beyond the normal migration of East to West as the game goes on.  For another, the starting zone just seems to be resource-deprived in order to prevent you from wasting too much time there, which I didn’t realize at first.

That initial resource scarcity is even beyond the normal, which it seems to be intentionally significant even in normal play.  I like that because it reinforces the PvP and cut-throat nature of the game, and the theme of the game.  This is supposed to be a violent post-apocalyptic future in the vein of Max Max, but with less technology.  Resource scarcity drives competition that gives depth and meaning to PvP, and I like that very much.

Additionally, the types of resources and the broad multi-treed skill system ensures variety among players without forcing anyone down a given path.  I like this system a lot because it relies on farming fragments to unlock skills, and because they can also be crafted and traded, this allows clans to power-level newer members to where they are able to better support the clan in turn.  Imagine offering new members a ton of skill ranks, as long as they spend some percentage of them on a line that the clan is short on at the time.

The travel in this game is so smart.  Not only is it interesting and ties to a number of the game systems, but it’s even the process players use to transfer between servers.  A very cool system for controlling player population, server loads, and for managing a dynamic map.

I even found unexpected hidden depth in the UI, as I was hitting O to unlock new elements of the skill tree.  Mousing across the various trees, such as Walkers, Tools, Crafting, and such, I noticed tones chiming and suddenly realized they were chiming as I moused around.  This seems kind of a small thing, but it was such a subtle example of a very well-thought-out design choice that I immediately knew I’d be talking about it.  It may have been coincidental, but the tones of the chimes seemed to be in the same key as the background music at the time.  It resulted in something that sounded like windchimes, but that didn’t detract from the score, which I should note seems to be pretty good so far.

Another sound element to note is that pressing the keypad plays vocal chants by the player, which is silly self-entertainment for those long migrations across the dunes.   Oh, and you thought it was that simple?  No.   The chanting is in the same key as the score, so yeah.  The guys building this game are putting serious thought into the features they’re adding.  There’s incredible depth here, and I don’t consider Last Oasis to be even close to a finished state.  If the devs keep on this track, this game is going to be great.  If they could find a more experienced studio to step in with a little mentorship and support, this game could be genre-defining.

Top Shelf Reserved

In the end, this is a game with far more promise than I’d expected.  It’s a little rough and under-developed at the moment, but like a good Scotch, a little aging is going to really do wonders.  Of course, how much aging will help depends a lot on what happens between now and release, but the bones of this game are exceptional.

You may have noticed that out of all the reasons I’ve given for loving what I’m seeing in Last Oasis, I haven’t mentioned the PvP yet, though.  That’s because PvP is a whole other subject with its own layer of complexities and I just didn’t have the word count.  I may look at doing another article on the subject, but the gist is that it’s like the rest of the game.  Simple on the surface, but with an underlying complexity that gets me excited, yet it’s clearly not quite finished yet.

Each walker comes with a long list of upgrade options, tailored components, and even choices about what you mount on the surfaces.  Another example of surprising depth in Last Oasis.

If you’re thinking about buying the game, there are some things you should weigh.  It is in Early Access and with all the roughness that normally entails.  The week delay in the initial start is unlikely to the last period of problems since Last Oasis currently runs in a publicly hosted environment.  I don’t think that’s going to change soon, because I’m pretty sure this game takes a cluster to run and not just a server.  What I’m seeing makes me think the backend may be complicated, and possibly too complicated, which is why I’m hoping Donkey Crew can workout a mentorship opportunity with a more experienced developer.

There is risk in this game because it’s a new studio and a fairly aggressive game-loop that is likely to be too unforgiving for many players.  I worry a little about population, though current numbers appear to be stellar.  These sorts of games do exist and survive, but it’s a harder market and that carries the typical risk with it.

That said, there is a whole lot that I like about this game about this game just below the surface.  The developers are making very intelligent and very nuanced design decisions that leave them a long runway for future content.  This might be the most intelligent design I’ve seen from an indie studio, so there’s a lot going for Last Oasis on just that count.

I’m interested in following these guys and I’ll be playing the game for at least the next couple months, and likely be back periodically afterwards to see how they’ve advanced the game.  Whether you should buy or not is going to have some caveats with it.  Namely, your tolerance for bugs and unfinished content.

If you want a finished game, then you should probably follow the project and not buy just yet.  On the other hand, this could easily be the game for you if you love the survival idea and hardcore PvP but are getting tired of recent games doing rehashed versions of the same old ideas over and over.  Last Oasis takes a mighty swing in a new direction and I think they’ve hit on a successful concept.  Hopefully, they can advance their project enough to be successful before the burning sun of public interest roasts their chances to ashes.


Red_Thomas

Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.