Pax Dei has been an MMO that has caught my attention ever since it was detailed by developer Mainframe Industries. A sandbox MMO where everything is player-driven - from the towns and settlements players live within to the coarse linen threads they spin to make clothing, the whims and actions of players drive every aspect of life within the MMO.
The concept of Pax Dei represents two of my favorite aspects of both MMOs and survival crafting games. On the one hand, there is an incredible opportunity for players to express their creativity in the structures they build, something that games like Valheim and ARK: Survival Evolved always highlighted for me. I also love that, as a result of every interaction in a game being dependent on a player action, the social aspect of old-school MMOs is alive and well.
This second point was highlighted most especially during a preview of the upcoming Home Valley alpha test, which kicks off tomorrow. Mainframe Industries invited us to check out the alpha early to get a sense of the gameplay as it currently exists in the MMO. What is here is focused on the social crafting aspects of Pax Dei: claiming a plot of land to work on, building a settlement, and working with players to expand and get a feel for its social gameplay.
While there is combat in the alpha - you can hunt wildlife and venture beyond the borders of your home valley to tackle a few basic dungeons, it's not the focus. PvP is even disabled to allow for peaceful gameplay between the players in the test. That's not to say that there won't be PvP in the final game - there definitely will be. But right now, in this first alpha test, the focus is squarely on what the devs call the "peaceful gameplay core loop."
Establishing Home And Hearth
As this is a social experience, Mainframe offered a few members of our team and some friends to join in on the test. I was the first to arrive. Pax Dei looks beautiful in all the screenshots - and it looks as good in motion, thanks to Mainframe utilizing Unreal Engine 5 to do the heavy lifting. Dropping my character into the forest of the Ardennes region around me, golden light spilling through the canopy of leaves and branches overhead, the world of Pax Dei was beautiful to behold. While it's still very early going and I'm expecting more Unreal Engine goodies to be enabled down the road, including a full day and night cycle versus the placeholder currently in the alpha, it's still a very attractive first impression.
Being a sandbox game, there really isn't any direction from the moment you log in. While there is a helpful getting started guide in the game at the moment for the alpha, no quests are built, nor are there clear objectives to follow. You can explore the Heartlands, or the dangerous Wild Lands outside the tranquil borders to your hearts content. Myself and a friend decided to just pick a direction and go to our peril.
Happening upon a ruined structure we assumed was a half-built player home, we were actually surprised to see enemies outside, waiting. It didn't take long before our characters were smoldering heaps of slag, being wrecked by the spell-slinging mages living there.
The Wild Lands are no joke, especially with out any armor or weapons to speak of - a stone axe does not a weapon make.
So instead, we explored the region around us, happening upon a thriving village along the riverbank to the east. This town was fully player-built by the pre-alpha testers before us as a monument to what players can do when working together. It's a sprawling medieval town, complete with wattle-and-daub housing, markets, crafting areas, and more. Walking the player-made lanes, taking in the sheer scale and scope of their work, was awe-inspiring, and it gives a glimpse of what the developers are hoping will organically sprout up around the live world when Pax Dei finally launches.
Each player gets their own plot of land to claim. You can choose anywhere really to plop down and establish your home, but it really benefits having other players nearby - especially those in your clan, Pax Dei's version of guilds. By building in plots that are connected, you can effectively extend the overall building space for you and your clan, allowing you to build on each other's plots. My friends and I did this, using my plot as our home structure while we crafted a porch to place some crafting stations on, and started to utilize another plot to place the large forges and furnaces needed for Iron and Blacksmithing production.
If You Build It, They Will Come
The building will be familiar in Pax Dei if you've played other survival crafting games. You'll harvest resources and then refine those into the component parts to place foundations, walls, stairwells, and more. Pieces of a building can snap into place, making it easier to build cohesive structures, though you can unsnap items and place them more freely if you want that extra layer of expression. I found myself raising stone foundations from being flush with the ground itself to give a raised platform for us to build on, which looked much better than simply placing our cottage and surrounding crafting elements on the cold, hard earth.
One thing to note - you are just not going to be able to place everything in a single plot. Some of the crafting stations, such as the furnace with bellows, are huge in their own right, taking up a large square footage in a plot. This is where combining plots really comes into play - by having that shared real estate, things can be planned and placed without running out of room quickly - and it's going to be necessary to have access to quite a bit of these crafting stations as they work in tandem to build the building blocks needed for each item.
Right now there isn't a ton of variety in the actually pieces you can build - a standard cottage wall, the wattle-and-daub style and a stone wall, but it's a start. And I really do enjoy building in these games, despite having no talent or architectural creativity to build something spectacular. Some of the structures and plots in our corner of the world - a world map that spans 300km squared, by the way - are incredible and really highlight people's genius and creativity. There is a group of players just south of us near the river that have built a small three-house hamlet with a forge and charcoal manufacturing business that I love just looking at each time I am on the hunt for flax.
One thing to note for those who will be hopping into the Home Valley alpha tomorrow - resources are, for the most part, abundant. You won't need to go far to find clay, stone, iron, wood and more to start building to your heart's content. Part of the point of this alpha is to test all of this out - it would be weird if the resources to do so weren't abundant. But it's not how it will be in the full game. Part of how the developers envision this MMO working is a struggle over resources, either with players establishing trade routes to ship goods from one town to the next, or fighting over control of those resources in PvP. So if a village is build near abundant iron, but might need clay, there could be some trade set up - with bandits ready to raid trading convoys, or baronies waging war over control of resource nodes.
However, in Pax Dei's alpha, it wasn't a struggle to find things to build with - the real struggle came from the grind of making the things themselves.
Complexity For Complexity's Sake
I like complex crafting. I do appreciate it when games don't just give you base materials and then allow you just to craft the masterwork, but instead have some granularity involved. Make me refine things, build it in steps so it feels like a real accomplishment for those powerful items.
EVE Online is a perfect example where oftentimes you need to supply a blueprint, but also refined and unrefined materials - often times multiple different types of each - to build a new hull. On the other side of the coin, you've got The Lord of the Rings Online, whose crafting recipes can be accomplished with a certain amount of refined material made mostly at the same crafting station.
Meanwhile, Pax Dei feels a bit more like Dual Universe or Atlas - complex but not in a way that serves the game overall.
As it stands in the alpha, some processes are needlessly grindy. The amount of raw materials it takes to refine is part of the problem. 60 Sapwood to create 30 charcoal, or 40 Unrefined Iron Ore and 80 Charcoal to create 20 Iron Ingots - it feels like a lot, and when you're grinding these materials on your own, it definitely can be. I would find myself spending hours going back and forth from charcoal kilns, furnaces, and brick-making kilns just to get enough refined material to build a new structure, only to rinse and repeat.
The costs of these recipes feel high right now and, in some cases, needlessly grindy. That grind for materials can be spread across multiple people if you're with a large group - and indeed, when the full game launches and players form clans and societies, that will lessen the grinding burden on the individual player overall. But in this test, it just feels like too much.
Indeed, I spent an entire episode of Netflix's The Crown just trying to get the Linen thread I need to make a loom - 40 Linen string. After hunting for Flax, refining it into coarse linen string, then rough linen cloth, and then into the linen string itself, I only had 23 by the end of the episode. It just feels convoluted.
Since crafting is skill-based as well, you can also fail while trying to craft something, losing the materials in the process. This felt especially unforgiving while building my first sword. After spending the better part of a day grinding the iron ore and the wood to make charcoal, I failed my first two attempts at forging the blade itself, part of the recipe. I wasn't high enough in blacksmithing, which is felt through crafted items, and my character has difficulty in making them. If it's too difficult, your chance of failing is higher. As you level up and eventually out level the component, it'll be easier to the point where it is trivial and you no longer gain experience crafting the component. But, especially with these more specialized crafting professions, it takes a lot of refined material to get there.
And here I can see both the complexity working for and against the social element. On the one hand, there will be players who want to make a name for themselves on the server as master craftsmen, someone who players across the server travel to because they can make things easily and quickly. This will help serve this player, earning money on the player market and commissions from other players. It also frees those other players to pursue their own fun, whether it be clearing dungeons to find the rare loot needed for crafting or specializing in another profession.
I may not want to spend the time spinning flax threads, but maybe I like the crafting loop of building swords, axes, and other weapons. Access to a charcoal supplier, iron supplier, or just being part of a guild where those raw materials are constantly provided can simplify this complex crafting loop.
On the other hand, though, the complexity and sheer volume of materials needed in Pax Dei could drive off all but the most hardcore, which might not be sustainable in today's MMO landscape. There needs to be a happy balance where it's complex but not grindy in way where it doesn't feel like Pax Dei doesn't respect the time it takes to get there. Right now, it's feeling a bit closer to the latter.
This is exactly why you hold an alpha like this so early. This is the type of stuff that I'm sure the Pax Dei team will be tweaking, balancing and working with testers throughout the alpha and beta processes to really nail down the right experience. There is a way to keep the complexity of the crafting that will delight players who adore those types of gameplay loops - myself included - while also making sure the grind respects your time.
Despite these complaints, I couldn't stop logging into my character to check on charcoal production or hunt down some bears for their leather hides to start making armor. Pax Dei is a game right in my wheelhouse as someone who has long loved the marriage of a crafting survival game and an MMO. I can't wait to see how Mainframe takes the learnings from this wider test and see how it improves things moving forward.
With servers that should hold thousands of people at a time, I can't wait to see how things shake out as more players hop in over the alpha period and then beyond. What will all this look like when players have to start competing for these resources? How will PvP work? What too will drive players into the Wild Lands to take out dungeons, leaving the safety of their home and hearth? We'll have to see.