Life is Feudal wants to be a “realistic-fictional Medieval hardcore sandbox MMORPG”, give or take an adjective.
A warning before we fish for the meaning in that sea of descriptors: Life is Feudal is Early Access, a point the devs take pains to communicate, but this isn’t ARMA III Early Access. It’s not even DayZ Early Access, which was held together by duct tape and rags on release. Life is Feudal is sketch-on-the-back-of-a-napkin Early Access, and you’ll have to squint to see what the picture is.
Swear fealty at this stage and you’re buying a vertiginous £25 worth of idea. But there it is, staking a claim on the Steam bestseller list. I struck out to found my fiefdom and see how its promises are being put into play.
We’re dealing with a realistic, player-driven, Middle Ages sim in which subsistence snowballs into warring kings and a player as Pope. Its final form will be a full-blown MMO, though that’s long years off by my estimation. For now, private servers of up to 64 people are the law of the land, which explains the peculiar full title of ‘Life is Feudal: Your Own’, as opposed to Life is Feudal: That Chap Over There’s.
But we’ve seen what happens when you shove a bunch of survivors into unspoiled countryside and let them slog it out. I’ve been there, perpetrating carnage, bloodshed and rampant psychopathy. The thought of a Medieval free-lootin’ PvP sandbox resembling anything close to reality is an initially funny one.
Shows what I know. Life is Feudal looks to leverage a dizzyingly interdependent skill system to suppress the stab-happy. It’s most reminiscent of Runescape of all things. That “hardcore” bit in the description? Roughly translates to “bring a spreadsheet”; you’ll need it to keep track of the stats and skills.
You’re best off allying with the wiki, but here’s a layman’s explanation. You start with the skills every good peasant needs to survive: Forestry, Farming, Prospecting, Nature’s lore and Terraforming (obviously). Each can be levelled to 100, and passing certain thresholds unlocks further skills like “Construction materials preparation” or the more arousing “Warfare engineering”. But! By default, you’ll encounter an overall skill cap of 600, meaning it’s impossible for one player to master the lot.
I began by testing that system on my own solitary server, opting to roleplay (witnesses were quelled) a humble woodsman on a quest for a crafting table. I snapped some twigs and improvised tools to boost my Forestry, unlocking Logging at level 30. Nice. Stripping bark and lopping trees, I opened up Carpentry, so far content in the absence of human interaction (Stranger Danger and all that). I sawed some boards and stuck ‘em together with- ah.
Wood is not a renowned adhesive. Without some award-winning dowelling, my workbench would remain a flatpack. I needed nails. But nails are a product of forging, the fourth slot in the prospecting tree. A smith requires a forge and hammer, which are the province of the forester and carpenter. And rope was another ingredient! Rope comes from Procuring, and procurers need flax, which only high-level farmers- oh my, I’m light-headed.
This integral system of dependence on others addresses gnawing criticisms of crafting in general. Videogame crafting is more often a list-filling minigame than a viable vocation. Life is Feudal uses the same framework, but the connectedness of it all anchors crafting to the wider world. The potential is there to build a civilised service economy.
I’m drawn in by the very scent of this system, and Life is Feudal’s solid showing on Steam indicates others are too. It’s the sort of specialist complexity that spawns the most enduring, dedicated communities. Wurm Online springs to mind, or pretty much anything by Paradox. The snag? It doesn’t work yet.
Life is Feudal is tough to play in any meaningful way. The most dedicated might disagree with me here – it is possible for the preternaturally patient to scratch out some play time – but I see a £25 scribble on a serviette.
Take that skill system – the selling point which binds free-for-all survival into cohesive Medieval communities. In a finished MMO I’d be giddy at the thought, but in Your Own’s private shards, anarchy reigns. Admins set their own skill caps and experience multipliers. Your place in the world might be restricted by skill cap of 600, but 3000? Welcome to the nation of You.
Nurturing a character on a server with the intended settings is prohibited by ferocious instability. I’ve yet to play an hour without a crash. I’m limited to headphones because my speakers guarantee one. I witnessed an undersea battle between a wolf and a moose in which the coup de grace was a CTD. Spawning back in, I got lodged in a tree.
I’ve started to measure loading times in ‘number of panel shows watched’. My record is one-and-a-half Have I Got News For Yous. Worse, logging into populous servers on either my main rig or laptop is impossible, whether connected to the home network or the bloke next door’s, which he, er, shares. Perhaps a Medieval metropolis would greet me if I’d sit through just one more episode of QI, but at this point I’ve seen so much telly that it’s like I’m trapped at a Microsoft conference.
As a consequence, I can’t tell you whether going mano a mano with enemy combatants is fun, because I’ve yet to be allowed near any. Well, I did glimpse a hostile once, but the four fps I was rocking as my superclocked 780Ti begged for death means I can’t be certain. You see that tree detail slider sitting pretty at ‘medium’? Turn that down. Curiously, the same settings produced a passable 25-ish fps on my laptop’s punier 860M.
In the end, I abandoned my siege of the high pop public servers and embraced the Rock, Paper, Life is Feudal fellowship. There, upstanding members of our very own community confirmed what I’d been pondering – different set-ups yield wildly divergent results. Some reported not a single crash. I CTDed while they were talking. Whether you end up with something that works is one for the roulette wheel.
But in the windows where Life is Feudal wasn’t buckling, the vision behind its systems was apparent in the hands of RPS journeymen. I stood atop the foundations of Castle Horace, gazing out at a grand specimen of a smallhold, the road of which I’d ruined in an attempt to be helpful. Sorry, Quintin Shotgun. There’s intense compulsion to collaborate on such hefty, manual tasks when amid friendly faces. I found myself praying that the skill cap forces the same among strangers.
Then I got eaten by a wolf and the server was rebooted. Ah, memories.
When not distracted by social enterprise, however, that beautiful idea of a world founded on interwoven crafts isn’t quite what I’d call interactive. Observable, certainly. You can observe all sorts of things like fishing and gathering and chopping, but it’s hard to play a nondescript progress bar filling dutifully on command.
I did an experiment. To test out the terraforming, I tried to make a mine using my pickaxe and shovel. With great diligence, I selected “Terraforming > Dig a tunnel” from the menu in which all interaction is housed and watched the cast bar work its socks off. Some rocks appeared in my inventory. The landscape remained the same. Was it bugged? Repeating the process, I amassed 220 rocks before I could carry no more. Still no change. The rocks had to go, but depositing them elsewhere, no more than 30 at a time, was the cue for further craft timers.
Fourteen minutes, 47 seconds. That’s how long my first chunk of tunnel took to exhibit corporeal form. Fourteen minutes, 47 seconds of watching cast bars marching to completion like uniquely dull ants.
This isn’t alpha or pre-alpha; it’s the first birth squeezes of an idea – an alluring, wonderful idea which could go so far as to address ingrained troubles in established genres. But it’s an idea so far from fruition that laying your mound of money on the table is an expression of deepest belief in a unknown dev team.
I pine for what Life is Feudal might one day offer, and RPS’ finest offered a glimpse of things to come, but this realistic-fictional Medieval hardcore sandbox MMORPG isn’t ready for habitation.