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Premature Evaluation: Worlds Adrift

"I consider it a brilliant waste of time"

Featured post Worlds Adrift

Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the wilds of early access. This week, Fraser’s learning to be a shipwright in airborne MMO, Worlds Adrift. Brendy looked at the ‘pre-early access’ version last year and had a good time with its always-there grappling hook and quick ship design, but fell foul of a few rough edges. As Bossa’s DIY skyboats affair has now graduated to early access proper, it’s time to find out how much things have improved.

I am flying through the skies in the most undignified fashion, holding onto a rope for dear life while a runaway ship drags me into a huge storm. It is only the most recent in a string of embarrassing misadventures that have left me wondering if humanity was ever meant to leave the ground. (That said, I’ve experienced just as many calamities while exploring the floating islands that pepper the horizon). It’s tempting to call it quits before the storm inevitably consumes me, but I have faith I’ll eventually get back onto my ship, eager to find more impossible landmasses to gawk at – before crashing headlong into them.

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Worlds Adrift is a pure sandbox, with Bossa Studios giving players tools and a world and then taking a step back. There’s little in the way of structure, objectives or narrative beyond what players create for themselves. Even the islands that make up this floating archipelago are made by other players using the separate, but free, Worlds Adrift Island Creator.

This is a game for creators and explorers – you make ships and islands, put together crews, go out seeking adventure in ancient temples and swing around with your liberating grappling hook, like a swashbuckling Spider-Man. It’s also, lamentably, a game for arseholes who just want to shoot everyone.

After following a vague and fleeting tutorial, I found myself looking for resources so I could build my very first ship. I’d barely started mining my first rock when ‘Wyatt’ appeared. What a stroke of luck, I thought. Together, we could half the effort of making a ship and maybe start up our own little crew of adventurers. Before I could finish typing “hello” Wyatt shot me in the face. [Not been watching Westworld, eh, Fraser? – serialised television consumption ed]

I respawned quickly, only to discover that I’d lost my (admittedly small) inventory. Cheers, Wyatt. Since I couldn’t leave without making a ship, I grappled my way from the floating respawn chamber back to the island. Wyatt was lurking near the scene of the crime, and immediately started firing again. Without the element of surprise, however, he proved to be an atrocious killer. I filled him with holes and took my stuff back. I considered leaving what he hadn’t stolen from me, as a gesture of goodwill, but he hadn’t earned it.

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Wyatt reappeared as I was abseiling up a cliff to get to an out-of-reach mining node and, having failed to learn his lesson, opened fire. I dropped down and killed him once again. This time he had nothing to loot. He’d come straight to me. Did we know each other? Was this a grudge? He wouldn’t respond to messages, but upon my killing him for a third time, he appeared to just give up.

I’ve rarely found that completely open PvP works as well in practice as it does on paper. I know free-for-all fighting has its adherents, but it feels particularly out of place in a creative sandbox like Worlds Adrift. I’ve heard plenty of stories of pirate battles and with massive ships colliding and crews boarding ships in mid-flight, but I’ve not seen any of it. Largely, PvP here has been a knee-jerk reaction to seeing another player, random and senseless, and mostly on the ground while I’ve been exploring ruins.

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With Wyatt gone, presumably to annoy someone else, I could return to the important business of getting the heck off this bloody island. It was already full of abandoned crafting stations, and all the resources I needed were close at hand. While building a flying ship right off the bat sounds like an intimidating task, Worlds Adrift’s crafting is as easy-going as you’d hope from a game set amid fluffy clouds and pastel skies.

Chopping down a few trees and doing a brief spot of mining will give you enough for a small, no-frills vessel, especially if you’re not concerned about the type of materials or their quality. See, every resource in Worlds Adrift has unique properties – weight, durability and so on – that will affect the item or ship you’re using them to make, and each of them has different tiers of quality. It’s up to you what to use, however, so you don’t have to go hunting for specific materials if you can’t be bothered. Let’s face it, you’d probably much rather just get your ship, at least at first.

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The process for putting together a ship is surprisingly simple, though it’s not explained at all. Once you fire up the shipbuilding terminal, you can select a wireframe template, depending on the size of the vessel you fancy, and then you can edit it to your heart’s content. It’s all very tactile, dragging and squeezing and tweaking until you have something that’s uniquely you. To turn that wireframe image into something tangible, all you need to do it drag the resources into the appropriate slots in the construction menu.

I’m just using the term ‘ship’ for the sake of convenience, but it doesn’t really reflect the breadth of the vehicles you’re able to make. I’ve seen floating houses, planes and even flying fortresses. The parts you start off with mean that your first ride will probably be something a bit more conventional, but when you do get access to more schematics, the creation process doesn’t get much more complicated.

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Shipbuilding is easier than it seems, then, but it isn’t without its dangers. The first sail I constructed killed me when it toppled over. I’ve also died a few times chopping down trees, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve fallen off the ship while trying to add new components. Most of the time, my murderer is overzealous physics, but sometimes I’m just really, really clumsy.

Despite a lot of crafting being abstracted for the sake of simplicity (and brevity), placing components on your ship’s frame is a hands-on task. You need to actually get up to the ship by using the grappling hook if you want to put anything inside it, or on the deck. Instead of being stuck in a separate construction scene, you’ll be suspended in mid-air, dangling on a rope like a thrill-seeking engineer.

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Everything’s better with World Adrift’s improbable grappling hook. With its long range, it can be a lifesaver when you’re falling to your death, and with a bit of practice you might eventually become a graceful acrobat, delving into gargantuan caverns and exploring islands without ever touching the ground. I’m not there yet. Not even close. It’s wild and unpredictable, flinging you around like you’re trapped on an out-of-control whirligig. It can be more than a little nauseating.

The best version of Spider-Man is freshly-bitten Spider-Man, rushing through the New York skyline, screaming and almost crashing into every building. That’s what Worlds Adrift feels like: you’ve got this incredible power that lets you effortlessly traverse the world, but you’ve not quite got the hang of it yet. You’ll look like an idiot most of the time, but an idiot who can latch onto moving ships or get to the top of a mountain in a few seconds. It’s great.

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As I put the finishing touches on my ship, The Porp, a few more players set up shop on my island prison. Thankfully, they were considerably nicer than Wyatt. And by ‘considerably nicer’, I mean that one of them said “hi” and the other just shouted “pussy”. My third neighbour grappled up to my ship and, for a moment, seemed like he was going to pinch it, but it turned out he just wanted a tour. I obliged but kept it brief, because I was keen to finally set sail.

If you have all the basic components – a helm, propulsion, an anti-gravity device for flight – and you haven’t overloaded the ship, you’ll be able to take off. That doesn’t mean it’s especially skyworthy, however. It might still be too heavy or under-powered to get anywhere fast, but there are other ways to trip yourself up, too. Cautious captain that I am, I placed my helm inside the ship, not on deck. That meant it was protected from attack, but it also meant I could barely see anything. Worse, it made furling and unfurling the sails a nightmare, as I had to jump out of the ship and then try to grapple onto something above. There were so many crashes. And falls.

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The Porp II was a big improvement. I made it larger, gave it an extra sail, put the helm on deck like a normal person, and slapped on some wings. As with engines, cannons and other components, wings have to be researched or learned by finding a schematic, and I’d managed to find one the second island I visited, inside a chest sitting precariously on the broken ledge of a beautiful but crumbling cathedral. Placing wings vertically or horizontally gives you more control over the pitch and yaw, plus it just gives your ship an edge. Wings are cool, after all.

Later I’d add more, including an engine so I wouldn’t be beholden to the whims of the wind. Worlds Adrift finds a sweet spot between sailing simulator and a more leisurely romp. You’ll need to make adjustments for the wind, deal with unpleasant weather and man several stations (unless you can call on friends to crew them for you), but it’s still possible to strike off alone and have a lovely, relaxing journey around the archipelago. That’s what I’ve been doing. I think I need a real holiday, but these gentle cruises across the sky have been enough to stave off the madness that comes from working in front of a computer when the sun is out. It’s a rare sight up here in Scotland.

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There’s not much more to Worlds Adrift, in its current state, beyond making better ships, though. Bossa Studios is actively leaving so much up to players without giving them much more to do than fight or team up to fight, and this is creating a sense of aimlessness. Players might rule the world, but they don’t really have many ways to exert that influence. The move from closed beta to early access hasn’t changed that.

Update 0.2.0 split the world up into two cultural regions, one of which introduces the new Kioki culture, with accompanying architecture, props and terrain. It does add the tiniest hint of structure, but it’s largely an aesthetic addition, giving sightseers and explorers a bit more variety. If it was any other update it would be great, but I confess I was hoping for something that offered a better idea of what Worlds Adrift is ultimately trying to be, beyond being driven by players.

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It’s all well and good to say that players can determine their own objectives, but there still have to be some actual, tangible objectives for them to pick, as well as systems that support the player-driven universe. Worlds Adrift is great at generating random misadventures (often by mistake) but it doesn’t feel like a persistent world where you can carve out a little slice or make a name for yourself. That’s in part because it’s a new world, as the early access launch came with a server wipe, but on top of that, there just aren’t many paths you can take.

I’m surprised to find myself still pretty enamoured with it. I spent a few hours today achieving absolutely nothing, and I consider it a brilliant waste of time. I’ve seen some really fancy ships flitting around, with massive thrusters and imposing weaponry, so I felt compelled to once again upgrade. Honestly, anything that didn’t look like it was made of driftwood and corrugated iron would have been an improvement. I set off to root around on some islands I’d yet to land on, picking one at random.

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The research system only does one thing right: you have to go out into the world and explore if you want to increase your knowledge. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you’ll be going off and experiencing wondrous things that will expand your mind. Instead, you’ll essentially be shooting a sort of grappling hook alternative that scans things. See a tree? Shot the scanner at it. Weird-looking gizmo? Shoot it. Giant bug? Yep, fire away. By doing that, you’ll gain knowledge points that can be spent on unlocking new schematics. It’s tedious and wouldn’t be remotely engaging if the world itself wasn’t a delight to explore.

Scanning became an afterthought, if I even thought about it at all, as I attempted to sail right into caves and climb crumbling towers from some forgotten civilisation. I’ve seen so many islands, and almost all of them have stuck in my mind for one reason or another. I came across one that looked like the spine of a giant, while floating nearby was an impossibly-complicated lattice with sprawling, interweaving tendrils of rock still somehow supporting life. It’s like sailing through a gallery full of alien sculptures and art installations.

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It can be lonely, though. I’ve welcomed the occasional guest onboard my ship, but nobody has stuck around for long. When I docked on a hollowed-out mountain, I found a couple of shipbuilders working together and thought it would be a good opportunity to try once again to assemble a proper crew. They both opened fire the moment I approached, forcing me to flee. Then they shot me in the back.

I’m not really convinced by Worlds Adrift the MMO. The freewheeling aviation adventure? That I absolutely dig. I can lose days to it. It’s become my happy place, where I can look at pretty islands and not worry about the weird rattling noise that’s coming from my bathroom. I don’t even mind losing my life to the occasional workplace accident. I’m not bemoaning that it’s multiplayer, either. It’s perfectly suited for it, particularly co-op. It’s at the big picture stuff, or lack thereof, where it loses me. On the entirely made-up and possibly confusing scale of EVE Online to Sea of Thieves, it’s definitely much closer to Rare’s oddly limited piratical romp.

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However! The roadmap does offer up some promising glimpses of the future. Currently on the docket are things like territory control, giving some context to the PvP by letting alliances fight over and lock down particular islands, and a proper trading system for long-distance deals. Let’s hope this stuff is the hint of cohesion that Worlds Adrift needs.

Worlds Adrift is out now on Steam and the Humble Store, for £19.49/$24.99/€22.99.

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Who am I?

Fraser Brown

Contributor

Premature Evaluation caretaker. Likes strategy games almost as much as he likes labradoodles.

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