Every Monday we throw Brendan into a ravine full of early access games armed with nothing but medieval weaponry and see if he can climb out with anything. This week, his axe has claimed MMO Gloria Victis.
They call it the Path of Discipline. It’s a sandy, wet pathway that runs along the central river and toward the strategically important city of “Aud”. I was jogging along this path in my light armour with my boots squelching, wondering who had given it such a serious name, when I suddenly started to bleed.
I stopped and considered my health bar. My character jerked at the sound of a fleshy impact. Hmm. Again, my character model juddered like the wheel of a broken shopping trolley. My health took another blow. Suspecting unseen archers, I raised my shield to the sky - the exact opposite direction of the wolf (level 24) who had appeared behind me and was now gnawing my ankles off. I died within seconds on the pathway. I must have lacked the discipline.
Or, more likely, I lacked the experience points. Gloria Victis is an MMO in which warring clans fight over a rocky and grassy countryside filled with farms, towns, encampments and hideouts. There’s two factions fighting it out – the Midlanders and the Isimir. Two more factions are planned but right now it’s the North vs the Midlands across multiple servers.
Outposts can be captured and cities can change hands, something like the PvP modes of other MMOs that boast sieges and all-out warfare, such as Guild Wars 2 or Elder Scrolls Online. Although it’s probably better to think of it as a less survival-focused Life Is Feudal. The emphasis is on realistic medieval swordplay. No magic or volleys of flaming arrows granting area of effect damage here. Just straight up brawls.
You swing your sword in different directions, a la Mount & Blade, or shoot normal arrows with all the inaccuracy and bumbling that entails. In bigger fights, numbers matter more than anything. A pity then, that numbers are so scarce. Finding the players to take part in this back-and-forth mulitplayer conflict turns out to be almost as much of a chore as the inevitable grind.
I started out creating my character, a badass with a scar and cool hair, who probably would have been named ‘Chainflank’ or ‘Stormfoe’ or ‘Pikebane’ if I hadn’t gotten immediately bored with him and turned him into a lanky dimwit with a bowl haircut called ‘Frumpalstilsken’. I hovered over the attribute options, pumping all the points into dexterity and stamina at the expense of strength. I hovered over the fourth option. “Wisdom,” it read, “coming soon!”
After completing the slightly broken combat tutorial I set off in search of adventure. The home town of the Isimir (my faction) is a big fort with high-level guards and a box to bank all your items. There’s a nice farm nearby that would later be captured by our enemy, the Midlanders, while nobody was looking at it. First, I set out for the big smoke, Audunstede - “Aud”. And after dying on the Path of Discipline to those sly wolves, I took to the river itself and swam my way to the city, safely discovering that none of the game’s NPCs can deal with water. It absolutely flummoxes them.
I was on this quest for crafting purposes. Everything here has either got to be bought from the vendors in towns and settlements, or crafted with your own two hands. Unfortunately, the crafting tutorial leaves a lot of basic information out. To craft things, not only do you need to source the right “ingredients” but you sometimes also need to source the ingredients for those ingredients. It’s the usual curse of the crafting mechanic, but the layout and menus for this one are obtuse and confusing. And there’s the added irritation of collecting itself, particularly pronounced when searching for a certain type of rock, because the game’s focus on realism has the unintended effect of making lots of rocks look the same.
In my case, I was looking for granite. I needed a mortar and pestle, you see. And since none of the merchants I’d stumbled across in the big city was selling one, I was forced to make my own. This was all for the sake of a new weapon. I needed granite to make the mortar, I needed the mortar to make charcoal dust, and I needed the charcoal dust to make a cool-looking staff. I wanted Frumpalstilsken to have that Friar Tuck look. Bowl haircut and monk’s staff. But life does not always work out the way you want it to. I left the city walls and got distracted by some salt rock, which I thought was granite.
“FARM” someone typed into the chat. “NEED HELP AT FARM”
I continued collecting salt. There were also some mushrooms on the floor.
The capitalised pleas of my countryman went ignored by the other players, who were mostly complaining about how the tailoring system needed fixing, and asking each other how things were on the game’s European servers, where a disgusting and long-lasting peace was engulfing the land.
I walked around, deep in a territory I should not be. Not because of the threat of other players – I had only seen three of my fellow swordsmen so far – but because of the persistent threat of gated MMO mechanics. My tiny wood-cutting axe and hunting bow were not going to do much against groups of high-level enemies. I had wandered too far, too quickly. When I saw the pair of level 35 bandits standing in a clearing, marked ‘Gold Griffins’ (presumably some volatile mountain gang), I decided the best thing would be to sprint through. It looked like there were some stone boulders beyond where the two men stood idling.
“Could be granite,” I thought.
I ran for it. A third man appeared and the trio gave chase like predictable mobs. I dashed on, stamina bar draining, straight into an encampment of more Griffins. Or what passes for an “encampment” here – a small glade with three more robbers standing stationary in the general vicinity, twitching into life the moment I arrived. That’s when I noticed the stones I had seen weren’t mineable boulders, but a familiar rockface. The glade was right above the gorge with the river, the very way I had travelled to the big city. I took one last glance at the bandits to see if they were still aggro’d (they were) then leapt 25 feet into the water. Sayonara, idiots!
The water was ankle deep.
I lost a chunk of health and when I looked up I was staring into the eyes of another wolf.
One bout of panicked and painful swimming later and I reached the outskirts of another town – Twinfall. I finally found the granite I’d been looking for, in an alcove under the city walls, and soon discovered just how opaque the game’s crafting system really is.
The staff could not be crafted. I had all the materials, brought up my crafting menu and clicked ‘create’ from the menu. Nothing happened. I was confused. I decided that I needed a blacksmith’s workshop. Surely, that would do the trick. That’s what I was missing. The right tools.
I decided to go further north along the coast, deeper into dangerous territory. For I only feel truly alive when aggroing mobs many times my level. I was not disappointed. Level 45 raiders had set up a camp of longboats and crucified two men on the coast. I remembered my time with the wolves, the NPC’s greatest weakness. Water.
I admit that swimming along the coast and avoiding fights is not how this game is intended to be played. But let me explain my motivations: the combat in Gloria Victis is not fun. Currently it is a mess of wonky hit-boxes and stodgy blocking. You swing your sword, slash your axe, and poke your spear, and none of it offers any ‘feedback’ apart from the rare moments when your foe takes the initiative and boots you into a stagger.
This is just the NPCs I’m talking about. An enemy player feels better to fight against, simply by virtue of them being unpredictable. And there’s the added threat of them being able to loot your corpse within a 30-second window of killing you. But I only faced off against a single player during my time – much later in Frumpalstilsken’s misadventures – because the population of the world was so distressingly low. It’s like a plague had swept through the servers, killing off everyone strategic enough to move in groups.
But even then the swordplay was still clunky and non-committal. I don’t know exactly how to describe it - everything feels a bit floaty. The mobs are also classic MMO fodder. When baddies run after you, then give up the chase when you jump in a pond, and walk away perfectly happy with being shot in the back of the head multiple times, it does not, in 2016, feel like a satisfying form of conflict.
So, I swam. I avoided. For all it's flaws, the world of the game is still an interesting place to explore. The farms, barracks and forts, some supposedly built and maintained by other players, was still fueling my curiousity. The day and night system, as well as the changing weather all adds a good dollop of atmosphere. And there are some good pre-fab environmental touches, like the dead men strung up on the beach by these high-level raiders. Interesting enough for me to come ashore for a closer look and get chased off by an insta-spawning mob.
Finally, I reached the settlement on the north-eastern tip of the game’s landmass. A harbour town made of lumber called Seaclaw. I opened the gates with pride, marched into the town and located the blacksmith’s workshop. I would finally have my staff.
The workshop didn’t work. I clicked on the create button again in the crafting menu and received nothing. Either the staff was not implemented, or I needed to be a higher level, or was missing some ‘blueprint’, or maybe there was simply an early access bug. I searched for an answer, from the Steam Forums to the game’s seemingly abandoned wiki, but neither the game nor it’s players explained it. While someone has probably pointed out my mistake in the comments by now, this is no consolation to Frumpalstilsken who, you’ll remember, lives in the past. His journey had been a total disaster. Frustrated and fed up, I settled for crafting a club instead. Maybe Friar Tuck used a cudgel. Maybe the stories got mixed up.
I looked at the message flashing on my screen. The farm was being besieged again. This time it was our men who were taking it back. But the fight was way back where I started, close to the town I had done my tutorials in. I had only seen five real players since starting (I would see more later, but not many) and somehow I was still missing out on all the action. It was time to go home. The quickest way to do this, I had learned, was to die in glorious battle.
“That’s what I’ll do,” I thought, bravely marching along the under-brush by the shore. “I am going to kill one of those level 45 raiders. I'll march out there and –
By the time they were done with me, the farm had been recaptured.
Gloria Victis is available on Steam for £14.99/$19.99. These impressions are based on build 1295113