New World is Amazon's foray into the MMORPG genre and I got hands-on with an early build of its opening hours, which had me create a character, fight through a tutorial area, and graduate to a neighbouring town filled with vendors and plentiful quest markers. So, only a small portion of what's undoubtedly a game built for hundreds of hours of play, but enough to get a handle on whether I had that itch to get back in there and clock another hour or two towards that first hundred in its world. That's what matters when it comes to MMOs right? And I've got to say yes. Yes, the itch could use a good scratch.
But let's forget my itchy body and look in more detail at New World's, starting with its heart. As you'd expect, it has those familiar MMO beats: an XP bar at the bottom of the screen that fills up as you complete quests and an open world populated by other players. This is conveniently dished up on a clean slate that says you're an adventurer who's shipwrecked on the isle of Aeternum, a place flowing with mysterious magic that does nice magic things and bad magic things. And you, dear explorer, must choose a faction and "get amongst it", as TV chef Jamie Oliver would say if he was making a marinade out of combat.
Hardly any of the faction or fighting over land PVP stuff was available in my preview session, though, which was a disappointment considering it's likely a large part of what separates New World from other MMORPGs. I did get a very small snapshot of how it might work, though, as houses in the first town I visited could actually be bought by players if they had a high enough Standing level - just don't ask me how Standing itself works. But things like smelters and tanning racks in the town centre are shared amongst players, so they'd level and unlock bonuses for everyone. And I noticed that I was taxed a tiny amount when crafting stuff too. Presumably, the faction that controls the territory could be right bastards and set taxes really high to line their pockets. Something I'd never ever do. Not me.
Still, what I experienced of New World's territories was almost non-existent, so while I wish I could tell you more about how fights over land, or player-driven economies will work, I cannot. As someone who traditionally cares only for how good my new pauldrons look and if they match my cloak, I'm curious to see if I'll actually get roped into caring about those aspects. Will climbing tax rates in Scunthorpe make me reach for the nearest pitchfork and rebel? Only time will tell.
That aside, so far I'd say that New World shares just as much of its DNA with survival game Valheim as it does with an MMO. Unlike say, World Of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, crafting isn't something you can just totally bypass if you don't like picking flowers or chopping wood. Right from the start of New World you'll be rustling bushes for sticks and pocketing flint to make yourself a skinning knife. And it won't be long before you're gutting a boar for its meat and watching it crackle over a fire. Health bars don't just top themselves up around here, sonny.
By the end of my brief session with New World I'd gone on to smelt ore, tan some leather, and do a spot of fishing. Good lord, it was a lot of manual labour, but it never felt like it. Mining, for example, sees you press a button and watch a circle gradually fill. But the sounds your tools make when crashing off rock or slamming into wood are so, so satisfying. Fishing was more complex than I was expecting too. You have to reel the fish in carefully, so as not to snap the line, and later I discovered that there's different bait for fresh and saltwater fishing. By no means revolutionary, but these little details added nicely to my immersion.
These skills don't feel compartmentalised like other MMOs I've played, where you might focus solely on one or two trades which totally diverge from one another. Here, all manner of raw materials will flood your bags, just as much as quest items or shiny rewards, so tools feel just as important as the swords you'll swing or the arrows you'll sling.
Combat in New World also feels like it feeds into this loosey goosey, "you can be whatever you put your mind to maaaan!" thing it's got going on. Instead of picking a class which dictates what equipment you can and can't use, here it's pick up and play, baby. Swords, shields, spears, hammers, or even magical gauntlets are yours to wield if you're feeling spicy. And the more you use them, the better you'll get with them, in an Elder Scrolls kind of way. The freedom's liberating, especially coming from other MMOs where I've been desperate to try out gear that's outside of my chosen class.
The actual clashing of steel in New World isn't half-bad either, with a more stripped back feel so I wasn't drowing in hotbars. I know everything is reminiscent of Dark Souls with me, but this time it genuinely is! You have to time your swings and blocks and dodges to survive fights, as opposed to standing still and cycling through a myriad of abilities like you do in a lot of other MMOs.
Each weapon has two skill-trees. For example, with the sword and shield you can focus on damage, or on tanking. The branch you slot the most points into determines your specialisation. I went with the damage one, which boosted my spinny blade attack, one of three abilities to unlock and use in battle. Yep, that's it: three. I enjoyed their weighty feel and simplicity - but I do worry that this might make it harder for your character to truly stand out from the rest.
The same simplicty goes for your character build too, who has five attributes: strength, dexterity, intelligence, focus, and constitution. Every time you level, you bang a point or two into one of these branches and that'll determine what sort of role you'll take on. This is as close as the game gets to set classes, basically. I wouldn't say it felt quite as rewarding as something like FFXIV, where you unlock mad new spells at a fairly frequent rate. Still, I liked that it was easy to see what I'd gain access to every few levels thanks to a dedicated menu screen telling me. This is something other MMOs could learn from, I think, as often I'll miss important milestones like the ability to ride a mount because no-one told me I went past it.
Just don't expect to choose a spindly elf or a hulking great orc to play as in New World. This could change, of course, but for now the only option is to play as a human. Just something to bear in mind if you're a fan of roleplaying as something with an edge, and another potential reason that we might all blend into one once we're playing.
But what about the world of New World itself? Is it, in fact, new? Does it have an edge? From the very small slice of the game I played, I'd say it was quite standard, if pleasant, medieval-ish stuff. Serene music, nice trees, dirt paths. The tutorial area was perhaps a sign of otherworldly things to come, with a dark beach and shipwrecks crawling with blue zombies, so there's potential to surprise, but I'd need to spend more time in the world to see if it'll stick. Others have pointed to its colonial undertones, but having played only a very small slice of the game, I can't make a call either way on that score. Something to keep in mind, that's for sure.
New World's definitely done enough to get me interested, though. I liked its mixture of survival and MMO elements, alongside this concept of a world that's controlled and fought over by players. This in particular I'm eager to explore further, as I get the impression this is where the real meat of the experience lies and what could separate it from other heavy-hitters in the genre. When New World's closed beta arrives on 20th July, I'll be there, hopeful that it delivers on that front. Part of me worries that if it doesn't, then the shores of Aeternum could sink into obscurity very quickly.