[Gamasutra columnist Phill Cameron checks out would-be Ultima successor Mortal Online, and explains why its odd wasteland, realistic elements and frontier spirit are so compelling.]
When you get past the uncomfortable hilarity of seeing your character's genitals on the creation screen, you start to realize exactly what Mortal Online's main design ethos is. This is not a place of half measures. Starvault, the developers, aren't planning on appeasing anyone, and aren't going to chase a rating a few slots beneath what they want for the game just to get a few extra sales. No, this is a game where your characters have genitals. And that takes balls.
That's not to say it's attempting to accurately portray a Feudal system of Medieval Britain or anything as trite as that. Mortal Online is a fantasy MMO through and through, complete with dragons, magic and chainmail. It's not trying to simulate our lives any more than fantasy should, but instead creates a layer of truth that makes being in that world a little more faithful than we're perhaps used to.
You're thrown into the world with little more than a few rags and a hatchet, and given absolutely no indication of what you're supposed to be doing. The list of skills gives you a little idea -- simple skills like woodcraft and mining lie there dormant, waiting for you to expand and build them. So you approach the nearest tree and begin to hack.
It's from here that everything starts to make sense. You cut down wood to turn into a bow, or the handle of a weapon. You mine stone and that allows you to make the head of a hammer, or a crude axe. You then use these new found tools to kill yourself some animals, and suddenly you've got leather and fur, and you can make some clothes.
From here you do whatever any businessman would think; harvest them into materials that you can sell on in trade for things that you need. There is a money system in MO, but it exists purely to equate worth of two differing items. So when you buy from a vendor, you're placing down your wares and picking up some of theirs. Money doesn't change hands, only goods -- encouraging the feeling of living in some sort of tribal village.
I've sunk quite a few hours into such manual labour, and I've not yet felt the urge to set off from this quiet idyll, if only because right now the world of Mortal Online is a somewhat empty wasteland. It's there to fill, and due to the ongoing beta-state, players are struggling to advance far enough before they're wiped to begin to set about building houses, towns and cities. Right now they're somewhat confined to the compounds that exist as starting areas.
Somehow, though, that's all right. There's an element of frontier here that I've not yet witnessed in gaming. It's less of a 'colonising America' feel, and more of a 'coming out of the stone age' one. As you discover bow craft and hunting, you manage to clothe your way out of rags and shod your feet in leather. In a way, it's advancing through the primitive towards the civilised. And of course, civility means war.
Mortal Online is a game with violence at the forefront, as with so many, but Starvault is doing something slightly interesting here, too. What with the entire game being in a forced first-person perspective, this isn't a matter of targeting an enemy and clicking the auto-attack. You have to instigate every swing, each lunge, and all the blocks.
These are dictated by your stamina, bringing to mind a system similar to the one present in Demon's Souls, where each swing takes away a lot of your energy, but is quick to refill. And here, as with everywhere else, when you start out you're little better than a feckless lamb. The only thing separating you is that you've got an axe, and all a lamb can do is bleat.
You swing, and suddenly you're panting. Absorbing a block from someone will all but knock you from your feet. But the thing is, and this ties back to how the game encourages you to start off as a hunter-gatherer, by chopping all those trees, and mining all that ore, you've started to develop these big bulging muscles. They build your strength, your constitution, and suddenly you've got more stamina, more strength with which to swing. It's crazy, but things really start to make sense at this point. Meticulous logic in my game? Now there's a thought.
I'm tempted not to encourage too much, because of the utter obfuscation of how Mortal Online works. It's not easy to get into, and it's not friendly, at all. The interface is archaic to say the least, and the entire game is completely open-pvp, which means that any idiot can run up to you and start hacking, before stealing all your stuff when you die. Of course, if you're in a town, you can yell 'Guards!' (literally, just type it into chat), and the idiot gets skewered by the nearest man-in-armour. Of course, step outside and you're anyone's.
And that's not the half of it; there's been a somewhat resurgence of difficulty in games, most notably with Demon's Souls, but at least there there's something resembling a direction given to you. The levels are mostly linear, and so it's usually pretty clear where you're supposed to be going. Mortal Online, by it's very nature, offers you no advice, no helping hand. You'll find no quest givers, or helpful village elders who've got a problem with rats in their basement. The idea is that players will build their houses, their basements, and get their own rats. As the FAQ on the Mortal Online website claims:
'The overwhelming majority of MMORPGs today belong to the Theme Park category. Like a real theme park it always looks the same and chances are you grow tired of the rides after 20 times or so, unless the theme park creates new exiting rides to keep the park entertaining. In a Sandbox game you are able to create your own rides. Mortal Online is a true sandbox game.'
It's that unique nature that makes it so alluring. Even the smallest occurrence in your game will become infinitely more special, because it's the only time that has happened. Just by the nature that you're the one it happened to and so you're reactions where wholly original. Once, when I logged in, I was instantly attacked by a small, domestic pig. I'm still not entirely sure why, but because of a fight I'd had before logging out, he killed me in a few hits.
What followed wasn't pretty. It wasn't dignified in any way, and it ended badly for the pig. And its brothers, and probably quite a few of its distant relatives. Through some glitch in the game, my axe didn't return to my inventory, and so I was forced to craft myself a hammer from the wood I had in my inventory. That there was a niggle in my head that this wasn't entirely justified, and I'd probably attacked the pig the previous day, made it all the more questionable when I was malleting my way through his family tree.
It was only later, when I'd figured out how the taming system worked, that I realise what 'domestic pig' actually meant. This was a player's animal, and either they couldn't control it, or they'd ordered it to attack me. That I even found it again without its owner is a miracle, and it suddenly washed away all my anger. But it left me with an excellent pig-based vendetta story.
And that's easily one of the smaller things that's happened to me in my time in Mortal Online. It's important to stress that the game is far from finished, and while it has recently gone into Open Beta, it's still very much in active development, with huge patches being rolled out on an almost daily basis as systems are implemented and tweaked. Really, though, it doesn't matter; the game shows such raw promise, and so many completely new and novel ideas, that what's there is more than enough to squeeze a considerable amount of enjoyment from.