A tale of a fateful trip. It started when my brother called and gave a helpful tip. “There’s this sandbox game you ought to try, in the age of sail and ship…”
So I downloaded Uncharted Waters Online. How to describe this game. Imagine your favorite 90’s console RPG made sweet, sweet love to EVE Online, and this is the legitimate but slightly offbeat offspring. Skill based – but with classes that favor certain skills (advancing them at twice the normal rate) and can be changed with minimal effort. Three well-defined areas of focus – Combat, Trade, and Adventure. 100 v 100 PvP battles but also options that would allow you to play with absolutely no weapon or combat skills and still do just fine. And its free to play – no, seriously – there is *no* subscription option. No “gold” members. And a learning curve that is higher than average, but with a solid tutorial that lasts…
Well, it really was a three hour tour – that’s how long it took to get through the tutorial. The first one. And I loved every minute of it. I had that feeling like I might when on the sixth mission in that tutorial, I was told to sail from London to Antwerp to find a book. And all I had was a static map of Northern Europe with a few major cities and landing areas marked on it. No quest markers or exclamation points. I admit, I panicked a little. The game kinda slapped me and was like “didn’t you learn to read maps in middle school?” London here, Antwerp to the southeast there…I have a compass. Okay, lets do this thing. And that’s the brilliance of this sandbox. Just enough help balanced with just enough respect for the fact that you are an adult and can probably figure this out on your own. (And if not, you’re going to be caps lock yelling in the school/help channel, where one of the helpful GMs – yes, honest to god, they are there – will help you out. )
I’ve played a grand total of three nights now, and I’m only just now wrapping up the Intermediate (second of the three) tutorials. I’ve also taken a few contracts (missions/quests) in between, just to make sure my learning was more than just book oriented, and I admit, the tutorials are good. One of the oddities of this sandbox is that you can only have one active contract at a time. Its just as well for me, playing the game mainly in the Adventure realm – most of those quests are things like the one I did last night. Sitting in Antwerp, and I get a contract from a scholar who has heard rumors of a flying rodent over in Oslo. Would I be so good as to head over that way and investigate them? You’ll need Biology 1, Ecological Research 1, and know how to speak Nordic. I did so – though I should also note that, since I have a healthy fear of pirates, I picked up Swordplay before I left as well. Trade contracts will ask for you to do things like secure certain trade goods (only certain goods are available in certain ports) or ask you to learn new crafting recipes. Combat (aka “Maritime”) contracts will have you tracking down NPC pirates on the waters or bandits on land.
Or, you can stuff the contracts altogether and start your life of PvP (or PvE) piracy and combat. Along the way, you can use guns or hand weapons, which gain power as you use them and get better with them, and equip any number of specialty items for your party of sailors/marines – from hand grenades to throwing knives to medicines to tip the tide of battle in your favor. Not to mention your own skills, some like Swordplay that will help you and your party both passively or something in the Surgery line that you can activate using Vigour – action points.
Combat is overall much like Eve – not a lot of whack-a-mole button mashing – more about your ship and party setups. Do you use your upgrade slots for an armored stern-castle for an edge in boarding combat? Or use it to pile on extra sails? And will they be vertical sails for outright speed or horizontal ones for maneuverability? Will you choose a ship with rowers for the best agility – knowing that will leave you with less hands for boarding combat and cannon fire? Should you have long range cannons or smaller cannons that reload faster? Or a mix of a the two? Do you use one of your active skills to try to tip the battle? Vigour doesn’t regenerate over time – only with eating and drinking. Did you bring along any food beyond your basic provisions for that? Will you have time to eat before your next combat? Maybe you should make a run for it – or hand over some tribute items (NPC) or offer up a ransom of ducats (PC) to try to get them to leave you alone. Overall – the game is much more forgiving than Eve is though – ships do not cost and arm and a leg to buy and outfit, and getting shipwrecked is not so bad – unless you end up in a country where you don’t speak the language. But then hopefully you are smart enough to not be privateering off the coast of a country whose language you are unfamilar with. And if you are – well, there’s a Body Language for that – it will take up one of your skill slots, but if you don’t want a bunch of languages clogging up those slots either, it will at least let you withdraw some money from the bank to buy a cheap ship that will get you home.
Crafting is deep and wide too. Advanced ship builders can customize their ship right down to the most basic stats – it looks like a whale of a trading ship, but all that cargo space is now filled with guns. Cook anything from the hilarious (Sea Pizza) to the most formal (Steak Tartar). Speaking of which, if you want to present your new discovery to the Governor in his honor for a a reward or perhaps a new skill or in return for the production of a special item – best not do it in your salt-water skivvies. He only talks to people who can dress like a civilized man (or woman). Best pay attention to your clothing’s formality stats as well as its protection values. Or keep a couple of sets of clothing on hand – yes you can make those too. Craft at the craft shop, at your charater’s housing, in your ship, or anywhere else, then set up shop in the town square and hawk your wares – yep, direct P2P sales – or put it up in the Bazaar and look for an offer.
Adventuring is the real gem though. If STO had a system like this in place, it would have been the feather in the cap most traditional Star Trek fans were looking for. Non-combat puzzle missions that garner “discoveries” that can be turned in to famous figures for achievements, xp, cash, and other favors. John Dee in London is looking for more esoteric mysteries, but that new Celtic manuscript you uncovered with your landing party on that uncharted beach in Northern Europe is just the kind of thing that Mr. Shakespeare would pay handsomely for. Contracts may ask you to open up trade routes between cities, visiting both within a certain restricted time period and using our Survey skill to map out the route. Or you may find a map for a some treasure an old pirate buried down in the Ottoman Empire. Visit Japan and trade your clipper in for one of their famous armored “turtle ships” or castle-like Atekebunes and your leather hauberk for a kimono. Major cities like London will have randomly trending fashions though – so maybe you should buy two and sell the other when you get home – it may fetch you enough money to buy that private island you have been dreaming about.
I started the quest for a good sandbox MMO over a year ago. I tried Istaria, which started out strong and then got dumb and slow. I had much the same problem in Vanguard this past month when I went back to it. Three solid nights of adventuring got me halfway from level 22 to level 23. Uh…no thanks. Project Gorgon is back up and running, and I will be involved there from time to time, but its a long way from done. Dawntide is on life support, and probably won’t recover.
I think that quest has come to an end. If you want to try the game but aren’t a Steam person, here’s the main site. The game is truly free to play, but the shop offers lots of fun and convenience items. You don’t really need anything to start out, but the Novice Sailor’s Package at $4.00 provides plenty of bang for the buck with large quantities of provisions, consumables for sailing to save on your Vigour, and some Lifesavers to recover your already experience crewman if you do get shipwrecked after running afoul of pirates or a trolling player. My advice for starting players – to the tutorial. All of it. And then go back and do the tutorials for the other two areas of interest as well (the tutorial system is “smart” – it will skip basic lessons you already know from another field). Oh and keep most of your cash in the bank, just in case. Not every three hour tour ends well.