Thursday, June 22, 2023

Coreborn: Nations of the Ultracore Demo: First Impressions

I'll begin with what I told the developers of Coreborn: Nations of the Ultracore in the extensive feedback questionnaire I completed after logging out of the demo a couple of days ago: I found the game much more impressive than I expected. I'll also repeat what I told them in the final, "Any other comments" section: they really need to get working on a better trailer because the ones they have now do the game a disservice.

If I'd made my decision purely on what I saw in those videos, I'd never have downloaded the demo. Luckily, this is still an MMORPG blog as much as it's anything and I'm still an MMORPG fan, interested in and occasionally excited by the possibilities inherent in the form. Consequently, I feel a sense of obligation to check out as many new titles in the genre as I can manage and since there never seem to be many MMORPGs in the Steam Next Fest, I can hardly afford to miss one just because the trailer makes it look bad.

Even so, I only downloaded the demo out of a sense of duty. When I first wrote about the game a month ago I was less than enthusiastic, describing it as "worth a punt", which is about as lukewarm a recommendation as you can get. I even declined to link one of the trailers because I thought it was so bad it would actually put people off trying the game.

That trailer, unbelievably, turns out to be the opening of the game itself, the first thing you see when you log in. It absolutely does not make any better impression in context. Indeed, I found it such a teeth-grindingly, jaw-clenchingly awful introduction that I made a quick note to remind myself not to forget how bad it had been when I came to write the review. Verbatim, I wrote

"Terrible voiceover - sound quality appalling - can't understand one word in five."

But you don't have to take my word for it. Here. Watch the blasted thing for yourself, if you can stand it.

I feel comfortable sharing it here because everything else I'm going to say about the game is very positive. I played for over two hours and would happily have gone on playing a good deal longer. As I also said in the feedback I sent to the devs, they have a very solid base already for what looks like a game with considerable potential. It's a great start.

To put a little detail into the picture, the world looks rich, vibrant and attractive; movement is fluid; the UI is clean and efficient; controls are intuitive and comfortable and gameplay is both familiar and immersive. The music is pretty good too but my greatest surprise was finding that, once you get past that abysmal opening, so is the soundscape. 

I removed the UI from most of the shots for aesthetic reasons but it's pretty unobtrusive.

I'll start with that, just because it's such a bizarre contrast. As I said, I literally couldn't understand anything any of the characters said in the opening cut scene, not only because the voice acting was so insanely over the top as to make Andy Serkis doing Gollum sound like Olivier doing Hamlet but because the entire mix is muddy and muffled.

Clearly, if incomprehensibly, that must be a design choice because all the sound in the game itself is crisp, clean and clear. Not only that, but there's a fair amount of voice acting and most of it isn't just competent - it's good

The way the Help function is introduced as lore-inflected grafitti is inspired.

The game proper begins with a fairly lengthy sequence in which a goblinesque creature leads you through the streets of what turns out to be the hub city, chatting away in expository fashion to let you know where you are and what you're going to be doing. The creature's dialog was well-written and well-acted, as were most of the several other, lengthy monologues I listened to later, when I explored the area.

Those conversations, if you can call one person speaking and one staying silent a conversation, happen spontaneously when you get close enough to an NPC with something to say. It's quite a sophisticated take on handing out quests, except that at this stage there don't seem to be any. Quests, that is.

If you want me to get you something, just ask! You don't have to tell me your life-story.
It seemed perfectly plain that all of the NPCs that spoke to me had things they wanted me to do. They all led up to a request that I help them out with a problem they were having. But then they just stopped. Presumably at some future stage the mechanics of questing will be patched in and attached to the dialog, which will be fine and dandy, although I quite liked the spurious spontaneity of being buttonholed by people so wrapped up in their own problems they just felt they had to share, even though they didn't, for once, expect me to do anything about it.

There may not be any quests yet but there's plenty to do in the demo. Coreborn describes itself as a open world social survival game and all of that familiar gameplay is present and functioning well. You can gather fungi and fruit to feed yourself, pull bundles of twigs and plant fiber out of bushes to make yourself tools and weapons, kill animals for leather to make armor, chop down trees and break rocks so you can build yourself somewhere to live: all of the usual time-consuming busywork that's proved so popular and compelling to millions of gamers for decades.

Item #1 on the agena: Make myself some clothes!
And you know why there are so many of these games and so many more keep getting made? Because it's fun, that's why. It's gameplay that links into pre-existing receptors in the human psyche that pump out endorphins to reward you for doing what's necessary to ensure your survival. Or something like that. It feels good. It's like a drug.

Coreborn doesn't do anything much to differentiate itself from all the other games it's competing with. It's not trying to be edgy or original. The exit interview is happy to ask you to compare it to other games you've played. It even gives you suggestions. Did you think it was like Valheim? Or Minecraft? I'm pretty sure the devs are hoping you'll say "Why, yes, now you come to mention it, that's just what I was thinking!"

Yes, I tried to cross the bridge. Yes, I fell in the river.

And I'm more than good with that as an ambition. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Just put a nice, firm, tire on it so the ride feels smooth and comfortable and make sure all the nuts are tightened properly so the damn thing doesn't come flying off when we get rolling. 

On the basis of what I saw in this demo, the basic groundwork has been laid for what ought to become an entertaining and satisfying experience. There's a very great deal more to be added and some of the parts that are in place aren't much more than placeholders but the potential is considerable.

Fear my bunch of slapped-together twigs!

One of the obvious placeholders is Combat, which is extremely basic and not much fun. There's only a single, craftable weapon - the Greatsword - with a couple of attacks and a special. There's a dodge mechanic that doesn't work all that well (Or I'm useless at dodging, which is another possibility). 

There's a note in the extensive help section about some animals being aggressive and others not but f there's any way to assess the aggressiveness and difficulty level of an enemy, I couldn't find it. Some creatures kicked my butt in seconds, others didn't seem to fight back much at all, but since the cute design aesthetic leaves all of them looking like candidates for a petting zoo it was hard to tell which to approach and which to avoid.

The game currently has a death mechanic that's more of an annoyance than a penalty. You respawn at the nearest designated location with full health and no loss of experience or skills but you drop all of your inventory except for what you're holding and wearing. You have two hours to collect your stuff from the gravestone that appears where you died, after which it all vanishes forever. 

It sounds harsh but since no-one else can loot your stuff and you respawn at most a few minutes from where you died, where a gigantic glowing purple beam of light descending from the heavens highlights the location of your grave, dying is merely an annoying interruption to your gameplay rather than an actual penalty. 

On your left, a purple beam for your grave. On your right, a blue beam for the hub city.

Since you also revive with full health but whatever killed you doesn't immediately heal up, I found myself farming leather from hard-to-kill creatures by pulling them near my respawn and running back to have a second (Or third.) go. That's something that'll need to be tightened and tidied as development progresses but even as it stands I can't say I wasn't having fun. I don't mind  a few deaths if it gets me what I want in the end.

Other aspects were obviously barebones but fully functional. Crafting at the lowest level doesn't require anything other than the right materials and a button press in the UI but there's provision for crafting stations and trees once you progress. Building has few options but what there is has been implemented with style and works fluidly. The social side of the game, involving banding together to build towns, which then need to be defended against attack (By mobs rather than other players, I think?) looks to be implemented although I didn't have time to try it.

"Hedonist"? Hmm. Interesting choice.

Character creation in the demo is minimalistic. There's only one option, a humanoid with very few cosmetic or physical variations. There are several non-human NPCs in the hub city that look far more interesting, including robots and the ever-popular rat-people but also a much more unusual choice: star-nosed moles. I'd be happy to play any of those.

There seems to be a good deal of quite intriguing lore at the back of the setting in which the player-characters finds themselves. The MMORPG, which is being produced and developed by a German outfit called Blankhans,  is supposedly based on a tabletop game of the same name, although detailed information about that seems oddly hard to come by. 

There's a video about the Pen & Paper version on YouTube that has 1.4m views so someone must have played it. Unfortunately my O-Level German isn't up to a two-and-a-half hour long video so I'm none the wiser.

All in all I was much more impressed by the demo than I ever imagined I would be. If I hadn't developed a certain amount of self-restraint in these matters over the years, I'd be in there now, exploring and gathering and crafting and building, just for the fun of it. I'm a little wiser about these things than once I was, though, so I'm just going to keep it in mind for a later, more fully-functional release, particularly one where progress won't be wiped.

Very definitely one to watch, which is more than I can say for the trailer!


  1. That trailer is really awful.
    I don't mind it not showing actual gameplay (while I don't applaud that practice I guess I've become used to it by now), so the visuals don't bother me. The voiceover however, as you said, is so crappy that I'd automatically assume that the game can't possibly be any good either.

    I gotta say, to me personally the character models do look very off-putting, and I'm also not even slightly interested in having to keep my character fed, warm and stuff like that, so it's not a game for me I guess. I'm glad that you had fun though.

    1. There's a gameplay video too, which is better but still not good. The really weird part is that the terrible sound and voice acting in the trailer is also the opening cut-scene - in a game that actually has above-average voice acting and perfectly decent sound quality! It is still in development, so hopefully it'll change. It certainly needs to.

      The eating/keeping warm part isn't really in yet so I have no idea how onerous it will be. I've never known it to matter in any game I've played past the first hour or two, though. It's always something for which the fix is an early progress goal, much the same as getting your spells or weapon in a traditional rpg. I don't see it as much different to that.


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