Sunday, December 30, 2018

Buzzcut Season: First Impressions Of Atlas.

It was barely three weeks ago, when we first heard of Atlas, the new game from ARK developers Wildcard. Hard to believe, I know. In that short time the supposedly mould-breaking, game-changing pirate-themed "ultimate survival MMO of unprecedented scale" has been announced, delayed, released, reviewed, reviled, refunded and written off.

Atlas held the headlines for the blink of an eye, with stories of the worst MMO launch ever (not even close) and a galaxy of negative reviews. With that excitement out of the way, just as you might have expected of a game literally no-one had been waiting for, the world shrugged and moved on.

In this corner of the blogosphere almost no-one had been talking about Atlas anyway. I mentioned it in the second half of a rambling post that began by talking about Daybreak Games. Keen used the trailer as a springboard for a finger-wagging warning against giving in to impulse. No-one else paid it much attention at all.

Meanwhile, as I said in my reply to Keen, I'd been monitoring the whole farrago with curiosity and interest. I'm not big on either pirates or survival sandboxes but Atlas looked like it might have a bit more about it so I was keeping an eye out.

I took the trouble to read a few dozen of the many thousands of negative reviews on Steam. Almost without exception they complained of not being able to play the game at all. Most couldn't get past the log-in screen. For the few who did, there was nothing to review except lag, rubberbanding and disconnection from the server. Typical MMO launch, then.

Every character I made looked psychotic. Then, it is a Pirate-themed MMO.

The average time played for all these reviews was less than two hours. It needed to be for the writers to get the refunds they all claimed to have taken. This was certainly strong evidence that trying to play Atlas right now wasn't the cleverest of ideas but it told me precious little about the game itself.

I kept on looking at reviews, hoping for some insight beyond sour opinions on Wildcard's ethics and infrastructure. After a few days I noticed the rating had risen from "Extremely Negative" to "Mostly Negative". Yes, that's an improvement.

All the reviews at the top of the Steam page were still from people who hadn't actually played the game so I added a filter to show only the Positive reviews, paying particular attention to people who'd racked up a significant number of hours in game. A very different story began to emerge.

Apart from a few jokes, some of them amusing, the positive reviews, and there are currently nearly five thousand of them, come from people who have not only managed to log in but have stuck around long enough to play. Many of them have now been pirating thirty, forty, fifty hours or more. They say things like

"...its kind of rough to start out but once you get going with gear, base, ships, and a lot of company members, it gets really fun"

" I have had an immense amount of fun - as have the group I play with..."

"I have had a great deal of fun, and putting together that first ship felt so good I dont care if it blows up tbh, its the journey there that counts."

"for $20, I'd easily buy this again".

Value for money, fun, people playing the game day and night as soon as they managed to get in. The asking price was already low and there's 17% off until until January, so why not? I bought it.

Then I left it for a few days. Wildcard were reportedly still patching like crazy to fix bugs as well as  upgrading their infrastructure to cope with the unexpected demand. (Unexpected, that is, except by anyone who's ever experienced any MMO launch, ever). Also, the minimum specs state "100GB available space", which I took to mean a hundred gig download. For that I needed both extra storage and time.

Maybe I should start with something a tad smaller.

Both of those arrived this Sunday morning. After breakfast I successfully installed the new 2TB Hard Drive I got for my birthday back in November. Storage sorted, I hit Update on Steam, whereupon I discovered that Atlas has "only" a 40GB footprint after all.

It was all done in about an hour. I took a deep breath and hit "Play".

Everything went amazingly smoothly. I was able to log in, first time, with no difficulties or delays. Eschewing my usual preference for playing on North American servers, I picked the offical PvE server with the best ping; the EU one, unsurprisingly.

I fiddled with the options for a while. I couldn't get the 1920x1080 resolution to fit my screen properly, something that continued to mildly annoy me for a hundred of my one hundred and one minutes played. Ironically it was my first death that fixed it.

Before any of that, I had to make a character. Character creation is detailed and easy to understand. There are plenty of sliders for everything from the size of your hands and feet to the tilt of your eyebrows. The sliders only move between fixed options, so it's not the full-on Black Desert Online or Blade and Soul experience, but it's more than enough for me. Trying to get a good look at my choices I found the view of my character yawed and pitched emetically but maybe that's just because I don't have my sea legs yet.

I never thought of "Level-Up" as an abstract noun before. Interesting syntax!

After fifteen miutes I had a female pirate, as unpiratical as I could make her. I was ready to go. At some point, I forget now if it was before or after character creation, I also had to pick a starting area from a very large number of squares on a map. Some of them were "Lawless". I didn't like the sound of that so I chose a Freeport in the temperate South-West.

After a pause just long enough to make me think nothing was going to happen there was a burst of static, like an old shortwave receiver losing the station, and I found myself on a dock next to the sea. It was night-time because of course it was. And my character had somehow found time to get a buzzcut along the way. I guess it's practical, at least. Perhaps her hair will grow back, eventually.

I'd read someone complaining about the series of tutorial tips that open in a large window as soon as you log in so I was ready for that. They weren't kidding. Ten lengthy pages in a fancy font. Quite well-written and probably helpful if you read them back later but not what you want when you're already disoriented and trying to figure out where you just landed.

Still, I'm not one to miss a chance to read the manual. I kept half an eye on the pop-ups while I fiddled with the options some more, trying to get my window to fit. When the lecture finally ended I jogged off to begin tearing up bushes and picking berries. I kenw to do that from my recent experience in the alpha-that-shall-not-be-named. It's standing in me in very good stead all round when it comes to surviving in new worlds.

Y'know what? It's pitch dark, I can't see my hands in front of my face, maybe I will just pause and read these ten pages of instructions while I wait for daylight.

People who've played ARK, of course, which may well be almost everyone interested in Atlas except me, won't need any instruction on what to do. They all report that the opening stages are almost identical. Those who have gotten as far as building their raft and sailing out of the tutorial say the real Atlas, a different game altogether, lies on the far side of that zone line.

Not having played ARK, I wouldn't know. What I do know is that for the ninety minutes or so it took me to get to level four and make myself a full set of clothes and a weapon I was having plenty of fun. Also, everything worked. More or less.

There was no lag to speak of. Absolutely no hint of rubberbanding. I didn't disconnect once. All the buttons did what the tool-tips said they should. I was able to play in third-person simply by twiddling the mousewheel. The world seemed reasonably attractive, albeit not in the same ballpark  visually, as either the mysterious alpha or the recent Ashes of Creation Arena.

Wandering along the shoreline, my bags already filling with fibres and stones from repeated presses of the "E" key, I spotted my first animal. A rabbit. Come on, how tough could it be?

Is that a pig? I think it's a pig. What if it's a bear? Maybe wait 'til the sun comes up?

Still, I was wary. Forewarned by something I'd read in a review about high level mobs in the starting area I was canny enough to check the bunny's credentials before launching a frenzied two-fisted assault. Level 29. I gave him a pass.

In a while I came across a chicken. Aha! Level 2. A fair fight. The chicken didn't think so. She ran away.  But not fast enough.

Emboldened, I attacked a pig. I say "pig". It looked like a vicious wild boar. Fought like one, too. So did its piggy pal, who came barrelling across the beach like a guided missile. Social aggro, how we've missed you. Also forgot you existed.

The battle was short and manic. Everything jumps and leaps like a bull in a rodeo. Me included. I had no idea what I was doing but pummelling the left mouse button left me with two dead pigs, a screen edged in red and sound effects likely to bring concerned relatives running, concerned mostly about what the heck kind of video you might be watching.

This happy scene was repeated a number of times but only after I learned that cows, sheep and horses run away when attacked. They're safe to kill but next to impossible to catch. Pigs fight back but at least they stay in melee range.

If this scene came with sound I would have to flag it "NSFW"

I found a number of campfires left by other people but never managed to make one of my own because I couldn't figure out how to get flint. Experimenting with the crafting window I made myself a hat. It wouldn't equip at first but after opening and closing my inventory it appeared on my head, a simple square of cloth, tied at the back. Forget fashion, I just want to keep warm now I don't have hair.

Next, I somehow acquired a pick. I think I crafted it by mistake when clicking on something. I couldn't equip it, the option being grayed-out. Eventually I worked out I needed to drag and drop it on my hotbar.

With the pick I was somehow able to skin my dead pigs and with the hides I made myself a full set of clothes. Now I was getting somewhere! I'd read somewhere that before taking the raft you ought to be at least level five and have a waterskin and enough resources to keep you going for a while. Plus you have to make the raft, or at least give the relevant materials to the NPC who can.

Flush with my success and confident in my newly-clothed Survivor status I thought I'd get right on that. I attacked two more pigs. Things went badly. Oh, it was close, but there was so much jumping about and I couldn't keep that one pig targetted so I ended up half-killing both of them while they whole-killed me.
Here I am, in the glorious few moments when I actually wore pants.

At which point I learned that when you die in the starter zone you lose all your gear. The lot. Everything. Seems a tad harsh for a tutorial.

It isn't some crazed, hardcore penalty. It's because in the first few days the sheer number of corpses in the starter areas brought the servers to their knees. So Wildcard simply hid them all. It's a simple solution, I'll grant them that much. A bit like using a guillotine to cure a headache.

Luckily, my demise co-incided with the appearance of lunch, so I was happy enough to stop. After lunch Mrs Bhagpuss and I went for a walk and then I sat down and wrote this post. That's the sum total of my Atlas experience so far.

And now I'm going to log back in, take a careful note of exactly what I need to make the raft and to provide for my immediate future outside the starting zone. I'm going to get all of that done without dying and then I'm going get on the raft and set paddle for the open seas.

It's been fun so far, I'll say that much. We'll see if the fun carries on when I find the "real" game.


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