I don’t know why I got into this proto-MMO, Wander. I mean, it wasn’t really even on my radar until a few weeks ago, and that was just a brief flash, a moment of “oh, cool!” that faded into forgetfulness. It certainly wasn’t getting any build-up-to-launch hype, and as such I assigned it to that box of “eventually” that contains my most eagerly awaited MMO’s – Star Citizen, EQ Next, WH40K Eternal Crusade, Crowfall, Shards Online.
Then suddenly, it had a release date. And that release date was a week away. With that impulse control that all great people lack (right? right?!) I decided I must have it, and finally get in on an MMO launch experience for once. And, after all, I had bemoaned the lack of innovation in MMO’s, so how could I not at least give this new idea a fair go?
I think Wander is a very aptly named title. You spend your time exploring a beautifully realised world, discovering the natural wonders and un-natural (i.e. built) sights alike. You begin as an Oren, a treant who wakes up without clear memories of how they got here and where they are. But there is a feeling of familiarity, too. As you explore, you find hints and clues that begin to fill in some gaps. There is no danger, there is no rush, there is no combat, there is no survival, there are no maps, there is no goal but what you make for yourself.
Eventually you will find special places that allow you to shapeshift. There are three forms available to find, to make four total. Each has a unique advantage in being able to explore certain parts of the world. Azertash are aquatic lizards, who are fast and agile swimmers. Hira are human-like beings that can move fairly quickly for long periods, and can skydive. Griffins can fly. And Oren are slow, but can acquire fireflies that allow them to illuminate the darkest of caverns. Sometimes these forms can work together to achieve new experiences. Hira can ride griffins, for example. That means co-operating with other players, who are the only other active beings in the game.
How do you co-operate with others? You can speak to them via an in-game language, Rohzda. But you need to learn the vocabulary of Rohzda by finding marker stones hidden around the world.
The world is beautiful. Even on my crappy old machine, on medium quality, it is beautiful. That isn’t surprising – this is built with CryEngine, after all, and I know what that engine is capable of producing. I’ve played Crysis. I’ve played ArcheAge. It is a great engine with which to create a richly detailed world that is a dream to explore. And the developers have clearly done a lot of research on their rainforests, because running around in Wander feels very familiar to my memories of walks through Australian rainforests. The ambient sounds are spot on as well.
As I said, I know what CryEngine can do. It is clear that it hasn’t been fully utilised in Wander, though. I don’t know how much of it is my machine, and how much is the game, but there are plenty of graphics issues here. Bad, patchy or inconsistent textures, horrific popup issues, collision detection problems, are just the start. Animation is terrible for the Oren and Hira. I remember that one of the things that impressed me the most about ArcheAge was that the movement animations of my character (and mount) were the most natural of all the MMOs I’ve played. It felt right. Movement in Wander doesn’t feel good. It needs a lot of work. As the primary activity in the game, it has to be as near perfect as possible. It has a long way to go before that can be said.
The Rohzda system is a neat little idea, I think. But I also think that I am in the tiniest minority on that point. I foresee so much bitching and whinging about it from the playerbase, that the developers will end up making it obsolete. It won’t happen soon, but I think it will happen eventually. One of the major talking points of the console game Journey, is the ability to somehow connect with other players even though you can’t properly communicate. I have no doubt that the developers of Wander were aiming to capture that feeling again with their Rohzda language and decision to have no in-game chat. But I am not sure that enough people will appreciate it, and many will be actively turned off by it.
I am not sure how the multiplayer aspect of Wander works. When you start the game, you don’t get any choices except for settings. No character creation, no server choice, no starting location, no names, no account registration, nothing. Is everyone on one server instance? Are you randomly assigned a server instance upon first entering? Are you taken to a random server instance each time you log on? Who knows? It may or may not be important for solo play, but for those who want to join friends in game, it is crucial. If you are all on the same server instance, well and good. Voice comms will allow you to eventually meet up using landmarks. But if you aren’t? That will kill a lot of interest.
In a similar vein, I am slightly worried about it from a solo perspective, too. I’ve spent a few hours in game so far, and I have seen maybe four, five other players? Perhaps they are limiting the numbers per server instance to keep a calm, tranquil feeling for players. Perhaps it is the times that I play. But perhaps it is simply that it reflects the interest in the game. I don’t like that last reason, because it bodes ill for the developer.
Finally, we come to the elephant in the room: content. So far, there is not much to talk about. Exploration is cool and all, but there needs to be more to it. Walking, swimming, or flying around an empty world – no matter how beautiful – is a very, very limited entertainment proposition. Certainly not one worth $25. There are some explorers whose only motivation is to see what is out there, to poke their nose into every nook and cranny they can find, but I think they are few and far between. As an explorer, I need a reason. I need a story, or a puzzle, something that will reward me for my time (and money) spent. I’m all for the lack of conflict or danger – after all, a game like A Tale In The Desert pulls that off too – but there needs to be some kind of challenge, some hook to keep me playing. So far I’m not seeing it. I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt for now that they have plans to implement such things, but I hope it doesn’t take them too long or they will lose the rest of their players.
It really feels like Wander was released way too early. Maybe they were forced into it for funding reasons or maybe they were simply too inexperienced to properly judge how far along they were. In this first weekend since release I have seen plenty of improvements, so I have hope that they will come through with the goods. I will continue to play regularly, at least for the next few weeks, and I hope that I’ll have better news once this launch disaster is well behind us.
I do like Wander. I am not recommending that you avoid it totally. But it is not finished (even by MMO launch standards), so if you are considering playing it then be aware that you are effectively buying into a beta or early access game. Otherwise, wait a few weeks and see how much things have changed.