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New World Aeternum turns a middling MMO into a great RPG

New World Aeternum is very much the definitive edition of Amazon's flagship MMORPG, but I'm worried it's just too little too late.

A man wearing a metal bearded mask with a traditional helmet with glowing blue eyes looks to the side off of the camera

When Amazon Games first announced New World: Aeternum, the “spiritual sequel” to its flagship MMORPG, New World, I think we were all a bit perplexed. Is this a remake? Is it a full sequel? Is it an ARPG rework? Why now? Questions, questions, and yet more questions. As one of the millions of people who tried out New World at launch, I was intrigued, especially given the apparent switch to ARPG-style combat; I imagined New World’s universe with an injection of Diablo and the fluidity of Lost Ark. I was pleasantly surprised when I sat down at Summer Game Fest to take Aeternum for a spin, but I ultimately left with more questions than I had to begin with.

Our journey begins as it did before: in the bowels of a rickety old ship bound for the mysterious Isle of Aeternum. The cutscenes aren’t available in the Summer Game Fest build, so I’m launched into the character creator and then onwards to the upper decks. As thunder booms and the waves continue to batter the sides of our vessel, a barrel explodes in front of me, opening a path for what I presume was once one of my crewmates, who shambles menacingly towards me, weapon raised. New World: Aeternum thrusts you into the heart of the action immediately, and I like it.

As I hack and slash my way through yet more of my fallen friends, the screen fades into a cutscene, which again is obscured. When I reawaken, I’m gasping for air as the broken bones of my vessel sink around me, fire raging, casting ominous shadows across the dark mirrored surface of the ocean. After almost two and a half years of waiting, I watch as our protagonist swims to the shore – yes, Amazon’s MMORPG now has swimming, rejoice! The amber of the flames gives way to a gorgeous waterfall, surrounded by emerald plant life. Visually, it’s stunning – the sun’s rays peek over the mouth of the waterfall, and the water shimmers as it parts around you. New World has always been a beautiful game, but this truly feels like a level-up.

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Rather handily, my provisions have floated to shore, allowing me to equip my first-ever gear set. I chose the Musketeer which, while I’m not saying I inspired it, does include both of my primary weapons from when I first started playing, so I’ll let you put two and two together. Armed with my trusty rapier and musket, the cave before me takes me on a winding journey through the rock, bringing me out on a ledge overlooking this bizarre new world. It’s a throwback to the original tutorial, and it puts a smile on my face; now I’m starting to see why game director Scot Lane calls it a “spiritual sequel” in our exclusive Summer Game Fest interview.

But beyond this tranquil space once lay Captain Thrope, the man in charge of the tattered remains of our once proud ship. I find him hunched over the box given to him by Father Russo in New World’s first cutscene, struggling to pry it open. A mysterious voice whispers in his ear: “You must become something greater. The fountain; drink and accept my gift.”

From here, the boss battle ensues with greater grandeur than its predecessor. Where Thrope once felt like a boss for the sake of being a boss, he’s now a realized character who I get the sense we’ll see more of – I won’t tell you what happens, don’t worry.

New World Aeternum turns a middling MMO into a great RPG: Three characters with huge weapons rush towards a heavily armored man who is pointing at them in a dimly lit cavern

While this is just the tutorial, it does feel like an upgrade over its predecessor. Amazon has championed its new narrative approach, and New World: Aeternum certainly feels like more of a cohesive story straight off the bat, whereas the original New World felt like it was in a hurry to get you from A to B, which hurt the pacing.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t prefer New World’s original ship graveyard to Aeternum’s. I’m a sucker for that Pirates of the Caribbean ‘dead men tell no tales’ vibe, and I’d rather have seen that area revamped instead of completely reenvisioned. I can’t deny, however, that this is a far more exciting intro to the game. Graphically it’s gorgeous, and narratively it’s a lot stronger – if I was playing this for the first time, it’d leave me in awe.

New World Aeternum turns a middling MMO into a great RPG: A blindfolded witch casts purple energy in her hands in a graveyard area as a spirit flies towards her

Following my altercation with Thrope, I respawn mid-battle, as our new starting quest giver, Alestrom the Fallen King, tears up a corrupted sailor using a hefty greatsword. His personality matches the intensity of his somewhat boggling eyes, and he quickly sends you out on your first quest: skinning some boars. From here, quest-wise, things proceed as normal – until we meet Grace O’Malley.

The leading lady of Fellowship and Fire, New World’s first season, Grace is now the one who sends you scouring the wrecks for records and loot. In our interview, Lane tells me that he’d encourage players to play again “just to hang out with Grace,” and I agree that she certainly injects a bit more life into the initial fetch and return quests.

This section also doubles as my first real experience of combat outside of the tutorials when I come across a slew of corrupted sailors. As someone who played far too much New World, the combat immediately feels more dynamic, with the transition from rapier to musket almost dreamily smooth. I take on some heavier enemies, zip around them, and cut away at their health bars from afar. As a player who likes to hit hard and get out unscathed, it feels perfect.

It’s worth noting that I played New World: Aeternum on Xbox instead of PC, as only console builds were available.New World Aeternum turns a middling MMO into a great RPG: A tanned man wearing a musketeer uniform fires a musket at a bear that runs towards him, a broken magical pillar in the background

But I have to go back to my earlier question: why now? While New World has seen resurgences around Rise of the Angry Earth and various Steam sales, this all feels very sudden. The Aeternum announcement has led to a review bombing campaign, implying that this revamp is just not what diehard players wanted – especially when you factor in the added cost of the Rise of the Angry Earth expansion, which is required to play Aeternum.

What I’ve played of Aeternum does feel like the “ultimate version of New World” that Amazon promised, but is it too little too late? While competitors like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 have continued to flourish, New World didn’t have legs. Amazon has arguably taken a risk in deciding to shoot for mass appeal with this reboot, upsetting its admittedly small core audience in the process, and while the console release will lead to an influx of new players, Aeternum has an uphill battle on its hands to get the OG fans back onside.

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New World Aeternum releases on Tuesday October 15 and will replace the current version of New World. Much like Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the original New World will cease to exist once Aeternum arrives.

Additionally, as part of the summer Steam sale, you can also pick up the standard edition for 60% off ($15.99 / £13.19), or get the Elysian edition, which includes Rise of the Angry Earth, for 43% off ($39.98 / 33.18). If you’re planning on diving into Aeternum, the latter may be the better option.