A war horn bellows across the land. My Marauder compatriots have been called to assemble at the gates of Ebonscale Reach to launch an offensive against the tyrannical Covenant. Fifty soldiers from each side will decide the fate of the region – but reports from my fellow Marauders are dire. Only a handful of our troops have signed up to fight, and the battle is fast approaching.
Ebonscale Reach is a level 51-60 zone in New World, Amazon Games’ hit new MMO (which you can buy here). I am level 26, but I have a duty to my people. The war board waits in the city across the water; my friends and I are bravely wading across the bayou into deadly territory in order to sign up for the battle.
After hauling ourselves onto shore and making camp on the sand, a reanimated skeleton notices us from afar and takes aim. We’re so low level that every enemy in the region wants a piece of us. Languorous crocodiles, lumbering along the waterside half a mile away catch our scent on the breeze and crack hungry grins before launching themselves towards us.
A teammate cries out; I hear the snapping of teeth, and then she’s gone. We’re so close to the settlement! I can see the gates, but a crocodile latches onto me just a few feet from safety. I hit the dirt. As my vision grows dim, I watch my last remaining teammate crest the hill and sprint through the city gates.
This is probably not how you’re supposed to play New World. But then again, I’m not sure there is a way you’re supposed to play New World. It appears to be a game about Leveling Things Up. Given enough time, everyone will have level 20 in all weapons, level 200 in all trade skills, a real estate portfolio, and at least one fancy hat – I’m excelling at that last measure of success. My character can do everything any New World character can do, eventually, just as soon as I make it past those crocodiles.
This makes for plenty of content to while away the hours, but it doesn’t lend itself to creating a distinct identity for my character. Who the heck am I? All I know is that my character got shipwrecked on an island full of nasty portals and she’s put together an azoth staff to beat the devil out of them – same as everyone else on the server.
The quests and lore notes make for delightful reading when I pause to pay attention, but the actual questing itself is repetitive; I spend most of my time ferrying materials around or rummaging through chests, then heading back to town, dropping off my bounties, and picking up a fresh crop of quests that are essentially identical.
Watching those numbers go up is satisfying, sure, but if I’m investing my time into a character in a fantastical world, I want to feel a connection to their story, a sense of their identity – especially while questing alongside hundreds of other main characters.
It’s a difficult spark to capture. My gold standard for this is Cryptic Studios’ defunct MMO, City of Heroes. This was a game that sat you down at the character creation screen and gave you the easiest creative assignment in the world: make up a superhero. Select and customise your powers, your costume, and the basic building blocks of your backstory. You would have to actively try to create a boring character.
City of Heroes placed a huge emphasis on group content and there were always plenty of fellow heroes eager to join missions; you never knew who was going to turn up. You’d call for backup, and a glowing jellyfish would arrive, then a fairy covered in pink bubbles would swoop by, followed finally by a dude in a Santa suit with wolverine claws, sprinting at the speed of sound.
Plenty of people made a real effort with their character’s biography, and roleplay was pretty common if you were interested. But even without trying you always felt like part of a bigger multiverse. You’d encounter taxi heroes dressed up like yellow cabs, offering to use their teleportation powers to safely bring low level characters home if they found themselves on the wrong side of town. It felt like you could create any character you could conceive.
Although my New World character feels cookie cutter character by comparison, to say she’s totally bereft of any identity defining choices would be unfair. She’s a member of the Marauder faction, which ostensibly means she’d rather hit a problem with a sword than use guile (Syndicate) or dogma (Covenant), but most importantly it means that she has lots of allies, and even more rivals.
Being part of my faction community is enough to keep me invested in the world, to keep me risking my neck in PvP missions and leveling up my skills to help my allies become stronger. My character does have a role to play, but only if I’m content being a pawn in the game of the wider server.
I can make a name for myself through contributing to the community by offering help, thinking up war strategies, or making friends. But are these my character’s contributions? Not really – they’re mine. My New World character is only ever going to be distinctive because it’s played by me. Maybe someone will remember me as the level 26 who, on their fourth attempt, successfully somersaulted their way into the middle of a war they definitely didn’t belong in. But it doesn’t feel very likely.
It’s a system that helps foster a sense of community, helped by New World’s relatively cozy server size. You’ll recognise people as the same names pop up over and over again, not for their in-game character or their builds, but for their behaviour as players. Did they beat me in PvP, walk me through a new dungeon, or fill general chat with nonsense? It’s communal and social, but it’s not exactly roleplay – I’m not playing a character, it’s just me in a fancy hat.
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