My tortured quest to become the bunny whisperer in Ultima Online's spiritual successor

If you stepped just outside of Eldeir Village in Shards Online yesterday morning, you would've seen a tragic sight. Thankfully the server, in what I can only perceive as an act of mercy, despawned all the animal corpses. While some are drawn to this Ultima Online spiritual successor by a desire to rekindle those MMO memories of old, my only mission was to tame a rabbit and be its friend. Instead I became the rabbit harbinger of death.

Shards Online immediately feels like a relic from a different era—and I don't mean that to be an insult. I discovered this when first trying to purchase a potion from a merchant and realized that there's no shopkeeper interface to work with. Instead, his stock is spread out on a table before him. By picking up an item, he'll tell me how much it costs. At first, it felt frustrating to add these extra steps to the process, like stepping into a McDonalds and having to order my 2 am shame nuggets from a human instead of zipping through the drive-through. But that old timey traditionalism is everywhere.

Once I adjusted to the pace at which Shards moves, I started to enjoy playing in a world where not everything is convenient. My backpack physically displays items in it so I'm reminded that even in videogames my life is a cluttered mess. Quests aren't marked with glowing exclamation marks above people's heads. And even figuring out how a skill or system works can require trial and error. If it wasn't for Derek Brinkmann, CEO of Shards' developer Citadel Studios, guiding me around for a bit, I'd probably be ghoul food by now.

For someone who has spent the last few months slaying demons in World of Warcraft, those differences almost feel alienating. Modern MMOs try to be such a smooth ride it's like slathering myself in butter before diving headfirst into a water slide. Shards, however, is content to let me feel every bump and knock on my way to figuring out what the hell I'm doing. Even a simple quest to check in on a gravekeeper became an hour-long affair because I was so used to having arrows mark every step of the way. 

Shards Online can also be punishing. In combat, I don't leap headlong into groups of enemies, spamming abilities that turn them into precious experience points. Maybe it's because I'm a mage, but my strategy devolved into fighting one or two at a time and then running for my life when shit inevitably hit the fan. If I died, my backpack and items became fair game for any other player with sticky fingers. I learned quickly that skeleton infested graveyards should be approached with caution and not hubris.

That's when I noticed another player jaunting about with a small pack of wolves as protection. One of Shards Online's abilities—that you can mix and match freely since there are no classes—would let me tame pets. Tired of my body becoming a pincushion for skeleton swords, I decided that having an animal by my side might be sensible. That's when things went so, so wrong.

I had a terrible idea: What if instead of a pack of wolves defending me, I had a pack of rabbits? Is that even possible? I needed to find out. After an introductory quest to taming, I set off into the wilderness to befriend my first rabbit. And it worked. I would need to train my skills a lot more before I could tame multiple animals, but for now I was just excited to have a pet bunny. I named her Scarlett O'Hare-a. Then I accidentally left clicked her while in combat and proceeded to club her to death. Shit.

See, Shards Online's control scheme is clumsy. Because PVP is ostensibly a large aspect of the game, Citadel Studios came up with an inventive solution where certain keys represent different targets. Each time I cast a spell, I choose the target using one of those keys. For tackling skeletons one on one, though, Brinkmann suggested switching to a more traditional setup so that combat wasn't so involved. This way, I didn't need to specify a target for each attack—I would just automatically hit whatever I had targeted. Scarlett O'Hare-a is what I had targeted. She never stood a chance. 

So I tamed another rabbit. This one I named Attila the Bunbun. As we made our way back to town, a large rat ambushed us. Seriously overestimating Attila's prowess in combat, I ordered him to attack. Rats are tougher than I give them credit for. The third rabbit I named Dudley because I couldn't invest any more time into coming up with rabbit names. I accidentally hit him with a fireball because I misclicked trying to change targets. He didn't die right away, which at first I thought was a blessing. Then I realized my fireballs ignite creatures and add additional damage. While I fumbled with the targeting system to try and heal him, he slowly burned to death.

What has me convinced that Shards Online has potential is that, just like Ultima, it's not really a great game—at least not yet. But it is a fantastic catalyst for storytelling.

I decided I should tame something a little more resilient. With my skill level still so low, there wasn't much on offer. I chased turkeys around a farm and let rats chew me to bits while I fruitlessly tried to appeal to their sense of companionship. At one point, I cornered a deer and spent a good 15 minutes trying to tame it.

What has me convinced that Shards Online has potential is that, just like Ultima, it's not really a great game—at least not yet. But it is a fantastic catalyst for storytelling. Here was this poor, terrified animal backed into a corner while a crazy wizard tried to convince it to be friends. I imagine the only reason it put up such a fight is because it saw the rabbit corpses that followed in my wake. It's these little moments that used to make MMOs feel so vibrant and alive. I insisted on forcing this poor thing to become my pet not because a quest told me to, but because I wanted to. In the buttery waterslide theme parks of modern MMOs, that's kind of refreshing. I can only imagine the shenanigans a few players could get up to. 

Sadly, Shards Online is still deep in its alpha stage of development. While Brinkmann told me that he felt now was the perfect time to start playing, I'd suggest that Shards could do with a few more months in the oven. I had a fun weekend betraying the animals I convinced to trust me (the deer is dead but I swear it wasn't me), but I'm not certain that Shards Online is something worth spending more evenings with quite yet. There's just too many little annoyances that are a result of being so early in development. Menus are unresponsive and clumsy, movement tends to be glitchy, and there are big problems with lag. There's a lot there, but also a lot that needs work.

Brinkmann tells me that part of the Steam launch this spring includes a sizeable update and a map 25 times larger than the current one. Hopefully that means fixing a lot of the little issues stopping me from recommending Shards Online more earnestly. There's promise, but for now, I'm happy waiting until that it's a little better realized. Besides, I think the rabbit population could use some time to recover...

And prepare.