During the twenty minutes that I played Salem—the upcoming free world, free-form MMO from Paradox—I stole a snail, got ditched in the wilderness by homesteaders, rode a freaky horse, and was stalked by an army of naked settlers. It's safe to say that Salem is a weird place, but it's not really to blame for that: it's wide open, sandbox nature makes it a mere reflection of the players that populate it.
I started the game fresh off the boat in Boston. It's a modest town, and happens to be the only part of the huge world that the developers actually built. Creative Lead Bjorn Johannessen leads me to the edge of the town, where grey stone streets disappear into sand, and tells me plainly, "We have almost nothing to do with what happens outside of here at all."
Boston is the only safe area in Salem: a guaranteed place to spawn if you lose access to all other spawn areas in the game, the only place where players cannot attack one another, and home to vendors that'll buy materials from you so you can earn the coin needed to blow the joint and start homesteading in the wilderness. A couple nice-looking NPCs around the corner offered to help me find my way in the wilderness for a fee of 20 silver. I was flat broke and didn't feel like spending hours chopping wood for Mary McVendor back there, so Johannessen was nice and fronted me the silver. I handed it over to the frontiersman and they promptly dumped me in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a tiny makeshift shelter and a few trees.
This is where the game starts to get crazy. This is set in ye olde times when America is just being settled, right? So there's no map of the area--I have no clue where I am in relation to Boston or anything else in this game. I am now alone with my trees, my shelter, and the developer that led me here. (And to be fair, I can't even be 100% sure that this guy's the developer's character. You can't see anyone else's name: you just right-click people and name them yourself, so you have to trust they are who they say they are.)
So it's not reassuring when Johannessen tells me that he has no clue where we are in the 625 square kilometers of randomly-generated wilderness that makes up Salem's world. But we decide to explore it. Three horses spring out of the ground at the call of dev powers, and I hop on top of one despite my reservations about its surreal appearance. As we ride along the river, Johannessen tells me that farther out into the wilderness, creatures get more "Alice in Wonderland-esque." All the big spooks in American folklore, like jersey devils and hidebehinds, can be found out there.
On the other side of the river, we see a giant collection of limestone waiting to be mined, but none of us have learned the skill to swim or to mine, so it's not much use to us yet. Although I can see the limestone, much of the rest of the world looks fairly barren. Johannessen explains that's because you can't even see a lot of the gathering nodes until you've raised your skills to be able to acquire them. It's a fairly realistic system: if I no nothing about herbs, I wouldn't be able to spot Rosemary in a field of flowers.
But I can spot trees, and I want to cut one down. Unfortunately I don't have an axe yet, so I settle for watching Johannessen cut one down. After hacking at the tree for quite some time, it comes crashing down, replaced with a stump on the ground a log laying to the side of it. But this isn't Monkey Island and I can't toss an entire tree log down my pants, so we have to chop it up into logs to make wood blocks, which I can put in my inventory and use to build equipment and tools on my stead later.
This is the big hook of the game: much like Wurm Online or Minecraft, everything in this world can be harvested and repurposed to fit your needs. But every tree you chop down is gone for good, so you'll need to be aware of your actions' consequences before you find yourself deforesting your entire village without seeds left to plant new trees. I could use this wood to build a coal clamp , which will produce charcoal after three days' time, which I can then burn as fuel or use as fertilizer to boost my crops' growth rate.
We stumbled onto another players' homestead, who was kind enough to show us around. His mini-fort, which consisted of a ton of tools of industry (smelters processing raw ore from the mine he'd dug below his land, plants growing all over the place, bins loaded with all sorts of plants and knick knacks he'd acquired, and baking ovens building clay pots to grow garlic in—all encased within half of a stone wall.
Once his barricade was complete, he'll be able to stop annoying tourists like me from wandering into his property, but since he couldn't get rid of me, he decided to show me around. I named him "Friendly camp guy with garlic" on my friends list. He showed me how to mine and let me swipe a snail sneaking around his garden (I named him Sleepy).
Now this one-man show was fine and all, but I was more interested in larger player settlements where players work together to build whole towns and mini civilizations. But there was nothing civilized about the next settlement we wandered into. As it came into view, I noticed a naked man running away. "Well that's odd," I thought, but I carried on. By the time I reached the edge of the fenced-in town I realized that everyone was naked, wearing only weird masquerade-style masks. There were at least 30 players running around the huge, well-built town, completely nude. As soon as they saw us wandering villagers, they rushed at us and some primal instinct inside of me urged me to run away or kill myself before the 30 naked men and women descended upon me.
Johannessen must've had the same instinct, because he quickly applied developer-only invulnerability buffs onto myself and him, and warned me not to remove it while we were in the town. He'd heard of these guys and they weren't what you could consider well-adjusted individuals. We sprinted as fast as we could through their town, while the frustrated pack of residents crowded in on us, swinging weapons, and leaping up and down against us uselessly. Johannessen told me as we ran that this group has been plotting on the forums to raid a nearby village, murder everyone that lives there, loot it, and burn it to the ground. This was Johannessen's world, but it was clear from the tense tone of his voice that this was not a place he felt comfortable in--these people were crazy.
But maybe they're not crazy--this is Salem after all, maybe there's some witch forcing them to act like this. Nope, Johannessen killed that excuse by explaining that the only magic in the game so far is a few trivial curses and a flying broom. As he ran further from the town's borders--which was a shame, because they'd really built up an impressive settlement that almost rivaled Boston in size, and looked like it had tons of tools and equipment to share--the nude army fell away one by one until we were alone again.
We had our special dev-immunity buffs, but I asked what normal players could do to protect themselves from crazed villagers like these. The easiest solution is obviously to avoid them, but more pro-active players will be able to track and punish law-breakers. When a player murders someone (a big deal in a game with permadeath like Salem), they will leave a scent behind them. This scent allows other players to track them and use evidence acquired at the scene where the murder took place to "summon" the guilty character, even while the player is offline. Once summoned, the vigilante sherriff is able to dispense justice and send the murderer packing to the underworld. Plenty of other activities like battery and larsony can get you busted, but won't carry such a harsh penalty if caught.
It's easy to imagine a whole cycle of cops and robbers emerging in the fledgling wilderness society, and that's what has me most excited about Salem. It's graphics are cheap, the building seems tedious (although rewarding in the long run), but the player interaction looks downright marvelous. This could very well be one of those games , like Wurm Online and EVE Online, that are just as fun to read about as play.
Salem is going into a commercial beta this summer, with a full launch planned in the Fall.