See Wild West Online's treasure hunting and beautiful yet lonely world in action

You can watch the footage from the hands-off demo above, but please forgive the scattered audio mix. For an unknown reason, our capture device was a bit selective with the sounds it picked up.

Who among us doesn’t want to ride a horse and lasso a criminal? Only those who want to be one of the criminals themselves, hunting gold and mischief for a living. However, the fantasy of the wild west, as lusted after as it is, has yet to find a long term home on the PC. Rumors of a Red Dead Redemption PC port have been torturing us for half a decade, and a few notable western shooters have come and gone, but there really hasn’t been any reliable way to roleplay spaghetti western life on the PC.

Wild West Online, an MMO in development by 612 Games, is hoping to be exactly that. Billed as “emergent systems-driven, open world, Wild West-themed action MMO”, it features a huge map in which hundreds of players will hunt for buried treasure, pan for gold, buy land, and steal it all from their rightful owners. It sounds like a massive undertaking, and the initial reveal screens looked too good to be true. Further, some cast wide-eyed skepticism at the devs for suspiciously close ties to Sergey Titov, developer of War Z and Big Rigs, two poorly received games built in WWO’s very own Nightshade engine. But 612 Games have refuted any direct ties to Titov, and in an effort to prove that Wild West Online is indeed a functioning game, Creative VP Stephan Bugaj visited us to show off the game in action, albeit in a very early, limited state. 

Without a truly live play environment with a normal player population, it’s hard to gauge whether what I saw will be any fun or not, but at the very least, WWO’s world is undeniably beautiful, if a bit lonely. And calling it an MMO might lead people into expecting a more traditional RPG, a min-maxing mob grind for better loot. Instead, think of it more like a slow burn battle royale, with laws, a gold economy, and land ownership. 

Gold rush 

We start in a house, but it’s ours. There are property deeds in WWO tied to finite plots of land, and anyone can invade your land, provided they can get through your defenses. What those defenses might be, I’m not sure yet. Chaingun-wielding horses seem out of the question. Staking your claim and investing in its expansion and protection is the most obvious marker of progress and prestige, but nothing you own is safe, as Bugaj clearly demonstrates. He loots a few objects by holding down the interact button for a long time, though he tells me looting minigames will take the place of timed progress bars in time.

[Update: 612 Games sent over details clarifying how land-ownership works that I misunderstood while seeing the demo and asking Bugaj questions:

"1) There’re farms that are owned by NPCs. Those farms can be raided by players. Basically you can go there, steal stuff and kill NPCs (there were no NPCs in a demo though).

2) There will be land lots. Most of the time they will be either close to town or set in scenic view points on a map. There will come in two sizes—small and large—basically defining size and design of the main house.

Players can own them and those are kind of instanced areas you and players in your party will see it, while other players will either see it as non-occupied or will be locked out by gate and fence. Inside it’s your own domain, you can put decorations, roleplay, etc. Other players can’t attack those."

It's a bit of a bummer, honestly. If my home is never put in danger, then I can't see myself taking as much pride over staking a claim and building a life. But if any player could enter my house, things might get a bit too chaotic and frustrating, I suppose.]

Newspapers will change to reflect world events and notable player accomplishments.

Looting doesn’t come without consequences, and he takes a reputation hit, a system that governs what kind of role you’ll play in WWO: lawman or outlaw. I get a better idea when Bugaj visits the town saloon and buys a treasure map from an NPC sitting at a table. It marks a location on the map with an X, of course, but it doesn’t point directly to the treasure. He hops on a horse and heads to the marker, noting that once we leave the town limits the reputation penalty for murdering him lowers substantially. At the ‘X’, we find a rock painted with an arrow pointing into the distance. He heads in that direction, bouncing between a few different arrows, until he finds a chest and loots it for gold.

Now imagine a dozen player-controlled bandits hiding in the bushes. 

This is where things can go from fetch quest to fucked. If you’re carrying gold, it’s visible on your character, meaning if you choose the bandit life, stalking treasure hunters and plotting an ambush is equally as viable as heading out with a law-abiding treasure hunting party. How players team up to spite one another could make for some tactical, goofy cowboy shenanigans, but I didn’t get to see for myself. With hundreds of players in the world, anything from panning for gold to bounty hunting has the potential to allow for some elaborate ambushes and counter ambushes, especially because the world map doesn’t feel designed.

It resembles a natural western sprawl, sagebrush and rolling hills follow rivers into dense pine forests. It looks fantastic, but feels a bit empty. I really hope there are bizarre locations and one-off NPCs to discover, otherwise I fear the world will feel like a boring, big multiplayer arena.  There’s no wildlife in this build either, though that’s definitely in the pipe. I like the idea of a grizzly bear throwing its hat in the ring on team battles, tearing well-laid plans to shreds—and people too. 

Panning for meaning 

Bugaj eventually fast travels from one safe house to another across the map, all of which you’ll need to unlock by venturing further out into WWO’s world, braving more powerful players and wildlife as you explore. We’re going to pan for gold, so after buying a new pickaxe and a few weapons, he heads down a path towards a small river. Nearly there, we’re ambushed by two bandits looking for some lunch money, but Bugaj takes them out (after a few too many shots, but hey, pressure was on, I get it, man). I’m into the idea of roleplaying a roadside bandit, though I’m not sure how frustrating it might get as an honest player trying to get by in the world. Bugaj says they’re hoping to figure out ideal player counts for each server that spread the population thin enough to force occasional conflict without fear of getting ganked anytime you leave town. 

Panning for gold isn’t the greatest thrill in this build. Chunky gold nuggets are strewn about the riverbed innocuously and a massive gold boulder sits nearby so Bugaj can demonstrate the mining mechanics. In the final build, panning for gold will be more authentic and elaborate, with sifters you can leave behind while you busy yourself somewhere else (and hopefully, genuine pans). My character will need new teeth. He can’t quit the tobacco, you see. 

I can't comment on how the gunplay feels, but it'll need to feel excellent to prop up the more banal activities, like panning for gold or farming.

My time in WWO ends there, quite abruptly. It may have been slight, and far too early to see it in action, but the short demo convinced me that WWO isn’t being designed as a lazy cash grab. The world is massive, gorgeous, and the systems within weren’t built overnight. With the right tuning and player population, it feels capable of fulfilling certain aspects of the western fantasy. I’m just not sure how interesting it’ll be in a large scale, live environment. 

How long panning for gold, farming, or treasure hunting can hold my interest will depend on the how good the basic interactions feel, and how much fun it is to stake and maintain a claim in its depiction of the old west. With scheduled train robbery-themed raids and more activities yet to be announced, there’s plenty to look forward to in WWO, just not enough to prove it’ll all work quite yet. I’d definitely hold out on buying in until we can see and experience the raids, firefights, property ownership, and in-game economy at length. In the meantime, Wild West Online is a rough outline of some good ideas in a setting left idle for far too long.