The Black Death (opens in new tab) is a survival horror MMO, but Unlike Day Z and its ilk, it’s set squarely in the Middle Ages. Day Z’s zombies have been replaced with the omnipresent fear of bubonic plague infection, and Instead of patching together guns and medpacks, you’ll be working with crude swords and fresh beef.
Not unlike the Terminator, I arrive in this new world alone and (mostly) naked. It's night and I can just make out the vague outlines of others on the horizon. They must be NPCs, or at least someone who could tell me what's going on and what I should be doing, so I track them. On approach, they unsheathe crude weapons of stone and sinew and shred me.
"Alright," I think, "that was a bad idea." When I come back to life, I'm told that I've lost my gold, my loot and any skill points I may have had.
This time, I make it a point to avoid any shadow-cloaked figures in the distance. I scavenge through ruins, abandoned houses and broken, shore-bound ships. I pick cotton, gather onions, and manage to kill a few cows for meat. Hunger mounting from a long day of hunting, I find some fires to cook the beef and turn out some basic meals. This is going well.
Right as I feel as if I'm starting to get the hang of this survival game, I round the edge of cliff and find a darkened copse. From it, two bandits emerge. Knives drawn and plague-ridden, once again they start tearing me to pieces. And, once again, I respawn with nothing to show for my previous hour of work.
If you've played any DayZ-style multiplayer game, this should sound familiar. You do what you can until the world brutally stomps you into ground. But, after a bit, I started noticing something different in The Black Death. Other players started helping me out.
When I complained about getting slaughtered twice in succession, one suggested that I take his axe. It wasn't much, he said, but it'd help if I stumbled into another fight by accident. Others helped me figure out some good locations for farming—the literal kind with seeds and plants. That gave me a simple resource I could come back to and collect from time to time.
Cotton, they said, was also a great way to level-up and build-up skill points. You can find it growing in huge swaths in some areas, and you can quickly turn it around to make bandages, which you can use to heal yourself in a pinch.
This was a far cry from my experiences in other survival games. Here "survival" doesn't mean struggling to stave off master-class trolls who have every piece of the map and every mechanic memorized. Instead, The Black Death's built on something of a community. In my five or so hours with the game, I never once fought another player, only encountering a few hostile NPCs. PvP exists, or so I'm told, and it's a draw for some, but the real foe is the environment. Everything is dead or dying in this grimdark facsimile of 15th century Western Europe.
Uncooked or rancid meat, as well as disease-carrying people and animals can infect and kill you if you're not careful. Crazed beasts can also be a challenge to outpace, and while you can sprint for some time, doing so causes your character to work up an appetite. Hunger is a persistent threat, and food, even in the best conditions, isn't always easy to come by. The map is large and filled with traps, ambushes, and terrors. I saw more than a few men who, overwhelmed by the moribund state of their village, had given themselves the noose.
When you do come to combat, it’s a challenge, but not for the right reasons. You’re meant to have three different different stances which affect how and where you swing or thrust your weapon. But, for now, they don’t work. Or if they do, it’s spotty and unpredictable. Fights devolve into frantic clicking and jockeying for position while you wait and hope that yours are the serendipitous cuts that land.
It was a nice surprise then, to find that a nascent community was growing not around frustrating and harassing one another, but banding together to help live through The Black Death and carry on in spite of it. Perhaps this is a temporary thing, though. As more flood in, I wouldn't be surprised to see tricksters and trolls overtake the compassionate. It’s possible that with an emphasis on cooperative play and trading goods and services between players of markedly different classes The Black Death will manage to avoid that fate, but I could see it falling apart regardless.
And other than that positive experience with the community, the Black Death doesn’t have much to set it apart. Your explorable area is about 8 km by 8 km, and while that sounds like a decent-sized chunk of land, after five hours or so, it can start wearing thin. The country sides are sparse and locations repetitious. Crafting doesn’t have the depth of other games in its genre, either, with few resources and only simple recipes
That said, The Black Death is in its earliest stages. Many features are buggy or don't work at all. I found one house with a hanging man surrounded by bear traps. In an adjacent room was a chest filled with invaluable loot: ale, cooked meat, and some honey. But none of the bear traps triggered. I also spent a good chunk of time with only my head peaking above ground level. And I distinctly recall fall damage only applying at random intervals.
It's in Early Access, so some of that is to be expected, but it's hard to overstate just how rough The Black Death is right now. Even so, there's a kernel of something special here, and if it keeps building, I'd love to come back, dreary as the Middle Ages may be.