Wurm Online is a fascinating MMO, even if it's not going to get a high score in a couple of pages. Don't see that as damnation, because this is definitely one of those games where the red number isn't everything.
This is a difficult MMO to join and enjoy. It's also one of the few that dares to be its own game instead of following the usual well-trod paths. If you 'get it', as many have during its beta, Wurm is one of those rare games that can reshape your view of what online worlds should be doing and the freedom they can offer. If not, you'll bounce off it, hard.
Wurm Online's core game is about building and surviving in a player-made fantasy world, and if it looks a little dark, that's because any game setting out to do that these days is going to be in Minecraft's shadow. This one more than most, since Notch himself worked on it.
It's a very different experience, however, for better and for worse. Starting with the fact that while Minecraft is essentially a squared-off sandbox in which games can be played, Wurm Online is an old-school RPG world that allows players to take charge. Alliances, politics, puppetry, religion and more are all part of the experience, as are PvE and PvP servers. You arrive with nothing, and through painstaking labour begin to build a sustainable life: creating shelter, hunting, and learning to cook. Play for long enough and you and your friends can dominate the landscape with a flourishing village. Or you can get lost in the dark and gnawed on by spiders. Your call.
Whichever server type you choose, the world you arrive in is completely player-built, and that's impressive in itself. The very land can be terraformed, from flattening it to make space for a house to digging and paving a road across a mountain, or carving mines and underground passages. If you find a good spot with access to water and resources, and have everything you need to claim it by building a house, consider it yours for the taking.
That's a staggering amount of freedom, and while your ability to knock the world into shape with a shovel and a saw is limited by time, stats and other restrictions, simply knowing you can do it means a lot. There's also incredible scope for community-based play, where your ability to create high-end items is far more valuable than your ability to hit monsters, and great settlements can spring out of a few houses to impress enemies and newcomers alike.
The catch – and part of the satisfaction – is that getting to this point involves so much tooth pulling that Wurm Online practically doubles as a dental simulator. The graphics are terrible, and the interface even worse. It's clunky to the point that a standard error message is – no joke – “Your position on the server is not updated. Please move slower.” You take injuries from stumbling down the slightest hill, and even simple wounds require crafted items to heal.
But oh, that's just the start. Everything is against you here. Everything. For all the game's crafting emphasis, you start off barely able to carry anything at all, and if you die, you lose your inventory unless you can find your corpse. In-game maps? Ha! You're reliant on player-made signs to navigate, and any long journey demands that you craft your own compass. To give this its due, it all definitely adds to the feeling of being a settler in a dangerous new frontier, not just a visitor to another theme park.
Too many dangers, however, are caused by annoyances. The biggest being lack of in-game guidance. The tutorial only covers the raw basics before kicking you out, and openly admits it's not complete yet. This would be easier to swallow if Wurm hadn't been released in 2006.
Luckily, the Wurm wiki is on hand to explain everything, and it's needed: the world simulation is surprisingly deep. Players with the right stats and equipment can forage for food, prospect for ore, build ships capable of sailing between servers, tame and breed animals (which will die of old age), and call on the power of the gods for spells and other bonuses. And that's picking just a few examples. If you want to make, say, a new hatchet, you're looking at chopping down the tree, carving the wood into shape, then mining to find some iron ore and running it through a forge.
Needless to say, this is very time consuming, and while the results may be satisfying, the processes never are. There's no tactility to anything, from combat to tree felling. Crafting is a matter of sitting and staring for up to a minute as timers tick down, which may or may not result in success or skill boosts of a fraction of a point.
This, more than the complexity, makes Wurm Online a seriously tough sell. To put the experience in context, ten hours into World of Warcraft – admittedly a very different MMO – I'd saved my people from certain doom several times over and begun carving a legend as one of Azeroth's great mages. In Minecraft, I'd built a ludicrous house with en suite lava flow, and visited awesome creations on servers around the world. In Wurm Online, let's just say there had been lots of watching Netflix on a second monitor while my clicking finger went numb.
To make the tedium worthwhile, you need to play Wurm Online with other people. Back in 2010, PC Gamer had a thriving community within the game. They scouted the world to find the perfect home, and used Google Sketchup to plan their village. They then spent weeks building together, creating communal tools and setting up a kitchen for free food. Constructing just a single, small shack in Wurm Online can take a single player a week. With friends, it's the closest you'll get to experiencing a barn-raising without growing a beard and renouncing technology.
Unfortunately, my own experiences with the game were the loneliest hours I've ever spent in an MMO. Even seeing another player was a rare treat, while the in-game /who command showed a current server population of between 60-260 and only about 1,500 playing across the entire game on a regular Saturday evening. I've had more social games of Myst. After a largely solitary night of grinding my digging skill, I resorted to tying together all the duvets in my house in the hope that wrapping myself in their combined weight might feel like a hug. It did not.
Part of the problem is that while there's no shortage of things you can build and craft, there's limited scope for creativity. In Minecraft you can make Rapture. Or Westeros. Even Loughborough. In Wurm Online, you can only really make more Wurm Online.
Wandering the map, everything looks much the same. Most projects stood out more for how long they'd obviously taken their creators to complete than for what had actually been created. The underground canal proudly announcing 'Over 300 man hours went into this' still feels like a dark, rocky corridor whose makers had access to a fully plumbed-in timesink.
Inevitable as these comparisons are, they're not really fair. Wurm Online's options may be limited, but they're also infinitely more advanced than anything available in most other MMOs. Also, after designing and building even relatively generic creations by virtual hand from trees and lumps of iron, you're going to appreciate them much more than if you'd simply handed over money and plonked down a prefab. You have to get to that point first, and it's a long trip.
The result is one of those games that may as well have a line of fire drawn between players who can't believe anyone could possibly want to play it, and those who can't see why anyone would want to play anything else. Wurm Online may be slower than continental drift, but it has incredible scope for those players willing to embrace its opportunities. It looks like the back end of a bus, but those simple graphics conceal immense depths that are only evolving as the game continues.
For me, while it's a very impressive game, it's unfortunately not one I actually enjoyed or felt the desire to play for the long haul. If the basic ideas excite you, don't be put off. It's absolutely worth giving it a try to see if it clicks for you as much as it'll expect you to right-click for it.
Wurm Online isn't free-to-play, but there's an unlimited trial generous enough to give a good feel for it before hitting the stat cap. If you dare take its mighty challenge, it's wide open and ready to receive new residents, with a nice grassy spot already waiting for you to start building your first house.
Expect to pay: $6.71 / £4.24 per month
Release: Out now
Developer: Code Club AB