Some Assembly Required: An early look at Dawntide

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Hey folks, and welcome back to Some Assembly Required. The column's been around for a little bit now, and we've done everything from developer interviews to opinionated rants to sandbox and player-generated content feature spotlights. One thing we haven't done is an impressions piece on new sandbox titles, and I aim to fill that void today with an early look at Dawntide.

The title is an open-world fantasy sandbox under development by Working as Intended, an indie outfit that calls Copenhagen, Denmark home. Dawntide has been under construction for quite a while now (we first spoke with the devs way back in the summer of 2009), and after a series of funding and development challenges, the end of the long beta journey is in sight.

Dawntide - newb temple
I've spent the past couple of weeks tooling around the open beta with several different characters. Dawntide strikes me as a pretty deep game, at least conceptually, and during my playtime I managed to engage in the usual combat, gathering, and crafting pastimes. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Character creation
Dawntide's character creation is more limited than I like to see in a sandbox. The models look nice enough, and they feature details ranging from chest hair (on the men, thankfully) to facial scarring to weathered and chiseled expressions appropriate for the game's grim fantasy aesthetic.

Unfortunately there are no customization sliders, so you're left with a choice between the Vynn (your typical white gamer avatar) and the Cevanti (dark-skinned but otherwise very similar to the Vynn). Yep, it's humans only, and the other visual limitations become apparent when you click through the face, hair, hair color, and eye presets (each has around eight or nine options).

Stats and skills banner
After character creation, it's on to stat customization, and you get 10 points to spread amongst strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, willpower, and spirit pools. Each choice offers a brief paragraph explaining the nuts and bolts, but if you're a powergamer or going for a very specific build, some forum research will help you see which abilities go with which desired outcomes. As an example, I dumped most of my initial character's points into strength and intelligence in order to carry more weight and to increase my chances at crafting exceptional items.

Dawntide - combat characterAfter you've sorted your attributes, Dawntide prompts you to choose a few skill presets (five to be precise), and it's here that things can get tricky (or interesting, depending on how much you enjoy theorycrafting). There is a huge number of options, and you'll need to pick between crafting and various non-combat disciplines as well as traditional martial and sorcery skills. Choosing a skill bumps it to 20 and basically gives you a good starting point for your build (skills range from 0 to 100; more on that in a minute).

A few of the skills are marked as unimplemented (like fishing, doh), so I ended up going with three crafting-related skills (skinning, leatherworking, and tailoring) as well as long blade and light armor proficiencies to increase my survivability while exploring/gathering. Though several of the skills are off-limits as I noted above, I must admit to a bit of excitement while perusing the lengthy list. Things like ship navigation, taming, thieving, and brewing share the space with more vanilla crafting disciplines, indicating that the devs are intent on providing some variety to Dawntide's tradeskilling game.

Once you've made your choices, the client deposits you back on the character select screen from which you can enter the game proper.

My Vynn character loaded into some sort of rustic temple, and I spent some time getting acquainted with the UI. It's fairly elegant compared to the UIs of many of the indie MMOs I've played, but you'll want to pay attention to the question mark icon in the lower left corner of your monitor (or simply press H). This is the help index, and pretty much everything you can currently do in the game is at least listed here, if not described in detail.

Dawntide - wilderness hutI know it's taboo to suggest that gamers read a manual in the age of Twitter and short attention spans, but if you're serious about Dawntide, you'll need to spend a few minutes paging through this stuff if only for the basics, like how to rotate your camera, how to turn off auto-walk (which is on by default), etc.

Taking a look at the skills topic, for example, will tell you that Dawntide skills are divided into four categories (basic, profession, combat, and sorcery) and that each skill is capped at a value of 100.0. There's also a character skill cap (700) that prevents a single avatar from mastering everything in the game (cough Darkfall cough). It's worth noting here that basic skills don't count against your total, so feel free to experiment with all of them if you don't have a clear idea of your desired character build.

Skill gain happens each time you use a particular skill (even when you fail), and each use fills up that skill's experience bar. Over time, the stored XP converts to skill gain, and your bar can hold a maximum of 16 hours' worth of skill gain. The help interface says that "when your experience bar is full it will take 16 hours for it to become empty. Experience will convert to skill gain even if your character is offline."

Finally, skill increases also lead to attribute increases (recall that I distributed my attribute points at character creation). The help text provides lumberjacking as an example and notes that the strength attribute will increase as lumberjacking does.

Yes, the skill mechanics share some similarities with Ultima Online, but unfortunately for Dawntide at this early stage, that can't be said for the rest of the game.

Combat banner
Combat is rather curious, though admittedly I'm still a newb at all things Dawntide. First of all, there is tab-targeting, but there doesn't appear to be any indication on your UI as to where the target is. This was particularly challenging at night, as I'd occasionally tab across a bandit, rabbit, or other random wildlife, and then have trouble finding the target even after a lot of running around. This isn't so much a complaint as it is an observation; I actually enjoyed having to hunt for prey (that's why they call it hunting, after all, and not "shooting stationary loot pinatas").

You'll also need to remember to draw your weapon -- F for melee or R for ranged -- as well as sheathe the thing when you're finished (elsewise you won't regenerate health and mana). You can build up force, speed, and balance points by performing certain abilities, which in turn unlocks additional combat specials. Aside from that particular wrinkle, Dawntide's combat appears to be quite similar to other dice-based hotkey systems familiar to MMO fans the world over.

Combat animations could use some work, as my first encounter with a couple of goblins looked quite stilted and left a lot to be desired in terms of visual polish. I managed to kill one of the brutes before succumbing to his buddy, and upon death I was whisked to the nearest respawn altar. I still had all of my equipment, but a quick glance at the death entry in the help menu confirmed that once I shed my newbie gear, corpse runs to recover said equipment would be the order of the day.

I also had a few latency issues, as mobs kept walking past me even after I'd attacked them, only to rubberband back into place while I was trying to position myself. I'm hopeful that these quirks fall under the "it's beta" category and will be ironed out for Dawntide's eventual release.

Tradeskilling banner
I traveled a bit off my personal beaten path when it came to sampling Dawntide's gameplay spheres. Usually I'm an explorer and crafter first, but this time around I spent the majority of my time fiddling with combat and skill builds. I'm not a huge fan of betas (and the associated character wipes), so I didn't skill-up any of the game's various crafting disciplines in time for this report (and in expectation of doing so when it counts).

Harvesting was enjoyable if not revolutionary, and I killed plenty of geese, rabbits, and other wildlife in the service of my skinning skill and my resource stockpiles. Skinning (and pretty much all gathering) is as easy as right-clicking the corpse with a skinning knife in your backpack (which I had by default, presumably by having chosen skinning at creation). After a brief animation and some squishy sound effects, I came away with feathers and an egg for my trouble.

The crafting process itself involves finding the proper recipes from local NPCs, acquiring the materials via the aforementioned gathering process, and clicking away. It's nothing you haven't done before in other games, but there looks to be a lot of specialization and item variety (particularly when all of the skills and disciplines are turned on).

Atmospherics banner
Dawntide's visuals are a decidedly mixed bag. I mentioned avatars earlier, and while variety is lacking, they look pretty decent in my estimation. Animations need work, and the environments can be either beautiful or quite dated depending on where you're looking. This was somewhat surprising given the title's use of the Gamebryo engine (also seen in Warhammer Online and RIFT).

On the plus side, there are some very nice lighting effects on display, and Dawntide's nights are actually dark (but not impossible to navigate). Composer Dan Reynolds' music is quite enjoyable, and my only complaint here is that there isn't enough of it. Sound effects seem similarly sparse and not particularly memorable (save for the skinning noises), though that could be due to long stretches of exploration and manual reading.

Final thoughts banner
If it seems like I've been inordinately hard on Dawntide, that's not my intention. I went into the game fully expecting to love it (and hoping to add an immersive sandbox title to my cluttered gaming docket). Currently, though, the title is more about good ideas and potential greatness than an actual fun play experience.

My hope is that WAI manages to hang on to its funding long enough to apply a liberal coat of polish. All of the ingredients are in place for a rather delicious sandbox stew, but it definitely needs a bit more time in the proverbial crockpot. Don't take my word for it, though. Dawntide is still in open beta (and playable for free), so jump in, experience it yourself, and help shape what could be a great sandbox destination.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!
This article was originally published on Massively.