I always love it when a new indie MMO comes across my virtual desk. I never know what I'm going to get, even though I think I can tell a lot from its name or even the font that the name is written in. Ensemble Online is one of the newest ones, and I assumed it would be a sci-fi sandbox. In reality, it was indeed a sci-fi sandbox but mostly felt like a more cartoony, gentler Wurm Online.
I was even able to sit down with the developers during my livestream of the game. Thanks to the fact that the team seems to be really up on social media and appears to pay attention to things like the press (unlike many indies), I learned a lot from that livestream. Be sure to watch it; it's embedded in the article.
Ensemble Online holds a ton of potential. It's not there yet, but I'll tell you why I think it can stick around for a while.
The main reason that the game has such potential is that the team seems to know that fun is more important than hardcore. I enjoy many hardcore MMOs. Hardcore shooters, hardcore crafting, hardcore roleplaying, exploring, leveling, digging, starving... the list is long. Despite the abundance of hardcore MMOs, many gamers think that they are rare and wonderful gems that need to be treated well just because they represent a shift in standard designs. I hate to break this news, but the hardcore MMO genre is as bloated and repetitive as any other. Once you've seen one MMO that allows your character to starve or to be griefed by other players openly (that's hardcore, I guess?), you've seen almost all of them. The main thing that varies in the genre is the look of the games, but even that can be similar at least in concept.
What's missing a lot of the time is fun. I've seen the arguments in the comments section dozens of times: The hardcore fan is making fun of a game; the themepark fan comes to its defense. What the hardcore fan doesn't get nine times out of ten is that the themepark fan is not there to try to exist in a world so close to life that his character will spend more time fishing for food than having an adventure. Fun is the name of the game, or achievement is. Either way, hardcore often leaves out fun and joy, things that should be universal to gaming unless you force them out.
Ensemble Online is not a rip-roaring good time; don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that the game is some sort of perfect blend of themepark meets sandbox. It's not. My point is that the team seems to want its game to be fun above all. While I welcome the idea, the game is not quite that fun yet, but I can see where it's going. I also wish the devs luck in that realm of design simply because even dipping your tow into hardcore waters can open you up to criticism that you didn't completely dive in headfirst.
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The game is as simple as can be, which is nice as well. You make a character using a basic but adequate character creator, follow a few instructions from a popup, and then find yourself in a central meeting area, surrounded by other newbies. Within minutes you can be gathering wood or rock and can create a wall or building as soon as you are at least 200 squares away from the newbie area. Inside a few sessions I made quite a bit of progress on a decent starter town, and after the livestream I had a friend or two volunteer to build with me. So far I have not needed any more advanced materials, although they are required for more complicated buildings like a mython gate. The gates work simply enough as well. If you can build one, you can connect it to another. Many players use the gates to connect to faraway gathering nodes or other towns.
Gathering is automatic, meaning that once you right-click on a node, it will automatically gather resources even while you are AFK. The time between gathering grows longer each time, however, so leaving your character on a spot overnight is just not that fruitful. It's best to be active and to find nodes that you have not visited for some time or at all. A new node can let you gather material almost instantly at first, but soon you'll be waiting minutes between.
As you gather and build and even fight off local creatures like tigers or goats, you will gain levels. These levels earn you points to put into different skills that help you become a better fighter or to even move more quickly. The skills are limited for now, but the developers want the game to be a cross between RPG, sandbox builder, and social experiment. I didn't really notice where I was putting my points at first but soon decided to start; I put many into the ability to build and move quickly, but I might start putting more points into combat effectiveness. Mobs drop all sorts of goodies, including armor and weapons, so fighting them will likely come up in the future.
Speaking of fighting, I found you can avoid PvP sometimes, but it's not always that easy to control. I added people to an "allies" list, which gave them permission to help me build and to use my buildings, but they can simply take me off of their allies list to attack me. There will be plenty of in-fighting and drama, of course, another feature of a "sandbox" game that comes with the territory.
The game is free-to-play but does offer a cash shop that sells powerful items. I asked about this selling of "power"; it turns out there are items in-game that can be crafted or gathered that are just as powerful. Selling items of power is a much more popular trend than it used to be, something that will only become more common, and it usually comes packaged with the excuse that it is acceptable because there are items in-game that are just as good. I'm not sure that calms down those who cannot stomach the selling of power, but I am not bothered by it at all. Just be aware that it does happen in this game.
So I spent much of my time gathering, chatting with the other players, building wall after wall, and trying to find rare resources. Is the game fun? It is, but it has a way to go. It's still rough in many areas, but as someone who has seen so, so many indie games suffer from the hands of developers who simply could not step out of the programming tent long enough to check in with web sites or with the players, I can say that Ensemble Online has a fantastic foundation to work on. Once a foundation is solid, anything can be added on top. That puts Ensemble Online ahead of many other indies that have been out far, far longer.
Next week I will be diving back into Wakfu to see whether and how things have changed. You can join me for a live look on Monday, the 23rd of September, at 4:00 p.m. EDT, right here on our livestream channel!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!