Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Initial Impressions: Salem

I've gotten about an hour to click around in the Salem beta.  There is something to be said for games that offer no hand holding and require their users to look up a guide just to create a character.  I'm not talking about a guide for figuring out what the best stats are; I'm talking about a guide that explains on what and where to click so the player can even get to the point where they get to make a decision.  Salem is more of an idea than a game currently, but hot damn, what a brilliant idea it is.

The first thought that hit me when starting off in Salem (aside from trying to figure out why someone would want to sell me crickets in Boston) was that Salem is Ultima Online (UO) set in Massachusetts. I was immediately brought back to my early days of UO: no idea what I'm doing, no idea where to go, random wandering in the countryside clicking on every object I can interact with, stumbling over other player's homes and settlements, and a constant fear the next person I see on screen is going to lead to my death at the hands of a murderer.  All of these elements are present in Salem.

The only problem is, unlike UO, there isn't really a clear "this does this and that does that".  UO was a fantasy game and it was easy to piece together that a sword slashed and a fireball was flung.  In Salem, the setting is colonial Boston (aka the New World) and the associated lore may as well be a foreign language.  Salem makes no attempt (that I could find) to explain anything.  A player that is unwilling to venture to the beta forums or a spoiler website is in for a rough experience.

To make matters worse the UI is terrible.  Nothing works as expected outside of the grid-based inventory and character portrait.  Skills aren't explained and accidental clicks result into investment into skills which may or may not be implemented yet.  The mini map does not seem to rotate with the player's positioning and direction making guided travel a lesson in frustration.  Fortunately, the UI is open to modders and there are already some decent UI mods out there (which I've yet to try out).

Add into the mix some bugs such as maple leaves not re-spawning and the inexperienced player is quickly lost on what they are expected to do.  Then Joe Blow shows up and murders them, permanantly killing the player's character.

This all should add up to a giant pile of rage-quit, but for some reason the more I clicked around the more I became intrigued. The overall puzzle of "what the fuck am I supposed to do!" wasn't unraveling, but I found myself setting goals for myself.  For example, I found I could harvest branches which I could then use to build piles of logs which I could then use my tinder box on to start a fire (though the whole build process is a mystery to me).

I'm very curious about Salem now.  With a better UI and some effort invested in explaining the game to players, it has potential.  I'd also add in that Salem is clearly in an alpha stage, not a beta stage.  Its very difficult to test something that doesn't seem to be anywhere near finished.

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