Thursday, November 16, 2017

Remake, Remodel : Otherland

Was anyone waiting for another post about Otherland? Or expecting one? Safe bet no-one even wanted one. I know I didn't. All the same - incoming!

Last time I wrote about the ill-fated MMO based on Tad Williams' aging Science Fiction trilogy I thought it was Game Over - very nearly literally. By then Otherland had faltered and restarted several times already, lurching back to life each time like the serial killer in a straight-to-video slasher movie. It couldn't go on and even if it could, I couldn't.

When I said goodbye to my one and only character just over a year ago I left him stranded in Lambda Mall without a quest to his name. The main scenario had bugged out on me and I'd lost patience with the whole thing. The game was a laggy, bug-ridden shell that showed every sign of having been abandoned by its current owners.

Hey, barkeep!

It seemed inevitable the only news we'd hear after that would be when the thing finally went dark for good and that would be a mercy. My last words on the subject were: "Never say never. If I hear that anything's really changed - for the better - I'll always be open to taking another look but for now I think I'm done. On to the next world."

Well, I thought they were my last words. Guess what? Something did change and I heard about it.  I tried to ignore it but there the game was, still in my Steam Library (that's all of four games so hard not to notice one). What's more, not only was the game still up and running but it was getting patched. Regularly. Bugs were being stomped. Scraps of news filtered out. Some even suggested the game was improving.

I had a free afternoon. I was on Steam. My mouse pointer hovered. My finger clicked.

Gimme yer fastball. I'll knock the skin off it!

There was a 5GB patch but Steam is fast. In ten minutes I was looking at character select. It was blank. I logged out again.

If there's an MMO I've restarted from scratch more often than Otherland I don't want to remember what it might be. I played through the original tutorial at least twice, then a couple of times more through the revamped one. It was never a lot of fun and doing it over didn't make it any more so.

Still. Curiosity. I went to the forums and began flipping back through the update notes. There were a lot of them. Working my way back to the megapatch that landed in August, right after the game changed hands yet again, I read this:

Patch 5.6.49 introduces many changes to the current state of the game. Both the gameplay and class experience has been redesigned to provide a much more enjoyable experience.

Due to the number of changes implemented we had to remove all player characters.

Okay, so that's where my character went. What the heck, one more try for the gipper...

I have some cream that'll clear it right up.

Character creation seems to be one of the "many changes". I don't remember it being this detailed before and certainly not this slick. A better first impression, for sure.

The tutorial/introduction seems to be mostly the same as last time. It's changed a few times since I first played and the current iteration is linear but none the worse for that. It zips along nicely, explaining what it needs to explain.

There are now pop-up "Hints" that I think must be new but the thing that's really changed is that there aren't any bugs. Well, other than the ones in Bug World but they're meant to be there.

I made it all the way from character creation to Lambda Mall, the game's hub zone, without encountering a single bug, major or minor. That was a first. A welcome first.

Paging Captain Obvious.

There was also barely a sign of lag, another big improvement. That said, there is a stickied post on the forum advising players on how to deal with lag so maybe I was just lucky.

Lambda Mall still looks great - just how a cybermall should look. Unlike last time I had no trouble at all continuing my quest. I got my uSpace apartment (amazing view) and did a couple more introductory tasks. This part of the tutorial has been heavily trimmed and it's all the better for it.

Then it was off to the first proper adventure zone, the starting area known as 5Isles. The mechanics for moving from zone to zone have been tidied up nicely. The portals throughout the tutorial are now very clear and easy to see, something they certainly haven't been in the past. There's a very user-friendly teleport gate in Lambda Mall with an immediately understandable drop-down menu. Much better all round.

My uSpace. I think Luc Besson used to live here.

The quests in the village where you first arrive didn't seem to have changed but everything seemed faster. Much faster. Combat has been tweaked to be a great deal less tedious. Otherland's combat isn't going to be winning any prizes for originality when it comes to mechanics but at least now it feels quick and crunchy.

Knocking down eight of this or fifteen of that took no time at all and the process was much enlivened by the new, flashy visual effects. Clouds of digital artifacts explode around every impact in a very 1990s style that feels quite appropriate if not exactly subtle.

I got as far as the Water City which, I seem to remember, is about as far as I've ever gotten in the game so far. Stopping to take stock I realized that nothing had gone wrong. Nothing at all. It's perhaps not much of a compliment to say that I didn't come across any bugs in the Tutorial or the first starter area but it's more of a compliment than I've been able to offer the game any other time I've posted about it.

And that's just auto-attack.

What the commercial future might be for an MMO based on a fairly obscure IP that's slipping further and further out of public consciousness, one that's been nigh on a decade in development without ever getting as far as an official launch date, I wouldn't like to say. I might be thinking something but I'll be polite and keep it to myself.

Be that as it may, for whatever reason - very, very much against the odds - this particular MMO is still plugging away. When you consider what's just happened to Marvel Heroes, which had both one of the entertainment industry's biggest IP's and the backing of one of it's largest companies behind it, you have to take off your hat to Poland's Drago Entertainment just for keeping on keeping on.

I'm not sure I'll be playing Otherland any more after this. There are a lot of MMOs and only so much time. On the other hand I'm definitely not saying I won't. I said that before and look where it got me.


  1. Hmm. Since TSW gave us the one finger salute a while ago and my MMO diet at the moment thus is cut down to fantasy only, i very much appreciate your article about this game.

    Without testing it yet, just based on what you write, it might have a chance to get my new home for a non-fantasy world.

    1. I wouldn't hold out too much hope but it's definitely worth a look. I don't know how deep the content goes yet but at least there's a team actively working on it now.


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