Sunday, 17 April 2016 00:00

The Black Death Early Access Review

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I’m a sucker for history games – most of my reviews are on games that have a bit of history intertwined into them, so when The Black Death was up for grabs, I snagged it as quickly as I could. An MMORPG centered around one of the darkest periods in European history? If that doesn’t sound interesting, I don’t know what does.

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, killing up to an estimated 200 million people throughout the European continent. As the theory goes, the disease was spread from central Asia to Europe through Genoese merchants as they fled from cities under siege by Mongolians; the Mongolian army had the disease and allegedly flung the corpses of those affected over city walls to devastate the army (and anyone else) within. The merchants became infected and, along with fleas on the backs of rats stowing away on the ships, spread the plague throughout their home continent, wiping out anywhere from 30 – 60% of the population. As the historical setting denotes, this is a very dark, somewhat depressing survival game where you’re fighting against literally all odds in order to live to see the next day.

You begin The Black Death like you would in any other MMORPG title – character customization. While the character skin is not customizable, you can choose your class, or “lineage”. The options are militia, which doesn’t have a lot of carrying power but you can kick during battle; merchant, which can trade like a shopkeeper and can adjust the prices of goods they sell; lastly, peasant, which can carry more weight than the other classes. There are 9 more locked classes – 3 of which are visible (hunter, smith, and monk) and 6 of which are not yet announced for a total of 12. You can choose your character’s name and gender, although when I selected female militia I still started off as a male. Weird, but whatever…I guess my guy named “Boudicca” won’t get teased or anything…it’s not like the NPCs have more to worry about in their lives, like…I don’t know…not dying from a horrific disease.

But I digress…

As it is an MMO, there are different servers to choose from. Since this title is still in Early Access, there were no players in any of the servers offered, so I was alone for all my run-throughs. My first entrance into the world freaked me out – I didn’t know what was going on since I just got there, but the first thing I heard was a growl from an unknown animal. I immediately sprinted as fast as I could just…away. Away from the scary thing. That furlong led me straight into a camp with one guy standing at the entrance. He didn’t seem to notice my presence, and he stood in the same “at the ready” position with a hood over his head and an axe poised to strike. Curious, I walked over to him, only to have him attack me once I was literally on top of him. I was able to run away, but I was still getting attacked for some reason. Every few seconds was another hit, even though the guy was nowhere in sight. I finally committed suicide and started over (wasn’t gonna let a glitch get the kill).

My second entrance placed me in the same area I began, but no scary animals growling this time allowed me to take a look around. There was a cemetery and some deer wandering around a small cottage. I continued walking towards a town, the path populated with corpses and random offenders hanging from high-up nooses. The town had a tavern, houses up for sale, random NPCs, people hanging and in the stocks, merchants, and…well, promise (hopefully). Random experiences in town included hearing someone somewhere be attacked (couldn’t locate the source), sitting on a stool, and building a table (I guess I’m helpful like that?).

I’ll admit, I was a bit underwhelmed with the game in its current state, but only because I was literally dropped into the world with just about nothing – no weapon, no direction, and only a little food.

I spent most of my time trying to find a suitable weapon, only to end up crafting one from a stick that would definitely not stack up against the hostile NPCs. Once I had a weapon, combat system proved tricky to learn: left click was one stance, right click was another, and scroll button was the third. This made fights more strategic, as using a stance may result in a hit but may also leave you vulnerable to attack.

One really cool feature was the affected cities – towns completely ravaged by the plague. Much like a leper colony, these hives were populated with people dying of the Black Death. While some were already dead or near death, many were driven mad by the illness and will attack you on sight. Attacking these disease-ridden almost-zombies will be worthwhile, as they have weapons and other items to loot, but they will most likely pass on the disease to you.

Speaking of disease, you can (and will) get the plague. You have two meters that constantly need attending to – disease and hunger. You can catch the disease in different ways – either from the aforementioned “zombies”, houses marked with a red “x”, and moldy food. Once you have the plague, you are stuck with it – you can’t get rid of it, unfortunately. It doesn’t seem to affect you too much. I was up to 28% and all I really noticed was that my vision blurred from time to time. Hunger is probably the most annoying part of the game, as anything you do makes you hungry - even standing around will result in your hunger increasing by a few percentage points. Once you hit 100% hunger, your health will start to decrease as you slowly starve to death. Finding food becomes the focus of the game, especially in the beginning; if you can’t forage enough food in the start, you will starve within the first ten minutes. There is a lot of loot on the Capitol Bridge, so I recommend starting there before venturing out into the wild, diseased beyond.

The environment was hands down my favorite part of the game. As I walked around, I became more and more depressed – in a good way, because it meant that the setting was believable and immersive. The clouds were overcast and made for a gloomy atmosphere, the people were dirty and disheveled, and there were random dead and dying bodies throughout. This dark and dismal environment made the game feel more realistic – there weren’t any dragons to slay or potions to create; instead, there was disease to avoid and just the overall despair of trying to survive in 14th century Europe. It really set the tone and even made me more afraid to mess up because the consequences seemed carried more weight and were more rooted in reality than say, WoW or ESO.


The Verdict

I think this game has great potential and a lot of promise, but in its current state it is glitchy and hard to understand. There isn’t a lot of direction and it crashes often, but its unique approach to MMOs grounded in such a dark period of history makes for such an interesting title that I definitely think it deserves our patience. It’s a solid concept with good bones that I think will be more fun a few patches down the line. I think this would be most fun with friends, as discovering all the glitches is actually kind of funny and would be more enjoyable with someone else laughing alongside you. At this point in time, this world is literally untapped and open to exploration – that alone is something I believe is enjoyable and worth the purchase.

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Heather Johnson

Heather has been playing video games ever since she can remember. Starting off as a PC gamer at age 2 with edutainment games and progressing to the NES and beyond, she has always had a love for everything gaming, PC and console. She’s carried a hand-held console in her back pocket (now purse) since the 3rd grade and is probably the only person in her mid-twenties that still enjoys street-passing. She lives in Los Angeles and currently works for Bandai in the marketing department – she doesn’t make toys, she just makes toys look good. Right now she is actively avoiding planning her upcoming wedding by playing Skyrim. Other hobbies include trying to go to the gym, watching documentaries, sleeping, and tormenting (see: showering with affection) her beloved Maine Coon, King Henry VIII. Favorite games include FFX, Katamari Damacy, Saints Row IV, Skyrim, Catherine, and Phoenix Wright. She has her phone surgically attached to her hand and is happy to help whenever possible.