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Uncharted Waters Online is a sandbox MMORPG made by Koei, which merged with Tecmo a few years ago to create (surprise!) Tecmo-Koei. The combined company has revenue of about 30 billion yen per year, which is equivalent to several hundred million dollars. If that's not an AAA game developer, than I don't know what is. So basically, people complaining about the lack of AAA sandbox MMORPGs seem to have missed this one.
It is my belief that a good review should explain what makes an MMORPG different from your stereotypical WoW clone. In the case of a "free to play" item mall game, it should also say what makes it different from your stereotypical Korean item mall grinder. The answer to both is, nearly everything. That is going to make this review rather long.
Koei has long lived in its own universe in game development, with game design choices that scarcely acknowledge the existence of other game companies. They made Romance of the Three Kingdoms, set in China in about 300 BC, in which you take control of one faction and try to unify China under your rule. And then they made no fewer than ten sequels to it. They've also made a number of games in the Dynasty Warriors, P.T.O., and, of course, Uncharted Waters series. If you haven't played a Koei game, then your preconceptions about what they're like are almost surely wrong.
For starters, Uncharted Waters Online is not primarily about combat. That alone makes it very different from about 99% of the other games on this site. Most MMORPGs that have non-combat activities at all either have them as minor side activities that you can ignore, or else as things that you do to improve at combat. Crafting in many games is an example of the latter.
But not here. Uncharted Waters Online has three major spheres of gameplay: Adventure, Trade, and Battle. Unlike Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, which also had three nominally co-equal spheres of gameplay but put most of the work into combat, UWO puts a heavy emphasis on all three. If anything, battle is the least important of the three. But all three need a lengthy explanation, which I'll return to later.
The game is set at an unspecified date in the early 16th century. Many historical figures from that era appear, and no matter what particular year you pick, some things will be anachronous. For example, Christopher Columbus (died 1506) is still alive, but the Reformation (1517) has already happened, Magellan's expedition has very recently circumnavigated the planet (1522), and Shakespeare (born 1564) is already alive. For lack of a better idea, let's set the game in 1522, like the console games.
It is the Age of Exploration. Vasco da Gama has discovered India and Columbus has discovered the Caribbean. But Europeans aren't entirely sure that these aren't actually the same place yet. The Treaty of Tordesillas has divided much of the world between Spain and Portugal, but neither of these nations yet know of much of the territory that is nominally theirs. You start in either England, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, France, or Venice, and set off into the world to make your fortune.
Leveling is rather complicated, as there are a lot of different things to level. There are separate experience levels for adventure, trade, and battle. For example, you can simultaneously be level 37 in adventuring, 19 in trade, and 25 in battle. Experience points for the three are gained and added separately for doing various thing.
There is also an amount of fame in each, which is tracked separately from experience. Activities that give experience in one sphere often also give fame in the same sphere, but the ratio of experience to fame varies wildly from one activity to the next. While there are some cases where it is your fame in one particular sphere that matters, usually it is only your total fame. The most notable thing is that total fame is what lets you advance past certain points in the storyline, and unlock new areas of the world.
Finally, there are levels in particular skills. There are around 130 skills in the game. Some don't advance past level 1, but many have levels. When you use the skill, you gain levels in it. You cannot have all of the skills in the game at once, but you can scrap a skill that you have learned in order to make room for another. You can relearn a skill that you have previously forgotten, but your level in it starts over at 1. The maximum number of skills increases as your total level (adventuring level plus trade level plus battle level) increases. A new character can have about 16 or so skills, which quickly increases to 31 as you level, and then more slowly increases to 45 at the level cap.
There are a wide variety of skills, which I'll come back to later. Some are passive skills in which merely having the skill has beneficial effects. Some are active skills that you intentionally use at a particular period of time. Using an active skill consumes vigor, which you can think of as being analogous to a mana pool in many games. Your vigor does not automatically regenerate with time. The main way to replenish vigor is to go to the tavern in any town and eat and drink there. A more expensive way to replenish vigor is with prepared foods that you can eat away from town.
Your crew also has a fatigue level. Fighting in battles and wandering around on land outside of town slowly increases their fatigue level. Certain other events can increase fatigue much more quickly. Buying drinks for your crew in taverns will decrease their fatigue level.
The job system is also peculiar. There are more than a hundred jobs in the game, each of which is identified as either an adventuring job, a trade job, or a battle job. You gain double experience (and possibly fame, though I'm not sure of this) in the sphere that your job is associated with.
Each job also has a handful (typically 6-10) of favored skills. If you don't have one of the skills associated with your job, then you can learn that skill at half cost, and can ignore the usual prerequisites for acquiring the skill. Furthermore, the amount of experience needed to level your job's favored skills is cut in half. Finally, the skills associated to your job can be leveled up to a cap of level 15 rather than the usual 10. Some jobs also have an "expert" skill, which makes that particular skill perform as though you were one level higher in it.
You can (and should!) switch your job at various points in the game. In order to change jobs, you need a card that informs the relevant guild that you're approved for your new job. You'll get several such cards in the tutorial, and can get more later through quests. Most jobs have one particular quest associated with the job, and if you do that quest, you get a job change card that allows you to change to that particular job once. If you change away from that job and want to change back again, you'll have to get another job change card.
Adventuring is about going out and exploring the world. Sail off into the great unknown and see what there is to see. You can discover a variety of ports simply by sailing up to them. They won't appear on your map until you land there, but once you enter the city, it will appear on your map in the future.
Most adventuring discoveries have to be things that you're specifically looking for, however. One way to do this is through adventuring quests. You can acquire a quest to go discover some particular thing, though it doesn't necessarily state in advance what you're searching for. Rather, it tells you to go talk to some NPC to ask about something or other. Sometimes he tells you where to look, or sometimes he tells you to go talk to someone else. Eventually, you're told to go search in some particular area.
There are also archives in some major cities which have maps of particular things that you can go discover. This skips the phase of running around asking people where to go, and just tells you the particular area in which you need to search.
Discoveries of both types are made in roughly the same way. If you can get into the right region and use the "observe" skill (for adventuring quests) or archive map, it will tell you if you are in the right area or not. If not, it will tell you that you need to go north, south, east, or west. It rounds this, so if you need to go north by northeast, it will say north. If you aren't on the right region for a discovery, it will say so, and you'll have to continue looking for the correct region.
Eventually you zoom in on the correct spot in which to make a discovery and use the relevant search skill ("recognition", "search", or "ecological research", depending on what you're searching for) and discover ferrets, a painting, a buried treasure that someone left, or whatever. For most discoveries, the game will give you a quick blurb to give you a bit of information on what you discovered, but this is only flavor text.
Besides ports, there are six types of discoveries: geography, archaeology, theology, biology, appraisal, and art. There is a skill associated to each type of discovery. Each thing that can be discovered requires some particular level in the associated skill. For example, to discover a hedgehog, you need biology level 4; if your biology level is below this, you won't be able to make the discovery. Quests and archive maps state up front the necessary skills and levels.
After you make a discovery, you can go report it to an NPC. Different NPCs like different types of discoveries, and will tell you what particular type they're looking for. Actually making a discovery grants you adventuring experience, and then reporting it grants adventuring fame.
All discoveries are repeatable, as all quests are repeatable, and you can get the same map from an archive repeatedly. You get much smaller rewards for discovering the same thing the second or subsequent times, however.
Trading is about buying low and selling high. The idea is that you buy goods in a town that sells them cheaply, sail to a town that pays well for them, and sell the goods for more than you paid. There are over 400 trade goods and 163 ports in the game. The various lists floating around out there aren't complete. Each port sells only 2-10 types of trade goods. Most ports will buy all of them, but Muslim areas won't buy alcohol or pig products (pigs, pork, ham, bacon, sausage). Hindu areas also won't buy cow products.
The game keeps track of how much you paid for goods, so that it can compute your profit when you resell them. The higher the profit when you resell, the more trade experience you get. For this purpose, there is no difference between buying for 110k and selling for 120k, or buying for 10k and selling for 20k. If you get at least 10,000 ducats in profit from a single sale, your trade experience is doubled. If you get at least 100,000 ducats in profit, it is quadrupled (instead of doubled).
Experience is granted when you sell the goods, and for a single selling transaction. You can buy goods in several separate transactions and sell them all at once, or buy a bunch of goods at once, and then sell them in separate transactions. Unless you are selling some items at a loss, you want to sell everything that you are going to sell in a given port in a single transaction, as this maximizes your trade experience.
Some goods are designated as "local" goods, and only produced in one geographic region. For example, whiskey is produced only in Britain, and papyrus is produced only in Egypt. If you ship local goods far away from where they are produced and sell them at a profit, you'll get some bonus experience for them being local goods shipped so far away. You'll also get some trade fame. Goods aren't explicitly labeled as local goods when you buy them, but when you sell them, the NPC will give you a message saying that it's a specialty from this or that particular region.
Trading also involves the game's crafting system. There are seven crafting skills, and each can make a variety of goods. Some involve converting one trade good into another, such as smelting iron ore into iron or slaughtering chickens for poultry. You can buy trade goods at one port, use a crafting skill to convert them into other trade goods, and then sell them at another port for a profit.
Crafting can also create gear that you can equip on your character, or on your ship. The shipbuilding skill can create ships directly. Crafting can also make consumables that you can use, such as food that you eat to restore vigor.
Some crafting recipes come from crafting books that you can buy. If you have a book in your inventory and the suitable crafting skill of the required level, then you can use the recipe. If you discard the book, then you lose access to its recipes until you get it again. Other crafting recipes come from finding an NPC who knows how to craft what you want and getting his help. For these, the relevant good can only be crafted while you are talking to the particular NPC in the particular town. You cannot memorize crafting recipes as you can in many games.
Most crafting skills can make various conversions that make you money as you level them up. Shipbuilding is a glaring exception, and a huge money sink. If you want to level shipbuilding all the way to the cap, expect to lose hundreds of millions of ducats on crafting ships and then vendoring them. Many shipbuilders will sell ships at cost because it helps them level a bit without losing money.
Finding profitable trade routes is very easy to do. Buy goods at a port, ship them to another port that doesn't sell them, and see if it's profitable to sell them there. You'll quickly find routes that can make you thousands of ducats in a single transaction, then later tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and eventually millions of ducats in a single run.
While every port has base buy and sell prices for trade goods, the actual prices vary. If lots of players are buying a particular good, its price goes up. If few are buying a good that is sold at that port, its price goes down. Likewise, if many players sell a good at a particular port, its price goes down at that port, while if few sell, its price goes up.
Prices adjust about once per hour, but each adjustment is based on transactions over the last several hours. This creates some momentum in prices, so that they don't just settle down at some equilibrium. If prices were low at one point, so that lots of people bought a good and few sold, then that pushes prices upward. It continues pushing prices upward several hours later even after they are high enough that few are still buying the good. Eventually enough time passes that the old flurry of buying has been forgotten and prices start falling, and continue to fall even after prices are fairly low, because several hours ago, so few people were buying the good.
Investment is also part of the game's trade system, and will grant you trade fame. You can "invest" in most ports by giving ome money to the city official there. This sometimes makes new trade goods available to you. It also makes the city a little more favorable to your country. Some ports are the "major city" (i.e., capital) or "territory" of one particular country, and you can only invest in these if your country matches that of the city. Most are "allied ports", and anyone can invest in these. The city will ally with whichever country invests the most. If a city is allied with your country, then you can buy trade goods there for cheaper, and can buy more of each trade good in a single visit. Contrary to the name, if you invest money in a city, that money is gone and the city won't pay it back to you at some future time.
Battle is about fighting things, as you would expect. There are two different types of battle in the game: sea battles and land battles. In sea battles, you're in a ship and fighting against other ships. You can blast away with your cannons and try to sink the other ships. If there are multiple enemy ships, then one will be marked as the flagship. If you cripple the flagship, then you win the battle.
If two enemy boats run into each other, then one boards the other and a melee battle will ensue. The melee battles are abstract, and the game still shows the sea battle view of the combat. Other ships can continue to fire upon those engaged in a melee battle, but they will damage both ships if they do so, not just the one they intended to hit.
Sometimes the crew of one ship will become disordered. This can be caused by several things, the most common of which is bad luck when getting hit by an enemy ship. If a crew is in disarray when a melee battle starts, then it will perform very poorly in the melee battle and probably lose badly if it does not withdraw.
Melee battles proceed in rounds that last several seconds each. In each round, you can use a melee battle skill, use a melee battle item, try to withdraw, or just fight normally. Sometimes withdrawal fails, but if it succeeds, then the melee battle ends and the ships return to blasting each other with cannons.
If a ship is reduced to zero sailors in a melee battle, then the ship is disabled. If the number of sailors falls below a certain threshold (which depends on the ship), then effectiveness of the ship (turning speed, sailing speed, cannon damage, etc.) decreases as the number of sailors does.
There are different types of cannons, which have different ranges, reload rates, damage amounts, and various other properties. They also fire different types of cannon shots. Different types of cannon shots are optimized for killing enemy sailors, reducing enemy cannon accuracy, damaging the enemy ship hull, damaging the enemy ship sails, or lighting the enemy ship on fire. You can swap out cannons in ports, but not during battles.
If one ship shoots the front or back of an enemy ship, it will be a critical hit, and do far more damage than normal. Critical hits also permanently decrease the maximum durability of a ship by 1. Unlike many games, critical hits in sea battles here are not random.
Sea battles can start in several ways. One is if you find some ships and attack them. Conversely, enemy ships can attack you ("attack"). These will consider ship levels and whether they have a meaningful chance of victory before attacking. There are also enemy ships that do not appear until they suddenly attack you ("ambush"). Ambushes ignore ship levels, so a high level player in low level areas may be ambushed by NPC pirates that he can sink in one shot. There are storyline-based NPC ships that will attack when you talk to them. Finally, there are quest-based NPC ships that will attack when you reach a certain point, if you have the associated quest ("capture"). At the start of any battle that you did not initiate, the game will tell you which type of battle it is.
Land battles are fought on land, in the areas where you go to make discoveries. There are a lot of NPCs there, and you can attack them, or sometimes they will attack you. Sometimes they'll leave you alone, especially if you are well above their level. Land battles are superficially similar to standard MMORPG combat, though they're rather poorly done. Success in land battles depends very heavily upon willingness to burn consumables to damage the enemy and/or heal yourself.
There are "techs", which are skills for use in land battles that you can acquire. In order to acquire a tech, you have to fight an NPC enemy who is using the same type of weapon as you (sword, spear, staff, etc.) and uses the tech you want to acquire. Then you have to kill the NPC within seconds of it using that tech. That gives you a small chance of learning the tech yourself.
You can get a good amount of battle experience and fame by winning sea battles, and a bit of battle experience by winning land battles. You lose some battle fame if you lose a sea battle or a land battle. The amount of experience gains depends on your own level and what you are fighting. Killing enemies far below your level gives very little experience.
Both sea battles and land battles have a circle in which the battle takes place. If either side leaves the circle, the battle ends. For a land battle, it is easy to run away, but this gives you massive fatigue. For a sea battle, there isn't any real penalty to running away, and if severely overmatched, your goal should be to run away as safely as possible.
If you lose a land battle, then the NPC that you lost it to steals some of the money you were carrying with you. Some of your crew will desert you, but you can continue doing whatever you were doing on land right where you left off.
If you lose a sea battle by having your ship durability reduced to zero, there can be a variety of bad effects, such as losing some money and/or trade goods that you were carring. This also substantially reduces your ship's maximum durability. If you lose a sea battle by losing a melee battle, then the ship that beat you will steal some of the money you were carrying, some of your trade goods, one of your equipped ship upgrades, and one of your equipped personal items.
If you lose a sea battle, you can use lifesavers to try to continue, or shipwreck the ship to go to the nearest port immediately. Lifesavers will restore 100 durability if you lost all durability, or 1 sailor if you lost a melee battle. Having only one sailor will make the ship very slow, but will let you limp back to port if you don't get attacked again. If you shipwreck your ship, you lose all cargo.
The game also has an insurance system. There are 20 grades of insurance, each with a daily premium rate and maximum payout rate. If you lose goods because your ship is sunk, things are stolen by NPCs, or goods are destroyed by disasters at sea, insurance will pay you the purchase price of whatever you lost. This only goes up to the maximum payout of the insurance. You can collect on insurance at any bank. Having insurance of a rank high enough to be commensurate with what you could plausibly lose is highly recommended.
You don't have to carry all of your money around with you. You can deposit it in banks in town, and then withdraw it from banks in other towns. You do need to carry a bit of money with you to pay sailor wages, insurance premiums, and aide wages while at sea.
The game has a quest system, but it is very different from the standard MMORPG system of quest hubs with a zillion NPCs that offer a few quests each. There are a number of major cities in the game that offer quests. If a city offers quests, there will be an adventure mediator, a business mediator, and a maritime mediator in it, and they will offer adventure, trade, and battle quests respectively. A city will either have all three or none of them.
An NPC who offers quests will offer you a choice of about five or so quests. It will show the skill requirements in order to complete the quest, as well as the cash reward, and a text description of what you're supposed to do. Each quest also has a difficulty rating, on a scale of one to ten stars. Each major city has a number of quests, and which ones it makes available at a given time is random. If you leave a city, go to another city, and come back, then it will reroll the quests from which you can choose. Some quests give item rewards, but this is not stated up front.
Adventuring quests tend to be about going out and making some discovery. Trade quests tend to want you to bring certain goods to a particular NPC. Battle quests tend to want you to go defeat some enemy ships. Quests of all three types may ask you to merely go to some other port, talk to someone, and come back.
You can only have one quest active at a time. In particular, you can't go to a port, take all the quests, and then go around and do them all at once, as you can in so many other games. Multi-tasking is still recommended, however, but it isn't doing a bunch of quests at once. Rather, you take a quest, some archive maps, and some trade goods with you, and sink any pirates that attack along the way.
Turning in most discoveries (including from adventuring quests) to the appropriate NPC will grant you a "quest mediation permit", which is commonly known as a QMP. A QMP will let you reroll the list of quests available to you, so that you don't have to sail to another port and come back. The main use of this is that when a player is looking for a particular quest, especially because he wants to switch jobs, he can sit there and use 10 or 20 QMPs until the quest he wants comes up.
QMPs sell for around 120k-150k ducats each, making them a major source of income for new players. The fastest way for a low level player to make money is to get a bunch of QMPs and sell them to higher level players. A high level player may prefer to spend 1/5 of his revenue from a single spice trading run to the Indonesia area on QMPs rather than a couple of hours sailing back and forth between ports trying to roll the quest he's looking for.
While you sail around, there are a number of things that can go wrong, apart from being attacked by pirates. Your ship's rudder might get stuck in seaweed. Your sailors could contract scurvy. Your ship could catch on fire. Magnetic disruptions may make your compass lose track of direction. In all, there are about 20 or so such disasters.
Most types of disasters have an associated consumable item to counteract the disaster. If your ship's sails take damage, you use spare sails to fix it. If your ship springs a leak, you use pails to bail the water out until the leak can be repaired. If your sailors have insomnia due to the tossing of the waves, a hammock will let them sleep again. If you don't have the relevant consumable to fix a disaster, then many disasters will expire after a period of time, and all will end when you reach a port.
Some disasters can be more easily ignored than others. If your ship catches on fire and you can't put it out promptly, you're in deep trouble. If your sailors are homesick, you can ignore that for a few days and its not so bad.
There are around 130 skills in the game, with a variety of effects that I'll try to summarize here. The skills are divided into adventuring, trade, battle, and language skills. The distinction between adventuring, trade, and battle skills is kind of fuzzy, and there are some skills that could have just as easily gone into a different category. The category in which a skill is placed doesn't really matter, and is really only there for organization purposes.
Every town has one or two languages that the local residents speak. If you have the relevant language skill (or one of the two for some ports), then you can talk freely with the residents of that town. For example, in London, you want to speak English, while in Lisbon, you want to speak Portuguese.
If not, then the "body language" skill lets you try to communicate via gestures. This works pretty well, and is heavily relied upon by most high level players. It can burn through vigor pretty quickly, however, so you might want to wait until you have at least 200 max vigor or so before trying it. You'll also want to have some consumables to restore vigor available, as if you were hoping to use body language to communicate and run out of vigor, then you can't communicate at all.
You can communicate with port officials regardless of your language skills, so you won't be trapped in a port. But you really don't want to be out of vigor and unable to buy anything other than supplies until you reach a port halfway around the world where you can communicate.
You can (and should!) acquire and forget language skills often, so that you typically have a few language skills relevant to what you are doing. You are never allowed to forget your native language (Italian if you play as Venice, French if you play as France, etc.). Furthermore, while body language will allow you to communicate with NPCs, it will not allow you to read books.
There are 20 different categories of trade goods, and a trade skill associated with each. There is a quantity limit on how much of each trade good you can acquire in a single purchase. If you want more than the limit, then you can sail to another port, return, and buy more. Subsequent purchases reduce the cap of how much you can buy, until it gets down to half of the original purchase cap. This resets after several hours.
If you don't have the associated trade skill, you can still buy the trade goods. But if you have the trade skill at rank 1, it nearly doubles how much you can buy. Higher ranks further increase your purchase limits. Trade skills allow you to buy goods for actively used trade routes much faster.
I've already talked about the production skills (cooking, storage, sewing, casting, handicrafts, shipbuilding, alchemy), so I won't explain them again.
Frugality is an actively used skill that decreases food and water use at sea. This can be useful if you're in danger of running out before you reach port, but it does reduce crew loyalty.
Caution is an actively used skill that prevents ambushes. It won't prevent ships that you can see from attacking you, so it won't save you from combat entirely.
Accounts is a very important trading skill that lets you see market rates. For example, rather than only seeing that bronze is selling for 1000 ducats that day, it will also let you see that this is 110% of the base price, or 70%, or whatever. If a good is selling for far below the base price, then making a profit in trading that good is usually very easy to do. For far above the base price, you'll likely lose money if you try to buy it and resell elsewhere. Some goods are still worth buying for well above the base price, however. This part of the skill is passively used.
Accounts also lets you haggle when buying, which is an active use of the skill. This only sometimes succeeds, but if it does, it lets you buy goods for 4% cheaper, or sell them for 4% more. Accounts cannot be acquired from any NPC directly, but only from trade jobs that have it as a favored skill.
Sociability is a passive skill that lets you talk to nobles more easily.
Provisions is a passive skill that lets you buy ship supplies (food, water, lumber, munitions) more cheaply.
Sail handling is an active skill makes your ship turn its sails to best catch the wind for a while, so that you'll go faster. You can get an equivalent effect by micromanaging your sails while you sail, but that's a pain. Sail handling can only be obtained as a favored skill for certain adventuring jobs.
Surveying is an active skill that gives you your coordinates in the world, rather than just a small map of what is near you.
Eradication, violin performance, fire fighting, leadership, and pathology are active skills that counteract a variety of disasters at sea, so that you don't have to burn consumables for them.
Fishing is an active skill that lets you catch fish at sea. You can convert the fish you catch into food for your crew, among other uses.
Procurement is an active skill that lets you collect water at sea when it rains. It also lets you scavenge for food on land while away from towns.
Collection is an active skill that allows you to try to collect trade goods on land while away from towns.
Marching is a passive skill that reduces the rate of fatigue gain on land.
Survival is an active skill that mitigates the damage of running out of food and water somewhat. It also mitigates damage from storms.
Recognition is an active skill for making geography discoveries at sea.
Ecology research is an active skill for making biology discoveries, both at sea and on land.
Search is an active skill for making several types of adventuring discoveries on land. Additionally, if a player discards an item from inventory and you search where he discarded it, you can pick up the item. You can't see the item until you use the search skill, but you can find quite a few things by searching in areas where players seem likely to discard items. Usually it's random junk that you find (which is why they discarded it), but occasionally you can stumble onto something really valuable.
Unlock is a passive skill needed for some adventuring discoveries.
Archaeology, theology, appraisal, art, geography, and biology are passive skills used for adventuring discoveries.
Salvage and haul are active skills used to recover loot from shipwrecks.
Persuasion is a passive skill that lets you befriend waitresses in taverns of major cities by drinking with them, giving them gifts, or reporting discoveries to them. Incidentally, the reason this is useful is not obvious: if a waitress likes you, you can report completed quests to her, and she'll ask someone sailing back to the original town where you got the quest to pass along word that you've finished it. This lets you clear out a completed quest and get your reward immediately, so that you can take another quest. For example, if you acquire a quest in London and finish it near Seville, this would let you report the quest to the waitress in Seville and acquire another quest in Seville immediately, rather than having to sail back to London to complete the quest.
Gunnery is a passive skill that makes your cannon fire in battle more effective. It can only be acquired as a favored skill for certain battle jobs.
Evasion, accuracy, ballistics, reloading, and penetration are active skills that improve your capabilities in sea battles, apart from melee battles.
Aboardage is an active skill that makes it easier to get into melee battles while in sea battles.
Swordplay is a passive skill that increases your effectiveness in melee battles and land battles.
Guard, assault, gunfire, and tactics are active skills that increase your effectiveness in melee battles in various ways. There's a rock/paper/scissors type aspect to them, with certain skills negating the effect if your enemy uses another.
Plunder is a passive skill that lets you steal more from enemies that you defeat in melee or land battles.
Rowing is an active skill that increases ship speed of galleys, that is, of ships with oars. It does not benefit ships that rely entirely on sails.
Surgery is an active skill that recovers some of the sailors that you lose in melee battles.
Repair is an active skill that recovers damage to your ship hull.
Steering is a passive skill that improves your ship's turning rate.
Lookout is an active skill that lets you see the name of who is on a ship from further away.
Request reinforce is an active skill that lets allies join your side in a sea battle that is already underway.
First aid is a passive skill that reduces the rate at which you lose crew in certain circumstances.
Sword mastery, sniping, and throwing are passive skills that improve your effectiveness in land battles with certain types of weapons.
Escape is an active skill that lets you sail faster in sea battles, but will not allow you to fire cannons, and makes it so that any cannons that hit you at all will be critical hits. This is useful if there is enough distance between you and the enemy that you're out of cannon range, and you want to keep it that way until you can flee the battle circle. It is also a way to ensure that an enemy who has you badly outmatched cannot board you for a melee battle and steal your stuff, but can only reduce your ship durability to 0.
Rescue is an active skill that saves you from being incapacitated. You can also use lifesavers, to get the level 1 effect of this skill.
There are several other skills that are basically restricted to high level use, so I'm not mentioning them here.
There are six slots for personal gear, and this works much like in many MMORPGs. The personal gear you wear gives various stats, and also may have bonuses to certain skills (e.g., gunnery +1, so that your gunnery skill is effectively one higher while wearing the gear). Your accessory slot may sometimes have usable items that can be used like consumables. The durability on these is the number of uses before the item disappears.
The four stats that gear can have are formality, disguise, attack power, and defense. Attack power and defense are used in land battles, and are pretty self-explanatory. Some European NPCs have a formality requirement, and if your formality is too low, they won't talk to you. This is most obvious in the palaces of capital cities. Disguise serves the same function in Muslim areas. Furthermore, Muslim cities won't let you enter the city if your disguise level doesn't exceed a certain threshold that varies by city (and also varies by whether you speak the local language of Turkish, Arabic, or Persian).
There are several slots for ship upgrades, and the number and type of slots varies by ship. You can get extra sails to go faster, extra ship armoring to take less damage in battle, equip cannons to shoot enemies, and so forth. While personal gear can be swapped out while out in the wild, ship upgrades can only be changed while in port.
You can carry up to 50 items at a time in your main inventory. You also have storage for a few extra items in your captain's bag, and up to 16 extra items in a document storage folder. The latter can only contain archive maps, job change cards, and crafting recipe books. The 50 item limit includes ship upgrades and personal gear that you have equipped. Once these, alternate gear sets, and necessary consumables are accounted for, you might well have already used the bulk of your 50 item inventory limit. Ships, ship supplies (food, water, lumber, munitions) and trade goods do not count toward the 50 item limit, though you can only have 4 ships and 15 types of trade goods at a time.
You can get personal housing and store some items there. You can't store very many items in your personal housing, however. That might change some once you get rank 2 or higher quarters, but I haven't done that yet, so I don't know.
Personal gear and ship upgrades slowly deteriorate as time passes. The relevant thing seems to be time spent at sea. It's not real-life time, so someone who plays six hours a day doesn't have an advantage over someone who plays an hour a week in this regard. After enough time passes, the part wears out and is destroyed. This ensures demand for new items to be built.
Ships have a maximum durability, and when they take damage, you can recover a ship's durability back to the maximum. When a ship takes a critical hit, the maximum durability is decreased by 1. If a ship is sunk, you lose something like 10 or so max durability. (This might be a percentage, and it might be only if you shipwreck. I'm not sure.) A ship's maximum durability cannot fall below half of its original maximum when it was newly built. Still, this ensures that ships eventually wear out and players want to replace them.
You can buy relatively poor quality ships, ship upgrades, and personal equipment from a variety of NPCs. The better quality stuff is crafted by players instead. When all you want is something cheap, grabbing it off of an NPC is easier than finding someone to craft it for you. When you want something really nice, you'll need to get it crafted.
Ships have minimum level requirements in order to use the ship. For example, a large carrack requires levels 27/8/0. That is, you need at least adventuring level 27 and trade level 8 to use the ship. There are ships that require mostly adventuring levels, mostly trade, or mostly battle. Often, there are alternate versions of a single ship that do this. For example, a galleon has level requirements of 35/0/15, a trade galleon requires 0/35/15, and a battle galleon requires 15/0/35. The adventuring version will be faster, the trade version will have a larger cargo hold, and the battle version will have sturdier armor and more room for cannons.
Other gear does not have minimum level requirements. The only thing stopping you from buying the best ship upgrade components in the game at level 11/11/11 is the price tag. And even that might not stop you if you really want them.
Ships have a number of attributes. Vertical sails, horizontal sails, and rowing determine the ship's maximum speed. Horizontal sails are great for tailwinds, decent for sidewinds, and useless for headwinds. Rowing ignores wind, so it is the best for headwinds, but less effective than sails for other winds. Vertical sails are somewhere between the other two.
Turning speed, armor, and durability are pretty obvious. Wave resistance lets you sail in rougher waters without losing sailors. Ships have a maximum number of crew, cannons, and cargo. Any shipbuilder of rank 5 or higher can adjust these within bounds that depend on the ship (crew and cannons can be 50%-150% of the ship's base value), but cannot change the total. For example, you could have 30 crew, 20 cannons, and 250 cargo, or you could have 50 crew, 30 cannons, and 220 cargo, etc. The minimum crew is the number of crew required before the ship loses effectiveness; any crew that you have over this is for melee battle, and spares in case someone dies.
There is no auction house system in the game, but you have to trade goods with a player directly. There are bazaars, where players will put several items up for sale in a city, and then sit there AFK. If you see players sitting on carpets, that's what they're doing. Players can leave a message about what is in the bazaar. Some of the messages are useless, but some tell you what is there without you having to inspect the particular player. Some messages lie about what is there, perhaps to try to make you look.
Movement can be done either as WASD or click to move. In cities, you can also click on a major site in town on the expanded mini-map to run there automatically. While I prefer WASD movement in most games, click to move really works better here. You don't need to make precise movements, and apart from sea battles, moving vaguely in the right direction is good enough.
Time passes while a player is at sea, but not on land. One game day is one minute of real time. The weather changes in real time. While you are sailing, sailors consume food and water. Lumber is used to repair your ship, and munitions to fire cannons in battle. Running out of food or water is really bad. Running out of lumber only means that you can't repair. Food and water are not consumed during sea battles, though time continues to pass.
The game does not feature any instancing that I'm aware of apart from personal housing. If you're standing at the pedlar in Marseille and so is someone else, then you can see each other. The same applies at sea. You can see other players fighting in land and sea battles. If you are in a battle yourself, then you cannot see other players or NPCs that are not part of the battle, at least until it ends. This is probably to avoid confusion.
The game does feature quite a bit of zoning, but the loading screens are very brief, as in, under 1 second and if you're not paying attention, you might miss them. Or maybe they're only brief because I have an SSD. Each town has its own zone, as does each building in a town. Land areas outside of towns have their own zone.
There are a number of sea zones, and the borders between them aren't labeled. You can see geography beyond your sea zone, but not other ships. The boundaries between sea zones are a little flexible, in that, if you cross from, say, Bay of Biscay to North Atlantic Ocean, and then immediately turn around, you'll have to sail a bit before it takes you back to the Bay of Biscay zone.
At sea, the game basically uses a map of Earth. Cities tend to be in the same place in the game as they are in real life. If you don't know the difference between Wanganui, Pondicherry, Trebizond, and Abidjan, then Google is your friend. You don't need to find a map specific to UWO, though they are out there.
The game world is enormous, and everything moves at a glacial pace. If you want to sail from Wanganui (New Zealand) to Riga (Latvia), you're looking at maybe 3 hours in a fast ship. Now, that's basically going halfway around the world, and most routes aren't that long. But the spice routes that can get you several million ducats in a single trading run could easily take two hours of travel in each direction. Naturally, you can travel between nearby ports in merely a few minutes.
You can see other ships off in the distance. Once you get closer, it will tell you the type of ship. As you get closer yet, it will tell you the name of who is sailing, whether a player or NPC. You can get some gauge on how big a ship is and whether it might be stronger than you from far away from how big it is. Be aware that galleys are strong for their apparent size, as they go light on sails.
Sea zones are divided into safe waters, hostile waters, and lawless waters. Hostile and lawless waters are open PVP, so other players can attack you without your consent. NPC pirates will be more aggressive in lawless waters than in hostile waters.
However, there are some severe penalties for attacking other players, so it's pretty rare to get attacked by another player. If you attack other players, but never other players of your own nation, that makes you a privateer. If you also attack players of your own nation, that makes you a pirate. Privateers and pirates can be attacked even in safe waters, and without the attackers becoming privateers or pirates themselves. In addition, some powerful navy ships will attack pirates and privateers. Pirates and privateers also get a bounty placed upon their head, as a reward for anyone who defeats them. You can lose pirate or privateer status eventually, but it takes quite a while and is a major pain.
Players who are privateers have an orange name, and pirates have a red name. White or blue names are players who are very unlikely to attack you, and includes the overwhelming majority of players. Even pirates and privateers who see you in hostile or lawless waters usually can't be bothered to attack you.
The game model is "free to play" with an item mall. But it's rather different from what you'd normally think of as being "free to play" with an item mall. The game was originally developed as a subscription game, and released in Japan under that model in 2005. For release in the US, Netmarble wanted to use an item mall. As best as I can tell, the "free to play" gives you for free everything available in the subscription version. It's not at all like EverQuest II, LotRO, or other subscription games that severely cripple the "free" players.
Or at least there's nothing in the item mall that would make sense to exist in a subscription game. Rather, it's bonuses that make your life easier. The standard stuff like a temporary 30% bonus to gains in fame, experience, and skills is there. So is a 30% bonus to sailing speed while outside of combat. The sailing speed bonus is disabled in combat so as not to provide an unfair PVP advantage. Some things that are easy to get through normal gameplay also appear in the item mall for no apparent reason in particular.
There are some ship sail and armor upgrades that are stronger than anything that can be crafted. Those are expensive, however, and remember that they wear out. You're also far less dependent on gear here than in most other games. You can change your country for $20. There are items that prevent you from being attacked in PVP, or from adventuring disasters at sea, for $2 for a single day.
I'm guessing special shipbuilding permits bring in significant revenue, as they're the only thing that seems to be priced to be tempting for a substantial portion of the playerbase. That lets you upgrade a ship substantially for about $1. It's permanent for that particular ship, but ships do wear out.
But the main revenue source is probably premium tickets and treasure box. Premium tickets are targeted at low level players, and treasure box at high level players, but they're basically the same concept. It's the "get a random item mall item from a bunch of options" thing that a lot of item mall games do. Most of them aren't terribly important.
But the really nice things to get from the premium tickets and treasure box are the special ships. The special ships aren't really any stronger than normal ships. Rather, they let you get that ship at a much lower level. For example, a battle galley has level requirements of 0/3/16, while a modified battle galley has requirements of 0/1/4. The top end one seems to be a modified tea clipper that requires 13/17/15, while the normal tea clipper requires 53/67/18.
While this allows low level players to have high level ships, it doesn't grant them the high level skills that the genuinely high level players will tend to have. Certainly, there's a lot of nice stuff in the item mall that you'd rather have then not have. But it's not a case of "you must pay to continue or else be severely crippled" like a lot of other "free to play" games. You really can play free forever if you like.
And remember that there isn't that much PVP in the game, unless you count trading as PVP, which it kind of is. So you're not going to get ganked by a bunch of people who bought item mall stuff to win. In a month and a half of playing, I've only gotten attacked by another player once. I used escape (so he couldn't board me), he sunk my ship, I lost about 1/3 of my trade goods, and we both moved on. It probably cost me tens of thousands of ducats in foregone trade profits, but you can make that in ten minutes of trading. Insurance reimbursed me for the purchase price of what I lost in that battle.
The game's storyline is fairly unique, and quite good. In one sense, there are six separate storylines, with one for each country in which you could start. But these really only show you different sides of the same storyline, and a number of events happen in multiple storylines. The storyline revolves around the Netherlands struggling for independence from Spain, the Barbary pirates ravaging Mediterranean shipping, various European powers fighting to gain control of the spice trade from India, and the Ottoman Empire threatening to expand further into Europe.
Each country's storyline has about 30 chapters, and many chapters have multiple parts to them. Many chapters are gated by particular fame requirements, such as that you must have 2000 total fame to start the next chapter, or 10000, or whatever. The requirements aren't explicitly stated, but once you meet them and land in the right area (typically in or near your starting country), some NPC will give you a message saying to go talk to so and so. The storylines all have a lot of twists and turns to them. They're also coherent, as opposed to the scattered fragments that never amount to anything that most MMORPGs have.
You don't have to do the storyline, but it does get you access to new regions sooner than if you don't. The storyline doesn't count as a quest, so you can still take a normal quest while doing the storyline. You can also put the main storyline on hold, by simply ignoring the request to go talk to this or that NPC until you get around to it.
As I said earlier, the game originally launched in 2005. There are several expansions out by now, and a lot of polish. So even though it was only released in English last year, there's still a lot of content available. The newest expansion, which adds ports in China, Korea, and Japan, hasn't come to the English version yet, but it probably will soon.
As a translation from the original Japanese, the quality of the translation is another issue. There are some translation problems, but they're of a different sort from what I've seen in other games. There isn't any "all your base are belong to us" style broken English. There is a fair bit of end of sentence punctuation missing, but other than that, the text looks very good, and was definitely translated by people fluent in English.
The problem is one of inconsistent translations. For example, there is a group in the game called the "Sea Brigade". At one point, you may meet an "Ocean Brigade Soldier" who is supposed to be part of this group. Both "sea" and "ocean" are probably good, correct translations from the original Japanese. But for a proper noun, the problem is inconsistency.
There are trade-offs between play-balance and complexity. Rock, paper, scissors can be balanced because it is so simple. Koei goes full bore for the "complexity" side of things, and then tries to balance as best as they can. That makes the game hard to pick up and figure out, as it will take you quite a while. There is a tutorial--and you should do it--but that will take about 20 hours of gameplay, and when it is done, there will be massive amounts of stuff that wasn't even mentioned.
My recommended way to pick up the game is to do the beginner school immediately, and then go out and try to play the game for a while. Do the intermediate school later, then go out and play again for a while. And then get to the advanced school eventually, even if you're not ready to finish the graduation requirements. Do expect to get stuck and frustrated at some point, as it can be confusing as to what to do. Don't be afraid to ask questions in school chat, as there are people who will help you.
So having said all of that, is the game any good? It does what it set out to do, and it does it well. The question is whether what it set out to do is interesting, and opinions on that will vary. The game is highly recommended for fans of the old Uncharted Waters console games, as it is surprisingly faithful to the console games.
The game is also recommended for:
-people who want to try something other than combat
-people who want a game off the beaten path
-crafters who mainly want people to buy their stuff
-traders who want a big, complex economy
The game is not recommended for:
-people who want instant gratification, or even somewhat soonish gratification
-people who only want to go kill things
-people who are easily frustrated and give up
-people who need hand-holding in which a game always says what to do next
-people who hate long travel times
Most of the game is very solo-friendly, though there are some challenges here and there that you may wish to group for. The main thing you need other people for is to craft stuff for you, or to buy your stuff.
The game is also very friendly to irregular playing times. If you're playing the game and need to log off, then most of the time, you can be offline within 30 seconds without losing a bit of progress. While I usually prefer to log off in port, you can also log off at a landing point or in the middle of the ocean or wherever with no danger to you and no loss of progress.
Like other sandbox games, the game doesn't really have a coherent notion of an endgame. There isn't a transition where you stop what you were doing and now go do the endgame stuff. Netmarble promises that there is enough to keep even the most hardcore players busy for about three years. If you want to do every quest, make every discovery, find every useful trade route, invest in every port, and max levels in all of your skills, then three years sounds about right to me.
While the game does have non-consensual PVP and an item mall, I'd hope that opponents of those features won't avoid the game because of them. I don't like non-consensual PVP, either, but it is so rare that it isn't terribly consequential, as there are severe punishments for attacking other players who aren't themselves privateers or pirates. You can wander around ignoring the fact that other players can attack you for days or even weeks at a time before someone finally attacks.
I'm also not a fan of item malls, but this game is not a contest of, whoever pays the most wins. Players who buy nothing from the item mall are not crippled, but have access to everything that they would if it were a subscription game. Item mall ships basically just give you a higher level ship while you're a lower level. Other item mall stuff may give you a slight advantage in PVP, but won't often be the difference between winning and losing--and will almost never make a difference in whether you can successfully flee a battle once attacked.
On the other hand, I would expect that many players will (and should be) put off by the glacial pace of the game. Often, you'll be sailing at sea and just sit there sailing in a straight line for minutes at a time. While some very long trips can take hours, those will make you stop to turn, fight, dodge pirates, restock in port, or deal with a disaster every few minutes.
You may occasionally see a gold spammer, but they're banned quickly and kept in check pretty well. The game is hardly overflowing with gold spammers, and most days, you won't see one at all. I've also never seen a player who I suspected of being a bot, as the few things in the game that are amenable to botting are also pointless to focus on heavily.
If you're interested in trying the game, then you should be aware of olous, uwodb, and the unofficial wiki on Wikia. Each of those sites has some useful information that the others (and the game's official site) lack.