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How fitting to post this review on April Fools' Day: I feel like a fool for having stuck by this game for so long. Below are the two parts of my review, as they originally appeared at the Broken Toys forum. The first part was posted on January 28, and was accurate as of that date; it has not been modified except for copy editing. The second part has been completed on April 1st, and includes updates and corrections of what was discussed in the first part, especially on the game-breaking additions to the cash shop. A third part was added on April 17th, and updated April 25th. A fourth part was added on May 19th. All four parts together total around 20,000 words.
PART I (January 28th.)
Uncharted Waters Online is a game set in the age of sail, developed by Tecmo-Koei, based on its well-established franchise (made somewhat famous in North America thanks to the games released for the NES and SNES). UWO was released in Japan in 2005, with additional servers in Korea, Taiwan and China opening before 2007.
The North American version, published by the same company as the Korean version (Netmarble, property of CJ Internet), went live in October 2010. Yes, this game is over five years old, so I will not address the graphics.
Players can choose from six European nations (the usual suspects: England, Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal and Venice), and can later defect to a seventh (the Ottoman Empire), and start out in London, Amsterdam, Marseilles, Seville, Lisbon and Venice, respectively. The game world is divided into zones, for which sailing permits must be acquired; without permits, players may sail around but may not land in ports located in those zones. Permits cannot be bought (well, not directly; more details later), as they are tied to the fame level of the player.
Most of the world, with the exception of the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, is located in "hostile waters", where you can be attacked by other players. Hostile waters also include the Baltic and the Black Sea. Zones in hostile waters can occasionally become safe for brief periods of time.
The game offers careers in three different branches: adventure, trade and battle (maritime), further broken down into skills, which can also be levelled. As skills are independent of classes (except for a level-10 cap on unfavoured skills, as opposed to level 15 and a faster levelling rate for favoured skills), players can switch classes and retain their ranks in other skills (except for levels above 10 in skills going back to unfavoured, but the higher rank is not lost, just disabled until the player switches back). This allows for a certain versatility in builds. Furthermore, production skills are carried out from recipe books, meaning you must have a book in your inventory to use the recipes listed in it. Some books may be bought openly, others are tied to a town's development level, and others are rewards for investment.
I rolled a French trader on the only server, Gama, a day before the game went live, and led one of the largest French companies from the early days of live until, needing a break (not to mention the time to write this modest review), I passed power on to my second in command a few days ago.
This is all you need to know at this time. With this out of the way, let the nitpicking begin:
1) If you're selling a translated Asian game, make sure the advertising doesn't confirm people's worst fears about translated Asian games (a.k.a. All Your Port Are Belong to Us).
How many people start playing a game out of a wicked desire to see how mangled the in-game translation must be when the ads openly display blatant cases of what has been colloquially termed "Engrish"? Actually, I did, but you don't want to let me anywhere near a complex social situation requiring tact, diplomacy, or, worse still, table manners. No, I mean normal people.
The first time I learned of the existence of Uncharted Waters Online was through a chance encounter of one of those awkward advertising banners on MMORPG.com -- unlikely to stand out among the other awkward advertising banners on that site, but it did. As I liked the premise that claimed it would allow me, like "Christopher Colombus", to "discover New World", so I tried it out, not expecting to last long.
Three months later, despite a death-by-anime art style, I'm still playing it. And, three months later, the game's advertising is of a similar quality.
I came across this gem a few days ago, which I bundled in one convenient picture:
The only game compatible to EVE Online? The Master Piece of Nautical RPG? Presumption and hyperbole aside, what could be worse than writing Master Piece in a banner ad? Oh, right, splashing it across the main page of the game's website, that's what.
But take a second look at this ad. Who is saying that this "Master Piece" is the only game "compatible" to EVE Online? Who are "skyline43", "Fenki00" and "darkmarine"? Could they be... ordinary gamers? Now, I don't trust most of the writers in the field of "game journalism", because a large part seem to be little more than enthusiastic teenagers dazzled by the next shiniest item heading their way, and the others work for publications entirely funded by advertising from game publishers, when it's not their readers who are urging them not to rock the boat in the first place. But what those critics have (or should have) that ordinary gamers, including those who write thousands of words like... er... myself, have not, is accountability. At least a blurb from a critic has a pedigree, it can be put back in its original context, it can be compared to the critic's track record, and it can even be shoved under the critic's nose in the most egregious cases of misplaced hyperbole; a blurb from an ordinary person means nothing. It can't be assessed, compared, scrutinized; a film studio was even nabbed for hiring actors to pass as enthusiastic members of the public in one film's promotional material, and I'm still wondering how they managed to get caught (the same studio, you may recall, more infamously invented a film critic at around the same time).
My reflex would be to interpret the reliance on blurbs from ordinary gamers as the result of there being no positive reviews from which to quote, but I think the case is somewhat different here: with the similarly-themed Pirates of the Burning Sea undergoing a free-to-play conversion and Blizzard releasing Cataclysm in the months that followed, I think UWO slipped completely under the radar. And now, it is to be feared that its momentum, if it ever had any, has already passed.
In addition to the advertising, some promotional videos to mark open beta were posted on YouTube. Presumably, the publisher had the epiphany that if your game has real-life nations in it, you might as well advertise it to residents of those nations. Hence the same basic trailer, but with a different spin and slight variations. The English trailer, for instance, repeats that moldy maxim: "The Sun Never Set on the British Empire":
That's nice, especially the use of the past tense -- it's unlikely to make monocles drop at the Reform Club nowadays --, but why is it set against the flag of England? Perhaps because the game, while playing fast and loose with history, is set in the reign of Elizabeth the First (mercifully, I have seen no references to Elizabeth the First), a few years before the Stuarts and more than a century before the union of England and Scotland. Accurately, the English flag, not the anachronistic Union Jack, is used throughout the game, but the notion of a perpetually sunlit British Empire -- let alone an English one -- would have been regarded, in the sixteenth century, as less a geopolitical observation than an ambitious flight of fancy. Nonetheless, Edinburgh is considered "English Territory" by the game (i.e. it cannot be taken over by a foreign power), while Ireland, represented by Dublin, is an "Allied Country" and can be taken over by other nations, whereas it was very much under English control and very much in revolt during most of that time period. Go figure.
But it's okay, I'm not really that concerned over historical accuracy; I remember how Pirates of the Burning Sea gave Cayenne to the British as a starting location because, reportedly, France (being France) always lost the town early in the alpha phase. And Uncharted Waters Online fends this off early by claiming to be "set within several timelines during the Age of Exploration as a romantic and historic fictional account of the era", so you shouldn't be concerned upon finding out that Leonardo Da Vinci and Queen Elizabeth were not contemporaries. And I guess you shouldn't be concerned that the Suez Canal gets added in one of the expansions to the game, a mere two centuries and then some before its actual completion. It could have been worse, I guess, it could have been the Panama Canal... oh wait, it gets in, too. But my real concern over that canal business isn't so much over their accuracy as over their impact on gameplay, especially in a game where a voyage from Europe to India takes over two hours. I guess you could roleplay the fretting at the Foreign Office that must have accompanied their inauguration, if role-play in MMORPG's weren't, irrevocably, dead.
Still, look at the French trailer:
The text makes even less sense: "La voie terrestre de méditerranée que Napoléon a conquéri avec la grande activité"? First, the game is ostensibly set in the Ancien Régime, but the only French historical figure they could think of was Napoleon? Then, consider the literal translation: "The land way of the Mediterranean that Napoleon conquered with the great activity." The land way of the Mediterranean? The great activity? Could that have been Napoleon's "Grande Armée"? And finally, the past participle of the French verb conquérir is "conquis". And since "voie" is before the verb, and is feminine, it should have been la voie terrestre que Napoléon a conquise. Simple, n'est-ce pas?
Okay, but what of the translation in the game? It's actually much better, but not without its idiosyncrasies. Who knew, for instance, that there was a Spanish (Portuguese, actually, but see "Accuracy, Historical" above) explorer by the name of Corte Leal, or that you could encounter that legendary English navigator, Flovisher, docking into Sun Juan? You don't really need to be a scholar of Arctic exploration when even Google, for once, suggests the correct name you might be looking for. Also, a special mention to the barmaid of the Seville tavern, the irresistible Lothario. Yes, you read that right; I've been having nightmares about it ever since.
A few of other cases of deficient translation also deserve pointing out: a character suddenly changing names in the French main story line and, most inconveniently, an error in geographical location in the middle of adventuring school that sends players to the "southeast of Sassari" rather than the northeast. Most of the game is translated in proper, if simplistic, English, better than the advertising; I'm surprised it isn't the other way around.
2) Yes, we like a good tutorial, but you don't need to make it last three weeks.
I'm not kidding you, that's how long it took me to actually finish the game tutorial, or "school", as they call it. School is divided into the three branches of the game, with each of those branches subdivided into basic, intermediate and advanced schools; all the while, you must wear the uniform (dark blue, not at all Japanese) you were given when starting out, and although there is nothing forcing you to go through the tutorial, the gains in experience and fame make it particularly worthwhile, especially to get the earlier sailing permits.
While the trade and battle branches can be completed by anyone (if not necessarily solo), adventure requires specialized skills that a merchant or naval officer is unlikely to bother with; in my case, having set on the path of a trader, I had to wait until a player with the adventuring skills required deigned to group up with me to be able to complete the adventuring tutorial. Perhaps this explains why some of the most established players in the game still have a green sprout of school attendance over their national flag.
All branches of school involve details, unnecessary details, forgettable details, even details on features that were not yet in the game and still aren't, lots of sailing around, deliberate time wasters (such as the instructor "taking a break", forcing you to reclick on him to read the rest of the "lesson"), a quest that forces you to "fleet up" with complete strangers, and even quest choices where only one option made any sense. A particularly egregious case of the latter is the drills for advanced trader school. (I didn't mention drills, did I? Well, you have to "practise" for your final examination, so you have to complete drills ten times before you can take the graduation quest. Now you know.) Of the eight possible trader drills, only one is profitable in light of the measly financial compensation: getting thirty pigs. Easy, you say, but the truth is that the French advanced school is in Pisa, and the closest town selling pigs is Faro, Portugal, ten minutes away.
To truly convey how daunting a task that is, I have to explain the rudiments of trading in Uncharted Waters Online, though I will dwell on its inconsistencies in another section. Every market has a set quantity of goods according to its stage of development, but which can vary according to nationality (if your nation owns or controls the port, you get more goods at better prices) and to your skills. For instance, pigs fall under "livestock trading", and someone with that skill will be able to buy more; in my case, not being Portuguese and never having taken the livestock trading skill, I could only buy 15 to 20 pigs on average. (Oh, and before I forget: the total quantity and the quantity you can buy can also differ. If there are 23 pigs on the market, but the game is set on making you buy them only in full stacks of 5, 10, or 20, well, I'll let you figure it out.) There are two ways in which the market, once you have depleted it, can be replenished: use a purchase order of the appropriate category, or sail to the next town and back. Purchase orders being a rarity, the more sensible option is to hopscotch between Faro and nearby Seville until you have all the pigs you need. Add to this that you probably cannot sail a ship with 300 free units of cargo space at that stage of the game, and you get the idea of how fun the drills can become.
You have to wonder how many players might have left the game because of the endless tutorial, but for those who did make it through "school", the achievement represents something. Still no excuse for the exaggeration, though.
3) If you're going to pretend to have a trading system at the centre of your game, make sure it is realistic (a.k.a. David Ricardo must be spinning in his grave).
You are a fledgling French trader just leaving Marseilles, your "capital". At first, your most useful hopscotch port will be Montpellier, just to the west; from there, you can earn a fair bit of money to buy yourself a new ship and some decent equipment.
Many, many levels later, provided you have optimized your skills to this particular area, you can still spend your entire days doing the hopscotch to Montpellier, at this stage to earn outlandish amounts of money; you can add Genoa, Pisa, Naples and even Tunis to your short trade routes and earn a fortune without ever leaving the safe waters of the Mediterranean. Why risk the hostile waters of Africa or the Caribbean when you can earn just as much, if not more, by ceaselessly going back and forth between friendly ports less than five minutes apart?
The Marseilles-Montpellier route is an ideal example of the game's absurd economic model. Montpellier sells live ducks, and Marseilles offers duck meat (but no live ducks); logic would dictate that duck meat would not sell well to the NPC trader in Montpellier, right? Actually, it not only sells at profit, but, under exceptional circumstances, it could also fetch twice the purchase price, which is itself at least four times the value of a live duck sold in Montpellier. You could even buy the poultry recipe book sold in nearby Calvi, butcher the ducks in Montpellier, and sell their meat in the same port! Are we seriously to believe that none of the local farmers ever found out how to do the same and start selling duck meat on their own? (Townsfolk, to their credit, seem to be prescient: they are apparently able to predict what goods will appear with future development; Montpellier, for example, buys garnets at dismal rates, even though they have not been unlocked.)
What could be worse? How about this: You start out as a Venetian, and buy live chickens from Ancona and Zadar. But instead of butchering the chickens, you take up sewing as a trade and pluck feathers, which you can then sell back on the spot as a specialty product of Northern Europe! Hence in addition to the regular profit, you get an experience and fame bonus as a result of selling a trade item that can only be bought, in the game's twisted universe, in Lubeck and Riga, which otherwise sell no poultry. (Bonus question: What happens to the meat anyway? For some reason, you don't get it when you pluck feathers.)
Such examples abound. With the handicrafts skill at rank three, it is possible to turn wheat, sold in such exotic locales as Sierra Leone and Zanzibar, into akvavit, a Scandinavian special product. Marseilles and Naples sell bronze statues, while the closest location for bronze is Plymouth (and no, it is not possible to melt the statues, you philistines). Every port sells timber with which to repair your ship, and every medium-sized town will feature a shipyard, but the closest places to the Mediterranean where you can buy lumber, a trade good, are Bergen and Oslo in Northern Europe, Abidjan in Africa, or Trebizond and Kefe in the Black Sea! (Beirut, of all places, develops it as well, much later in the game.) And this despite the fact that logs, which can be transformed into lumber at select locations, can be collected by players on the outskirts of Tunis and Athens! On a similar note, tobacco, a special product of the Caribbean, can also be collected outside Basra.
Okay, the distribution of trade goods is a little far-fetched; so what? Well, on top of this, a few goods are only accessible to players who invest a predetermined amount of money in certain cities. Want to buy brass in Barcelona? Invest in the city to unlock it in your trade screen. But since Barcelona is Spanish territory, and since only characters from that nation are capable of investing there, only the Spanish can ever buy brass in Barcelona. (Needless to say, Barcelona sells brass but has neither copper nor zinc.) We can picture, without much effort, why the Spanish might regard brass as a strategic resource, but what about that material which is apparently so important to France that only its citizens can buy it: paper? It is perhaps fitting, then, that when Bulwer-Lytton coined "the pen is mightier than the sword", he placed it in the mouth of Cardinal Richelieu. And what about the Portuguese, hoarding that most vital fluid, almond oil?
It's a given that France will be an underdog in every game it is represented (insert painful memories of Pirates of the Burning Sea here), but in Uncharted Waters Online, you are told from the outset that France, unlike the easy-mode Netherlands, is in a difficult situation regardless of its population levels, not only because its trade goods are mostly gastronomic, but because of its geographic location. Of its five territorial towns, only two (Marseilles and Montpellier) are near the starting area, while the other three (Calais, Nantes and Bordeaux) are only accessible with later sailing permits, when you have reached advanced school or acquired a certain amount of fame.
Secondly, it is impossible for an all-French company to settle in the north, as companies can only be headquartered in cities with company administration offices, and the only two towns in Northern Europe with such offices are London and Amsterdam, which require an English and Dutch chairman, respectively, for any company settling there. Thus a purely French company is forced to choose between Marseilles and a selection of "allied" towns all in the Mediterranean -- Genoa, Naples, Athens, or Tunis -- for its headquarters. In so doing, the mechanics of the game force France to vie for control of the so-called "Genoa Triangle" against Venice and perhaps Spain, while the English and Dutch can carve Northern Europe between themselves. End result: France now controls Genoa, Pisa, Calvi, Tunis, Syracuse, Naples and even Beirut, Venice has been pushed back into the Adriatic, and Spain never expanded east of Barcelona, while the three northern French towns, albeit somewhat profitable, became neglected.
How neglected? At this time, great battles, which allow for a military takeover of an allied town, have not been introduced into the game, so the only way to wrest control of an allied port from another nation is to invest heavily until your country becomes the most influential, with the benefits mentioned above (e.g. larger quantities, better prices). Grind implications aside, it also means that French territory towns, being immune from a foreign takeover, benefit from none of the urgency that underlay the annexation of Genoa, Naples or Tunis. Let Calais remain a sleepy backwater, since the English can't take it anyway.
But here is where it gets complicated. You can easily check influence percentages by going to a town official, but what the percentages mean is not particularly clear. For instance, when I last went to Calais, French influence there was at 55 percent. However, since none of the other nations can invest in a foreign territory, the influence of those nations was, accordingly, nil; so to whom did the remaining 45% go? Norman separatists?
Now, I know what you're thinking, the 55% merely represented the development stage of the city, and that when it would reach 100%, the city would be entirely developed. I wish it were that simple, but no, Marseilles is at 100% French influence yet trailing every other "capital" in development points; several items tied to development level have not been unlocked. Same scenario for Montpellier.
How much money, then, is needed to reach the maximum level of development? I don't know, but probably a lot. There is a particular town in which our company invested heavily, maybe 250 million ducats in total, yet that town is still under 13,000 development points, and according to the Japanese and Chinese wikis, certain trade goods do not appear there until it reaches 60,000 development points. That's how much. Beyond that, we can only hazard to guess.
4) If your whole game revolves around dropping money, you had better find something else to give players who look for more. Multiboxing, gold selling, and grinding shall hereby be addressed.
Money in this game can alternately be called omnipotent and meaningless. Omnipotent, because the national campaign can be played so far only through investment; meaningless, because money is insanely easy to acquire, as demonstrated by the rigged economic model mentioned above, as well as by the additional fame requirement to provide the goalposts required to give an illusion of progress. Want to expand your house? Need a fame level as well as cash. Want to sail to new areas and discover new towns? Increase your fame. Want more bank vault slots? Increase your court rank (who would have thought?). How do you increase your court rank? Get more fame. Want to defect to another nation? Need fame. And guess what you have to sacrifice when you finally do: 15,000 fame (out of 20,000 needed) for the least harsh scenario, when you defect from a major power to a minor power. If you made the mistake, however, of rolling French and now seek to join your friends in the Dutch steamroller, well, say goodbye to 150,000 fame out of a required minimum of 200,000 -- which, to my knowledge, nobody even has. In either case, might as well start over, which one Venetian member in our company actually did; but it was early into his first character, and how many others would bother?
Adventurers and maritime players can gain fame through adventure and battle quests, but if you are a trader, how do you get fame? You can get several specialty items (called "local products") and sell them all together in quantities of at least 50 for each; the farther from the area where those specialty goods are produced, the better. Or you can invest around; guess which is easier. However, trade experience, which increases trade levels (not to be confused with trading skill levels, e.g. livestock trading, which are separate from this, and are levelled up through buying goods of those respective categories), is calculated according to two factors: overall profit, and the presence of specialty goods.
Money buys fame. Money develops towns and even switches their allegiance. Money is easy to make, but tiresome to accumulate. You know where this is going.
Gold sellers could grind as the rest of the population, and they probably do, but they (and, possibly, legitimate players as well) can also easily make money by selling gems and pepper, high-priced items that also count as special goods from India -- not selling them not to NPC traders, as is usually the case, but to other players. For example, they buy sapphires from NPC traders in India for, say, 3,000 ducats apiece, sail back to Europe, set up a bazaar -- an individual shop any player can set up -- in a main city like London, and sell those back to players at 22,000 ducats apiece. Players, in turn, can sell those sapphires to the NPC traders for 14,000 ducats in optimal cases.
Yes, that's right, players buy sapphires from these sellers for 8,000 ducats more than they can ever hope to sell them for. Why? Because of trade experience and fame, that's why: when you sell goods back to an NPC trader, what is being considered to calculate experience points is the initial buying price from NPC traders, in this case, 3,000 ducats, so a sale of those sapphires at a price of 14,000 will register as a profit of 11,000 ducats apiece, not as a loss of 8,000 ducats. In effect, you are paying gold sellers with game money to level up, making those sapphire grinders far richer than they could get by playing the game in the manner intended.
And what could be better than one character setting up a bazaar full of sapphires? How about two? How about four, simultaneously, in two different cities?
Another reason for their proliferation is that while multiboxers are in a fleet, fellow fleet members benefit from their trading skills; hence a foods dealer will grant his food trading level to every fleet member, while another one will contribute his wares trading level, another his alcohol trading level, and so on. For adventuring professions, a multiboxer will use his second account as a mule, to carry maps found in archives, because it is impossible to obtain the same map twice if you already have one in your inventory. When turning in quests together, other fleet members will also receive a small fame bonus. At sea, the fleet leader will confer his sailing speed upon every vessel following him, rather than be forced to sail at the speed of the slowest; hence the leader of an alt navy will often sail a xebec, one of the fastest ships in the game (but with a relatively small cargo), followed by four floating lumber yards such as trade galleons.
The multiboxing threat was mentioned even before the game went live. A few solutions have been proposed to put an end to them, such as getting rid of the "pursue" command; for my part, I would modify the trade experience algorithm to take into account any resale price of trade goods, to put an end to the sapphire gimmick. But above all, I think the entire model of grinding cash for investment as the current endgame ought to be reconsidered, which means I might as well have rolled a Spaniard named Quixote.
The previous "issue of the moment", for that matter, was the so-called "Asian invasion", which laid bare the grind mentality at the core of the game. Officially, players from an area where another version of UWO is running are forbidden from playing on the western server; unofficially, proxies are fun. Besides the illegality of their presence, other complaints were directed at their advance knowledge of the game. It was soon realized that catching up was not even possible; the English-language wiki of the game is still, three months into the game, a bare-bones, incomplete and inconsistent collection of one-line pages, while every decent company will direct its members to the Japanese or Taiwanese wikis, or to badly translated guides reposted on MMO Catacombs and such other sites.
Advance knowledge of the game is not really something that bothers me, as it is to be expected in a five-year-old game, but what does is the corollary that never fails to accompany it: that there is only one way to play the game, and other ways are, by definition, inferior. Sometimes, as with the pigs quest from advanced trade school, the choices are designed to that effect. But the real end result of what I have heard called scientific gaming is that the game quickly becomes utterly predictable.
That's where I start having problems with games, when they seem to favour one course of action with a giant neon arrow at the expense of everything else. Play Dutch. Pluck feathers. Go after the same key towns and skip over perfectly decent ports right next to them. It's the equivalent of that overpowered class with an I-win button that everyone plays, and this is not my idea of fun. Not fun, because, from there, the game falls into spreadsheet-mandated predictability. That is what I'm starting to find in very short supply in this game -- moments that have me scratching my head looking for an explanation, for what is the larger picture, or, indeed, whether there is a larger picture at all. The kind of moment like that in Patton when the eponymous character lists all the reasons against a German winter attack only to conclude with 'therefore I believe that's exactly what they are going to do' -- not 'in spite of this'; therefore. Moments, in other words, that exist on their own logic rather than anything culled from the Japanese wiki. Moments that could even be called, in a way, artistic.
It was this scientific approach which led to the triumph of the short trade route at the expense of one of the game's fortes, exploration. Why waste one hour going to the Caribbean, or three hours going to India, if you can rake in more money spending the same time going back and forth between Genoa to Tunis, or Naples to Beirut? And you can also imagine how fun that is when you do it day after day. This explains why the first strategy our company agreed upon was to eschew the trading pattern that seemed in vogue among the rest of the French and try to secure a few colonies outside of the Mediterranean. Was it appreciated? After converting a certain African town to the oppressive wonders of French colonial rule, one of the investment strategists in the largest French company contacted me to say that there were better places where we could have invested, and to instruct me that if Country X wanted to go after that town, we should just roll over and let them take it. Others were more supportive, since Country X had made no move against that town, which was originally Ottoman (to which nobody, to my knowledge, had yet defected). In the end, Country X demonstrated no interest in the port, and the French strategist ended up quitting a month later, ostensibly over the multiboxing plague; but every French player who mentioned his name, I soon discovered, seemed to harbour little more than disdain for him, but he was tolerated because he was the number two investor in a beleagered nation. Yes, money is power.
By some coincidence, while our company was busy in Africa, France also took over Tunis from the Ottomans. Coordination between French companies being minimal at best, I only learned of our new acquisition by looking at the Mediterranean map, conveniently updated in real-time. As Tunis had been in France's sights for a while, I first thought to myself that the rest of the French leadership had finally made good on its plan. That was until I showed up in Tunis and looked at the top investors' list. It was not what you could call a national effort, and it was not even, as far as I know, a collective effort by the most active members of the main companies; it was, in effect, the work of one guy named "hm11". L'État, c'est lui; the second investor in Tunis (not the "number two investor" mentioned above; his name is not on the list) invested a tenth of what he put in.
Then the implications begin to sink in. If one guy can invest 374 million ducats in one seemingly secure town and succeed, more or less, in flipping it overnight, what does that mean for the cities you're trying to retain? And while this player, the quintessential hardcore short-route grinder, was something of a running gag in our company chat, he seemed to have become the de facto chief strategist of France. As you can guess, everything suggested he was an Asian player with years of experience of the game. I still remember one of those French leadership meetings, where he was typing what could best be described as obscure aphorisms, most probably courtesy of Google Translate, trying to convince others to follow his path; and the other French players from his company seemed to treat those as the gospel of an omniscient oracle. The worst part, I thought, was that you couldn't even debate back, or argue for another course of action; the guy couldn't understand what you would say, and it's doubtful whether he'd care. And I have no doubt that all the number-crunching in the world would have proved him right.
It is common knowledge that "hm11" now wants to take over Tripoli, just to be able to sell there at the French rate when he's finished crashing Tunis with his textiles trade; but Tripoli is an otherwise worthless city, to the extent that even his stalwart supporters are planning to do little more than a token contribution to encourage his effort. Yet I have no doubt that he will flip it when he is ready.
With the Asian hardcore grinding mentality in full swing, in a game tailored to that purpose, how can casual players contribute? Your national effort, when everyone else pitches in one or two million at most, is going to be meaningless without those grinders. It has reached the point where I'm hesitant to ask people to invest in target cities; in the case of a player who told me he was willing to invest a million ducats, I actually told him to keep it, expecting that the money would be wasted as so much pocket change in a game where stakes reach hundreds of millions of ducats. How many players are in the same situation?
And that's saying nothing of perks for top investors; yes, that's right, if you're a top investor in a city, you can "see ahead" in the city's development and get exclusive access to certain goods sold in NPC shops -- trade goods, recipe books, cannon, ships, etc. -- before everyone else, until the city is sufficiently developed. Nice way to enjoy a monopoly for a while, especially on items that benefit from a strong resale value, for instance the fire cannon recipe book from Tunis. That reminds me of the time when one of the top investors there started putting that book on sale, offering it at a reduced rate to any fellow Frenchman, by which he meant a mere 200,000-ducat profit for his trouble. Monsieur, France salutes you indeed.
As inconceivable as it might appear, grinding reached new heights with the so-called "Aztec" expansion added to the game last January 11. Grinding for fame or money were apparently getting passé, so the game added "attainment points" needed to unlock South American East Coast ports. Unlike other sailing permits, which were based on individual fame alone, the South American permit is a national achievement; and unlike fame, there is only one way to accumulate "attainment points": by completing "Imperial quests" at your "capital", all of which take you to the Caribbean or South America. As the game allows you to accept only one quest at any given moment, and as a trip to the Caribbean takes between one and two hours, you can imagine how much time is asked of players who run them.
Now imagine getting 6 points per quest, with the national permit requiring 5,000. Imagine that only players with access to the Caribbean permit -- which comes after you have unlocked all of Europe, all of Africa, the Red Sea and India -- are offered the quests in the first place. Imagine that only a tiny portion of those who do have the permit are going to bother doing them, because the rest are, er, busy running textiles from Genoa to Tunis. In all of France, the leaders of the main companies estimated the number of active players with the Caribbean permit at somewhere around 50, perhaps 70 at most; two weeks later, I'm suspecting that the number of French players doing the quests, not particularly impressive to begin with, has been whittled down by boredom. I would include myself among those who could not take the grind anymore and stepped back, and I know two others who did the same just in our company. I now estimate the time to unlock the permit at two or three months; needless to say, I wonder whether I will have moved on by then.
As of writing, France has a little over a third of the 5,000 points required, while England has already unlocked its permit by getting its 6,500 points. The difference in requirements is apparently based on an amalgam of population and investment levels, or population alone, with the nations most to be pitied having lower requirements; however, this implies that France has a population 76 percent the size of the English, which is far from the case. Furthermore, if investment levels play a part, how can we explain that Venice, long confined to the Adriatic with only one allied town to its name, and suffering from its main leaders having called it quits shortly after release, also needs 5,000 points? Yet, last I heard, even Venice was ahead of France for the South American permit -- and think about it: Venetians have to sail back to Venice every time.
How long before you start thinking: France sucks? With a natural geographic disadvantage, an unattainable objective and a core of players who prefer their daily Mediterranean drudgery to long-term enjoyment of the game, not long, I should think. And when you know that every further sailing permit -- Southeast Asia, West Coast of the Americas, the Panama and Suez Canals, and East Asia -- works in a similar way, and requires every previous sailing permit in turn, when do you decide it isn't really worth it and join your brethren doing their Genoa routine, or just quit the game? Perhaps that is how UWO can claim, in its perfect Engrish, to "guarantee more than 3 years of playtime even you are a extremely hardcore gamer with endless places to visit, people to meet, things to explore, and more".
5) If you're going to allow the creation of guilds ("companies"), you might as well give them the tools they need to function adequately.
When I came to Uncharted Waters Online, I was followed by my two online friends, and we quickly established a company in Marseilles, the third oldest. At first we weren't expecting the company to expand, and we were not even certain whether we would try to recruit anyone we didn't know already; we just wanted to coordinate and benefit from a chat channel, and the company creation fee of one million ducats, in this game, is, as you have seen, pocket change.
My two friends quit a month later, but the company continued to grow to become one of the largest in France, and the first to focus its attention on outside the Mediterranean. And now, much to my chagrin, I seem to be powerlessly witnessing its gradual decline, which, meager consolation, appears to be the general trajectory not only of the French nation but of the entire game. Another French company all but collapsed after its leader was kept from the game for at least two weeks due to technical problems, and even the top French company is now a shadow of its former self, having lost nearly half of its members to inactivity and splinter groups.
What doesn't help is that companies in the game seem almost an afterthought rather than a key gameplay element. After founding a company, the chairman can appoint two deputies, and as far as organization goes, that's about it. There are no middle-level positions, and the chairman is not provided with the opportunity to expand the power of his deputies; hence while all three officers can approve applicants, only the chairman can ever expel an existing member. And since companies are capped at 50 members, should you have a full roster with plenty of inactives, as well as an absentee chairman, well, you can figure out what happens. And while it takes a month for an absentee company officer to be automatically replaced, it takes ninety days for the game to strip inactive players of their company affiliation. Also worth mentioning is that if your company is headquartered in a "capital", and that the roster runs out of members from that nation (the only ones who can head it), the company is automatically disbanded.
The approval mechanism of new members is equally shoddy. Players must submit their application at the company administration office in the town where the company is headquartered, which makes sense, and company officers, instantly notified by mail, must be at an office (any will do) to approve applicants. I like the concession to realism, but I have seen players submit their application expecting an immediate answer; in one case, the player submitted his application while I was at sea near Spain and my deputies occupied elsewhere, and withdrew it one minute later. And this was within five minutes of two company offices (Marseilles and Seville); should you happen to receive an application while in Natal, South Africa, the closest company administration offices are either in Calicut, India (provided you have the sailing permit to land there) or back in Portugal, an hour away. Fun indeed, for both the applicant and the company's officers. (It's even more fun when an explosive situation -- yes, guild drama -- requires a swift resolution that may include the expulsion of a particular member, which, as mentioned above, only the chairman can do; it happened to me, but at least the member in question was persuaded to leave before I reached port.)
Now, assuming the applicant didn't get tired of waiting, you're back from Natal, standing in front of the company administration office in Lisbon and can finally approve him. You see why the applicant did not withdraw his application: he is currently logged off. So you approve him and move on... until you look at the member list of your company and see a Dutch flag sticking out among the ranks. Yep, that's the guy you approved. Didn't you specify, in your company description, that you only took French applicants? Why, yes, you did, so either the Dutch player didn't read it or can't understand English -- which seems to characterize a large part of the Dutch these days. But why, oh why, Vetty, did you accept him in the first place? Here's the kicker: When a player is logged off, you cannot see his nationality. And before you ask: no, you are not given the option to only accept members from a specific nation, even though there is no real reason to do otherwise. (Some "international" companies do exist, one with branches in three cities, but unless they are willing to fully embrace piracy, I cannot see how they can remain functional in the long term; even investment is tied to the player's nationality, not that of his guild's leadership.)
Even worse, let's assume you learn from this and decide to contact the player through private messaging. If you are in hostile waters, you are probably setting your status to "private"; otherwise, any pirate can instantly look up who is present in a zone at any given time. If you have set your status to "private", you can only enter in contact with other company members and people on your friends' list, which the applicant is unlikely to be. (I remember one particular case where one person could not read the comments of some people in the same chat room because his status was set on private and they were not on his friends' list.) In fact, even without private status turned on, here is what happened soon after we started our company: We left recruitment turned on, but had yet to decide on how to proceed with applicants we did not know. After receiving the first outside application, we debated among ourselves what to do, and decided to contact applicants to ask them what they were looking for by joining our company. So, after this, which must have lasted all of five minutes at the most, I sent the applicant a tell, asking for more details. He had already logged off. Then I decided to send him a mail asking for the same information. It was then that I found out that the game does not allow sending mail to people who are not in your company or on your friends' list. So there we were, forced to take applicants, some of whom we never saw again, wearing a virtual blindfold.
With five members, a company can open a store, accessed through the company administration office in the city where it is headquartered. With 25 members, the company is given a company house, which is all but a useless perk except at the highest levels, where some special production is enabled. To keep the company house after a monthly check (the 15th at noon, Korean time), a company must not only maintain a minimum number of members (around 10-15) as well as a certain amount of collective fame, but also contribute a certain number of items chosen by the game, some craftable, some only obtainable as quest rewards. Contributions also determine which of the companies get a company house if the number of eligible companies exceeds the number of company houses; a major issue in Seville, where all 20 houses are occupied, not so much in Marseilles, where only eight companies qualify. But since houses are useless except at highest levels, which require a higher total of contributions points, and since the craftable contribution goods are usually acquired through extensive grind, one has to wonder what's the point of this endurance test.
6) You might be big in Korea, but that doesn't mean we know you, nor that you understand the western MMO market.
Netmarble/CJ Internet might be household names in Korea, but their entire western portfolio seems comprised of just two games, MiniFighter and this, plus a vague promise of a third now only available in Korea, Prius Online. As Netmarble is a licensee of the UWO franchise from Tecmo-Koei, it is impossible to know how much say they have over the game mechanics, but I would expect them to at least be in charge of all the administrative side of the game. For instance, who was behind the recent temporary replacement of some cash-shop items "in order to deal with billing abuse"? And out of curiosity, what is "billing abuse", lest it be misinterpreted, since there is no other place where this is mentioned?
Since we have broached the subject, a quick discussion of the cash shop: There is nothing abusive about it, and the items don't particularly tip the scales in favour of buyers, although one can clearly see the advantages of items offering a 30% boost to sailing speed, experience, or fame for 30 days. So we can assume that Netmarble did not go overboard à la Allods; good for them.
However, I am a little more concerned by some of their promotional events linked to Facebook, which inevitably means disclosing your real name. Okay, that's mild compared to the routine Korean practise of asking for your social security number to play an online game, and you don't have to take part (especially someone like me, without a Facebook account), but I feel uneasy about any game that encourages me to give away my real name. For that matter, Blizzard's ill-fated attempt to clean up its forums by forcing users to identify themselves was what clinched my decision never to return to World of Warcraft; but perhaps that is the glorious future of gaming, at which point I feel like taking a good look at my receding hairline in the mirror and telling myself: "maybe I'm getting too old for this".
I can't pinpoint why exactly, but I never seemed to get the impression that Netmarble really understood the western MMO market, even if we shove all the grindy design decisions back to Tecmo-Koei. Perhaps it's the dearth of interaction between the company and players on the forums; perhaps it's because of what has been reported by people who did buy items from the cash shop; perhaps it's all that mangled English, which, as I mentioned above, seems worse in the advertising than in the game.
Perhaps it's because patches and expansions are added without much detail as to what is in them, undoubtedly as the result of the game having been around for so long in other languages . The Japanese server, for instance, will be getting a brand new North American expansion this February; meanwhile, the western server got the "Aztec" expansion originally released in August 2006. The notes for the western release, unlike what can be almost deciphered on the Japanese wiki, are notable for their brevity, and for their mention of only one item clearly tailored to the western release: "This patch will permit only alphabets and numbers to create a character name." And about time, too, when gold sellers started picking names in kanji to make themselves nigh unblockable (the only way was to click on the seller, press the tell button, and copy-paste the name into the block list), but it's already too late if the intent was to instill a western feel to the game: your average Dutchie is sailing around under Chinese characters.
What is missing from the patch notes is all the small details, the tweaks, the adjustments, the stuff that western players love to sift through. I will just give one example: At release, the game included a level-13 recipe in a brewery book; after the Aztec expansion, the recipe vanished. However, the Japanese wiki lists the recipe in that book, so we can infer that the recipe will be added back at some later point. This raises an interesting series of questions: Why take the recipe out? If its initial inclusion in the western release was a mistake, was it so in the other versions of the game? If it was a mistake in the other versions of the game, why was it repeated here five years later, instead of being corrected before release? Does it mean the western release will get all the bugs and design changes of the original game regardless of their impact on the game?
7) If you want to discuss miscellaneous items, add another point.
I don't really want to talk about the PvP aspect of the game precisely because one of the key aspects of PvP -- great battles, or however they call them -- is not in the game yet. Still, I have not noticed much of what could be called a PvP culture in UWO, which surprises me even more when I recall that every region outside of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean is hostile (PvP) waters.
What I also noticed was that everything Pirates of the Burning Sea did wrong regarding PvP on the world map, Uncharted Waters Online got right: give everyone plenty of space to PvP instead of reducing said activity to the perimeter of a red circle, and place immunity circles around towns and landing points to prevent ambush. Ship battles, however, are far less intricate than those of PotBS, even though both are instanced: cannons automatically aim any ship you click on, sailing gets ridiculously easy once you get the "sail handling" skill, and so on. However, it is also possible to damage your fleet's own ships if you are not careful, which I do not remember as a possibility in PotBS.
Still, there is another reason, besides the vast territory, why PvP, especially piracy, is not widespread in UWO: it's harsh. Sink too many players (or other nations' NPC ships, for that matter), and you end up with a bounty on your head, meaning you can be attacked anywhere on the map, including in safe waters. And neither attacker nor defender can benefit from insurance in a PvP fight; worse, I remember being told that the bounty is directly linked to your bank deposit, so there is no real (legitimate) way to put aside a stash of money for future use, and no real safe spot once you embark on a life of piracy.
So, "compatible to EVE"? No, not really; companies are toothless, the stakes are too high for pirates, and you don't have the level of customization that the space game has.
While there is a good variety of costumes in the game, some of it is unrealistic, and the game falls into the World of Warcraft tendency of "you are as good as your gear makes you". If roleplay is what you play games for, Pirates of the Burning Sea offered a much better opportunity to choose your appearance, as it had no impact on your statistics. In UWO, it is, as per the old adage, whatever gives you the most plusses. Oh, and clothing, accessories, weapons, they all decay. Houses, all instanced, suffer from the same superficiality. You can get furniture, which expands your storage space, you can move it around, and that's about it (and yes, furniture decays, too).
A quick note on ships: What happens when all shipbuilding is dependent on both the development level of towns (especially capitals) and the shipbuilding skill level of players? Nobody can find a ship of their level. And since the NPC shipyards stop offering ships past a certain level, players are forced to find a high-level shipbuilder to build one; in other words, the game is deliberately holding players back.
And then there is the chat filter. Now, this game was unfortunate enough to name a ship the Hooker -- yes, that is the official name -- so guess what happens. You want to get a XXXXXX. Right, you cannot name the ship. Same problem with the Amulet of the Virgin Mary. Now, I understand the need to censor some words, but surely there are times when you can talk of a "fetish" without referring to something salacious. Surely there are times when you have to say that you have sixty-nine bottles of brandy in your inventory. And surely someone can explain to me what horrible meaning "co?" must have to get filtered, as in "are you going to the Gulf of MexiXXX". But the most surreal example of filtering must be when you want to talk about "that xxx movie" you saw last night. Yep, "xxx" is filtered -- into XXX.
Speaking of which, Lothario says hello.
PART II (April 1st.)
"Feeling the Number of Small"
In my original review, I wrote that "France now controls Genoa, Pisa, Calvi, Tunis, Syracuse, Naples and even Beirut, Venice has been pushed back into the Adriatic, and Spain never expanded east of Barcelona, while three northern French towns, albeit somewhat profitable, became neglected". It had such a far-reaching empire that I even omitted two towns, Cagliari and Sassari. Ah, those were the days.
Since then, this far-reaching empire has been considerably whittled down. In the space of a few days in early February, France lost all of its Mediterranean allied towns: Genoa, Pisa, Calvi, Cagliari, Syracuse and Naples to the Venetians, Tunis and Sassari to the Spanish, and Beirut to the Portuguese. Venice also took over the Ottoman-allied towns of Salonica, Athens and Candia, while Portugal took Famagusta, opposite Beirut. In addition, Venice and Spain broke off their alliance and engaged in investment wars in the most important cities (especially Genoa, Naples and Tunis), further reducing the total French influence percentage in these cities. The French once had a 50-percent influence in Genoa; it had fallen, by the last time I visited the town, earlier today, to 14 percent. As of the 30th of March, Venice owns all of the former French-allied ports in the Mediterranean, with the exception of the Portuguese towns and of Sassari, which remains under Spanish control. The French, to my knowledge, did not attempt to retake any of them.
So what is left of France? Apart from the French territorial (protected) towns, which include Cayenne in South America, only three takeable ports remain under French influence: Benin and Douala in West Africa, and Mozambique in East Africa -- three ports that we would not even control should our company have listened to the rest of the French leadership and invested its money in the Mediterranean lost cause instead.
(Continued in the next post).