UNCHARTED WATERS ONLINE / Koei + NetMarble / PC
Jean-Paul Sartre most succinctly summarized my feelings about MMOs with the most famous four words of his writing. However, as you may observe from this very site, I'm a fan of Uncharted Waters 2. I was always disappointed that none of the rest of the series was ever translated to English, so when I heard UWO had been released as free-to-play in the English-speaking parts of the world, I was all over it in spite of my general contempt for MMOs.
The community isn't great, but it also isn't nearly at Runescape levels of horrible. It does draw a lot of oldheads who were fans of the SNES/Genesis games back in the day, and thus tend to exhibit higher social function in general, but there's also no shortage of trolls. That isn't really the game's main failing. The main failing is absentee, Asia-based management that either doesn't care at all about the Western market for the game, or is just riding the whole thing for whatever they can get out of it in its dying days and doesn't care about anyone at all of any nationality anymore. As such, a solid and enjoyable game framework is neglected and taking on more and more weather damage as time goes by.
The game originally came out in Japan way back in 2005. So on the negative side, you have very dated graphics, but on the positive side, the game has had six years of experience prior to being released in the West in which to iron out glitches, play balance issues and all sorts of other general problems. Having six years doesn't necessarily mean *using* those six years productively, however.
Let's start from the very beginning and work our way forward. UWO's payment model is entirely free to play, with no advertising, but with a shop that sells various "pay to win" type items for real cash. To the game's credit, it is not crippled without purchasing "real money" items, like many supposedly "free" MMOs; in fact, I had a hard time even finding the "NetMarble Shop", as the company doesn't even bother to leave obvious pointers to it anywhere, and it doesn't seem to be accessible in-game. However, the installer is a 3.5 GB download - in the U.S., where we're only just getting bandwidth caps with the big services and they're still pretty generous, this isn't that big a deal, but in countries where you have to pay hell of ducats just for 25 GB a month, a 3.5 GB download may require some serious thought and Internets rationing. And it's not like WoW where you can order a disc for it, the only way to get this thing is online.
Installing the game mandates also installing MarbleStation, NetMarble's launcher for both this and their two other MMOs (Mini Fighter and Prius Online). To its credit I could find no reports of it packing malware, and it didn't try to force plugins on browsers or dump a bunch of extra stuff on the desktop. It is a slightly ass-around-your elbow procedure to get into the game, however.
Once in-game, it's a fairly basic character creation, with limited options for appearance. This being Asia-centric, in addition to the swarthy pirates one would expect, one can also be a loli or a skinny little jagoff with goofy "Azn street fashion" hairspray-abuse hair. You don't really do stats or skills or anything at the outset, all that is handled in-game. The only big choice is nationality, of which you choose from the European powers of the Age of Sail - Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, England and Venice. Picking one plops you in their capital city, which will be your home for quite a time.
As you'll soon find out, only the areas around these starting countries are considered "safe waters" - one can only be attacked only by NPC mobs here. Every other ocean and sea of the world is "hostile waters", which not only spawn the more ferocious NPC enemies in the game, but are totally free for PvP without the consent of both parties. I heard in-game that one has to be Level 35 overall to be attacked by another player, however, regardless of what waters they are in. I can't verify that because I personally never made it to that lofty point, but also because NetMarble's documentation of game rules and features is atrocious. If you can read Japanese, Chinese or Korean, you'll do much better there as players of those nations have made countless Wikis detailing every aspect of the game. With less than a year in English-speaking territories and a small user base, these Wikis and scraps of information are only haltingly and incompletely being translated and posted by players.
PvP, however, is not that big of an issue. Only dedicated trolls will bother pirating just for the hell of it, because the toll is steep if they come out on the losing end of the battle, and there's also a "notoriety" meter that goes way up when killing other players without provocation. With high enough notoriety, one cannot enter most major ports in the game without paying a steep fee, and also has to live with a constant bounty on their head tied to the contents of their bank account. Trade is also by far the quickest way to riches in this game, and the vast majority of the addict personalities who sit on it for 14 hours a day will spend that time running their favorite routes over and over and over seeking as little interruption as possible.
There are three different basic classes. Adventurers focus on finding ruins and lost treasures and all that, Maritime players focus on combat, and Merchants focus on trade routes. One must dabble in a bit of all three to make it, however, as all three contain basic skills needed to do the work that any guild will eventually ask of you.
The "tutorial", such as it is, is being forced to join a School at the outset of each character's game. There's a Beginner-level School for each of the three classes in each of the capital cities that you can start out in, and they dole out missions that show you the basic game mechanics while giving you some rewards of money, exp and items. You're free to take whatever school you like, switch between schools and even just ignore the thing and wander off. The Beginner school is virtually mandatory for several reasons, however. First is simply that you'll never get farther than a couple of ports over with your starting equipment and ship, and the easy school quests give you much needed money, exp. for vital skills, and items. You also can't take quests from the Guilds in each town until you've passed their Beginner-level school, nor do you have the "port permits" necessary to land anywhere except at ports just adjacent to your home city. And the game also has very complex mechanics and a lot of depth, and most of your information about how to manage it comes from school explanations due to Netmarble's poor outside documentation.
Student status, however, doesn't end with Beginner school. All three can be blown through in a few hours, and there's nothing difficult, so the wisest way to start out any freshly-rolled character is to take them through the three basic schools, giving them all the necessary tools to survive a trip farther out than just the immediate waters around your hometown. You then move on to Intermediate school, however. Completing this with at least one class is also virtually mandatory, as it's the only way to get port permits that allow you to access all the other cities in "safe waters" beyond your home port. The quests here are still on the easy side but get more annoying - beg around town to get other people to Fleet up with you (the game's party system), fight battles that require a much better ship than you start out with along with some expensive optional fittings, and make risky trips through piratey waters. And after Intermediate school? There's Advanced school! All told, taking a character through the three schools for one class is at least a week's proposal for a non-OCD player, and completing all three, which really gets you fit to navigate dangerous waters, is probably closer to a month's work.
The game's depth is thus a double-edged sword. There's never any lack of something to do, and multiple possibilities to entertain yourself with - hoard up wealth, become a pirate or a privateer, focus on exploring the world, or just socialize and play poker, to name a few. However, NetMarble's poor documentation makes asking for help on the School Chat channel virtually mandatory at least a few times, and also forces you into the School lessons whether you like it or not.
Unless you want to narrowly specialize in trade, which may not even require anything beyond Beginner's lessons and the Intermediate Merchant classes. Thanks to the game's often nonsensical economy, traders are rewarded so well for exploiting certain oddities (and outright exploits) by just running about between ports in safe waters that there's really little point to going any further. Someone who wants to explore the game world and have a rich experience with multiple possibilities and layers will quickly get bored by this style of game, but as with most MMOs that type of player seems to be outnumbered by grinding fetishists and OCDs who are happy to plop down for 12 hours and repeat the same actions over and over and over and over and over. The problem is simply that you do need a fair amount of money to even operate at a basic level in the game, and exploiting trade oddities so far outweighs any other method that it's virtually the only real path to success, unless you want to grind crappy time-consuming low-level quests forever.
I do appreciate that the game de-emphasizes combat. Living a life centered on combat in this game is so risky and fraught with many downsides (even for high-level players) that relatively few people undertake it, and seeing out-and-out pirates (whose names appear in red to indicate their status) is actually somewhat rare. However, the skanky standard MMO mechanics of "grinding mobs" and "rare drops" have simply been replaced here by watching a boat sail back and forth between the same ports for hours on end. It's just grinding in a new, less violent form. When you break it all down, the core mechanics and hook of the game are still "watch your Numbers grow."
The best aspect of the game is that, trading aside, there isn't really a "killer class" that you just pick and go out and Win with along one pre-determined path. There's a multitude of factors to consider, that change with whatever objective you have currently set your sights on. You can only equip a limited number of Skills at a time, for example. Then there's different styles of boats - generally the combat-oriented and more durable ones are also slower and have less cargo space. You equip different peices of your boat, and even select the riggings for better speed in different types of prevailing winds. General wind patterns and currents of the real world are even in place.
Though the graphics are dated, the towns have a nice structure, and the sea often looks pretty, with a sped-up day-night cycle with nice lighting effects. The one complaint here is that, due apparently to sync reasons, It's Always Sunny In Port despite whatever time (or weather) you cruise in (given the game has no real overall calendar or time system that applies singularly to everyone.) I would have loved for there to be more to do in ports, more local flavor and opportunities to learn about these cultures, rather than just being all business and constantly in Sunny Happy mode.
For the amount of text in the game the translation to English is also mostly passable. You get a fair bit of Engrish, with the most amusing example being Seville's lovely barmaid Lothario ... who is actually referred to correctly as Rosario in one obscure quest, but never anywhere else.
English becomes more of an issue if a game-crippling bug or technical flaw pops up and you have to go to Netmarble's question submission form (with staff apparently all based in Asia) to get help. I can deal with some KorEnglish here, but it seems like you get a healthy helping of Attitude and Laziness along with it. Basically, if you have any sort of a problem, expect your first question to be blown off with a curt KorEnglish message within the first 24 hours, and all subsequent questions to either be ignored forever or closed immediately with no explanation. I hit an awful glitch, the details of which are too long and tedious to recount, but that's what happened to me when I described it and asked for the simple service of moving my character from a stranded (due to the glitch) location back to his home port. NetMarble first intentionally misunderstood the question so they could blow it off, then just stopped responding altogether. So I stopped playing. If you look on the forums there's numerous other unresolved issues.
In absence of actually having a moderating or GM presence in the game, NetMarble seemingly just instituted a draconian chat filter and left the game world to itself. Seriously, it's the most restrictive filter I've ever seen; there's all the expected profanity, vulgarity, and sexual terms, and then there's anything that might even be *remotely* able to hurt someone's feelings or linked to any kind of vaguely erotic act. All blocked out with XXXXXXXX automatically. Very authentic to the nautical setting.
NetMarble's gloriously Engrishy promotional materials "guarantee more than 3 years of playtime". I made it 4 days before hitting aforementioned nasty glitch, getting a completely dismissive response, and deciding there's no point sinking any more time or effort into this if it can be robbed in a second by a bug and the management will just flip you a middle finger in response. It's a shame for NetMarble because I loved UW2, I've been dying for a new UW game for well over a decade now, and I'm an adult with a healthy income who can actually, y'know, afford to buy stuff from them, and likes to financially support stuff that I enjoy. I assumed their business model would have something in it about keeping up good channels of communication with customers so they stay satisfied and in a paying mood, but apparently not. I'm left baffled why they even brought this into English if they just planned on completely going on vacation and giving up on it within the first year. It's also a shame because there's a core of a really good online game here, but it needs a lot more support than it appears it is ever going to get, and as such, I don't feel it's worth wasting your time with. Way to squander opportunity, Tecmo/Koei/NetMarble/whoever.
* Unofficial Uncharted Waters Wiki