This survival game left port before it was seaworthy.
In large part thanks to its dreadful imbalances and instability, setting sail in Atlas is, in its own way, extremely tense. The high-stakes excitement of leaving the relative safety of my base to explore the watery unknown is definitely perilous: What if we’re sunk by a storm? What if there is no land to claim? What if the latest patch makes the marauding Ships of the Damned nigh-indestructible again? All of these thoughts fluttered through my mind every time my company and I sailed out in search of territory and resources. Of course, after a few times of spawning back home without our expensive and time-consuming ships through little or no fault of our own, that excitement turned to questions of whether it was worth our while to continue.
Atlas is a survival MMO set in a large, watery open world that’s dotted with diverse and interesting islands to explore. Made by a sister studio to the makers of ARK: Survival Evolved, that game’s design is ingrained in Atlas’s DNA. As with ARK and most other crafting games, much of your time in Atlas will be spent doing mundane tasks such as hacking trees for wood, picking cotton, stripping bark for tatch and so on. The eventual payoff is the ability to construct either a hand-built base of operations or a highly customizable, multi-player crewable pirate ship of your very own. This is all while you’re keeping an eye on stats such as hunger, thirst, and even the over-the-top vitamin system, which feels absolutely unnecessary. It’s meant to emulate sailors getting scurvy on the high seas, but at some point the simulation has to give way to being fun, and tracking whether I’ve eaten enough foods containing vitamin C is a tedious chore on top of the otherwise-standard survival mechanics.
On the other hand, the sense of exploration as I crested each wave in our Brigantine hasn’t left me in the 60+ hours I’ve spent thus far. Landing on a new beach to discover its treasures with my friends is thrilling and Atlas really nails the atmosphere in these situations. While out on the ocean, seeing a new island on the horizon was a moment to take stock and decide if we wanted to change course and explore, or continue to our original destination. More often than not, the explorer’s bug hit us and we found ourselves rowing to an unfamiliar shore, a mix of excitement and trepidation filling my mind with each landfall. Weather also plays a role, sometimes obscuring vision with thick fog, or worse: giant cyclones of water bent on sending us to a watery grave. Each time we survived, the relief and elation we felt spurred us onward. When things go your way at sea, Atlas really comes into its own and brings about some of its more enjoyable experiences.
A mix of excitement and trepidation filled my mind with each landfall.
You won’t just be fighting malnourishment to survive – these islands are full of irritatingly aggressive predators who would love nothing more than to nourish themselves on your corpse. Animals such as lions, tigers, and bears (don’t you dare say it) prowl the beaches and jungles, and especially when you’re still getting your bearings they are a giant source of grief. I can’t begin to count how many times a wolf saw me across the beach – yes, a wolf on a beach – and came pouncing at speeds that seemed to rival an SR-71 Blackbird. By themselves they’re not too challenging and can be killed to provide meat, hide, and other valuable materials, but more often than not they travel in overwhelming packs. I’ve had moments where I’ve counted no fewer than five giant snakes, three giant crocodiles, and a few large scorpions chasing me across the desert beach where we first established our camp, all while I’m armed with nothing more than a pitifully fragile spear.
It’s because of these predators that I felt more frustration with Atlas’s early hours than I have with any game in months. It’s incredibly hard to establish a base to build a ship to sail in when every time you spawn you’re welcomed by the giant jaws of a mega-cobra. Unlike ARK, which has many powerful herbivores capable of holding their own against aggressive dinosaurs, in Atlas it’s not uncommon to see packs of elephants felled by a single snake. So the prey is quickly wiped out, and all that’s left for the predators to hunt is humans. As such, each death and respawn is a game of chicken: can I make it back to my body to recover my items before I die again, or will the five crocodiles I have to slip by gut me before I even reach the beach?
Tangling with these predators wouldn’t be as bad if the on-foot combat itself wasn’t garbage to begin with. Melee feels floaty and all but useless in most cases, and some predators (I’m looking at you, snakes) often don’t take damage even when you’ve clearly hit them. Using pistols or rifles becomes an option later on, but they feel less viable in large fights thanks to the excruciating time it takes to reload a single bullet. The bow and arrow is, in the end, the most useful weapon in Atlas, even though the bow itself must’ve been made out of matchsticks based on its aggravatingly rapid rate of decay.
If You Build It, They Will Take It
On paper, Atlas’s world boasts the ability to house an impressive 40,000 players at once. In reality that world and population is split into server shards, also called regions by their inhabitants, with each individual server only supporting about 150 players. . The servers are split into three types: Freeport, which is where every player will spawn and start their journey; Wilderness, which are the most common server type and allows for land claims; and lawless regions which are meant to be temporary stepping zones, allowing for base building but not land claiming. There’s a fair amount of environmental variety between them, ranging from harsh and sometimes uninhabitable deserts to lush, tropical edens.
By about the third day after Atlas’s launch most of the viable claimable land was taken.
Building a base to store your accumulated resources, crafting stations, and eventually your body when you log out is essential to surviving in the long term, and it’s one of the more interesting activities. You can fully customize the look of your base, and later – as you progress through Atlas’s convoluted skill tree – you can build elaborate stone structures, either on the ground or even hanging on a cliffside. However, huge issues prevent smaller companies (Atlas’s version of guilds) and especially solo players from being able to easily establish themselves early on. Building a permanent fort to work from requires either space on one of the many crowded, lawless servers or claimable land to set up shop, and the latter is woefully hard to come by. By about the third day after Atlas’s launch most of the viable claimable land was taken, ending the land rush.
My friends and I – a trio of buddies that’s logged hundreds of hours in survival games like ARK and Conan Exiles – initially set sail from our desert freeport on a couple of small rafts, which we aptly named ‘The Magnificent’ and ‘Replacement Geoff’ (since the first ‘Geoff’ we built was lost to us). The three of us searched high and low for unoccupied land, all the while deciding how we would split up our different roles within the group, as there are no predefined classes to choose from.
Instead, you level up by doing pretty much anything in Atlas: discovering new islands, harvesting materials, and killing creatures. Thankfully, it doesn’t skimp on the experience points, making leveling up early a satisfying breeze. With each level comes skill points to put into Atlas’s massive but convoluted skill tree, each branch of which ties into another. Going down one skill line, such as Construction, can lead to a multitude of other disciplines, like Armor Crafting or Ship Building. We each chose specializations, eventually settling on Joe learning Artillery and Animal Taming, Leif specializing in Weapon Crafting, and myself focusing on Captianeering, Pirating, and Shipbuilding.
Everything we had worked for so far was lost, for the second time in two days.
While aimlessly sailing our incredibly slow rafts, my group got lucky and found a small sliver of land at the end of a desert peninsula to claim, but we learned the hard way that claims aren’t permanent. Enemy players and factions can contest your claim, so if you happen to leave the area for an extended period of time (such as if you go to sleep) you run the risk of losing everything you’ve built simply by a competing claim flag being placed next to yours. This, in fact, happened to us about five days after launch, and just like that the combined work of 20 or so hours was lost overnight because we weren’t there to contest the claim. All of our buildings, our resources, our chests with our items, even our small shipyard were signed over to an enemy faction. Adding insult to injury, once successfully stolen all our goods were protected by a three-day window preventing any other claim flags from being placed in their newly acquired territory. And while you can stop a faction from contesting your claim if you happen to be online or if your body is in the area when offline, this doesn’t help if you’ve gone sailing for treasure and logged off elsewhere or worse, your body was killed while away (which is what happened to me).
Everything we had worked for so far was lost, for the second time in two days. The previous night our sloop had been sunk as a result of a bad patch which caused NPC ships to open fire on any boat they saw, whether sailing the seas or docked in port, as ours was. When it went down it took everything we had on board with it, along with it the combined work of about five hours of resource gathering. This type of “reward” for the time spent in Atlas is soul-crushing, and more than once it prompted me to question whether I was wasting my actual mortal life playing this game.
Going back to the grind for resources is tedious most of the time, but the shipbuilding you do with those materials is a joy. There are four basic and largely samey types of boats to build, but the best part is that you’re not following a precise recipe to create a cookie-cutter ship – instead, you actually place each piece yourself. You can choose the type and placement of each sail, the location of the gunports, a dinghy dock to build a rowboat to take you to shore – every aspect of your boat is customizable. It’s lots of fun to find and test out new ship designs, such as determining whether a large speed sail and small handling sail is faster than two medium sails on your schooner.
The grind for resources is tedious, but the shipbuilding you do with those materials is a joy.
But at the same time, it can’t be overstated that these boats are expensive to make – both in terms of resources and the time to build them. This in of itself isn’t necessarily bad thing – large boats such as the five-masted galleon should take some time build. However, so much of Atlas is predicated on taking these large, time-consuming vessels out to dangerous areas with no guarantee you’ll make it back with anything really of value, and that thought tended to weigh heavily on my mind each time we set sail.
It’s because of that time commitment that each sailing voyage has to be planned carefully, and that’s another aspect which Atlas nails beautifully. Literally putting the resources you’ll need to survive onto the boat and setting sail are monumental undertakings, and sailing itself isn’t as simple as pointing your ship in the direction you want it to go and making it so. Your crew will need to work together to turn the rudder, adjust the sail angles with the wind, and more to make your boat move efficiently. It’s much like Sea of Thieves, as teamwork really is at the core of sailing. I do like sailing in Sea of Thieves more – there, you actually turn the sail yourself, whereas in Atlas you access a mundane and sometimes unresponsive radial menu to set the sail angle – but overall being out on the high seas has been enjoyable.
On a larger 16-person ship like the Brigantine this method of sailing is workable with a handful of human players backed up by hired NPCs that can level up as you go. The catch, though, is that fighting off enemy ships is a whole lot harder without extra human crew because of the myriad moving parts that need to be handled during these high-stress situations. Someone needs to pilot the actual boat and call out targets, while another crew member mans the sails, keeping the boat with wind and where it needs to go. Others must man the cannons you place, and if you have six cannons but only one member to operate them fighting is simply not going to be as efficient as it could be.
Some of those enemy ships are Ships of the Damned, which glow menacingly as they prowl the seas. These formidable boats have been the bane of many an Atlas sailor, and have also been the focus of many patches since it first launched in late December. On more than one occasion a patch has made them an unstoppable force. One time they spawned out of control and would attack any boat they spotted, resulting in many players’ large, expensive boats being lost overnight. Another patch broke their need to reload cannons and essentially turned them into machine guns capable of sinking mighty galleons in about five seconds unless they had a large supply of repair planks handy.
It’s not uncommon to lose a freshly made boat within the first encounter with a Ship of the Damned.
These menacing ships are easy enough to avoid if you wish, but if you choose to engage them you’re in for a hard fight, no matter their level. In fact, it’s not uncommon to lose a freshly made boat within the first encounter with a Ship of the Damned, cruelly snuffing out hours and hours of work in seconds. That said, the rewards are substantial if you do manage to hold your own: you can earn items and advanced blueprints, and you can actually hire the “damned” NPC trapped inside it as part of your crew – which is convenient if a freeport isn’t nearby.
When opponents are well matched, fighting another boat on the water is much like a well choreographed dance in which each part of your crew needs to work together to stay alive. Since each boat design can be custom to your whims you can place cannons in a broadside configuration below deck, as well as a few on the bow and stern of the main deck to help against pursuing or fleeing vessels. When sailing with an AI crew you can control where and when they fire at an enemy, all while not having to worry about adjusting sails because they will automatically do so. With friends, though, this adds to the excitement, as they are not only responsible for firing the cannons but adjusting the sails to either catch the wind or go against it, helping with mobility. On more than one occasion our teamwork was rewarded as we “crossed the T” of enemy ships, giving us free and easy shots. Other times, though, when we weren’t working to our fullest we paid for it bitterly. One defeat that still stings cost us a newly hired crewmember and our schooner a mere 40 minutes after its maiden voyage.
But What Do You… Do?
So what do you do in Atlas? That’s the real kicker: there really isn’t much direction other than building and sailing. You build in order to sail and you sail in order to come back and build some more. Some “power stone” servers hold mythical beasts such as hydras or cyclops to tackle, but there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason to risk your ship sailing into one of these dangerous places. Collecting the power stones will allow you to summon and defeat a Kraken in the middle of the world, but the rewards are dismal: a new dance emote.
Sailing the seas in search for land and treasure is fun for only a little while, especially since there is no land to really claim anyway unless you happen upon an abandoned plot. On PvE servers it feels downright impossible to dislodge someone who’s actually there thanks to the land claim timers that prevent any new contests to a company’s claim.
This leaves sailing to find treasure, building a base to hold that treasure, and plundering the seas for even more riches. However, the fact that large companies are spamming the lawless islands with building foundations to prevent anyone else from building on them renders them uninhabitable for smaller companies or solo players. Atlas seems hell-bent on favoring large companies over the little guy, so much so as to track the claims of only the largest on each official server on the main website.
Developer Grapeshot Games thus far seems unable to combat this issue, as each patch has either tweaked land claims for the worse (especially in PvE) or temporarily broken lawless regions. One patch had it so that next to zero resources respawned on any lawless island for over a day, leaving thousands of players wondering how they were going to continue playing. As someone who has both lost a land claim and settled on B6, a lawless region, focusing heavily on base building doesn’t feel like the most rewarding use of my time.
When you log out, your body stays in the world and is able to be killed by player and predator alike.
But you have to do it, because without that base there is no place to log out of Atlas safely. Your body stays persistent in the world and is able to be killed by player and predator alike, so leaving your boat in the middle of the ocean also leaves it open for other players to come by and claim, or you might get caught in one of the impressive looking storms. Even then, there really is no safe place to dock your ship when you log out. As such, quitting Atlas for the evening is a gamble, as you have no way of knowing whether your stuff will still be there in the morning.
And call me old fashioned, but that type of trepidation really shouldn’t exist in a video game. Logging out to take care of real-life responsibilities, spend time with family, or get some sleep should not be nerve wracking, and yet in Atlas it totally feels that way.
It’s this, combined with a lack of focus – Atlas has many, many convoluted systems layered on top of each other, making it difficult to figure out what your priorities should be – – that makes playing it feel like an unrewarding time sink. Hours may pass without you feeling as though you’re getting anywhere meaningful. No matter what we set out to do in the world, there is no real reward other than one we create for ourselves. And that’s not a gameplay device. Rather, it’s using multiplayer experiences with friends as a crutch to drive the gameplay. Atlas neither feels like a high-seas pirate game or a base-building survival game. It’s a muddy mix of the two that excels at neither. What it gets right in capturing the sense of adventure a new voyage might bring quickly becomes sour the minute your massive Brigantine is brought to heel by a broken level 2 Ship of the Damned. The sensation of finding a new source of salt for cannon-making is brought screeching to a halt the moment you realize you have to travel five massive regions just to get back to your base safely because there are no safe ports along the way to dock for the night.