Grapeshot Games, a sister studio of the makers of Ark: Survival Evolved, calls its new pirate-themed survival MMO Atlas, a word that sizzles with the promise of high adventure and discovery. And it’s true, there is a bit of that. But the more I played the newly launched Early Access release over the holiday break, the more I felt it’d be better called Odyssey.
That word also evokes escapades and exploration, but more to the point, it suggests an aimless voyage where greater powers pelt you with hours of misery and misfortune. Much like Homer’s Odyssey, Atlas ($30 on Steam) is an ordeal that breeds good stories, but they’re stories that are better told than experienced.
So tell us, O muse, how I and my friends Joseph Bradford and Joseph M. spent our holiday vacation subjecting ourselves to more mental duress than we normally face in our jobs.
From the start our time in Atlas played out like something from a Greek tragedy, The best islands were packed and closed to new players mere minutes after launch, leaving us no choice but to spawn in a desert region far from the resource-rich tropics. After leveling past the starter cap of level 8, we built a raft and sailed to another desert island that looked lovely from a distance, with windswept sandstone cliffs evocative of the Vasquez Rocks. We staked a claim and called it home.
In truth, it was a hellhole. Pools of freshwater didn’t exist (which isn’t all that common in Atlas outside starter freeport islands), but that might as well have been as true for the groundwater you could find on other islands by hitting X to plop on the ground and digging. When we did find such water, it took forever to respawn and we were in competition with the island’s other unlucky souls. Metal, so important to many projects, might as well have been a myth. Powerful “alpha” lions and snakes terrorized us—killing us with a single chomp—and then they stalked around our bodies, preventing us from rescuing the meager resources we’d managed to find. (For now, at least, the alphas have been removed.)
It gets worse. Dehydration forced us into a suicide cult, or at least until we managed to cobble together a shovel for digging up a spout of water that lasted more than two gulps. We’d see our water meters fall, then hear our characters wheeze and hack, which was our cue to stagger off to the respawn bed on our raft and wait for death. When the sweet release came at last, we’d be born again close enough to grab the remaining supplies off our former lifeless husks.
Somehow, shockingly, after hours of toil and harvest, the two Joes managed to build a sloop. And she was gorgeous—at the time, I hadn’t seen anything else like her in the game. We sailed back to the freeport where we spawned so we could fill our skins with the freshwater pools there. We logged out in the harbor, partly out of weariness, and partly to let everyone else on their sad rafts see what was possible when you worked together with friends. We were inspirational, we thought.
So you can imagine our horror when we logged on the next day and found our mighty sloop scuttled in the harbor. All that work; all for nothing. Apparently those little rafts had accidentally (intentionally?) sunk our fair ship by bumping into it. That, fortunately, has been taken out of the game as well.
But we rebuilt. Maybe that says something about the human spirit. Or maybe it just means that Captain Bradford is reviewing it for a major publication and couldn’t easily back away. Besides, we’d already spent way too much time to get a Steam refund.
Let’s fast forward a few hours—past the mindless harvesting, past the scouring for water. The two Joes built not only another ship they named the Vingilot, but an entire dry dock and some materials for a larger ship that they crammed into the cargo hold’s tiny chest. (Hey, it’s a video game.) Captain Joe was sick of this joint. He got it in his head that better fortunes awaited us around five squares away on the map and so we set off in the pursuit of happiness.
A star to steer her by
I can’t deny I felt a little thrill. For everything else Atlas gets wrong, it nails the wonder of building a ship and that initial excitement of setting out on adventures unknown. It’s glorious to watch the ship take shape as we first construct the skeleton, then the hull, and finally the masts and helm. Filling its containers with food and weapons feels every bit like preparing for a voyage of discovery. And then there’s the actual act of sailing, which in our case meant Captain Joe manned the helm and Joe M. and I manned the the Vingilot’s two sails.
It’s realistic for a game. For that matter, it’s more my speed than Studio Wildcard’s super-similar ARK: Survival Evolved. At one point we had to toss wood overboard for more speed, and we huddled against the campfire to stave off the cold on the lonely nights. We found islands where giant statues loomed like The Lord of the Rings’ Argonath over freeports. We passed “power stone” islands populated by level 70 ogres and beasts that would no doubt kill our level 25ish selves with a glance.
But we didn’t find a home. The biggest problem with Atlas right now is that all the land is claimed. New players can’t set a dependable home base because launch day players like us already grabbed all the land; we at least had our hellish little pile of sand and snakes deep in the southern seas to return to.
The voyage also reminded us that we’d had it particularly bad. Everyone else was mainly complaining about the frequent crashes and rollbacks, to say nothing of the punks who went around tearing down buildings for sheer thrill of it. But from our perspective, the gameplay elsewhere was more forgiving. At one point we replenished our stores on an island so rich in resources that it might as well have been the Garden of Eden compared to our unforgiving sand pile.
We sneered at the people in chat who complained that there were no open pools of water on the island; at any spot, we could drop and scoop water from the ground. They had no idea how good they had it. I found the whole experience a lightweight lesson in the ways that circumstance and privilege can shape one’s experience and perception, to the point that I realized I might have loved Atlas more if we’d only started out on an island like this.
We pushed into the deep ocean, past the power stone island and into seas where no land could be seen. We passed hours like this; the journey progressing as slowly as the plot of Moby Dick. We yearned for action. Sometimes the wind would change direction and we’d rush to adjust the sails with the eagerness of a country fighting an invading army. Sometimes we’d cook food, as much to fill our stomachs as to have something to do besides checking Twitter. All of which is to say that few games do such a good job of communicating the tedium of long voyages at sea, especially in the “golden” age where folks had to stand in cramped floating tinderboxes for weeks on end.
At least back then there was the thrill of discovery. At least in competing games like Sea of Thieves you’ll find more islands to break the tedium. But the stretches of nothingness in Atlas drag on for so long that they prompt thoughts I almost never had while playing another game. Am I wasting my time—my life—by sitting here for hours on end on an empty digital sea, I’d wonder as the water passed beneath? Could I have learned a new song on my mandolin in the time it takes to see land rise on the B6 server? Hell, should I just be getting some sleep?
Finally I spotted the shimmering wall that marks the entry point to another server and another grid of the map. It was the last one before the island Joe set a course for.
And wouldn’t you know it? A waterspout shot up from the water behind us. And then another in front of us. Then another! Whether it was the gods, bad luck, or just some bored dev, someone clearly was toying with us.
“Dammit,” yelled Joseph over Discord. “If we lose this ship to this storm after all this, I’m so done.”
The waterspouts crashed against us. I manned the sails as valiantly as I could in the madly shifting wind, trying to get us those last few feet over into the new server. I took damage, the ship took damage, but at last we crossed over—the storm vanishing like a bad dream.
And so, alas, did the wind. It was only as strong as a whisper; we might as well have been crawling. Worse, we were starving. We’d burned through all of the wood for cooking while trying to keep warm in the storm, and now our vitamin levels were so low we were dropping turds all over the deck. We resumed our little suicide cult, this time on account of hunger rather than thirst. It was 2:30 a.m, at that, and we wanted to sleep, but we were too terrified to log out on the open ocean after everything we’d been through.
Fortunately, Joe’s island at last loomed into view, its cliffs looking like slabs from Stonehenge blown up to titan proportions. And of course every claim was taken, save for a little pile of rocks where we had no way of building anything. So we logged off and slept.
And of course Joe logged in the next day to find our little ship under fire from a mutagen-green ship of the damned. He was frantic and texted me to hop on. But apparently I’d died in the onslaught, and because the ship was moving, I ended up respawning in the middle of the water rather than in the ship’s bed. Joe’s game crashed, leaving the Vingilot unmanned. From my little spot in the sea I watched a final cannon shot take her down.
And just like that, approximately 14 hours of work were gone. The ship was gone. Our supplies and gear were gone. The shipyard we’d stuffed in the lockbox was gone. The trip was for nothing. We had nothing but our skill points, and someone had even managed to steal the claim on our desert home in the interim even though we’d visited it only a day before. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Joe had burst into tears.
As for me? I started cracking up at the absurdity of it all.
Try, try again
Surely, you say, that was it. But reader, you’d be wrong. We’re still at it. As a way of apologizing for the crashes and destroyed ships and hardships we and other countless other players endured, Grapeshot Games boosted resource collection by more than twice the normal rate in the days leading up to New Year’s. And so we used that time to build a gigantic brigantine—the second largest ship in the game—on one of the lush tropical islands where resources are plentiful.
And no, we’re technically not building on our land. That’s all still taken. But we learned that we can squat on someone else’s claim for as long as we need to build the ship, so long as we log in every couple of days before it vanishes. It hasn’t been perfect; someone somehow stole all our supplies one day even with a PIN-locked chest and a locked front door, resetting us to square one yet again. That’s all part of the fun of Atlas.
We’re currently loading the ship, we’re packing it with cannons to fight the ghost ships, and we’re piling it with workstations so it can be a home on the sea. We’re almost ready to go. She’s beautiful, and after all the pain, after all the bad luck, I find I’m still excited to see how she handles on the water. And with dozens of points crammed into Fortitude to keep ourselves from starving, we’re no longer dying as much. It feels, yes, almost fun.
But I haven’t forgotten the past ordeals. I know I mainly feel that way because of the resource boost.
By the time you read this, Atlas will likely be back to the same tired, grindy slog, although with fewer server crashes and better performance. The game underneath still favors huge companies of players who can gobble all the land around them and build new ships with an efficiency that’s simply unattainable by our little three-man crew. Even then, judging from chat, there’s the danger of unscrupulous recruits stealing hard-won supplies from the storage containers. So much for the pirate’s code. It’s a game you can sink hours into and have nothing to show for it when a ghost ship plays peekaboo with your sloop and suddenly leaves you with nothing. There’s some realism in that, no doubt, but maybe just a tad too much.
The ghost ships are still prowling. After all this work, if we sail out tomorrow and once again find our ship careening toward Davy Jones’ locker even after all the work with the cannons and stronger hull, I’m done. There is no Penelope waiting at the end. There’s no longer even a snake-infested pile of dirt for us to come home to. Just when you start to have fun, it knocks you back down. It’s pain without gain.
Eventually Atlas may be something great, but for now, it’s a vessel that’s not ready to leave port.
Leif is a San Francisco-based tech journalist. He's a big fan of fantasy RPGs, and you can find his previous work on IGN, Rolling Stone, VICE, PC Gamer, Playboy, Mac|Life, TechRadar, and numerous other publications.