The most fun you can have on a 14.4 Connection!
Released with comparatively little fanfare in early 1996, 3DO's Meridian 59 has certainly had its share of ups and downs. Though "Meridianites" loved and stood by the game, the combination of poor latency and unscrupulous users exploiting game bugs threatened to kill this online RPG before it could ever reach its fascinating potential. Now entering its third year, Meridian 59's early problems actually seem to be ironed out: gameplay is downright smooth with almost no lag or lost connections; bugs that allowed players to steal from each other have been eliminated; new adventurers are initially protected both from other players and dangerous areas until a certain competency is attained, and for those who detest player killing altogether, 3DO has instituted a pk-free server where it is impossible to directly attack another human-controlled character. Add to this an expanded game world, more challenging monster AI, a truly intuitive and user-friendly interface and you've got yourself a winner. Why then aren't people flocking to play Meridian 59: Revelation? Two words: Ultima Online.
Now of course we've all heard that Lord British and Origin are currently battling those very same growing pains that initially plagued Meridian 59, but despite the complaints, that's hardly kept anyone away. In fact, Ultima Online surpassed Meridian 59's user base virtually overnight. Boasting the most players, the largest online game world, attractive graphics, and (perhaps most important) the setting of the Ultima universe itself, Origin's flagship product might just turn into one of the biggest money-making ventures in gaming history. But is that any reason to forget Meridian 59? Not a chance! Though nowhere near as massive or elaborate a game as Ultima Online, Meridian does have its own special appeal. In fact, the strength of Meridian 59 actually lies in its intimate setting and basic simplicity.
In large part, the feeling of intimacy in Meridian is created by the players themselves. Unlike many online games, the spirit of camaraderie truly enhances this RPG experience. Like Ultima Online, each Merdian 59 server contains an exact copy of the basic gameworld; unlike UO, M59 grows increasingly interesting as you start to recognize and frequently interact with the two-hundred or so familiar faces that populate your server. Not only are guilds and political alliances a big part of the interactive experience, but user-to-user communication is also fostered by in-game newsgroups and e-mail. Of course like most online games, you can chat live with all the players on the server, but for more visceral interaction, Meridian 59 players can utilize the first person perspective to point, smile, laugh, wave, frown and even dance with other players. Though it may not sound like much, it's hard not to get a kick out of walking right up to another player from some other part of the world and chatting face to face.
The basic Meridian game screen looks a lot like the RPG classics Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld. Graphics and sound are far from cutting edge, but do the job nicely: there's enough visual detail to elicit "Gross!" and "Cool!" when appropriate (upon first viewing the Rats or the Bourgeois Castle) and the environment sounds (wind, fountains, screaming monsters and adventurers) add to the feeling of "being there." In-game MIDI music corresponds to each area you enter and surprisingly sets the mood for basic activities: fighting monsters, selling goods, hanging out in Tavern, for example. Though the look of the game is certainly dated, I can honestly say it did not detract from the gaming experience one bit.
Unlike many RPGs where the playing field is seemingly endless, you are actually somewhat limited in Meridian 59. Until you reach 30 hit points, dangerous places are off limits to you and even after this restriction is removed, you'll find that you won't last long unless you stay close to the main three cities, Tos, Barloque and Cor Noth. This results in two basic game strategies: conservative, methodical skill building or bawdy parties of adventurers pooling their skills to tackle new areas. In my adventuring, I did a little of both. At first I spent a lot of time killing Giant Rats, Baby Spiders, and Ants to up my stats, eventually I joined a guild, The Knights of Meridian, and started travelling in larger numbers.
The game itself runs in a window and the interface consists of standard drop down menus, point-and-click icons, and, of course, text commands for keyboard jockies. One of the nice things about Meridian 59 is how truly easy it is to learn and customize the interface. Macros are a breeze as are hot keys; you can change the size of the graphic window and map and select a font size and color for most displays. Even better, once you learn the "say" and "tell" commands, you've got access to the best online manual you could want: the hundreds of helpful Meridianites adventuring alongside you. I actually had as much fun learning how to play from other adventurers as I did building up my character's strengths. For you shy folks, there's an online manual (just load it in Netscape while you play) that provides all the commands and important info in a clear and useful format.
On the technical side, Meridian 59: Revelation passes with flying colors. The game rules allow for inevitable internet foul ups. If you should lose your connection while playing you have ten minutes to log back on without penalty. On the main screen is also a color-coded latency meter which is useful when making decisions: if you've got a red box showing, stay away from Trolls! The best part is that even though these insurance measures are in place, I never once had to use them. I played the game for over a month on a 14.4 connection without any lost connections or noticeable lag. Though some users told me of latency problems, my experience suggests that the slowdown was not the Meridian 59 server, but the ISP of the individual user. As with any online game, make sure you have a clean and fast connection before accessing Meridian.
All in all, the combination of friendly players, the first-person perspective, a reasonable difficulty and a not-too-monstrously-large game universe results in a near perfect mixture. Playing Meridian I simultaneously felt fascinated, welcome, scared and curious, but never daunted: I was fascinated by the foreign customs and politics; welcomed by helpful players; scared that I might get killed and lose all the hard work I'd put into my character; and curious to explore new terrain. If you are one of the few who has yet to enter into an online gaming community, this is a great way to get your feet wet.
Naysayers are right to say that the latest incarnation of Meridian 59 is still little more than a graphically enhanced MUD, but that doesn't make it any less fun. Meridian 59: Revelation offers just the right elements to keep you playing a long time -- an intriguing world that is dangerous without being discouraging. Let's hope that this little corner of the online gaming universe doesn't get squeezed out by its bigger competitors. 3DO is still committed to enhancing the project and Renaissance, another update, is due to appear in early 1998. As it stands, the only drawback to Meridian 59 is the price. Though you can download the software for free (www.3do.com/meridian/), you're sure to get hooked, and that translates to about thirty dollars a month.
Special Thanks to Meridian players: Helix, Silver, Tiler, Brian, Creature, Ashleigh, Salina, Kyrik Country, and Taarna the Defender.