Wait, you’ve never heard of Wurm Online?? Shame on you.
You may be more familiar with its moddable offline-ish baby, Wurm Unlimited, which is available on Steam. It’s a standalone version of the MMO, giving players freedom to manipulate the game client and host private servers.
So what is Wurm, and what does it have to do with this early access Viking game that everyone keeps comparing to Minecraft and Rust? A lot, actually.
It all started with a game studio called Mojang Specifications AB, co-founded by the one and only Notch. Oh, the guy who who made Minecraft, you mean? Yeah, that guy.
Wurm Online was the brainchild of then colleagues, Rofl Janssen and Markus Persson. It can only be described as a blend of the classic MMORPGs like EverQuest and Ultima Online, and a clear technical predecessor to the formula we recognize from Minecraft. The landscape is fully shapeable, and ever changing. Trees grow back, and eventually take over unclaimed land. Monsters roam randomly around the map, freely challenging anything and anyone in their path. Crafting is mind-bendingly complex, and allows you to build a variety of tools, weapons, vehicles and structures out of many different materials with curious and even creative results. You can sail vast bodies of hostile waters, and navigate between continents. It might even have the most interesting, and dynamic skybox ever made, displaying evolving weather patterns, including wind, rain, snow, storms, rainbows, as well as an elaborate star map with a constant cycle of celestial bodies and even occasional eclipses. Both world and sky are truly open.
All that said, it’s also the heaviest grind of any game I’ve ever played. Putting up a building requires an extraordinary amount of time and effort involving cutting down swaths of forest, and digging up many actual boatloads of clay, iron, stone and whatever other building materials you can think up. It’s an immense timesink just to feel like you’ve made any progress. There is a sense of accomplishment from putting in so much work, but it’s hard to justify the amount of time it takes just to get resources.
The combat is also… wonky, and dated. It has a lot of the classics of RPGs like swordplay, bows, magic, etc, but it’s not exactly “action” based. It’s almost like real-time turn-based, if that makes any sense. It feels more like you’re rolling dice than swinging a sword.
So again, wtf does any of this have to do with Valheim? Well, it has most of those things I described, but without the ruinous grind. Building is easy, and fun. Combat is exciting and satisfying. It’s so many of the things that made Wurm interesting, but better.
It has a marvelous and beautiful skybox, with dynamic weather patterns and great wind effects. It has an easily moldable landscape, allowing you to sculpt the terrain to your will and build to your heart’s content. The sailing is spectacular, challenging, dangerous, and an absolute adventure all on its own. Combat is simple, yet fluid and rewards skill without overtly punishing casual players. There is an endless spree of dungeons, dangerous monster spawns, and even a story to follow if you so wish.
Although, if you don’t wish, you don’t have to. You can just have fun with your friends, trying not to die to falling trees and screaming boars. Yes, just falling trees are dangerous. Hell, you can even sail off the edge of the world. When in Norse Mythology, do as the Nords.
Many of these things seem eerily similar to what Wurm was trying to accomplish when development started nearly two decades ago, but Valheim did the thing Wurm couldn’t do: make it fun and accessible. Which I suppose is also where Mojang was able to succeed with Minecraft.
While it’s certainly easy to compare Valheim to Minecraft for its sprawling open world and ability to win hearts so easily, it takes existing in your little Viking world to the next level—it’s a brilliantly refreshed formula in a genre that has been beaten into the ground. Minecraft was a unique revelation when it gained popularity. By comparison, Valheim is like a diamond standing out in a sea of broken glass.
Let me be clear: I am beyond bored with “survival” games. I can’t stay interested in games like The Forest, or Rust, or Ark, or Conan Exiles, or 7 Days to Die, or Terraria, or, or, or… unless I have peers pressuring me to play with them. While it’s a great co-op experience, I can play Valheim solo and do so confidently, without feeling like the constant monitoring of food and other resources is just an arbitrary chore—which often ruins experience for me in other games.
I think that’s what makes the game so compelling in the first place. It’s not really doing anything new at all. It’s so easy to compare it to a lot of other popular titles. I like to be a pedantic hipster relating to Wurm instead of Minecraft, but there’s no question that it borrows from more popular and similar games. Yet, it still stands out. Even with chunky pixel art graphics, it has a gorgeous aesthetic, and an extraordinarily immersive environment. Even with familiar cooking and crafting progression, it still feels fresh and creative. Even with simple combat mechanics, it’s still fun and engaging.
It’s hard to describe how well this game rides the line between fresh and familiar.
Big studios wish they could crack the secret to selling a million copies of a new IP that isn’t pushing the boundaries of game design itself like Death Stranding, or reaching out to the broadest of demographics like Among Us.
Valheim is a beautiful reminder that a game doesn’t need brutal originality to feel fresh, inviting and completely new.