I Mixed Drinks, Stomped on Scorpions in the PS3′s Bizarre New MMO ‘Sodium One’

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Today I went back Home. To PlayStation Home, that is.

The PlayStation 3′s online, avatar-based social networking community is filled with plenty of other player avatars, mini-games, shops, music, advertisements and video previews. I’ve only hung out in the virtual world a handful of times since the beta launched about one year ago (where my avatar received a marriage proposal and inadvertently started a Running Man dance party).

And now Sony’s just announced that they’ve added Sodium One, an “MMO” or massively multiplayer online game, to Home. But it’s not an MMO in the traditional World of Warcraft sense.

The press release I received from Sony described Sodium One, which went live on December 17, as a “futuristic, action-packed social gaming environment.”

“With the launch of Sodium, PlayStation Home’s first MMO,” the release continued, “PlayStation Home further evolves into a true social gaming platform, complete with both snack-size mini games and extended gaming experiences to share with both existing friends and new friends met within PlayStation Home.”

Entering a portal dubbed the “Sodium teleporter” in the main Central Plaza mall area will transport you to the “Sodium Hub” for the new “MMO” experience. The area was a dusty desert filled with random metal space junk, plus lots of florescent lights (you know, the future). Once there, you’ll “talk” to the unhelpful robot lady VICKIE, who gives you these options: Objectives (which have hints but are not fully explained), Resource Trading (I see gold, silver and silicon, but this is also not explained), Shop (for clothing and seems to only take Sodium Credits as currency, also unexplained), Gift Friends (which invites my friends to Sodium One and offers them a prize in the pre-written note) and Register.

Hitting “Register” gives me a four-character code which I can input at SodiumOne.com for a prize. But right now attempting to register on that website gives you this message: “Unfortunately registration to the website has been disabled. We are aiming to have this functionality back online sometime in the new year. Apologies for an inconvenience this may cause.” Um, okay…

After visting VICKIE, I saw a large spaceship which asked me to play “Salt Shooter.” A twin-stick shooter viewed from the third-person perspective (and evidently an update of Battlezone), the game has you shooting and avoiding other ships for the highest score. While not a bad game, it’s pretty derivative and the third-person view didn’t allow me to see who was shooting me from behind — kind of annoying.

The press release also said that players can get the first five levels for free, and unlock additional levels by buying the virtual items ranging from 99 cents to five bucks in real money. And according to the Sodium One Twitter account, the $5 Sodium One “tank jacket” and outfit will get you all 50 levels of the game (note: I learned it’s not actually called a “tank jacket,” but a “Sodium Pilot Outfit,” in case you wanted to buy it).

However, Wired’s GameLife blog told me a different story: players who log in to Sodium One between December 17 and December 23, and speak with VICKIE, will unlock the full game for free. I spoke to VICKIE plenty today, and didn’t see anything about that offer. It turned out that this information, from a newsletter sent by the PlayStation Network that I didn’t personally receive, said “interact with Vickie for your chance to unlock the full game” (emphasis is mine). I guess I’m SOL there.

VICKIE also encouraged me to serve drinks at the local bar called Scorpio’s. Walking behind the bar area suddenly makes you an employee of the joint. When other players approach the bar, you can ask them if they want to order a drink. Doing so prompts a mini-game where you’re supposed to remember what their drink looks like and match the different parts (the cup, the color of the liquid, the drink umbrella, etc.) to create the order. Of course, none of this was evident right from the get-go, so I stood there confused for several seconds and then proceeded to try to match the drink. Then I think time ran out, but I was still awarded with 50 Sodium Credits for trying. Sweet.

Oh, and then there’s the game where you stomp scorpions to death…

For some reason, you’ve got to stomp on a bunch of scorpions. I have no idea why, but it’s part of your objectives. There’s a small hot spot full of them, and I saw avatars running back and forth over scorpions of different sizes and colors, making “splat!” sounds and splashing colored blood as they went. When I tried to get my stomp on too, the scorpions would sting me and spray my screen with green goo. There seemed to be no visibly detrimental effects to my avatar, except for the view-obstructing green screen. The scrolling text at the top told me to approach the creatures from behind, but it still wasn’t too easy.

But then I noticed that other players were stomping on all kinds of scorpions like nobody’s business. They were wearing special shoes that looked like they just stepped on two empty tissue boxes (upon closer inspection, I saw that they were actually cement blocks). I asked someone where they got their shoes, and they directed me to the “Commerce Point.” Apparently I missed the shopping station earlier, a round glass tube displaying a jacket, and when I went there, I found the “Scorpion Stomper Shoes” were available for 99 cents. In real money.

Why do I have pay real money for something that will allow me to play the game in a way that doesn’t irritate the hell out of me? Though I felt wronged, I shelled out the dollar for the shoes and quickly ran back to the hot spot. Only by now, the scorpions had disappeared. I asked around and no one knew where they went. Other people said that this happened yesterday too, where the things just vanished. I didn’t have the strongest desire to run back and forth over scorpions anyway.

The press release promised “more than 100 games to play, 50 spaces to experience, and over 2000 virtual items to collect,” but I certainly didn’t see much more than what I described above. Sodium One feel likes it’s half-finished, and there’s nothing charming or fun or engaging about this experience thus far — there’s not even an interesting narrative behind all this.

In fact, it’s been nothing but confusing. There are so many questions left unanswered: Why is it called Sodium One? Why was this “new MMO” released with such a lack of features and polish? What’s up with the mixed messaging regarding how to unlock the “free” game? How is the shopping mall experience of Home connected to this seemingly random futuristic desert world overrun with scorpions? Why do I have to pay for stomping shoes to make the game fun? Why are we stomping on scorpions anyway? What are the incentives for players to stomp on scorpions, serve drinks or shoot spaceships? Basically, what’s the point?

As my friend Gus succinctly put it, “I think the reality here is Sodium One is something slightly different to do while waiting to cyber.”

Granted, brand-new online games always need to work out the launch kinks. But it isn’t server issues or small populations or bugs that are keeping Sodium One down — it’s just not any fun. At all. I’m baffled by how Sony could release something that feels so incomplete, and ask for our money to enjoy it. Until it receives some major content updates and makes the user experience less frustrating, I’m staying away from Sodium One.

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