You may not have heard of Shroud of the Avatar, but if you’ve been gaming for very long, you probably recognize the name Richard Garriott. That’s because he’s the son of an Astronaut and went to space himself. Wait.. that’s not it. That’s because he was the corner man for Jesus Chavez, a professional boxer. No? Ok, that’s because he created the Ultima series and has been involved in some of the biggest MMORPG’s of all time. So much so that he even coined the term MMORPG.
Shroud is his latest project, for which he founded Portalarium games and started a crowdfunding campaign to fund the game and maintain his creative vision. Although I’m not sure which publishers would be ballsy enough to try and tell the man involved in Ultima Online, Lineage, Lineage II, and City of Heroes how to design a game, it must have been a concern, because he chose to go it alone this time. Failing to secure the rights to the Ultima name from EA, Shroud of the Avatar was born. I think we should march on EA headquarters and demand they give it up, much like Fox needs to let go of Fantastic Four. I recommend the Canadian office, they’ll never see it coming.
The game has come quite a long way with a very active development cycle and has entered what is being called Early Access. Gone are the days of Alpha and Beta as it turns out, welcome to the days of ‘hey we’re not done yet but come play our broken game why not?’ It’s not a new concept, just a new name. I even attempted this as a last ditch effort to save the development of an indy developer’s sequel title many years ago, and like many Early Access titles it failed. But, that is not always the case and some titles have all the backing and passion of an incredible development team. Money helps too. And Portralarium’s crowdfunding campaign has been successful. Not as successful as Star Citizen’s, but 10 million dollars is nothing to sneeze at.. And Shroud is playable. But how playable? At this article’s release, this is how I’m feeling about the Avatar’s new world.
Bucking The Modern Trends
Shroud may seem so different to gamers today because it thumbs its nose at many of the tropes running rampant in modern MMO’s, many developed in World of Warcraft. For those who are not aware of or who never played the original batch of MMO’s to include Ultima Online, they may not even be aware there is another way to play a game. I happen to love this little rebellion of Lord British’s, however, I am also a product of the progress we have had since the 90’s. I believe there needs to be a balance between holding your hand and hanging you out to dry. There is a point where the realism takes away from enjoyment and that is the line I believe Garriott wants to walk. Today, we’re uncomfortably on the wrong side of it.
It’s hard to know where to start because there are a lot of design decisions that miss this mark, so I will start at the earliest point I noticed it. Early on, you choose the path your character will follow, Love, Courage, or Truth, and this affects your starting equipment as well as the quest line you follow. I chose Love because it is recommended and finished. The starting area is all fine but once you’re let off the rails in Soltown, I no longer know who to talk to or what to say to them without alt-tabbing and asking the internet. Your players should not have to leave your game to figure out how to play your game. This is a compromise in immersion as much as helpful tips and quest markers.
I think the next thing you might notice is there is no map, either of your locale or the world. Instead, you must purchase, find, or otherwise acquire in-game paper maps, items you keep in your inventory. Ok, I see what you’re doing here, you want some realism, some difficulty, some discovery. But. You could do it better. Instead of not having the ability to bring up a quick map at all, instead you could use fog of war and reveal it as you’ve discovered it then fully reveal it once you’ve found a map and added it to your journal. We’ll get to the journal later, trust me. It’s not helping your game at all that your players, rather than shuffling through individual map items, are bringing up maps on their phones or second monitors. Just cave in and add both local quick maps and a world map.
While we’re at it, let’s address the rest of the UI. There are far too many windows to open. You want to talk about immersion breakers? Other decisions appear to be to increase immersion and realism, yet we have more windows than are practical and not enough consolidation of like items. I think the developers are missing a prime opportunity in the journal and recipe book. Put these two things together, for the love of all that is sacred and add the rest of the windows to it as bookmarked tabs. You would not be the first game to approach it like this and it is not the worst way to organize the confusing array of possible windows. Currently, I can access them with hotkeys and from a drop down menu, but why not have access to any of them if I use the hotkey for any other? While we’re at it, you don’t explain anything succinctly, or sometimes at all. You need some good hover over ‘?’ buttons on each of the UI elements.
The game can be played very much like a typical hotbar MMO but they barely tell you that it can be played another way, one that is far more interesting and likely better since it conserves mana at the expense of being able to use a set rotation. It is not explained by the time you could be using it. Again, you must alt-tab or look it up on your phone to figure out the system. I’m afraid in this instance, Mr. Garriott, you should be holding the players’ hand.
This system, though, I love. You take your pool of abilities and like a Hearthstone deck, you can use each a certain number of times, say 3 for offensives. Add them to your hotbar and stack them in each slot as if they are a deck you’ll shuffle through. Then while you’re roaming around, each slot will shuffle and draw one for each slot for a few seconds before shuffling in a new one. When 2 slots have a possible combination they highlight and you can press both keys to create the combination ability and then you can use that. No more set rotation to maximize effectiveness, because to maximize effectiveness, you NEED these combos, which means you need to submit to the RNG. It is pretty cool, and before you say it, RNG is not a bad thing. There’s an entire super popular e-sport based on RNG: Hearthstone. If a competitive e-sport can have RNG mixed in with strategy, anything can.
The Art of the Craft
Crafting is a big part of Garriott games and Shroud is no different. And while it’s one of the deeper and more interesting crafting systems in gaming today, it seems like it’s not a system you’re meant to take part in until you’ve leveled your combat abilities. Hear me out if you’re a player, and if you’re not, well, haha I could tell you anything! You will often play an MMO and as you level up you will also increase your relevant crafting skills to keep up with your progression in an effort to craft your own items/gear. In Shroud, though, everything works against you actually doing this.
For starters, you need crafting materials, some of which you can gather and others of which you must purchase with gold. Of course no one tells you that you must purchase these materials and you may go on a wild goose chase looking for a type of item you can’t actually find, only to be extremely frustrated when you randomly discover it on an NPC merchant that is hiding inside a building that is labeled for a different type of merchant that you did not know was even there and should have been in front of his crafting station like the Blacksmith. I’m not speaking from experience or anything. Come on, if the blacksmith is going to be outside next to a forge, the tanner should be outside next to the tanning workbench not inside the tailoring shop. Ok, so what was the point of this again? Oh right, you need to gather some materials and pay for some other materials, all of which takes up inventory space. Precious, precious, inventory space.
Inventory space is at a premium, again, one of those design decisions that I think is based on grounding this game in some sort of reality. This is one of those times we need to walk that fine line and give a little in the name of entertainment and not annoying your players out of the game. To collect enough materials and enough gold, you will make several trips out to a zone and then back to town. A trip that includes leaving town, loading screen, walking across the world map, entering a wilderness zone, loading screen, hunting until you’ve overfilled your inventory, then walking slowly back to the zone entrance, loading screen, back across the map and into town, loading screen, then off to refine your materials. That is a mess.
You are never told that you don’t need to salvage your collected broken weapons, but the NPC vendors who will buy these things are hidden away and it seems like you may want the scrap metal for crafting. You don’t. You need to sell them to get the money to afford materials and the new recipes that you need. Recipes cost quite a bit as a newer player and cut into your ability to buy new skills, not to mention arrows, an item you’re unable to craft right away. Put all of this together with the fact that you can walk to Ardoris and buy some new generic armor for a fraction of the price of crafting it, it all leads me to believe I’d wasted my time focusing on crafting. Adventuring, gaining the strength to fight stronger foes and gain more money at once, leaves you with enough gold to upgrade skills and purchase armor until you’re comfortable enough to turn back to crafting when you get bored. Because you’re going to.
My last criticism would be that as of right now, in Early Access, there is not enough to make this your go-to MMO. There isn’t really any end-game to speak of, not much to do outside of the paths and I really don’t think crafting is going to keep you invested long-term. Like early Star Wars Galaxies there is plenty of housing and crafting and random mobs to kill, but unlike that game there is not a galactic civil war going on in the grand scheme, where you can build bases and fight other guilds and generally have a place to spend all those items you’ve crafted or purchased. There are no feats of skill like Raids to conquer. Yet.
Keeping in mind this is Early Access and we’re trying to help Portalarium finish development by funding it, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt with the content that’s yet to come. The company has proved time and time again that they are actively and aggressively developing this title. The bug fixes are real, the content updates are real, the game is absolutely not vaporware and is totally playable right now, it’s just not finished, but they’ve left me with no doubt that it will be. It is the definition of doing Early Access, of doing crowdfunding, the right way. While I have these criticisms, I am thoroughly pleased, somewhat surprised, and a little impressed with the work that Garriott and his team have produced thus far. Shroud is a game worthy of your crowdfunding dollar, and completely ready for you to try out, but not quite ready for you to devote a ton of time to. Yet. See you in New Britannia!
For a TL:DR you can check out our Impressions video: