Steam says I have spent about eight hours playing around with Shroud of the Avatar at this point, which both feels like a lot and no time at all.
I backed the game as part of the Kickstarter five years back and, aside from a quick peek in when it first became available in a very raw form for backers to check out, I have avoided touching it since. I felt I should wait until it was “done,” for whatever definition of the word I happened to think might fit. As is often noted in our circles, when is an MMORPG ever done?
Of course, it might be the time to ask whether or not this really is an MMORPG. There is certainly an online shared world version of the game where you regularly bump into other players.
But there is also an offline version. The world can be yours alone. The implication is certainly that you don’t need other players. I think. Maybe. We shall see I suppose.
With the game having gone live I jumped into the online version because… MMORPGS!!!1! Shared world! Playing alone together! And whatever else you find in other players in the genre.
Of course, you still start alone. The character creation process is… interactive? You start as something of a ghost and go down the line of the intro zone to develop your character.
You follow the path to the point where you give physical appearance to your character… or avatar I suppose. Everybody calls you the avatar.
The options for characters… seem a bit rough. Still, you’re only going to be looking at the back of your own head most of the time, so I guess you might as well create a visage to scare the wee ones.
After that you make your way to the steam powered Oracle who asks you some questions to determine your path in the world.
There is a heavy emphasis on there being no wrong answers. And it is true. After you answer the questions the Oracle will suggest to you one of three paths; melee fighter, ranged fighter, or magic user. The Oracle picked the first for me, but then hedged and said I could choose either of the other ones as well. Whatever. I chose to stick with the melee side of things. I tend to favor that in any case.
After that you go jump into a portal and arrive in the world. And you get stuck right into things almost immediately. I landed in Highvale, got a couple of hints about how to go forward and a quest from a dying guy and was soon killing elves. Elves are bad it seems. Syp should like this aspect of the game.
Here is where I started having to get used to the way the game plays. By default my movement was set to steer via the mouse, but only when holding down the right mouse button. I guess I can imagine a scenario where somebody thought that was a good idea… FPS or Minecraft like movement, but you want to keep the cursor live by default because the user needs to click on things… but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have agreed had I been sitting in the room with whoever was pushing that mode.
Fortunately it is possible to map all your movement keys so that they work like WoW.
Then there is combat. You must unsheathe your weapon in order to go into your combat stance and be able to attack things. Your weapon comes out, your combat skills, which might have wandered off somewhere, and you are able to click on things to start attacking them. Auto-attack keeps your weapon swinging while you add in your special attacks to spice things up.
When you’re done fighting you need to sheath your weapon again to go do other things, like interact with NPCs. Fortunately the game doesn’t let you attack vendors and such in town if you forget. I remember the high comedy of accidentally hitting the A for auto-attack back in early EverQuest and getting the vendor and the local guards chasing me to the zone line in Qeynos.
Basically, if you’re coming from World of Warcraft or some other modern MMORPG (like Rift Prime maybe) this, and just about everything else about the game, is going to feel awkward.
If you are coming to Shroud of the Avatar thinking that this will be a patina of Ultima over World of Warcraft, you are in for a rude surprise. I get the feeling that was part of what drove Syp away almost immediately. This game is a rough, homespun version of an MMO, a seeming wilful turning away from the current design trends… or maybe just the design trends of the 21st century… and the attendant smoothness we have come to expect.
Even the world design hearken back to an earlier time. This is no seamless world. Rather, it is a series of zones connected via an overworld, Novia, where you appear as something of a giant compared to the possible destination.
This is something that was a thing back when I was playing the early games in the Ultima series, but I wasn’t expecting them to go back to it. Then again, it does make adding and removing zones and player towns easy. There is no need to make them fit into the overall world, you just have to put up an spot for them in Novia and you’re set.
As noted, I wasn’t expecting this, so the first time I ran out of the starting zone I ended up in a strange place with illegible script and wasn’t able to find my way back for a while. The map wasn’t a lot of help, but eventually I found the spot.
Once back in I found I was outside the main area and the gates were locked and I couldn’t get back inside, so I ran back out to Novia and went back in again because it gives you the option to go to the default starting spot for the zone. I was able to find my way back from there.
And, beyond mere confusion, there are problems. I have a couple of quests that I know I finished up, yet can’t seem to rid myself of. Loading times for zones are very long. Movement still feels stilted and awkward even when you have your movement keys set up. Collision is hella annoying, as when you brush too close to another person or NPC you are slowed down in your pace dramatically, even when that person looks to be an arms length away. And the game itself responds at its leisure, like it hasn’t quite woken up to the fact that it is no longer in sleepy early access.
Also it appears that you can only have one character in the online version of the game. I went looking for a way to make another one, even if I had to buy my way in, but was out of luck. I went there because I wanted to try the ranged attack start. To do that I ended up going to the offline mode to play in my own little world.
This might be the way to play. Or at least the way to learn. Being in a shared world I feel, if illogically, a pressure to get a move on. In my own little version of the world I was decidedly more relaxed. I was able to dig into things a bit more.
Quests are something of a hybrid between the old and new. You have to interact with NPCs to get them, and it runs through a dialog system akin to what you may remember from early EverQuest. But it does keep track of quests for you, in its way, so you don’t have to keep a notepad to hand and remember which NPC told you what and when.
The NPC interactions are neat in their own way too. You can ask for gossip, which every NPCs eschews before beginning to dish on what has been happening. This often points you to where there is a quest. You can also ask an NPC their name. Before you do that, they might just appear as “Guard” or “Blacksmith,” but afterwards their name is displayed above them as well.
Skills are as they were back in the old days. In order to get better you have to use them. There is an experience system that keeps you from just hacking away at a practice dummy all day and night to max out skills. For your special attacks you have to be there to click on them and they draw from a resource pool that slowly replenishes so you cannot click on them endlessly to skill up.
There are also trade skills and such.
The trade skills have some depth of a sort. You need worms to fish, for example, and you can’t just fish in the same spot over and over. There are diminishing returns in that.
As an archer arrows are required. You can’t just fire forever, you need ammo. You can buy arrows from the vendor, but I decided to see about making them. You have to chop wood for shafts, find feathers for flights, and iron to make arrow heads, each of which has its own gather and refining process before you can actually assemble arrows.
Things like darkness matter. Zombies come out at night and it is tough to see anything without a light source. You get a magical light spell you can cast, or you can go old school and hold a torch.
However I can’t hold a torch and wield a bow, so magic it is. And the world itself looks nice.
All of which leaves me wondering who this game might be for… and what to even call such a game. “MMO” is over-used to the point of meaningless, while “MMORPG” carries with it the weight of WoW and its clones as a baseline measurement. But if it really isn’t one of those, or is a niche sub-category of them, what would it really be?
What is this game that is by turns awkward, finicky, intricate, deep, slow, and clearly a work in progress? Where does it fit into the gaming world? If somebody said I needed to pay $15 a month for it I would pass. But the buy once, play forever model isn’t going to sustain it for very long, and the cash shop is always a dubious venture in my mind. But then we know that games that live by the cash shop become about the cash shop in the end, and SotA has started building an extensive cash shop which, for some reason, is referenced as selling “Add Ons,” something that might again confuse those from WoW. At least it isn’t in the game I suppose.
In a way this feels like the sort of game where you might rent a server ala Minecraft for you and some friends and play in your own world together. Maybe some day.
Anyway, this is all an early first impression. There are aspects of the game I like. It is an interesting place to wander around and intricate in its way. I seem to feel more compelled to explore it that Bhagpuss did. I want to give it a chance because it feels like there is something here. But I am not sure I will find myself feeling invested enough to pursue it in the long term. It feels like a game that demands time and devotion… and patience… patience with it and its development team. We shall see.