I rolled into Austin beneath dark and water-laden skies last week to see what the guys at Portalarium were cooking up for Release 8 of their Shroud of the Avatar. Thunder rocked the sky as I stepped from my truck and turned to see lightning striking across the menacingly named Greystone Building. The drama of the moment seems appropriate in hindsight, because I’ve now seen what the team has planned for their next release.
Giving the traditional development model a swift kick in the Chaucerian nether ye, Richard Garriott and Starr Long have led their team right past the player verses AI combat development, and straight into the player verses other players. That’s not all these mad scientists have been cooking up, but most of what you’ll be seeing in the next release has been developed to facilitate that major component of the overall game.
A New Way to Fight
One of the things I’ve been most excited to see implemented since I made my first trip to Austin to get a look at Shroud of the Avatar, is the initial rollout of their new combat system. Richard told me what they had planned all those months ago, and I thought it was a little crazy. That said, I’ve been critical of the game industry’s stagnation over the last decade or more, and if there’s one thing Richard Garriott is really good at, it would have to be making creative ideas work. Yeah, he’s good at a lot of things, but he’s really good and particularly cunning when it comes to game mechanics and story.
So when Richard and Starr unveiled their plan to have a card-based (or rune-based, in SotA terms) combat system similar to Wizard101, I was pretty excited to see how they expected to pulled it off. This is the first iteration of the system, and it’s subject to change, but I have to say that I really liked it when I tried it out in Austin a few days ago. I liked it a lot. I get so tired of the silly button mashing that’s become standard in most MMOs these days. The alternative ideas attempted by games like Age of Conan have been really cool, but not always implemented well.
I suspect the new system won’t be universally loved because we all have our favorites, but I think it’ll win over most by time the game releases. It takes advantage of the current popular systems of making attacks by hitting the numbers at the top of your keyboard, so you won’t have to retrain that muscle memory. It improves that system by making the runes you get random. That may sound a bit crazy, but let me get into why it’s awesome a bit more in the next section. For now, here’s the basics for how the system works.
You build a deck based off of the skills you currently have by dragging runes from your skill UI to the deck UI, and then you equip the deck you want to use. That already implies that you’ll have multiple decks developed for a range of flexibility and a recent dev post says decks can be tied to specific armor, so there’s a win right there to my mind. When you engage in combat, your task bar will begin to populate with runes from your deck. You have a set amount of time to use each one, or it’ll be pulled from your bar. There’s already a system in to warn you the rune is about to be pulled, and which should be clear when you see runes start to slip down out of the task bar.
Simple, but Complex
One of the things the folks at Portalarium have set as a standard for themselves in making Shroud of the Avatar, is this idea that things should be easy to get into and hard to master. The new combat system really demonstrates their adherence to that ideal, because while it is a very easy system to understand, there is a much deeper complexity laying beneath the surface. They’ve tied the runes to the skill system in a couple interesting ways.
First and most obviously, you need to have the skill to have the rune, so there’s a direct link between what you can do in combat and what skills you’ve worked on aquiring. As you work your way up the skill tree, you also have the option to stop and put extra points in a skill you already own. This allows you to get up to four extra runes for that ability.
Think of it like one of those collectable rune games, except that if you don’t meet the 20-rune minimum in SotA, they make up the difference with “Slugs.” Slugs are a basic attack that does a small amount of damage. It’s not so much a penalty, but you don’t really want them in your deck if you have something else to use.
The second thing that could add additional complexity to combat, is the deck mechanics themselves. Whether it will be its own skill tree, or added in as skills under existing trees, skills to change how fast you draw runes and lose runes are in the works. There’s also some work being done to allow you to choose to just slot specific runes and not use the draw system at all, or even a combination of the two with the right skills.
Combat Isn’t Everything
I know you wouldn’t expect an old Soldier to be a carebear, but I really am in most games. That’s why I’m glad to see Portalarium throwing a few bones to those of us with more industrial tastes in the next release. If nothing else, the addition of item durability and repair should be coming online in this pass, which should serve to increase the need for qualified crafters.
For those who enjoy foraging the wilder lands, there’ll be new enemies to fight, as well. Kobolds, liches, and others had a pass, adding in some new types of those existing creatures. New creatures such as a new mimic and the fire elemental are making an appearance in Release 8. They hadn’t quite finished the modeling for the fire elemental when I visited Austin, so they were using a bear model to represent them. I found were a few running around because there happens to be a combat skill to summon them. Chris Spears, Portalarium’s Technical Director, tells me they should have the new model ready for release. I’m not sure I want them to, though. There’s something extra chilling about being chased down by a fire-breathing Pooh.
When you’re not engaged in mortal combat, there are few better places to recover your sanity than the Venetian-inspired city of Ardoris, which can be accessed via the Lunar Rifts. The new row housing options are on display in the new city, as well as some new cultural elements. They weren’t quite done with the city when I stopped in for a look, but there was more than enough completed to get a feel for it. Asian-influenced houses crowd the canals and waterways, aqueducts cross the city to carry fresh water in from the surrounding mountains, and all set in accents of blue. It combines to give the city a real exotic flair that separates it from the more traditional fantasy feel of Owls Head and Kingsport.