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Adventures in Alpha

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Shards Online. The retro-style MMO by Citadel Studios – a tribute to classics like Ultima Online – just didn’t grab me. The Diablo-esque graphical perspective, slow skill grinds and nod to player-killing just didn’t sound appealing in an era of sumptuous 3D and safe theme-park rides.

Then again, sometimes there’s excitement in cutting loose from the safety rails. The sandbox-heavy approach, with a player-led economy and my own merchants to sell crafted wares, promised to scratch an itch that only EVE Online had managed to reach. The possibility of community-run servers with their own content and rules set pushes that even further, with perma-death gauntlets, roleplay havens, and more.

Ultimately though, the idea behind having an open MMO like Shards Online is that emergent, unscripted things happen that make it different every time you log in. As I logged into alpha over the past week, that was my litmus test, and the short answer is that it’s already happening. While the clunky controls and irritating UI highlight the early stage of development, there’s already enough game to have me swear in frustration and whoop in delight.  

Wading in the River of Treachery

Over a few days, I’d grown comfortable with the fantasy world of Celador. I’d met a few skill trainers, built a house, and started gathering resources. I’d accidentally discovered that I could attack NPCs, which then introduced me to the idea of death. After resurrecting at a nearby shrine and looting all the stuff from my dead body, I made a note to be more careful. At least, that’s what I thought.

Being a PvP-inclusive game, player killing is a way of life. Outside the relative safety of Eldeir Village, the forests and graveyards can be a lair of stealthed banditry. But, even inside the village, safety is not guaranteed. When I attacked a bear that another player was trying to tame, the village guards decided to teach me it wasn’t a good idea. With their swords. Of course, the would-be bear tamer smiled and looted my corpse, while I passed the time with Death, again.

Outside the confines of Eldeir, PvP takes on a slightly different tinge. Attack another player and you’ll be flagged as an Aggressor, meaning that the guards will turn a blind eye while anyone attacks you. I discovered this after going for the cowardly kill, finding a player who’d barely survived a battle against a spider. After finishing him off and looting the corpse, an ally started chasing after me. While I sprinted off into the village, my pursuer would not give up so easily.

So, I did what any sane person would do under threat of an ass-kicking: I ran home. It turns out that player housing has a nifty feature where you can open the door while keeping it locked to other players. At last, I had a wooden sanctuary to wait out my Aggressor timer. But, as I stepped back out into the bright sunlight, my would-be killer launched a lightning attack. Unfortunately for her, the guards thought I was the good guy now, and swiftly struck a killing blow. It was all I could do to smile and loot the body on my doorstep.

The Open Identity Crisis

While I felt the lure of unfair and dishonourable PvP pulling at my coat, I was also trying to work out what I actually wanted to play. When I first started playing Shards Online, an Agent of the Strangers – mysterious beings in the void between Shards - nudged me towards choosing what I thought was a class. I later discovered that all it did was give me a familiar beginning – a fireball flinger to set the world aflame.

As I progressed further and experimented with combat, I discovered that I could swap the mage’s staff for a warrior’s sword, or pick up daggers and step into the shadows. Diabolical thoughts of being a stealthed sneak-attack stab-mage crossed my mind for a moment, until I decided to focus on a small number of synergic skills. After all, better to cast one fireball and loot the charred remains than stand there stabbing hopefully for half an hour.

Alongside the combat and support skills, trade skills looked like they’d be my ticket to self-sufficiency. Those first few hours worked up an appetite, with my character getting hungrier and bordering on starvation. Turns out, all those fluffy woodland creatures I’d been killing to skill myself up in are also a good source of meat. I wouldn’t find it as simple loot though, but instead had to butcher my way through a Disney movie of the cute and cuddly before my appetite was sated.

There’s a whole bunch of gathering and crafting trade skills, with each one having its own little XP bar. Most of what I found in the world could also be crafted, allowing me to make shovels and hatchets instead of buying them from a vendor. After building my own house, I could fit it out with furniture, a lockable chest, and other creature comforts. If I ever fell down the crafting rabbithole, I could even set up a shop to sell my wares while I’m out adventuring.

An Imperfect World

Shards Online has certainly managed to get under my skin. It’s a concept brimming with possibilities, and the alpha now has enough game systems in place to start making them real. Just like other sandbox MMOs, it feels like the place I could build a legacy in. And, when I get tired of playing by the rules, I can hop on another shard and play by someone else’s, or eventually consider starting a community of my own.

Right now, though, Shards Online is very much an alpha. The combat loop feels slow and clunky – cast spell, charge it up, select target, fire - making it tedious rather than entertaining (Ed. note: Targeting can be changed in Options). The skeumorphic UI can make finding inventory items annoying, and isn’t helped by seemingly ignoring the mouse scrollwheel. Rocks can sometimes have invisible walls around them, making resource nodes unreachable. The combat music makes me want to set the world on fire, and not in a good way.

Most annoying, though, is the lack of jump. Instead of being able to leap over fences, crates, and other small obstacles, or even scramble down rock faces, my character would simply stop dead while the spacebar forlornly did nothing. While I could get over the combat and camera issues, they have a compound effect of making Shards Online feel limited, as if I can only interact in very specific ways, and runs counter to that liberating feel that the sandbox ethos tries to generate.

That said, there’s an unpolished gem that’s starting to emerge here. Little features, like having abundant lore hidden away, quests and tasks that aren’t highlighted with exclamation marks and tracked with direction arrows, and no tagging a mob as your own to prevent someone else looting or harvesting it. It’s a throwback to the old school, but with enough new seasoning to taste familiar to the newer crowd. Shards Online won’t appeal to every MMO player, but it’s certainly aiming to cater to an under-served crowd.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.