Review in Progress, Part 1
With the recent Update of Shroud of the Avatar also the final wipe was conducted. From now on, everything the players are achieving in the game will persist. This is the perfect time for us to dip our toes into the game and share our first impressions with you and more will follow in the next weeks. We are well aware that according to the developers, despite the final wipe, Shroud of the Avatar is far from being officially released. But then again, you can buy the game and your progress persists. In times of Early Access and Crowdfunding, the classical steps of Alpha, Beta and Release became barely more than catchwords. Further, doing a review now does not hinder us to look at the game again when it’s officially released, does it?
Shroud of the Avatar is often called the spiritual successor of Ultima Online, and this is where my personal background comes into play. Having been a die-hard Ultima Online fan that was playing the game still way after its time of prosperity, I tried so many MMORPGs afterwards to find that experience again. Even those which I enjoyed left the bitter taste of not being as immersive as UO was. So when Shroud of the Avatar was announced, it was one of the few games I backed immediately on Kickstarter. Not because I liked what I saw, but just because of the general idea and Richard Garriott. I deliberately waited for quite some time before I looked into the game the first time. I think it was about one year ago. However, I am not going to lie: I closed it after not even half an hour and thought: “Wow, this still has a long way to go”. And now I am back there again, and this time in the course of the review, I have no choice but to dig deeper.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because I think it’s important to see that I am not a theme park-only player who took a wrong turn and stranded in a game that never was meant to be for him. Because that’s what you always hear: “This game is not for everyone”. Certainly not, but I would have thought that it’s exactly for me. Who else should be the target audience if not an Ultima Online veteran? Yet, I’m having a hard time liking and getting into Shroud of the Avatar, even though I want to. Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the visuals. The game basically looks like Ultima Online 2 would have looked like, if it was developed 10 years ago. While graphics definitely is not everything, especially in a game like this, it’s still a riddle to me how even much smaller Indie-Games can look that much better.
Additionally, the performance does not really bear relation to the visuals. Especially in the online multiplayer mode there is heavy memory usage, but as the current patch notes even mention new problems with memory leaks, hopefully this is only a temporary thing. Speaking of game modes, as you might have heard already, there are four different modes. Next to the multiplayer online mode you also have a friends-only and a singleplayer online mode. Between these modes you can switch with the same character anytime and they mainly influence if you share your instances with other players. There is also a separate offline mode that in the future should play more like a typical singleplayer game.
Of course, the question whether Shroud of the Avatar is an MMORPG or not, is unavoidable. In the end, it depends on your personal definition. There is not one seamless world. In the multiplayer mode locations are instanced, but you share them with quite a lot of people. The instances are however persistent among each other, so changes to the world like housing would be visible to all of them. These locations, also called scenes, are connected via an overworld map, where you walk around like a giant, similar to the old Final Fantasy games for example. In the end, many other instanced games were called MMORPGs before, so why not saying the same about Shroud of the Avatar?
Similar to the graphical aspects, this overworld feels dated. I could even overlook the visuals if not the rest of the game would feel equally like a time travel into the past. There is a certain “clunkyness” that runs like a common thread through several aspects of the game. A prime example that comes to mind is the user interface. Next to uninspired, but at least somewhat functional interface windows for the inventory and suchlike there is a book-like interface for the journal and crafting recipes that looks like it was copied directly out of Ultima Online. Just to make sure, that wasn’t meant as a compliment. The letters seem to be borrowed from a bad word font, you have to browse through several pages which are awfully arranged and it doesn’t even look nice.
If you want to talk to NPCs, you have to do it via a chat window where you don’t have actual dialogue options to choose from. Instead there are just keywords mentioned by your counterpart, which you can either click or enter yourself to get further information. While that actually doesn’t sound too bad in theory, in practice it means clicking around in circles until the quest is recorded in your journal. Please, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to have handed everything on a silver platter. I am perfectly fine with the game purposely orienting itself by old-school RPGs. For example, I welcome that there is no quest tracking in the sense of map markers or other guiding tools. But if you already include a journal, then make it functional. Being old-school does not mean that you have to disregard the last 10 years of game development entirely, including even the positive aspects. Also, I am aware that this is still an early stage. Yes, of course you can polish the UI and improve the graphics a little bit. But I have yet to see the game that does a turnaround as huge as it would be necessary in the case of Shroud of the Avatar without a complete reboot.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even mention what might be the biggest dealbreaker for many of you: The combat system. On a first glance, it doesn’t look much different than your usual skill-spamming system. Via your hotkeys you can release your attacks and additionally you are able to roll and jump around a little bit. And this is one way to play it. However, the intended way is to use so called glyph decks. Your abilities are then not locked to a certain hotkey. Instead you throw all your abilities that you want to use into a deck and then randomly draw them during combat. This way, the focus (the mana in this game) cost is reduced. Further you can have more than ten skills in a deck. The higher you have leveled a skill, the more glyphs of it you receive. If you have several glyphs of one skill in the deck, you will draw it more frequently.
You can reduce the randomness of this system quite a bit by putting some serious thoughts into the deck creation, for example by locking certain skills completely or assign skill so that they can appear only in certain slots. Still, a lot of your attention will rest on the hotkey bar for most of the combat, because you always have to look which skill is assigned to which key currently. And this is contradicting entirely the philosophy of a game that wants to be as immersive as possible, even in the case that the randomness does not annoy you after some time. But maybe it’s anyway better to not look too closely on the actual combat scenes, as the whole feeling of combat joins the rank of the aforementioned clunky ensemble. Hits lack the feeling of any impact and the combat is sluggish and messy. Even the biggest defenders of this game will have a hard time to find the plus side of the way combat looks and feels.
After this rather disappointing first impression I want to finish with the aspects I enjoyed so far. These are basically the elements that the developers could preserve from Ultima Online. Highlighting I have to mention the skill system. Not too many MMORPGs are using skill-based systems where you improve by using your abilities instead of classical level ups. So this is always a refreshing change for me that I truly relish. There is also a huge crafting system that I only touched on the surface so far. This, together with this general feeling of freedom and thirst for adventure and exploration does indeed give the game a lingering shroud of Ultima Online nostalgia. Therefore, so far I am still curious about diving deeper into the game, but I am attracted and repelled at the same time.