A Shroud of Confusion
As you might recall, my first impression of Shroud of the Avatar left me with mixed feelings. While I was still attracted by the fascination of freedom that such a sandbox game always offers, dated visuals and a clunky combat made it hard to enjoy my initial experience. However, some might say that this was critique that focused too much on the surface, and they are right, because that was the exact intention of the first article. It was supposed to give the impression of somebody who is new to the game. Somebody who might have much less endurance to work themselves into the game than I had in the course of this review.
They are also right because the problems of Shroud of the Avatar run much deeper, even though that does not make the points that I laid out invalid. There are two main problem categories that I could identify for myself, but first I have to give a fair warning: There is a good reason why the developers are fighting hard to proclaim that this game is not officially released yet. This is not your typical PR-Pre-Alpha window dressing to avoid critique. This game is still under heavy development. Huge chunks of content are either completely unpolished or simply don’t exist. The question, whether the timing for the final wipe at such a state is a good one, is a different story, but be aware that you shouldn’t purchase the game if you expect any sort of coherent final experience. Instead, come back when it is officially “released”, although even then I have some doubts about how polished the game will really be.
Having said that, I still have to judge the game based on its current state. Obviously some of the problems I ran into are related to the ongoing development, while others might be more fundamental and it’s not always easy to distinguish between these two. Because Shroud of the Avatar is a complex game with diversified issues, this article is going to run longer than usual, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. As I said before, apart from all the individual problems like the clunky combat, I think that there are two more general areas of trouble.
On the one hand there is the confusion of new players. This game does not welcome new players with open arms. Quite the opposite is the case, actually. It spits you out before it even really swallowed you and kicks you in the butt as a farewell. Information is scarce and even more so information that is still valid, as the ongoing development invalidates statements that might have been true a few months ago. My personal struggle as a new player will make up a large part of the review, because it is an experience that many new players would share and because in the course of the learning process I managed to dig deeper into several aspects of the game and also learned to enjoy some of them.
The second aspect is the confusion about the vision and direction of the game itself. It was promised as some jack of all trades, combining all the best aspects from the Ultima series, including Ultima Online. Yes, my expectations in the previous article that it was supposed to be the successor of Ultima Online only, were wrong. I apologize for that, even though ironically the development process slid kind of into that direction. Anyway, it seems that this sort of fusion might have been too ambitious to realize. Currently, with selective multiplayer modes and offline single-player mode, there are four different ways to play the game. But the game doesn’t adapt to these modes and therefore doesn’t truly fit to any of them.
In general I would say that Shroud of the Avatar first and foremost feels like a MMORPG. We have a huge sandbox with housing, crafting and free travel. The small zones and the long loading times take away a lot of the limitless feeling of MMORPGs, but it’s still there. The multiplayer online mode is the only one where the towns feel at least somewhat lively and would usually be my preferred playing style. Why “would”, you ask? Well, besides the performance issues there are also non-technical game mechanics that give the single-player online mode an advantage.
Farming resources and grinding mobs is an elementary part of the game, but both are scarce, at least if you dwell mainly around the more frequented areas. In single-player online all is yours, you don’t need to share, but you still have most of the necessary online functionalities available, like access to the market vendors. From an atmospheric point of view though you are running around in an empty and dead world. Despite daily routines for the NPCs, the game does not manage to generate even slightly the immersion of typical single-player games. The lack of good story content amplifies this feeling, but I will come back to this later.
The point, however, is that at least in its current state, the game offers barely any enjoyable story based content and its strengths are solely to be found in the sandbox MMO aspects, but it doesn’t give good enough reasons to actually play the multiplayer mode, besides socializing. Right now, Shroud of the Avatar is neither fish nor fowl and is lacking a clear direction. It seems to be very estranged from the original vision that was promised in the Kickstarter campaign and therefore in my impression fans who expected a successor to Ultima VII are those who are the most disappointed currently. Tacking on a bunch of uninspired quests during the final sprint however will not make it a good single-player game either. Therefore I dare to question whether it might not be a good idea to just give up on some of the original targets and instead try to provide a consistent gaming experience in at least one direction.
Let’s go back to the other issue, the new player experience. The first few minutes are actually pretty straight forward and offer something like a little tutorial. You get taught the basics of the controls, get to know some bits of the backstory and learn how to interact with NPCs. These are things that you would probably find out on your anyway, but a little help is always nice. However, the confusion starts soon enough. You are asked four different questions and based on your answers the game will make a suggestion on your starting “class”.
As we have a skill-based system, there are obviously no real classes, but for the beginning the game gives you a certain skill distribution fitting to one of the three playstyles of close combat, ranged combat and magic. This fact is conveyed in the game, but the chance that you miss it, is high, as the information is shown on the one hand in the middle of the screen all too fast and on the other hand in the small chat window that is also used for player and NPC interaction alike. Both don’t seem to be the ideal way to communicate such important information. I have to honestly admit that I did not understand at first what these answers have affected and had to create a new character shortly after.
At the same time you are also told that there are three different paths with different starting points, but that only one of those storylines is implemented yet. Nevertheless you still start in three different tutorial scenes where you are introduced to the quest and combat systems. After this scene, however, you get transported to the same starting area around Soltown. You also get the related quest item, even though you started in a different tutorial scene. Further, you still get the original quest item which would lead you to a town on the completely other side of the continent. I might just be a dumb or inattentive player, that’s entirely possible. But I didn’t get it. And I’m probably not the only one.
This moment of confusion made me start to adept a playstyle that I call “wiki gaming” which since then I could not get rid of anymore. During playing I spent half of the time in the browser, reading things up in the instruction, wiki or official forums. While I am a person that actually enjoys to do some research and to dig up information, in this case it’s especially hard because with the ongoing development process you never know if the information is still valid or not.
Let me try to give you an example: The starting questline is woven around the two towns Soltown and Ardoris. If you are doing nothing else than quests, then already after a couple of hours you are basically done with everything. Despite the difficulty of actually finding quest givers, their structure is little more than typical fetch and collect. The only two missions left at that point send you to high level areas, whereof the one for the main quest is a scene with the highest possible difficulty in the game. In my understanding, it is intended that way, even though I don’t know why.
Anyway, I then tried to find out, whether there might be any other starting quests to collect some experience. I stumbled across the name Hidden Valley several times, but couldn’t make sense of it. Only later I understood that it was the starting area of former releases which still existed. The way to get there also was revised in the meantime, but when I finally made the trip, I found a better new player experience than the one currently implemented. If that all sounded confusing to you, well, this is Shroud of the Avatar in its current state in a nutshell.
I can only repeat myself from the previous article and state that I really don’t need to have things handed to me on a silver plate. But if you are talking about old school gaming, back then we couldn’t look up everything in the internet. You were able to find out things within the game as an individual, even if it took some effort. My impression is that Shroud of the Avatar currently often does not give you that chance.