Saturday, May 13, 2017

Shroud of the Avatar: Very First Impressions

Shroud of the Avatar has been around for a while now; longer than I realized. It seems Richard Garriott's spiritual successor to Ultima Online went into Early Access two and a half years ago, back in November 2014. There are MMOs that have released, failed and closed in less time than that, not least among them Garriott's own sophomore effort, Tabula Rasa.

I had to look up those dates. I haven't been following SOTA's development all that closely. Or at all, really. I never played Tabula Rasa and I have no nostalgia for UO, a game I bought back around the turn of the century, played for a few weeks in a somewhat desultory fashion, then uninstalled, never to bother with again.

I'm not sure what it is about Richard Garriott. He may be a founder of the genre but somehow most of his work to date has passed me by. I've probably read more about his space adventures than his game-making ambitions. Most of the very little I do know about Shroud of the Avatar comes from a few sporadic reports from various bloggers who'd tried it.

Most of them seemed puzzled by what they found. Having spent an hour or so under the shroud, courtesy of the current three-week free trial, I can easily see why.

Downloading and installing the game was very straightforward as was registering an account. The patcher looks oddly home-made but it works just fine. The game sits at around 12GB, quite small for a modern MMO.

There's a prominent disclaimer that makes it very clear this is an unpolished, unfinished project. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so cautious on the front end of an MMO before, not even on a pre-alpha. It seems particularly nervous and defensive when attached to something that has been up and running - and taking money - for two and a half years.

Come to think of it, how can this still be a "pre-alpha"? Whatever Portalarium choose to call it, SOTA is a thing you can pay for and play and has been for a long time. We're breaking the language again.

At this point I would go to the official site to check just what they are selling and how much they're charging for it but when I tried that ten minutes ago my virus checker popped up no fewer than five alerts, all of which turned out to be for trojans, so I'm slightly nervous about digging any further. (It gets worse - I tried looking something up on the official forums and that triggered nineteen alerts, all for trojans again. I think they have a problem, even if it's just a false reporting issue).

Getting back to the game itself and what I've seen of it so far, I have to concur with most of the commentary I've seen elsewhere: Shroud of the Avatar is odd.

The overriding impression is one of stepping back in time, not just to the quasi-medieval setting but to the late 1990s. The graphics gave me a flashback to playing Return To Krondor in 1998, the year before EverQuest appeared.

Of course the resolution, textures, lighting and so on are far more sophisticated but the look and feel is remarkably similar. That's not a bad thing but it does suggest a very particular take on what "fantasy" should look like.

Or, at least, it does until you meet your first robot. That was a surprise. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First there's a short tutorial to navigate. You might think character creation would come first but you'd be wrong. You begin as a featureless shadow. The tutorial itself leads you to embodiment by way of a magic makeover mirror. It's in the woods, just hanging there. Don't ask, just go with it...

You can be anything you want so long as what you want to be is a really ordinary human. There are some sliders. Quite a lot of sliders. They don't do an awful lot. I didn't spend too much time fiddling with them. One human looks pretty much like another, I find.

As every guru will tell you, appearances aren't everything. Looking at the character I'd made that's just as well. It's what's inside that counts and SOTA comes with one of those identity questionnaire systems to fine-tune your imaginary personality.

The first MMO I remember using one of these was probably Horizons but they've always been popular with developers who want to show respect to their traditional RPG roots. And GW2 has one as well.

In a building further along the path I found The Oracle. He/She/They/Xe interrogated me, then as much as told me I was wasting my time. So far, only one of the Paths, the Path of Love, has made it into the game so whatever choices you make, that's what you are.

I settled for Love, having neither any choice nor the slightest clue what it would have meant if I had. I just wanted to have a nose around.

It was at this point that I turned the music off. I'd already had to turn it down because, in common with many MMOs, the default setting appears to be Ear Shatteringly Loud. I once sat inside the bass bin for an entire song at a Satan's Rats gig, after which I literally could not hear anything but the ringing in my ears for three days, and that still wasn't as loud as the music in SOTA.

Turning it down solved the pain threshold issue but it didn't do anything for the assault on my aesthetic sensibilities. The soundscape of The Shroud is every bit as reminiscent of mid-90s video gaming as the visuals. If that presses your nostalgia button then you'll just love it. In fact, here, knock yourself out!.

With the peace of the forest restored I went about exploring. Or I did once I'd finished the obligatory "rescue this child, follow that mysterious stranger, equip this weapon, kill these undead" dance to complete the tutorial.

Combat was - guess what? Odd. There's both a hot bar and a reticule. I couldn't quite figure out if you needed to aim or not. While I was slaying the undead none of my arrows ever seemed to miss but later, when I tried my hand at hunting a few wolves, almost every shot went wide of the mark, even when I tried to center with the cross-hair. I ended up having to close to melee range and shoot the wolves in the head from a foot away.

That said, I quite liked the combat. At least it isn't full "Action Mode" and you retain the use of your cursor throughout. All skills raise on use, too, which is a mechanic I absolutely love. There's no more satisfying form of progression in MMOs than seeing your various skills improve as you use them, preferably with a bar you can watch fill out. SOTA has those.

It has quests, too, and a quest journal and a quest tracker in the UI. What it doesn't seem to have is a mini-map or any other directional indicator to show you where to go to complete any of the quests you might have picked up on your travels. I may be missing something or, more likely, you are supposed to go out and darn well look, with your eyes, old school style.

I did a bit of that but of course I got distracted and in doing so I stumbled into the oddest part of the game so far - "Overland Travel". If I was giving awards for Most Bizarre Implementation of a Basic Concept in MMORPGs this would be a shoe-in.

The idea is straightforward enough: rather than spend a lot of time, effort and money creating a seamless, open world, Portalarium have just made the playable bits and linked them through a non-playable map. Loads of games do that.

What no-one else has done, as far as I know, is to render that map as a three-dimensional space that resembles nothing so much as a Model Village. When you reach what would be a zone boundary in another MMO you transition into the Overland Map, a three-dimensional space where your avatar is represented at normal size, while every town, village, bridge or footpath is at a much smaller scale.

You stride across the countryside in your Seven League Boots until you reach the place you want to go. Then you click on the 1/10th size model of that town or whatever it is and it zones you into the full-size thing. Bizarre doesn't begin to cover the experience.

That was how I found myself, almost entirely by luck and not at all by judgment, in a settlement called Soltown, the very place I was meant to be heading to tell the mother of the child I rescued that she was safe and well. Serendipity at work.

Still couldn't find the woman. I wandered around the town for half an hour or so and never saw her. Most of the houses seemed half-built or less. Many had no roofs. Or walls. And yet they were often lavishly furnished.

Housing is a big part of Shroud of the Avatar's offer. You can't buy or furnish a house in the free trial so I won't be able to try it out but it looks interesting. There seemed to be a fair selection of items placed, many of which were interactive to a degree. I was particularly impressed with the pianos and chessboards.

I was more astonished than impressed by the Aether Vibration Device, which I discovered in the same building as the bank. The bank itself was a bit of a shock, being run as it was by a steamwork robot. I'd entirely missed the steampunk element of SOTA in the little I'd read about it so I wasn't expecting mechanicals. Always happy to see them turn up, though. You can never have too many mechanicals.

The AED is more problematic, both aesthetically and immersively. Minus the fancy name it's a radio tuner. It links to web radio stations in the same way the radio in The Secret World does. In TSW's contemporary setting that makes perfect sense and works brilliantly. In the fantasy context of SOTA? I'm not so sure.

And that was about as far as I got. I logged out intrigued, puzzled, curious. That's not at all a bad reaction to a new MMO. There are some good ideas here along with some not-so good ones (I can live happily without ever again having to type conversation into a chat line to communicate with an NPC, for a start...).

Having wandered around for a while, that big warning notice at log in seems less like over-cautious self-protection and more like a straightforward statement of fact. Even after nearly three years in Early Access this does feel like an alpha not a beta. Pre-alpha might be over-egging it but it definitely feels like there's a long way to go.

Still, I'm more interested in Shroud of the Avatar now than I was last week. I guess that's a win for the Free Trial.


  1. Interesting and enjoyable post, thank you!

    "Always happy to see them turn up, though. You can never have too many mechanicals."

    That's exactly how I feel! :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. It ran a little longer than I was planning :P

  2. Hmm 3D overworld map is also in Twin Saga, right?

    I quite like the SoA soundtrack although I can see why it would bother you if it's constantly playing ingame. :) I really dont know if I would appreciate this game though...the fact that it's been out for this long as still hiding behind construction signs is fishy, to say the least. Sounds like something that will never finish but grab as much money as possible until shutdown - I've had my share of that with Landmark.

    1. I did think about Twin Saga when I was writing that paragraph. It's the only other example that came to mind but it isn't really all that close a match. The zone you go into in TS is on the same scale as everything else and it's that discrepancy that really makes the SOTA one feel weird. It may function as a 3D map but it feels like being in a normal zone. It took me about half a dozen sessions in TS before I actually realized it was anything different to the others.

      I actually think 3D maps are quite an elegant way of dealing with the travel issue in a virtual world. Better than lobbies or EQ2's bells, anyway. I just wouldn't shrink everything to doll size like SOTA does.


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