Shroud of the Avatar

Sometimes you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Shroud of the Avatar makes a lousy one. After spending a few hours with the game, I feel no desire to continue playing it. I didn’t even get out of the starting area.

Shroud of the Avatar (SotA) is a MMORPG (massively multiplayer on-line role-playing game). There’s a blunt reality when you design a new MMORPG: World of Warcraft (WoW) is the 600-lb gorilla in this field. I can’t help but compare SotA to WoW. I know that many millions of dollars have been poured into WoW’s development, and perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. But SotA has some significant game-play issues that discouraged me immediately.

I got into SotA by helping to Kickstart the game in 2014. Even though I was a regular WoW player at the time (and still am), I was attracted to the concept of the new game because it was designed by Richard Garriott aka Lord British, the developer of one the favorite games from my childhood, Ultima III. After kickstarting the game, I received periodic emails about SotA’s development, but I had no desire to play the beta version of the game.

Finally, after three years, I got the announcement of the game’s official release. On a Macintosh, Shroud of the Avatar is played via the Steam portal. I downloaded it, started it… and promptly got lost. The problem was, by default, SotA uses a different set of keys to navigate than WoW. It was hard for me to get around. It wasn’t until the second time I tried the game that I realized I had to reconfigure the SotA keys to match WoW to be able to play it at all.

My second impression was how dull the game looked. I’m used to Steam games, and know they generally don’t make the best use of a graphics card; I lowered my expectations accordingly. But here the color contrasts seemed flat and uninteresting. Again, I may be spoiled by WoW, which uses a bright and more cartoony color palette.

The issues with color palette became particularly obvious when night fell within the game. Both WoW and SotA have day/night cycles. In WoW, even when it’s night, it just means the sky and shading become different; you can still see to get around. In SotA, without a torch you can’t see much of anything. SotA’s approach is more realistic, but it means that half the time it’s more difficult to travel from place to place because you can’t see where you’re going.

This might not have been a problem, except that SotA in its starting zones borrowed a trick from WoW’s later expansions: crinkly terrain. In WoW’s starting zones, you can generally travel from one point to another by going in a straight line. In SotA’s starting zones, the terrain blocks straight-line paths between the initial quests and their destinations, so your avatar has to do a lot of walking. In the game’s daytime, this is annoying enough; at night you just get lost.

I’ve got one more visual complaint: In the starting zones, everyone looks the same. Every character starts off with the same gear. You can customize your avatar’s appearance and gender, but those differences aren’t obvious. All my fellow characters were wearing the same shirt, pants, and hat. Visually it looked like a bunch of clones wandering around.

The same thing would happen in WoW, except that WoW has distinct character classes: warriors, warlocks, mages, and so forth. While every starting avatar of a given class has the same gear, the differences between the starting gear of the various classes avoids SotA’s problem. Also, in WoW you start to acquire new gear within a few minutes of playing the game. In SotA, I didn’t get any new gear during the few hours I played, at least none that affected my avatar’s appearance.

As you may have gathered from the previous paragraph, in SotA there aren’t character classes common to many role-playing games. Your character starts with points in some initial skills based on a set of questions you’re asked during character generation, but in the long run you can put skill points in any of the skills available in the game.

In general, I like systems in which your ultimate abilities aren’t restricted when you create your character (anyone who’s ever created a character in my tabletop RPG Argothald can attest to this). The problem I found with SotA is that you’re deluged with skills and it’s not clear what to pick or how to use the skills. There are two different skill bars on the screen, and I couldn’t figure out how into which bar a skill or item should go; this was important because it appeared that one bar was supposed to be used in combat and the other not.

I also learned, when going through some web sites in preparation for this review, that you should set up an allocation pattern for how your experience points (XP) are shared between the skills you develop. By default, your XP are evenly shared between all the attributes and skills your character possesses. If you don’t know about the reallocation (there was nothing about this in the interminable tutorial panels thrust on your screen), then your warrior could be wasting XP into their intellect instead of putting all the points into strength.

Crafting also starts immediately, with craft materials being the first thing you find in the landscape or dropped by enemies. What do you do with them? Which are useful to anything you might do? I never knew, because I never was able to craft any items and/or get any recipes. In WoW, crafting is introduced gradually; in SotA I had no idea if I should save the items in my limited inventory space (in SotA the limit is by weight rather than WoW’s bag slots) or sell them.

Even basic world interactions could be confusing. At one point I saw a fellow player character whose health bar wasn’t full. I thought I should do a good deed and use my healing spell on him. I clicked on his avatar, clicked the icon for my healing spell… and healed my character, not his. How do you cast beneficial spells on other characters in SotA? I never learned, but it’s not the simple method that’s used in WoW.

Another example: I was in a camp of humans, and clicked on one of the non-player soldiers to see if he had any dialog. Instead, that click was interpreted as an attack and the soldier started hacking at my character. There was no change in the mouse shape or any form of reaction indicators (as there is in WoW) to let me know that the soldier was hostile. Since he was five levels higher than I was, I would have been killed except that a fellow player decided to help me. It was a near thing, but we defeated the soldier.

Afterwards, I tried to thank that other player. I couldn’t, because even as simple a thing as a “say” command wasn’t obvious.

Even combat in the game wasn’t obvious. My memory is getting hazy, but there didn’t seem to be any “auto-attack” and you had to keep pressing a key to swing your weapon. Spells had long cooldowns (at least for my low-level character). I typically won each combat, but it took a long time.

All of these interface issues and other game elements are explained in various SotA web sites and forums, and I looked at some of them. As I noted above, it was a lot of information to absorb just to start a character. I like the open-ended skill sets and the potential for crafting, but the complexity of the initial decisions and limited carrying capacity at the start of the game was off-putting.

In WoW, you can create a character with a few keypresses, watch a short lore intro, and start questing within five minutes. The initial quests teach you the basics: how to sell useless items, for example. You don’t have to make any decisions about developing your character until you’ve reached tenth level, by which time you’ve been exposed to enough that you’ll know if you’ll like playing the game.

I know that SotA is much, much bigger than just the starting area. Promotional material talks about cities, dungeons, great events, customized housing, and so forth. But I have no desire to see any of it.

Lord British, if you want me to play Shroud of the Avatar, you have to start out stronger than this.

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