The Avatar Returns to the World of Britannia (An early review of Shroud of the Avatar)
For the longest time, I was holding out on playing Shroud of the Avatar. Which is kind of strange, considering the fact that I’m exactly the type of player the game has been looking for. You see, I grew up as a programmer and gamer while playing every Ultima game ever made. If you follow the natural evolution of that series of computer games, it eventually leads directly to Shroud of the Avatar. The chances of me not playing this game were slightly lower than zero percent. Yet, it took me a number of years of the game being in development for me to finally decide to sign on. I guess that probably needs a bit of unpacking. So, let’s unpack.
As I mentioned, in the early days of computer games, Richard Garriott developed a series of games that ran under the IP of “Ultima”. It was a series of roleplaying games where you played a warrior, a mage or some semblance of fantasy classes and unlocked the secrets of the world before facing down against some huge big bad guy (or girl) and then saved all of the land. A review:
Ultima 1: You fought against an evil wizard named Mondain. But Mondain had a secret student and lover. This takes place on Sosaria.
Ultima 2: His lover’s name was Minax. You then have to defeat her. But she and Mondain secretly had a kid. Of course they did. This takes place on Earth through all sorts of time periods.
Ultima 3: The kid was kind of weird, in that Cylon kind of way. You, as expected, had to defeat him. This takes place on Sosaria.
Ultima 4: Gets weird and colorized. You spend the entire game becoming the ultimate character, an avatar. This introduces the virtues and eventually becomes the foundation for all of the Ultimas. This introduces Britannia.
Ultima 5: A bad lord under British gets corrupted by the shadowlords and basically takes over Britannia. You gotta stop him and them. Takes place in Britannia.
Ultima 6: A bunch of gargoyles get involved, creating a plot about immigration and enforcement. Or something like that. You act as an example and make everyone happy again. Much merriment is involved. Takes place in Britannia.
Ultima 7: Probably the best of the single player games. Takes place in Britannia and introduces the Guardian, who is a kind of twisted version of enlightenment. He sticks around for two more games. Takes place in Britannia.
Ultima 8: You get taken to some other place and do some stuff. To be honest, never really got into this game as I got stuck on the dock in the early part of the game, couldn’t figure out how to get out, and then just decided to play another game instead.
Ultima 9: Game becomes first person. Much more interesting world (still Britannia) but seems kind of lonely as the new perspective seems to eliminate a lot of npcs you’d normally meet. It’s the final encounter with the Guardian. Involves a Captain Kirk mind meld sort of conclusion, but should have been expected.
Ultima Online: Garriott brings the series to an online environment by making the argument that when Mondain was around, he split a shard into multiple pieces, each of which was another copy of Britannia (meaning you were on a different server). Game has lasted over twenty years now, even though Garriott has been divorced from it for most of that time.
Shroud of the Avatar: This is the eventual successor to the franchise, even though the understanding is that Electronic Arts still owns the rights to the Ultima name. It’s been pretty much understood that EA has no idea how to actually allow a franchise to breathe, so fortunately Garriott has given new life into what was once a very original idea.
So, what is Shroud supposed to be like? Well, it released officially on March 27th of this year, although it’s been in extended beta for a number of years now. Several times during the beta, the world was reset, so people had to start over, but the current beta that was playing through was allowed to survive and on March 27th, the game went from idea to actual release. Much rejoicing was had. Not much change, however, occurred. Okay, some change happened, but it was mostly patched kinds of changes without much of an impact on what was happening with the world itself.
But the story itself argues that the avatar has returned to Britannia (or Novia, or whatever land this is supposed to be now). A bunch of comets have caused problems, and there appears to be some kind of “evil” that may be under the surface. But for the most part, other than a couple of dragons wandering around and a ton of bad guys, pirates and thieves, not much seems to be going on in the lands. There are extensive player owned towns and an appearance here and there of Lord British (Richard Garriott’s character), but like Ultima Online before, the one thing sort of missing appears to be a general purpose behind what’s going on in the adventure. It might be there under the surface, but it’s not obvious enough to someone just starting the game. For the most part, when starting the game, you’re told that the Oracle (kind of like a benevolent-sounding Guardian from before) wants you to somehow unite the concepts of love, truth and courage (which were the foundations of the original eight virtues). As for why, I’m still trying to figure that out. And what happens after that, still kind of confused. I’m going to be really disappointed if we discover after all of this preparing and adventuring that we were really trying to figure out where Lord British left his car keys.
The combat mechanics are pretty decent and quite extensive, if one takes the time and effort to learn them. The game can be played on a simplistic level, but there are decks involved in the combat skills, so you can start to develop some really complicated types of maneuvers. There is also quite a bit of involvement with the crafting system as well.
The player housing is pretty awesome as well. As this was a huge part of Ultima Online, I would have been shocked if this was not the case. It’s a bit expensive, but judging from the conversations on the official boards, there may be some effort to make the land choices a bit more achievable for the common player. I’ll admit I’ve probably spent way more money than I should have playing this game, but I’m not the typical player; I do stupid things like that. Most people are generally a lot smarter than I am when it comes to that sort of stuff.
Where the game really needs to grow is in attracting players to run around in that world. They’ve done the one right thing by offering a free access sort of pass to players exploring the game, but a lot more needs to be done to get those same players to want to stay. Right now, the initial price to play the game after visiting is $40. That’s the price of a general AAA game that’s just been released. Although that price can sometimes go up to about $50, the $40 price tag is still pretty close to what people generally remember paying for a newly released PC game. And yes, the game was just released, but it is still showing a lot of early growing pains that may take many months to fix. Those are the kinds of problems people are going to see when visiting the game for free, so this might make it really difficult to translate into full members of the game itself. As long as housing is costing people over $100 in real money, people are probably going to avoid this game like the plague. Add to that the majority of the negative feedback for the game has been about the price of transactions in the game, and you have a recipe for why this might be a difficult sell.
One other problem that hasn’t been addressed all that well is another positive feature of the game: The single player game built within the game itself. You don’t have to play the game online. You can actually start the game as a single player and enjoy pretty much the same world. Without other people. The obvious negative to that is no one else is playing with you, but the positives are numerous, including three npcs that become your partners and experience the world with you, so you’re not always under powered by being alone. But like I said, they haven’t given this avenue enough attention because there are some blatantly missing things, such as player owned towns. On the surface that makes sense, but in reality, those player owned towns are often used for reasons other than housing. A lot of the connections to other zones come from linkage people have made tying numerous towns together (like carriages, balloons and boats). If no player owned towns exist, those connections just don’t exist. Which means there are islands throughout the game that have no ability to be reached because no player connection was made beforehand. So, it’s just eye candy real estate in the game where you can never visit.
As I said before, it’s easy to come up with things to complain about in pretty much any game. It’s no different in this one. Which bothers me a lot because there’s so much strong potential with the game. There are times when it can be a lot of fun. We just need to find better ways to get more people to experience that fun without the costly aftertaste.
Overall, it has a lot of potential but can easily defeat itself by letting these types of problems fester longer than they need to. Unfortunately, online devs are historically really slow at addressing these kinds of things, or in addressing them at all. And once the game starts to go in the down direction, the spiral doesn’t end until the game is gone or a shadow of its original self.