Updated Mon, Dec 16, 2013 by ricoxg
Those individuals lucky enough to have access to the developer forums for Shroud of the Avatar were presented with a link last week that allowed them to be among the first outside Portalarium to download the new client. It’s now Tuesday morning and those people should be logging into the game for the first time ever, though they may be scratching their heads a bit at what they find. Today we’re going to take a look at Release 1 of Shroud of the Avatar and what it might say about the game to come.
I went up to Austin last week for a first look at the new release and my experience started the same way as many will their first time into the game, in the soon-to-be infamous “chicken room.” Logging in to a single room with a torch, a chair, and a couple wandering chickens was an unusual experience. At first, I looked around trying to figure out if I’d just been allowed in on some sort of inside joke, the sort you find in every gaming community. After a minute or so of being mildly amused and not a small amount of confused, I reminded myself that I had a job to do and I got serious.
The second more serious look was when this room started really making a little sense, and I think shows some seriously deep thought on the part of the developers. In this simple room, you’re exposed to the quintessence of what Shroud of the Avatar is. It actually heightened the experience of wandering the larger world a short while later, which everyone else will have the opportunity to do on Thursday.
In the chicken room, you notice texture on everything. The walls, the chair, even the torch has an interesting texture to it. Then as I wandered the city of Owl’s Head, I noticed that the same level of attention to detail was paid to textures everywhere. In a sense, it was that short time in the chicken room that I think drew my eye to something you might normally over-look, and I think it likely to be the point.
This isn’t even an alpha release of the game, so what many players may have come to expect in their first look at a game won’t be there. The developers seem to understand that problem and have developed a system to retrain the player’s eye onto what to look for in the pre-alpha version of the game. In this case, you’re looking at quality over quantity. The chicken room sort of shows you what to look for, and when you find it in Owl’s Head, it’s a demonstration of what you’ll see on down the road.
But that promise of quality doesn’t just stop with detailed texturing. There were chickens in the room as well, bringing a sense of life that might otherwise be missing. You see the echo of that in Owl’s head as you stroll around town and see all manner of creatures populating the community. There were some cattle on one of the city’s streets that seemed a bit synchronized, but other than that I found myself in a world that felt more alive than I would have expected for a game this early in development.
As I meandered around the city, I saw the expected NPCs and they somehow seemed more living and dynamic than in most other MMOs I’ve played, and I just can’t place exactly why. Part of it, I’m sure, is the system Shroud of the Avatar uses for talking with NPCs. Rather than a clickable pop-up dialogue box, in Shroud the player simply types what they wish to say into local chat and the NPC responds. I like that system a lot, but I do worry about a town full of players yelling at each other and at NPCs, thus making it more difficult to have that conversation. …but then I guess that’s sort of like real life as well.
Another thing adding to the sense of the world being alive is the sky in Shroud of the Avatar. As day turns to night, players will be treated to a nocturnal treat on par with Skyrim. The shattered lunar debris eases over the horizon, and you really have to stop a minute and look. You realize that as dangerous as night will be in Shroud of the Avatar, you’ll likely find yourself braving it for the chance to star-gaze a bit.
In my case, I pretty much spent all night taking in the darkened environment in the safety of Owl’s Head, which is when I saw the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMO. As the sun rose the next morning, I saw birds. I know, you’re doing a double-take there, but think about it. No matter where you live, there are always those tiny local birds. They zip around in strange wavy patterns, rarely flying in straight lines. I’ve never seen a game get that detail right, until now.
As much as a sense of life was an important part of the chicken room, there’s something else even more dramatic. The developers of Shroud are playing with lighting and I believe they’re finding a great deal of success. Without that short period of isolation in the chicken room, you would have still noticed it. However, I don’t think you would have noticed some of the subtleties that really makes it great.
The obvious victory in video game lighting is easily noted while walking around Owl’s Head as you see the sunlight filtering through the trees. What really surprised me after noticing that, was the shadows being cast on the ground by said trees. They actually move and sway a bit as if in a breeze, lending a great deal to the immersion of the game. Again, I’m find myself noticing something small that you never really see done as well anywhere else, and I can’t help but think about how critical it seems to be to creating that deeper sense of immersion into the game.
That’s just the more obvious, though. What I might not have noticed had it not been for the period of forced isolation in the chicken room, was the torch lighting. Fire in a primitive culture is supposed to exude a sort of sense of security, and they seem to have captured that well already in this game. Wandering around the city at night really seems to show off that aspect of the game.
What it also shows off is the difference between covered and open flames. Covered lanterns give off a fairly consistent light while open flames flicker and cast interesting shadows. Again I find myself comparing Shroud to Skyrim, and actually find Skyrim losing a bit. As well as the lighting in Skyrim had been done, I just think that the guys at Portalarium have managed to exceed that fairly recent standard.
But there was one other thing we haven’t really mentioned yet in the chicken room, and that was the single chair. The chair more than any other item or effect tells the story of what you’re seeing. The empty chair is a promise of what’s to come. At one point in the past, Richard Garriott established his reputation for quality and immersive environments when he insisted the players be able to sit in chair despite many of the people around him saying it was unimportant.
It’s at an incredibly early stage, but the first release of the Shroud of the Avatar client shows the team at Portalarium is well on their way to providing an experience at least as immersive as any game in the Ultima franchise. Speaking with the members of the team, you get a sense of deep respect for the past, but a tenacious drive to push the envelope and give us something new and better. It promises to be an incredibly difficult fight in a saturated market, and they’re blazing a new trail in how to get there. They just have to teach a new generation of players how to see the vision they’re building for us.
I think it was the hint of that that led me to ask to get back into the chicken room for a bit for another quick look, after I finished playing around Owl’s Head for a while. Standing there looking around with new eyes and appreciating the room like I hadn’t the first time, I couldn’t help but pay a little extra attention to the empty chair. In many ways it is Release 1, empty of crafting, quests, or combat, but standing there as a promise of what’s to come. A promise that someday soon I won’t be playing my Avatar, I’ll be my Avatar.