Its been about a month and once again the team behind Shroud of the Avatar are rolling out another release. Each release is an opportunity for backers of the game to observe the progress the team has made, and to get a taste of how the game will play when its finally released. With the Portalarium offices practically in my back yard, it was a no brainer when they asked if Id like to come up for another early look.
I See Digital People
For the first time since Shroud of the Avatar was announced, backers will be able to enter a world filled with their fellow avatars rather than the automated digital constructs weve tormented over the last several months. While on the surface this may not seem to be as large a leap forward as the last release which introduced crafting, dont be fooled.
I understand the team has put in a lot of work over the last several weeks to ensure players would be able to see each other correctly and to get the positional information dialed in super tight. Richard Garriott even joked about waving torches at Starr Longs face in the game to ensure animations lined up correctly between clients. The result appears to be a very smooth and accurate experience, at least from what I was seeing with everyone playing on the LAN. Well see if doing it live with a lot more players online works as well in a few days.
These early releases arent just about giving the backers a sneak peak at the game, though. Theres also some testing to be done. The new release includes the ability to add friends through the menu accessed with the F key. The folks at Portalarium also want to see if the ability to toggle switched objects such as lights, torches, and doors can hold up under the influx of players. That shouldnt be hard considering I saw developers trolling each other by closing doors as their colleagues were trying to open them to enter the local tavern.
I think the biggest test of the new release will be the chat system, however. Rather than having pop-up dialogue boxes or private conversations between players and NPCs, Richard and team have opted for a more realistic and potentially more immersive model. Those conversations will take place in local chat and can be overheard by anyone nearby.
One obvious long term problem will be preventing spoilers about future quests being spammed into the general chat, but the flip side to that is potentially tipping players off to quests they didnt know existed. The more immediate problem is one of general noise.
If a large number of players are talking to several NPCs in proximity to each other, or several attempting to converse with a single NPC, the resulting clamor could make dealing with NPCs difficult. I love the idea of what theyre attempting because it harkens back to the early days of Ultima Online and EverQuest, but there are a lot more players these days. That seems to be a concern the team had already thought of since chat filters are a part of this build. I hope their precautions are enough for it to work, but I have a feeling that there may be some design issues to work through before it does. Though I doubt its anything that cant be handled with a little tweaking.
The good news is that the newest release should start to give us and the developers a chance to finally observe the new chat system in a semi-live environment. The numbers wont be quite as high as at release, but the limited number of towns should concentrate those online enough for a decent test. That means one thing Ill be looking for as I poke around Owls Head harassing NPC guards, is to see if there seems to be any extra confusion caused by more players online at once. The team is pretty proud of their emergent AI behaviors, but theres nothing like a trial by fire to shake the bugs out.
Some Give and Take
There are a number of new items add to the game for Release 3. Participating backers will find a row of chests upon their initial logging in that contain a selection of new clothing, armor, and weaponry ready for wear. The chests are labeled to make it easier and quicker to find the desired style, so youll be sporting your new threads to the tavern in no time. I even found a staff in one chest, which is something I hadnt noticed in the previous two releases.
The crafting from Release 2 will also still be around and has even been improved for Release 3, which should excite those who want to create their own costumes to show off in front of the new audience. Youll still have to drag over the exact number of items and tools required to combine for the initial attempt, but once youve successfully created something the recipe will be added to your book of knowledge. Clicking on that recipe while at a crafting station will automatically load the work space with the needed items to create the intended recipe as long as you have what you need in your bag. Creating dozens of iron bars to check out the various weapons will no longer make you want to scratch your eyes out.
Merchants are now functional after an easy double-click as well, so you can craft until your eyes cross and then sell the results to your local consignment shop. When you do interact with the traders, youll find that arrangements are finalized with a bill of sale that requires your signature. It would seem a small thing to many, but its a testament to this teams desire to make the world feel immersive and their thoughtful approach to every aspect of the game.
Another addition this time around is the small village of Braemar. It has the calm air of country life thanks to the rural setting with lots of trees. Even the lots for player housing are dotted with trees until theyve been built on. Starr Long tells me its because they want villages to have a sense of growth when players start populating the world. With the cool lighting effects the guys are using in Shroud, a walk through the shaded paths of Braemar is highly recommended for those who are lucky enough to have access to it.
All that said, there will be one major component missing from this test, and thats player housing. I noticed during my demo with Starr that several lots had houses on them, so I suspect backers will have plenty of houses to play around with if they like. They just wont be able to select a specific house for a specific lot as they could in the last couple single-player releases. I cant say that Im surprised, though. To go from a single-player game to a multi-player game in a month is a pretty big jump without having to worry about lot-ownership and access permissions.
Clouds on the Horizon
Up to this point, the folks at Portalarium have been moving at a pretty rapid pace, and knocking out items with the clockwork precision of a well-oiled team of professionals who are proud of their project. Ive been impressed with their efforts each step of the way so far, but the content intended in the next early release of Shroud of the Avatar will be one of the defining ones. Like a skilled chef, Richard Garriott has served us a number of petits fours to demonstrate his undeniable mastery of his chosen profession. Each tiny morsel designed to tease the glutton in us and to pass a subtle hint of the courses to come.
A month from now, Chef Garriott and his staff will be serving up the first dish of a full course meal, the combat and magic release. While everything to this point has been done with the exceptionalism Richards become known for, the next step is a huge one and it promises to be one of the more telling moments for this game. I have had the pleasure of spending a fair amount of time discussing some of the plans for the new combat system with Starr and Richard, and its seriously ambitious.
Those of us who prefer sandbox games have complained for nearly a decade about how stagnant the game mechanics in the MMO genre have become. Shroud of the Avatar may be the first game in a really long time to shake the foundations of that status quo, and those backers who have early access could be witness to some seriously genre-defining mechanics.
Theres a part of me that sees what theyre trying to do and gets a hard lump of fear in my chest because something as out of the box as their new skills system isnt without a lot of risk. At the same time, I feel a conflicting amount of excitement at having a front row seat as someone attempts to create something great, and not a little pride in my fellow geeks who are attempting it. If that genre-shaking rejuvenation can happen, this is the team to do it and no matter how it turns out, you have to respect the professionalism it takes to step into the unknown with that level of confidence.
So enjoy the access this weekend guys, but remember its just a hint of the potential awesomeness to come. In as little as another month, we could be like those first few players to log into Ultima Online, who took the first steps into a new era. I wonder if they realized at the time what they were seeing. Will we?
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