Its time for another Shroud of the Avatar early release, and while theres a lot to this one, it may not have all you expected. A month ago the team at Portalarium had invited me to their offices in Austin to check out release 3, and we talked a bit about the combat system they would be introducing as early as release 4. As these things do in the early developmental period of games, requirements shift and were not getting quite the robust combat unveiling Id hoped for. That said, we are getting a lot and I can say that Im not nearly as disappointed as I might have expected to be.
Yes, there is still much to be added to the SotA crafting system, but the team has taken a huge step forward this month. Backers can expect new recipes when they log in to check out release 4, but thats just the tip of the crafting iceberg. The folks at Portalarium are also adding in the ability to gather resources for this release. Skinning, lumberjacking, and mining are all expected to be available for backers to try out.
One of the things you may notice when you log in is that as crafting is expanded, the chests that once populated the world appear to be slowly disappearing. With most of the generic crafting tools available in the center of Owls Head along with some basic resources, you should be able to craft nearly anything you want. If hunting for chests is your thing however, not to worry. There are still plenty of those around, too. They just may not be as easily discovered as before.
Also for those wishing to craft in the privacy of their own homes, the housing system has once again been re-launched and is accessible in multiplayer with the new release. The caveat being that due to the limited availability of lots in the area the early release takes place in, ownership of lots will cycle every couple of hours. That may make for a good excuse to explore the other available housing locations in Braemar and Kingsport. Of course, if you do make it to Kingsport, be sure to check out the new ships floating in the harbor.
Those tired of being restricted to an urban existence will have the opportunity to chart new untamed lands in this new release, as well. Owls Head, Kingsport, and Braemar will now be joined by various caves, dungeons, and wilderness scenes to help finally complete the Hidden Vale.
With the new areas to explore, backers will also finally be able to see some of the hostile creatures populating the world. They wont attack unless you hit them in this pass, but they can be killed. I didnt see any lions and tigers during my early demo, but bears, wolves, spiders, and kobolds were there in plenty. The team also recently released pictures of hostile elves, but I hadnt found any yet in the demo. The new areas the creatures populate were also pretty interesting to explore, and I have to say that this Unity engine does a really nice job rendering outdoor environments.
Getting from A to B has taken a step up, as well. The last couple releases have involved using a portal, but for the first time players will have the opportunity to step out of town and travel the Vale via map. Of course like many things, the current map implantation is just a place-holder and Richard Garriott says they have something a lot cooler in mind for future passes.
Id hoped to see more of the combat system this time around, but most of it got pushed back a month in favor of other updates. Ill admit part of my excitement was the opportunity to finally be a little critical of the game. While there are the occasional glitches, theres been nothing near the level of craziness that one would normally expect for a game this early in development. Those who had access during the first round of alpha invites for Vanguard: Saga of Heroes will have a good idea of what I expected to see this early in Shrouds development.
To this point, the game has been far more polished than expected, a testament to Starr Long (the teams whip-wielding master of chaos) from what Ive been told. But no matter how firm a grip on the chaotic ebbs and flows of the digital story-telling medium he may have, I know the challenge theyve laid before themselves with this innovative new combat idea. Theres no way theyre pulling it off without a hitch the first time out of the gate.
Thus I was excited to explore their first attempt at magic and combat, and to have a chance to attack with all the glee of any journalist presented with the opportunity for a little evil. However, I knew I would be in trouble as Richard Garriott finally got into the part of the demonstration that involved killing stuff. A chance glance at Starr and I caught the momentary glimmer of twisted delight in his eye at my impending frustration.
There is combat in this release, but its relegated to the most basic auto-attack. You can kill virtually anything and much of it will have loot to pick up once its dead. You might think this is my chance at a little yellow journalism, but youll be as disappointed as I because I found out that what were not seeing is going on behind the scenes.
The team has added a great deal of clothing, armor, and numerous weapons to the game over the last several months, and Starr tells me theyre now adding in a lot of the values and stats for them during this release. Backers playing the early access wont see the results of it, but that data has to be there in order for the more complex combat system to be implemented.
The loot tables for the creatures inhabiting New Britania need to be populated, as well. Looting will be one of the main methods through which players accumulate capital wealth in the game, and theyll have their first taste of it in release 4. Crafting has a part to play in looting also, so expect to be able to process vanquished animals for stuff like skins for making leather.
Ars Technicum, Addenda Sunt
Of course the big reason the combat wasnt implemented as robustly as it could have been is all the new technical tweaking being done to the game. Richard and Starr pointed out during our conversation last week that theyd been planning to do a performance pass a little later in the schedule. After the last release however, they realized that they needed to take a more immediate look at performance issues.
To be frank, its pretty obviously the right thing to focus on at this point, so I cant really do more than engage in a little sarcasm while poking fun at them. I agree completely with the two of them that performance issues would have prevented combat from being successful no matter what they did or how well they did it. Plus, its not coming completely out of the blue anyway. There was a fair bit of grumbling around the community after the last release about some performance problems, so its not a shock that the team would adjust fire to take care of it before moving on to combat.
This isnt the first time the team has made adjustments based on community feedback. A previous release included the ability to jump due in part to the backers feedback, and this time around the team has added the ability to go swimming. A cool addition when paired with the new frigate and house boat housing options just off the docks in Kingsport.
Thats the Art of Shutting Up, for those who dont care to look it up. Lord British isnt the only one who enjoys playing around with dead languages. I doubt he wields it in a not-so-subtle attempt to demonstrate his obvious intellectual superiority, but I have no such qualms. Nor do I hide from the occasional mad dash through the realm of sarcasm and irony. Just one of the many gifts I offer freely to my readers
But back to the matter at hand. Release 4 for Shroud of the Avatar seems to be just as ambitious a stride forward as the previous three, despite my stinging disappointment at having to wait another month for the first real taste of their creative idea for combat. Even through the tears of my sadness, I can still see the attention to detail and care the folks at Portalarium are putting into the game. Additionally, their hard tacks in response to the winds of their communitys desires demonstrates once again their stance that this isnt their game, but one which they are building for their fans.
Early on, I pointed out how hard it would be to judge the progress of a game being developed behind a glass wall for all the world to see. I expected to have to struggle to explain how moving forward wasnt always as obvious on the surface of things, but I have to admit that hasnt been nearly as true of Shroud as Id expected. Each update has added in a list of new game mechanics and objects for backers to interact with, and not even this update can really be called disappointing.
The folks at Portaliarium continue to crank out content seemingly at odds with their relatively small team. According the schedule posted by Starr, next months patch should dwarf even this one in content and include things like the magic and combat skills Im salivating to see, an updated AI, and the first crack at a death system. This update is no different from any so far, though. In fact, it may be even more worth the time to check out than previous ones, and waiting for the next might be too much of a shock on to your system. So dont die a twitching death, check out this coming release of Shroud of the Avatar, which should be available 27-30 March.
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