Shroud of the Avatar: The “Ultimate” Ultima, Pre-Alpha Impressions
Come one come all! To the world of Ultima! That’s right: Ultima. One of the greatest, if not the greatest RPG series of all time. Created by none other than space faring, gold jewellery wearing, eccentric superman “Lord British” himself. Or as he’s called in real life: “Richard Garriott.” For God sake! This man went to S-P-A-C-E! AND he designs video games! How awesome is that? After all, in Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress, your entire goal was to eventually blast into space at the end of the game. Talk about foreshadowing…
But back to video games, Richard Garriott’s work has included a total of nine single player Ultima games starting with Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness in 1981, and ending with Ultima IX: Ascension in 1999. And let’s of course not forget Ultima Online, you know, the first real Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game ever made (and still going strong). Richard Garriott created the MMO genre too? What can’t this guy do…
Well, he did have his failures. The vast majority of his Ultima games were top notch and boundary pushing for their respective times. But there were a few that were shall we say, “meh” (and we’ll just blame Electronic Arts purchase of Origin systems in 1992 for this). These two were Ultima VIII and IX. Electronic Arts meddling ensured that they were destined for mediocrity. Despite this however, both games still managed to push the envelope in regards to graphics and sound design as well as taxing your PC beyond logical reason.
But we aren’t here to talk about the bad Ultima games. We are here to talk specifically about Ultima VII: The Black Gate and Ultima VII part Two: Serpent Isle, and how they compare to Richard Garriotts newest game: “Shroud of the Avatar.” But why Ultima VII? Well it’s simple really, the Ultima VII’s were the pinnacle of the Ultima series. And quite frankly, the pinnacle of ALL RPG’s as far as these writers are concerned. They represented an interactive RPG world like no other that’s ever been created. They also demonstrated such a quantum leap forward in terms of story telling and gameplay that they haven’t been matched even today (or even by their sequels). Skyrim? Bah, I say ULTIMA!
So with that in mind, two of our Storming the Castle writers Zack Smith and Paul Potvin (who also both happen to be Ultima fanatics, Paul even covered Ultima IV: The Quest for the Avatar previously here on 1MC) were fortunate enough to take part in the very first, 48 hour pre-Alpha run of Shroud of the Avatar. This article, and most likely series of articles, will document our progress through the Alpha and Beta runs of this “spiritual successor” to the Ultima series. We will give our thoughts and impressions of this game and how it compares to those Ultima games that came before it, specifically, the Ultima VII’s.
But wait! This article is about a new game! So new in fact that it isn’t even being released until sometime next year! So why does it belong on a retro themed website like 1 More Castle? Well, look at it this way: without the Ultima games you very likely wouldn’t have Final Fantasy and pretty much every other major RPG series in existence. If you go down the line, they have all been influenced in one way or another by Ultima. If that isn’t considered retro-cred then I don’t know what is. So let’s get started shall we:
For me, when I think of Ultima, the above screenshot nearly always comes to mind. It’s just breathtakingly brutal and also just so happens to be the opening sequence of Ultima VII: The Black Gate. It sums up what Ultima is in a nutshell: Fantasy, medieval, violence, gore, death, story, immersion. You can gather all of those things just by looking at that shot. The torn and utterly disembowelled body of the Blacksmith Christopher greets you with more questions than answers. Making you want to learn more about this merciless world. It’s a bloody and callous scene that sets the dark and somewhat bleak tone of Ultima VII.
Look around though and you’ll notice something; nearly everything in the game can be manipulated or used in some way. See that book in far left side of the screen shot? Pick it up. Open it. There is text inside to read. Sometimes tens of pages! See that pitch fork? How about those pliers lying on the table? They both too can be used. Nearly every item in this incredible game can be interacted with. It was this kind of complete and utter immersion that immediately drew me to the Ultima series, particularly Ultima’s VI and VII. I had never played anything like it before or since. That is I’m hoping, until now.
When Richard Garriot went to Kickstarter earlier this year and asked fans for a million dollars to fund his new Ultima “Spiritual Successor” (EA of course owns the rights to the name and decided to make this micro-transaction laden pay-to-win piece of shit: Ultima Forever) he got nearly double what he was asking for. Plus another $950,000 on the Shroud of the Avatar official website. Clearly there was a demand for another true to its roots Ultima game. And so we enter Shroud of the Avatar.
After a hefty download and a litany of patches, I was finally able to enter the world of Britannia once again, granted, in pre-Alpha form. The world that stood before me while unfinished, felt familiar. Like an old pair of shoes that hadn’t’t been worn in ages. As I traversed the landscape I became engrossed in my surroundings. Looking for any type of relic I could find that would remind me that this is an Ultima game. And there were many that I managed to find.
I was initially dropped outside of town in a field-like area with a few houses. Most of them were devoid of life and detail. This was initially disappointing. Could I be let down so soon? But on the horizon I glimpsed a massive blue “electrified” looking ball, a mage tower of some sort? I decided to head in that direction. Once through the town gate I found what I was looking for. A city, filled with breathtaking medieval views, citizens galore, and houses with actual furnishings inside. And that’s another thing about Ultima you should know, every building has something inside. There are no placeholders in this world. One of the houses that I walked into had a chest with armor and weapons inside. All of which I tried on and giggled with glee as my Avatar changed appearance to fit his new look. Just like in Ultima VII. Also similar to Ultima VII, each item is exactly what you would expect: an actual item, which you can pick up and put into a bag, or a chest, or a drawer. This mechanic creates a completely interactive experience. Put an item into your bag and it goes into a pile with everything else, just like it would in real life. To some this may seem like a jarring and clunky interface but to me, it was home. Give me immersion any day over simplicity and I’ll take it.
As night began to fall in Britannia I began to wonder at the seemingly infinite possibilities this game may hold. It was a complete and total nostalgia trip for me. It was almost like I was playing a 3D Ultima VII. This isn’t to say the game doesn’t need a lot of work though. I couldn’t seem to strike up a real conversation with an NPC and items didn’t want to place anywhere but in my bag. And the graphics were obviously not completely polished yet. But the potential was there. This was after all, a pre-Alpha test. Mostly to test server loads and for players to bug report. But the simple fact that the game really made me feel like I was in the world of Ultima once again was enough to make me jump for joy. I can see the game already taking shape and can’t wait to see what’s in store next.
To start, the last Ultima I seriously played, start to finish, was Ultima VIII. Even with a guide book it was a chore to finish (Jumping in Ultima? Sacrilege!). I skipped Ultima IX, partly due to my personal economics at the time, partly because my computer wasn’t strong enough to run it. After hearing how bad it was, I stayed away. Later, I dabbled in Ultima Online. ‘Dabble’ as in I had an account, but rarely played. So for me, Ultima was always a single player game, played with a friend or family member reading one of the many companion handbooks or watching the twin moons of Britannia so we could time the Moongate travel just right. I was disheartened when EA effectively killed Origin soon afterwards (and then named their God awful digital distribution system after it! Ugh!) I always hoped something new and ‘real’ would rise from the ashes.
In the past few years I became a casual World of Warcraft player with a few characters, none maxed out (but I can make sweet helicopters with my engineering skill). I constantly complained to my fiance’ that Ultima could have evolved nicely if the world looked something like WoW. Alas, it was never to be, until now. When I saw that Richard Garriott was working on a ‘new’ Ultima, err SHROUD OF THE AVATAR, I instantly joined the Kickstarter. Finally, after several months of waiting and reading, the Alpha was released! Some disconnected thoughts and musings about it follow:
After installing a rather large file, I started the game and made a character. Choices of male or female, a hair style, and skin color awaited me. Not much to say here. But…. THAT MUSIC! It’s not Stones, but more like Stones cousin. I think David “Iolo” Watson composed this as well. It plays throughout this Alpha build. As much as I hate to say “like WoW”, it did feel like it, with the defacto WASD keys + mouse for movement and camera operation. That’s ok, as it’s comfortable. The first thing I tried was clicking the backpack up top in the menu bar. I was rewarded with inventory the way it was meant to be done. Not a list, not a table with icons, but honest to goodness, stuff scattered all about a virtual backpack. Any fan of Ultima VII or later releases will say ‘this feels right’.
As far as the graphics go, I can best describe the appearance of everything thus far as ‘vibrant’. If it stays like this, I’ll be happy. Sometimes games often tone down colors to make everything look dirty and ‘real’, but SotA looks inviting, and not so damn dingy like every other RPG lately.
Wandering around this small town revealed a windmill and several types of houses and buildings. Clicking on doors opens them. Ever notice most games have them always open? You can climb stairs and easily fall off, but this was mentioned as an Alpha flaw. I can’t swim or fall off cliffs (and die), but I’m assuming that’ll change. Some treasure chests placed all around the town were loaded with random game objects. I found another sword and a blue tunic in one, and they displayed on my character nicely. I went to take a bathroom break after this, and I noticed…
Wait long enough, and time passes! Night time. Like, almost pitch black. Nice! Some guards hang around the bridges and gates for the town, and they are TRULY interactive. As in, you can click them, and a prompt appears. Type your own talk to them such as: “Name” or “Job”, like the Ultima’s of old, not a predetermined list of chat or funny one liners like a typical NPC. I’m hoping there will be some good puzzles and quests that need to be figured out by speaking to people around this world, rather than an arrow pointing to 10 boars that need to be killed. Speaking of creatures, I did see a deer and some sheep, but they could not be killed, ridden, or spoken to. For an Alpha build they looked pretty nice. So does the main player character, for that matter. He can only run at one speed, but it looks fluid. I look forward to seeing how this improves with each Alpha.
My final thought on this Alpha is that I think the next major release involves crafting, and if there’s one thing I love in WoW, it’s making stuff. I get yelled at by my fiance for spending more time making goggles then questing. We all have our role to play in the world, right? As of now, I’m happy with the sizable Kickstarter seed money I spent, and this brave adventurer looks forward to seeing the newest lands of Lord British.