Shroud Of The Avatar – First Impressions

The time has come to play Shroud Of The Avatar at last, the first new Lord British game I’ll have played since Ultima 9 back in 1999. There haven’t exactly been many others to choose from in the intervening 20 years and none whatsoever offering a single player experience. Around a quarter of that time been spent building up to Shroud and in my case the excitement of the Kickstarter wore off some years back if I’m honest. I’ve deliberately not followed the development whatsoever so I could play the game without any foreknowledge but I’ve certainly heard enough negativity to be apprehensive now it comes round to actually playing it.

In truth, I’ve never been overly optimistic about Shroud from the beginning. The obvious concern was the fact that Richard hadn’t produced a truly successful single player game since Ultima 7 way back in the early 90’s or any single player game at all since the late 90’s. Developing games is clearly going to be a different beast these days and we’ve seen plenty of other developers from that era flounder with far less ambitious titles.

Speaking of which, the joint online/single player experience seemed wildly ambitious for the budget. In terms of the games actually produced by 90’s era developers via Kickstarter, the ones I’ve enjoyed the most have been those that have been unashamedly retro in their nature. Games like Thimbleweed Park prove how successful that can be. I also loved Tesla Effect, a game which was pure fan service and being one of those fans I was all for this. I would have been perfectly fine if Shroud had used Ultima 7-like technology so the major effort could go into the story, dialog and world.

My first view of what was at the time being bandied about as “Ultimate-RPG” was during my trip to Austin some years back where I was fortunate enough to get a look around the Portalarium offices. This was before Shroud was announced and Portalarium were building up to their big RPG game via several smaller releases. The way I remember it at the time, Richard said he was keen to do something away from the fantasy genre having spent years with Ultima and there was indeed an array of sci-fi concept art for the game on the the wall of the meeting room. I was definitely surprised when about 8 months later Shroud was announced as it was a major departure from what had been in the offing some months back.

While there was always going to be a cloth map, Richard had been adamant months prior about not producing a boxed version since no one wanted them any more. Being partial to a big box myself, I argued the case with him but wasn’t swaying his opinion. Ultimately we did get a big box so something clearly changed his mind, with a cloth map and physical manuals including a look back at one of his old notebooks. It’s a really nice package and whatever people may think of the game, at least the packaging is appropriate. So many Kickstarters have failed to deliver on physical rewards that I’m reluctant to back many of them any more. The aforementioned Tesla Effect is a prime example.

As for what it’s like to play Shroud, I’m about 8 hours in which is far enough to offer a first opinion at least. To be blunt, I’m not enjoying it all that much, to the extent that I’m questioning whether it’s worth sticking with. I’m not going to say that it’s terrible, rather the experience has been insipid and uninspiring. Playing the single player offline mode, it reminds me a lot of Ultima 9 minus the excellent dungeons, music and detailed world. It’s not all bad, the world is certainly large enough from what I’ve seen and the graphics while dated can still make an impression at some of the more sweeping vistas. I’ve “borrowed” a couple of screenshots from the Shroud forums – the game certainly isn’t as ugly as some people would have you believe.

I would say is that the world has been much less interesting to explore than Ultima 9 with no real rewards for searching around the map and lots of empty spaces. The trappings of this being an online game are readily evident playing in offline mode. Rows of giant empty houses with for sale signs fill up every town. Every time I return to a map, the same monsters are in the same locations and you can even see them pop into existence again in these spots if you wait around for a while.

The storyline and dialog is probably what is holding me back from enjoying Shroud more than anything else. The dialog system is basically a combination of Ultima 4 and 6 with selectable keywords but also the option to type in anything you like. This is a decent enough choice even if the presentation here is sub-U6 given the lack of character portraits. The trouble is most of these characters have no character. Every NPC will spout reams of similar dialog, precious little of which holds any interest. The quests they will give you are the usual fetch this, kill that fare. The people you met in Ultima games were usually bursting with personality but it’s simply not been the case here. The game world appears to be far too large for it’s own good, given the size of the team working on this.

I’m less than clear on where the overall plot is heading. It hasn’t gone much beyond a load of apparently evil elves attacking everyone else for no clear reason and I’m supposed to fix it all somehow. I’ve spent the majority of my time simply building up lists of quests and then heading to the arrows on my map to complete them. This is exactly the sort of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen in Shroud the way I recall. Said quests are frequently bugged and I’ve been unable to complete several of them having fetched whatever item someone wants and then being unable to give it to them.

I’m not giving up on it yet. There are hints of Ultima particularly in the shape of an Oracle that I’ve talked to a couple of times who will tell me how I’m doing in terms of virtue. I can’t say I’ve seen many chances to obviously affect these values yet and imagine it will be expanded upon later. I do get the impression that there is depth to the world but that it’s not being presented to the player particularly well. Maybe going in cold wasn’t the best idea after all but I’ll be persevering in the hopes that Shroud will grow on me eventually. It has to be said that were it anyone else’s game, I probably would have given up by now but I’ll put in some more hours before I offer a full opinion.

Getting Started With A Mac

There has been a glaring Apple Macintosh shaped hole in my collection for years now. I’ve always been put off taking the plunge by the ever dwindling amount of space, coupled with my complete lack of knowledge of everything Macintosh. The latest Ebay voucher proved too tempting though so I’m starting the new year with a new toy, an Apple iBook G3.

This thing would have cost around $1500 back in 2001 (price being a large factor in my Apple dislike), but to be fair it’s holding up remarkably well after all these years so maybe that price tag was somewhat justified. With a clock speed of 500 Mhz, it’s a bit more modern than I strictly needed but the price was right. This particular model has a bonus in the form of 2 USB ports, the plan here being that I won’t have to track down ADB joysticks, mice, etc and can instead plug in hardware I already have.

The first games I wanted to get working were of course Macintosh specific Origin titles in the shape of Super Wing Commander (otherwise only available on the 3DO), and Lairware’s extremely nice looking Ultima 3 port which I’ve wanted to try ever since first seeing screenshots of it a decade or two back. Before I have a proper look at either of them, I thought I’d do a short post on what was involved in getting the machine set up.

First off, you’ll need somewhere to download the software from. There are several sites to choose from and I went with http://macintoshrepository.org for no particular reason other than topping the list in Google. The first job was downgrading my Macintosh operating system. The sweet spot for running old games appears to be MAC OS 9, this laptop came with 10 installed but would have originally run OS9 when new. I downloaded 9.2.1, burned it to a CD which you have to boot to and then install everything to the hard disk. The process is quick and simple – installation takes about 5-10 minutes. I did originally try OS9.1 but it refused to boot up and apparently didn’t support my particular hardware (predating it slightly).

I started with Super Wing Commander which was absolutely flying by at entirely uncontrollable speeds when first installed. I was wondering if I’d bought the wrong machine at this point. I tried various slow down tools with some degree of success but in the end, I’m not using any of them. When first installing the game from CD, you are given a menu of options one of which includes whether to use Apple Quickdraw for displaying the graphics. When selecting the slowest, most compatible option the game ran straight out of the box at the right speed, no CPU throttling required.

Getting it working with a joystick was trickier. I’ve got an old Saitek X52 Pro which wasn’t working in the game without the addition of a tool called “USB Overdrive”. Once installed, this allows you to map controls to the joystick axis and assign keyboard presses to the buttons. It’s clunky but appears to work correctly once you go through mapping everything. My only real complaint with the 3DO version of the game was that it didn’t have true analog controls, instead having a small number of movement bands as preset speeds. I was hoping this wouldn’t be replicated on the Macintosh but unfortunately it appears that it is. The game is running well at 640×480 resolution anyway and I’m looking forward to revisiting it.

If Ultima is more your bag, then I can happily say that Lairware Ultima 3 ran correctly without any tinkering being required. It was a similar story for Wing Commander 3 and 4 which might actually run a little smoother than their PC equivalents. Super Wing Commander has proved to be the exception rather than the rule with just about everything else I’ve thrown at this running straight off the bat.

That’s basically all there was to it. I’ve done a couple of these fixing up old machines posts before now but this has to be the shortest. The Mac is modern enough to make life simple so maybe all those Apple fans did know something after all. The battery on my laptop is all but useless after all these years – a replacement on Ebay was all of £10 so that is already in the post. The Mac also uses a proprietary port for a monitor connection and would originally have come with a VGA cable to convert it into something people couple actually use. I’ve got my eye on an auction for a cable that I think will work but Apple being Apple, they have used a whole range of proprietary display connectors over the years so I won’t know for sure until I try it.

A regular PC USB Keyboard/Mouse will indeed just plug straight in and work without any grief. I’ll look at hooking this up to a CRT with a proper keyboard and mouse when I have the required cable. Even without that I can see myself using this a ton as a portable gaming rig when I get the battery sorted out. A lot of my old DOS and Win 95/98 favourites made it onto the Macintosh and I’m really curious to have a look at some of them again in this format.

A number of DOS games were improved for this platform. For instance, I tried Dark Forces which runs in 640×480 here on the Mac and Prince of Persia has spruced up cartoon graphics. It isn’t all good though. I have a number of games on dual format Windows/Mac CD’s. One of these is the excellent adventure game The Dark Eye which was always a little tricky to run on PC. That is actually worse here as it apparently won’t run correctly on anything except System 7. I expect some of the really early Mac games may cause problems also but for the most part everything I’ve tried has run fine without any tinkering being required.

It’s early days but using a Mac for the first time has been something of a revelation. Setting this up was way, way easier than an equivalent Windows 98/DOS dual boot machine and copying software to it a piece of cake using either burned CD’s or a USB stick. Given that 486’s and Pentiums are reaching a point (in the UK at least) where the price of entry is getting fairly stupid, a Macintosh may actually be a good route of entry to gaming of this era. It can cover both DOS and the Windows era and G3’s are readily available at very low prices. Of course, plenty of games didn’t make it over to the Mac so it’s not perfect but there are some exclusives to the platform making up for it. The bottom line is I should have bought one of these years back. I’ll be taking a proper look at all the Mac ports of Origin games in due course so expect some playthroughs on here sooner or later. It’s about time I gave Shroud Of The Avatar a go however so that may be first.

Microprose’s Origin Advertisements

I recently stumbled across an advert for Chris Roberts’ Times Of Lore which apparently has a certain notoriety for being terrible but I’d never run into it before. Without further ado:-

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It’s main claim to fame is the hero being so jacked that he’s invented some of his own muscle groups around that loin cloth. That and the understandably surprised looking monster… While the background looks a whole lot like the actual cover art, it has in fact all been redrawn when you compare it to the real thing.

This advert was apparently created by Microprose while they were the UK publisher for Origin games and was used in all of their UK magazine advertising at the time. Microprose only had a few years working with Origin but it got me wondering if there were any others with alternative artwork. I didn’t find many but there was this advert for Moebius:-

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It’s a whole lot better than the Times Of Lore cover and certainly more action packed than the original artwork. In this case, it was also used on the UK release of the game shown on the right below:-

Saving my favourite for last, I also found this awesome ad for Auto Duel:-

The actual UK release looked near enough the same as the USA one but I reckon I actually would have preferred this as the cover art. Were there any others that I’ve missed? Please let me know if so.

23 More PC Zone Scans!

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I got offered a hand scanning PC Zones some months back and thanks to the efforts of Chris Gilbert I’ve just added a bumper crop of them with issues 124, 125, 127-131, 133-137, 141, 146-148 and 150-156. He’s sacrificed his copies so that they could be fed through a page-feeder leaving me just to add the 4 pages either side of the covers and pdf everything.

As for myself, I’ve been slowly working at the late 2000’s issues in recent weeks and between the two of us that’s 143 out of 225 issues now done. I wouldn’t say the end is in sight but it’s looking a whole lot more achievable than this time last year. What I haven’t done is add any of the cover disks or supplements for all these new issues. I’ll have a look at these eventually. For now, all the issues are as ever at http://www.pixsoriginadventures.co.uk/PCZone

System Shock Preview – PC Zone

I’ve added some 2010 PC Zone’s to the scan archive over recent weeks and also managed to get hold of issue 16 from July 1994. The full magazine is now scanned and uploaded but I had to share another Origin game preview from it’s pages here. The reviewer was clearly looking forward to the final game – I’ve still got the review itself to upload on here and will probably get around to that one next week.

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