I've been watching the development of SotA for some time. As usual with any new MMO these days, I was prepared to be disappointed. When I saw the way it was being funded, frankly it annoyed me. A game is not a charity. Why is it being funded like a charity? Doesn't Richard Garriott still have some juice in the industry? Can't he get some proper corporate backing? So let's deal with all that for a start. First, what exactly does Richard Garriott do well as a producer? His last attempt at an MMO, Tabula Rasa, was a disaster. In fact I'd argue that Lord British makes craptastic MMO's - at least as we know them. I've had two magical moments in my life as a gamer, two moments that I will never forget. The first was the first time I played AD&D, way back in the late '70's, and the second was the first time I entered the world of Sosaria, in December of 1997. Which brings us back to what it is that Richard Garriott does well. Does anyone remember what the original OSI motto was? "We build worlds." With the Ultima series that is exactly what Richard Garriott did. His games were more than just games, they were a place you could live an alternate life. I would argue that Ultima Online, even though it was the first commercially successful Western MMO, isn't, and never was, an MMO as we have come to know them. Ultima Online is a world; a universe unto itself. You can call it a "sandbox" if you like labels, but it is, I think, more than even that. And as I see it, that is what Garriott is once again trying to do with Shroud of the Avatar. So how good is it? I guess that's what a review is supposed to be all about. How many stars out of five is it worth? At this point, honestly, it's hard to say. The game is still labelled "pre-alpha". All that is there right now is a skeleton. A lot of the systems have yet to be developed. While a lot of the artwork is pretty impressive, there is still a boatload of detail work and polishing to do. Which leads us to the way it is being funded. Your typical MMO these days costs almost as much as a big budget Hollywood blockbuster to develop. And every MMO is a huge gamble, just as films are. It's hard to pin down the exact costs involved in developing a true MMO, but estimates run everywhere from 50 to 200 million US dollars. So far Portalarium, the studio developing the game has raised less than 5 million in development funds. So does SotA even have a chance? Well, I'd say yes. I think Richard Garriott and his team are trying to show that you can spend a lot less on developing an MMO, and end up with a better product, with better long term prospects, if you build a community and get that community to invest in that MMO - in time and effort, and in dollars and cents - ok, just dollars, and lots of them. One of the clever things Portalarium has done has to do with housing. Myself, I like in game items to be earned in game. But we all know that probably all of the castles in Ultima Online, and most of the keeps, have been sold at one time or another for real life $$. We're talking thousands of dollars in many cases. All moneys of which the developers never saw a cent, farthing or peseta. But with SotA, if you "pledge" a ridiculous amount of money, it comes with a house or a manor, in fact you can even buy your own player town. So while this whole "pledge" thing has annoyed me, what Portalarium is doing is getting it's cut of the player market right from the start, and it's hard to argue with that. So is the game any good? Well honestly, as already stated, this is a pre-alpha, and it's a little hard to tell what the final product is going to look like. But what is there so far looks good. The game systems framework seems to be intelligent and have a lot of depth, and if you are into that sort of thing, a good fictional foundation as well. Which brings us to the PvP. The combat system in SotA is, in my opinion, flat out the most original, interesting, and fun system to come along since, well Magic the Gathering. Yes, you did read that correctly - Magic the Gathering. Combat is based on selecting your skills, and building a deck of cards out of them. When you select a skill multiple times you don't gain in any "level", you gain another card to put in your deck of twenty, up to a maximum of five for each skill. When you enter combat your "hand" appears at the bottom of your screen, and you can select the actions as they are dealt to you, or ignore them until they go away. This system is clever on so many levels. For one thing, it's a system that will translate well cross platform. It works on PC's and it will work on tablets and phones as well - genius really. If you are a old school gaming grognard, and you like "realism" in your game, it works on that level as well, because combat is always a game of opportunity, and you have to play the hand that is dealt you if you are to be successful. But of course, the final and most important question is, IS IT FUN? So far, in my limited experience, the answer is, "Hell yeah!" It is fast, furious, strategic and tactical all at the same time. It really is an amazing combination of intelligent traditional MMO combat, and classic card game combat. It is addictive, and it just works. So I'll just close with a few thoughts. Is Shroud of the Avatar Ultima Online 2? Is it the game that is finally going to put the last nail in the coffin of the game so many of us have loved for so long? To answer the first question, there is no doubt that SotA is the spiritual successor of UO, and most definitely a Richard Garriott game - good things in my opinion. As for the second question, I think the answer is, "Probably not." Ultima Online has seen many games come and go. Far all it's flaws and the moaning and pancakes of thousands of trolls over the years, it has proven to be a stubborn survivor, a game that gets under your skin and doesn't let go. I don't think SotA is going to kill UO. I think both can survive and thrive. I think there is room in the market for both, because both are utterly unique. There are dozens of Everquest/WoW clones out there, but there is only one Ultima Online, and I think there will only be one Shroud of the Avatar. And if I have my wish, twenty years from now I will still be playing both.