The final installment of the much-acclaimed Ultima series of games, frankly, just didn't measure up to its predecessors. After the overwhelming disappointment of Ultima 8: Pagan, a game which was dubbed "Super Avatar Brothers" by some, everyone hoped that Origin could do a much better job on its sequel. Unfortunately, about four years later, the grossly incomplete Ultima 9: Ascension was unleashed upon the world. In its initial state, the game was literally months away from being playable by almost anyone, but it was pushed out the doors in time for Christmas.
I'll be honest with you, I had wanted to play this game since the moment I learned of its existence. The games in the Ultima series, sans Ultima 8, have always been excellent, well made, high quality, and overall fun games. Frankly, even Ultima 8 had its moments. Perhaps it was that fanaticism that pushed me to be one of the people to actually muddle their way though the endless stream of crashes, glitches, freezes, slow-downs, and various other annoyances that are a constant plague within Ultima 9.
In Ultima 9, you play the Avatar, a man from our world who long ago found his way to the magical world of Britannia and managed to save it on numerous occasions. You are woken up by a voice of an old friend who tells you that you must return to Britannia and save it from a plague of corruption that has thrown the world into disarray and made the eight sacred virtues of Britannia, formerly cornerstones of Britannia society, in some cases be corrupted, and in others down right disregarded. You then progress through two tutorial levels during which you learn how to use the controls and other basic functions in the game as well as choose the class of character you will be when you enter Britannia.
After the tutorial, you appear in Castle British, the home of Lord British, the long time ruler of Britannia, who fills you in on the situation plaguing his land. From there, you can explore the castle and the town of Britain situated outside of the castle, and from there, the rest of Britannia.
The control in this game is somewhat confusing and difficult to use at times. Given the large number of controls and shortcuts found in the game, I'll only go into some of the basic ones here. You walk around by pointing your character in the right direction by moving the mouse and holding the right mouse key. To jump, you maneuver the target cursor above your character onto the point you want to jump to and hit the space bar. To climb up onto something, you must walk up in front of it, face the thing you wish to climb up on, and hit the C key.
You open your journal, the place where you can save the game as well as where important events are automatically written down, by pressing the J key. Almost any item or spell can be placed on your tool belt, a special set of shortcuts that are quite useful in the game. To use the items in your tool belt, you hit F1-F12, depending on which one you wish to use. Spells on your tool belt that require you choosing a target, the target cursor will turn blue and you must choose your target and click in order to use the spell.
You enter and exit combat using the tab key and then left clicking when you are within range of the target and ready to attack with your weapon. Each time you want to swing or otherwise use the weapon, you must left click while in combat mode. Throughout the game, you can get special, more powerful attacks from trainers for the various types of weapons. Holding ctrl, alt, or ctrl-alt and left clicking execute these special attacks once you learn them.
You can open your spell book by hitting the S key. There are 9 "circles" of magic, the first of which is called linier magic, which are basically utility spells you are given by default when you receive your spell book. The 9 circles are mostly attack type magic and each successive level of magic is more powerful than the last. You cannot initially use any magic except for linier, but as you cleanse each shrine in the game, you are allowed to bind each successive circle of spells to your book.
To execute spells in circles higher than the linier circle requires mana, which is the blue colored bar at the bottom of the screen. The red colored bar at the bottom of the screen is your hit points. If you run out of hit points, you die and must restart the game from the last point at which you saved. You can save anywhere, so that isn't as big a deal as it sounds if you save often enough. Although with the amount of times the game will crash on you, dieing is often the last of your worries. In any event, it is very important to save often in this game.
Perhaps the only redeeming quality of this game is the graphics. While I'd be the first to say that there's quite a bit more to an RPG than its graphics, even I have to say that the eye candy in Ultima 9 just kicked ass. They are, by far, some of the most beautiful graphics of any game I've ever played. From the medieval looking Britain, to the tree bound city of Yew, to the crystalline dome-enclosed Ambrosia, there is a huge array of beautiful landscapes and unique architecture.
Unfortunately, the game has a nasty habit of crashing at inappropriate moments, making it quite difficult to look at the pretty scenery. The other unfortunate thing is that such a huge amount of eye-candy can bog down even the most advanced 3D cards and turn the game into a choppy, annoying mess.
The sound in the game is inconsistent in quality. Far too many of the sound effects sound like they were ripped right out of Ultima Online. The huge amount of voice-overs does get on my nerves from time to time, but are on the whole fairly good. The music was also fairly good. However, with the amount of time it takes to beat this game, the music in the game tends to become stale.
There are various reasons this game took so long to come out after the last Ultima game. Back when they were part of the way through making the first version of the game, as I understand it, the entire Ultima 9 development team was pulled from that project in order to work on Ultima Online. By the time Origin returned to work on Ultima 9, 3D acceleration technology had progressed quite a bit and their original version of the game, in their opinion, wouldn't cut it by the time they were finished and released. They restarted the project, retooled the story, and began working on the version that was released. In doing so, they left out some things they had planned to do in the game, including allowing you to play as other characters, such as Raven, Shamino, or even Lord British, for portions of the game. I once read a synopsis of the original story line on a web site, and to be perfectly honest, I preferred that version of the story than that which was released in Ultima 9.
In the end, the Ultima series seemed to end less with a bang and more with a whimper, followed by several choice four letter words, tied together by the sound of someone banging their head on their computer desk. It is kind of depressing to think after about four years of work that we ended up with this buggy, aggravating mess. I honestly think that if they hadn't repeated the same mistake they made with Ultima 8 and released it several months too early, they might have had one hell of a game on their hands, but such is life.
There were two versions of Ultima 9 released, the standard edition and the Dragon edition, named for the Internet based organization of Ultima fans, the Ultima Dragons Internet Chapter (UDIC). The Dragon edition included several special extras the standard edition didn't, but due to the game's horrible condition on released, what should have been a hard to find collector's item turned into, what has been referred to as the "big box we can't seem to sell."
After the initial release, I heard reports that many stores were sending the Dragon editions back to their suppliers because nobody would buy it. It's a shame that such a great series ended with two lemons in a row, but if for no other reason, this game is worth playing just to see the Avatar's ultimate destiny first hand. I give this game an overall rating of 70%, although I am undoubtedly be generous in doing so.