In the world of Massively-Multiplayer Online RPGs, two titles have risen to the top of this ever-expanding new genre of gaming. The number one position is held by Everquest, whose propensity for addicting her players has resulted in a dedicated cult following. Before Everquest, however, the genre was pioneered by Origin System's Ultima Online, originally released back in 1997. Since then, it has spawned several expansions, including The Second Age, Renaissance, and Third Dawn, the latest installment. But the real question is, has the game improved at all over the past four years? I would propose that it has not.
My initial impression of Ultima Online, back at its launch so long ago, was one of incredible disappointment. I had been remarkably excited for its impending release, even without having played any of the other titles in its series, and yet was let down completely. This experience was relived when I heard about Third Dawn.
Third Dawn was widely reported to feature beautiful, detailed 3D graphics, and eliminate much of the lag that hindered its playability. It sounded too good to be true, which I immediately discovered upon purchasing the game and placing the disc in my computer's CD-ROM. After installation, it appeared that the game was *completely* unplayable on my system. The lag was so great that it took my character over 30 seconds to move a single step in the world. Frustration and bewilderment brought me back to look for the system specs on the box. This is what I discovered:
- Pentium II 350 MHz
- 128 MB RAM
- 750 MB Hard Drive Space
- 16 MB 3D Graphics Card
- 4X CD-ROM Drive
- 56.6 kbps Internet Connection
- Pentium II 600 MHz
- 128 MB RAM
- 27 GB Hard Drive Space
- Voodoo 3500 Graphics Card
- 50X DVD-ROM Drive
- 56.6 kbps Internet Connection
Although my system more than surpassed the requirements stated on the box, the game was still unplayable. What's more, in order to truly take advantage of the new offerings Third Dawn brings, an incredibly powerful Pentium III system and a DSL connection are required as a minimum.
Thankfully, Third Dawn also comes with Ultima Online Renaissance, the previous expansion pack released by Origin. With no other alternative, Renaissance was installed, and I began to play the game sans 3D upgrades and impressive new areas. Perhaps the classic 2D gameplay would suffice.
The key element of Ultima Online's gameplay is its non-linearity. From the very beginning, the player is allowed to select one of over a dozen different "shards," or servers located across the world to play on. Each shard is capable of holding up to five characters of your creation. This character creation allows you to customize the appearance of your online entity, set his or her initial Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity values, and allocate points to three out of fifty or so character Skills. Your decisions at this point are critical in the shaping of your character's career.
Almost every skill in Ultima Online is complemented by a corresponding career your character can specialize in. If being an Adventurer is your style, various Warrior professions can include Swordsmen, Fencers, Mace-Fighters, Archers, Sorcerers, Battle-Mages, and many more. For the more passive player who would rather play a key role in maintaining the world's economy, standard professions are also available, like a Lumberjack, Animal Tamer, Tailor, Blacksmith, Miner, or Scholar are also available.
In developing your character's career, the player must practice the skills that correspond with his selection. As a Swordsman, for example, key skills would include Swordsmanship, Parrying, Anatomy, and Tactics. These skills will rise when practiced in battle. Starting out at zero, they may grow up to a potential 100 percent, at which point the character is considered to be a "Grandmaster" in that particular field. However, a character can only reach Grandmaster status in seven fields (out of around 50), so most other expendable skills often begin to atrophy as a result of such specialization.
The development of your character is the core of Ultima Online's gameplay. Your primary mission is to make your online personas as strong and prosperous as they can be by building skill levels until they reach Grandmaster status. This is an incredibly slow, tedious, and painstaking process. Becoming a Grandmaster Bard, for example, may require that you double-click a Harp or Drum in your inventory bag over one thousand times to build the proper skills up. Not really my idea of fun. The wealthy are able to purchase themselves houses and ships through the game's property system, symbols of social status and affluence that also become useful for storage and travel purposes.
Aside from such character growth, however, there is much more depth to Ultima Online's universe. Each character also has ratings known as Karma and Fame, which increase or decrease if the actions he performs are generally good (helping other players and slaying enemies), or generally evil (being a PK, assisting the enemies, or disrupting any other part of the gameplay). These ratings result in titles, ranging from the Noble Shiguma or Glorious Lord Shiguma, to the Scoundrel Shiguma or Dread Lord Shiguma. Players of specific a affiliation, through this system, tend to stick together and form factions, and two such guilds can often spark conflict and result in major wars on a specific shard.
These wars, or any other event that occurs in Ultima Online, take place in a world that is truly huge. Britannia is an incredibly vast continent that would probably take a player over five hours of playtime to run from one end to the other. It features over half a dozen towns and eight dungeons to visit. While the dungeons generally have a very nice atmosphere and are quite challenging, the point of going to them is basically moot, aside from walking around randomly to fight enemies and build skill points. There really is no incentive to conquer these areas.
Movement in UO's world is also greatly hindered by its sub-par control. Your character moves in the general direction that you click with the right mouse button, but it is often imprecise and dangerous when carefully navigating between fire pits in the dungeon Covetous. Origin implemented a system known as "Pathfinding" where if you double click your mouse button on a certain spot, the character will find and take the quickest and most direct route to that location. Pathfinding is completely inefficient most of the time, however, and seldom works as well as you would like it to.
Most devastating to Ultima Online, however, is its musical compositions. The music in the world of Britannia is enough for its citizens to plug their ears and assume the fetal position. Most players of UO turn their music off for two main reasons. The first and most important is that it actually contributes to lag. Secondly, the compositions themselves are horrible. The game's entire score consists of around six barely adequate midi files that anyone with even a grain of musical taste would be sick of within one hour of their repetition. UO is a complete disappointment in this area.
The game redeems itself somewhat in an aesthetic sense, however. Ultima Online Renaissance's graphics are a very plain, yet refreshing 2D from a top-down view. Nothing is particularly special about them, but they are decently constructed sprites in a mainly pastel world.
If the $9.99 fee to play online each month isn't enough to discourage you from entering the world of Britannia, the repetitive and tiresome gameplay definitely should. The interaction and camaraderie experienced in cooperating with thousands of players across the United States is undeniably great, as is the extreme non-linearity and customization that is possible for your online entity. Still, Ultima Online remains a decent, but ultimately unrefined and unsatisfying gaming adventure. Save your money and hope the next release improves on these flaws in a potentially excellent game.