One of the oldest of RPG series on the planet, Richard Garriot’s Ultima was also one of the most popular around. With numerous sequels and spinoffs across multiple platforms, Origin Systems Incorporated (from here on out referred to as OSI) eventually moved the series into the online world back in 1997 with Ultima Online. Over the years, Ultima Online has received many expansion packs, including Ultima Online: The Second Age, Ultima Online: Renaissance, Ultima Online: Third Dawn, and now the most recent expansion, Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge.
Coming in a really odd-shaped box, the game offers you a brief comic book drawn by Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, the game CD-ROM, various documentaries, as well as a plastic statue of Lord Blackthorn. I had purchased two copies of the game since my brother also was playing this game at the time I was, and both statues were broken. Thanks OSI.
For starters, Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge offers you a choice when installing. If you have a low-end system, you can run the 2D client, and for the rest, the 3D client. Both clients feature an isometric view, though the 3D version sports the ability to zoom in closer if you feel it necessary.
The 2D client remains, for the most part, graphically the same as in previous expansions, with touch-ups on the tiling for houses, better foliage on trees, and so forth. In addition, lots of monsters that formerly underwent mere color-swapping to make “new” monsters have been given the proper treatment with their own unique sprites. Previously only accessible through the 3D client in Ultima Online: Third Dawn, the new facet of Ilshenar is now accessible in the 2D client if you own Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge. The graphics are decent at best, clearly dated by today’s standards, 2D or otherwise, with okay animation and a maximum resolution of 800×600.
The 3D client runs off the same buggy and CPU intensive polygon engine used in Ultima IX: Ascension, and is, for the most part, unimpressive. Animation is smooth as silk if you’re running a high-end system, and some of the spell and lighting effects are nice. However, the characters are extremely blocky and bulky, and monsters are equally ridiculous to look at (a good number of them were also taken straight from Ascension). Zoom the camera in and it only gets worse, as the blockiness becomes even more apparent. OSI has promises of improving the graphics engine, but this should have been done BEFORE releasing this expansion pack.
Sound effects have generally taken a turn for the worse, speaking as someone who skipped past the Third Dawn expansion and went straight to this one from Renaissance. Key spells such as poison used to have a more high-pitched noise that was unique and obvious; the moment you heard the noise, you would jam the Cure spell. Now, the sound is reminiscent of fluid spewing from a monster, which doesn’t seem to fit considering the spell graphical effect. Explosions went from a loud boom to those seemingly fake “explosions” from old black and white movies. Only the fireball spell has gotten an improved sound.
Various monster voices have also taken a turn for the worse. Ettins, which are giant, hulking, two-headed monsters eight times your size now squeal in a voice that sounds almost childish. Liches, that once were intimidating with their sinister yells and laughs, now make muffled grunts and groans that sound ridiculous. And Dragons make an annoying screech sound when getting hit that quickly grates on your nerves. What gives?
The “new” digital MP3 music featured in this expansion is laughable; the majority of it is actually 30-second sampled songs ripped from… you guessed it: Ultima Ascension. Ascension’s soundtrack isn’t necessarily bad mind you; I actually liked it. However, taking those songs and turning them into 30-second samples that cycle was stupid. They don’t even cycle properly, as you’ll hear static occasionally. There ARE a handful of newly composed songs, but they stand out way too easily from the orchestrated music of Ascension, probably done with MIDI equipment. Because of the repetitive soundtrack, you’re better off running your Winamp playlist or sticking with the classic MIDI tunes featured in the game instead.
The most important aspect of any online game is its gameplay, and here Ultima Online falls short, clearly showing its age. One of the biggest problems is the current lack of any serious advancement for your character’s abilities. Characters advance by performing an action, and each time that action is performed, you increase your skill, and it takes longer to increase as the skill gets higher. For instance, if I attack with a sword, swordsmanship skill will increase; using a shield in battle builds parry skill, and so forth.
Tired of my first character that I created back in 1999, I had created a brand new one named Kazin (Shining Force 2 fans start smiling), intending for him to become a grandmaster mage. After awhile, I decided I wanted him to be a blacksmith as well. Within one week of gaming, I hit 100% blacksmithy and mining skill, starting from 0 points in both skills, earning my way all the way to maximum ability. Now, as a grandmaster blacksmith, one might assume that I can make anything well enough, right?
Wrong. I continued to have problems making suits of plate mail armor. One, of course, assumes that there’s always the case of making mistakes, but whether you’re a four-year-old grandmaster blacksmith who’s been making armor in the game since 1998 or a newly made grandmaster blacksmith like mine, you’ll have the same exact success or failure rate. If even I’m frustrated with the armor failure rate as a new smith, how does the veteran smith feel?
Kazin was also over 90% in magery skill, and I was continuously failing 6th circle spells such as energy bolt and explosion (there are 8 circles of magic, each harder to cast as you go higher), particularly in some critical moments. This is rather ridiculous if you ask me, as once again, becoming grandmaster seems nearly pointless. On my last day of playing, out of frustration caused by fizzling repeatedly while fighting Meer mages, I decided to cast energy bolt on my character to kill him (I get satisfaction from that in games sometimes). I couldn’t even do that. I fizzled four times in a row. As a side note, the game makes use of a food system in which you need to keep eating so you don’t starve, since starving affects your skill effectiveness, and not eating wasn’t the problem. Ridiculous.
This problem plagues the entire game’s skill system, and this lack of advancement has led to other problems. In just about any MMORPG, player versus player combat complements the typical player versus monster combat, and in Ultima Online, your character skill is almost irrelevant. In most cases, with two characters of like skills, the person with the least lag wins the battle. Lag has always played a role in MMORPG PVP to date, but Ultima Online almost seems to rely on it. The best PVPers on Ultima Online are all on broadband.
The problems don’t even end there, as the game has a large assortment of skills that are nearly useless. Who in the game bothers with herding? Who uses tracking? What about forensic evaluation? Beside perhaps a handful, everyone else is using the other skills, all of which continue to get attention and are becoming easier to build up (such as blacksmithing, which used to take an eternity to grandmaster). Ultima Online offers you the choice to play all sorts of roles, but because of the way the game runs now, as a herder, few would bother to associate with you at all. There’s no fun in being alone on an online game.
To the game’s credit, Ilshenar, first introduced in the Third Dawn expansion, is an interesting place to explore, with many dungeons to check out, though most seemingly aimed toward characters with certain skills. Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge has introduced an assortment of new monsters, whose artwork was all drawn by McFarlane. Sadly, a lot of the monsters have yet to make an appearance in the game (check out http://uo.stratics.com/ for an excellent database on everything UO), and despite the idea that they may be set aside for special events, some monsters as far back as the Third Dawn expansion have yet to make an appearance.
For new players who have not yet visited the world that is Ultima Online, OSI has taken a great deal of effort to make your entrance into the game as easy and friendly as possible. Haven, referred to as the “newbie city” is designed specifically for the new player, with low-level monsters and well-placed vendor shops. It is easily the most well decorated and organized city in the game, and it’s a shame that none of the other cities in UO get such attention.
In-game events are almost non-existant, as it is more or less up to the players to come up with something to do. Spawn camping is a big problem, making some dungeons useless to visit since you won’t get your turn to kill anything due to some players, such as tamers, who like to leave their powerful pets to attack anything that appears while they make quick trips back and forth to their bank, dropping off gold and treasures. OSI has ideas to stop the problem, but ideas are far different from actual implemented features, particularly when the ideas are many, MANY weeks old and starting to pile up, such as the proposed virtue system based on the virtues present in Ultima games since Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, released back in 1985. It’s been in development along with other things for over a year. Sloppy, very sloppy.
The game interface hasn’t changed much from expansion to expansion; you can set macros through combinations of the Control, Alt, and Shift keys along with any alphanumeric key on the keyboard. Enemy health bars can be shown by holding the left mouse button while having it point on an enemy, and dragging it out. With smaller enemies, or very fast moving enemies, this can pose a problem at times.
Current fans of Ultima Online will probably appreciate Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge, but for those that haven’t touched Ultima Online and are dissatisfied with what they’re playing currently, you should stay away; far, FAR away. As it stands, Ultima Online is a good way to keep yourself busy, but the game seems more like work than fun. OSI trying to keep its current userbase content by supporting low-end systems completely this time around with the 2D client deserves some high praise, but improving the game engine a lot more might be a good idea if they intend on keeping their userbase longer than a few additional weeks, while attracting more players by word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth can go a long way, and the number of people who registered for Ultima Online, which MMORPG companies like to boast about, means very little if the majority no longer log on, this RPGFan editor included.
Ultima Online may have arguably been something great awhile ago, but it has done little to adapt and compete with the other MMORPGs that are on the market. This expansion pack does not get this editor’s recommendation at all, it being so bad that I have permanently deleted my characters so that I never have a reason to come back to the game.
R.I.P. The Glorious Lord Synbios, Grandmaster Healer, 1999-2002.
R.I.P. The Honorable Kazin, Grandmaster Blacksmith, 3 weeks old.
I’ll see some of you on Anarchy Online and Phantasy Star Online (GameCube edition).