Ultima IX: Ascension
What we thought
"Less like the epic finale we all hoped for and more like a cynical cash-in at the expense of the vast legion of Ultima fans."
What you said
- "Ultima Ascension is not an RPG by any stretch of the imagination. It is what is known in the industry as an action adventure'. Depending on how you look at it, this may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it certainly wasn't what Ultima fans were expecting from a game of this importance." "I got the Dragon Edition of Ultima IX from the US before Christmas and, although the game engine itself is superb, with a decent PC and graphics card (read Pentium II500+ with a 32-bit AGP card), some true Ultima fans may feel let down by the storyline - there are a few inconsistencies with the previous games in the series.Having said that, any return players 1 will find that Britannia is like an old slipper - it's a very comfortable game world."
- "I bought Ultima Ascension on the day of release and had nearly completed it by the time I read your review. I was shocked to see that you'd given it 52 per cent. Upon further reading, I discovered that it was, quite simply, not a fair review. I can't help but think it was in an attempt to be somehow cool by going against the grain and giving an undeniably epic and involving game a low score, simply because it'd been released late and you'd been saying for months not to buy it. You embark on a massive tirade about how many bugs are in it. Are you sure you played the UK code? I'm now about 90 per cent through it, and so far I have discovered only one major bug. Yet Sin and Hidden & Dangerous, the two most criminally bugged games I've ever played, score 80 per cent and 91 percent respectively. Ultima Ascension (UK) has no more bugs than any other major title released in these troubled times. You complain about the linear storyline. I will simply say that at no point in the game was I more aware of being forced along a particular path than in, say, Half-Life, undeniably the best game ever. Then, of course, Final Fantasy VII and VIII so linear you don't actually play, you just watch and press a button every now and then. 84 per cent and 83 per cent in your scores. You say it's uninvolving, but Ultima Ascension gripped me like no game since Half-Life and, before that, Doom, Ultima VIII and Ultima VII. I only recognise Half-Life as being a better, currently available, single-player game. While there is of course room for a different opinion, I just don't think your review was fair. It's as simple as that."
- "Why didn't I listen? You advised readers not to touch Ultima IX with a barge pole until you'd reviewed it. But when I saw it on the shelf in PC World, I just couldn't help myself and like a fool I parted with my money. This game sucks. I had to trawl Internet newsgroups to find a fix just to get the damn thing started. When I did I couldn't believe the poor performance on my monster PC. And don't even get me started on the bugs - crashing back to the desktop, getting stuck on scenery - they're all in there. I made the trip back to PC World and complained. They tried to fob me off by smugly saying that they could only accept a return if they couldn't get the game to work on one of their machines - I'm sure they thought I was kidding them and that they would get it working fine. You should have seen their faces when they couldn't!"
Blimey - feast your eyes on these new Ultima IX shots! Origin have been keeping quiet about this game for a few months, but are now prepared to show us how it's coming along. Gone is the fixed perspective view (remember, this is the late 1990s and nothing but the very latest 3D engine will do...) and in comes a whole new system of exploration.
Richard Garriot and his cohorts are currently pulling the new graphics code and level design together, sewing the whole thing up with a constantly evolving, Avatar-based storyline (a previously discussed 'party' system having now been dropped). Intelligent non-player characters, a 'true' world physics model and a new magic system are all expected in what could turn out to be one of the best role-playing games of all time.
It's what the world's been waiting for. Ultima IX - or, to give the game its proper title, Ultima Ascension - is poised to become one of the biggest games of all time, never mind one of the biggest RPGs.
The Ultima series, first unleashed on the unwashed masses way back in 1980, is the brainchild of Richard Garriott - a former tabletop role-playing fan who moved into programming when he was introduced to computers.
Since then, Richard, alongside various programming teams, has produced seven best-selling sequels and contributed to a number of ground-breaking side projects, making him one of the most 'minted' men in the entire industry. In fact, the man is so minted (and so inspired by the pageantry and grandeur of his own creations) that he's had a castle built in his own back yard in Texas. At least, that's what the man down the local computer shop tells us.
For such a well-known name, Richard Garriott has been out of the gossip columns for quite some time. Gaming generations have been and gone since the last proper Ultima game in 1994 (number eight, Pagan - which was a bit of a flop by Richard's standards), and unless you've played Ultima Online (Origin's superb online RPG) recently, you've probably never heard of him.
Of course, this will not do. Thankfully, the situation is about to change with the release of Ultima Ascension - a title that's sure to put Richard's name back up with the current gaming greats.
Entering Its Final Test
"This version is about 90 per cent complete," says Richard at a recent one-on-one Ultima Ascension demo session. We could hardly believe our ears. A game as big as this - due out on time? It can't be true.
"We're just about to go into full test," Richard confirms. But that, it transpires, does not necessarily guarantee the game the post-summer release we've been expecting. In fact, a release date is yet to be set in stone. Richard explains: "Even though we're that close, we're still not announcing a release date because we're going to test this game until it's perfect. If we're lucky, it'll be in test for about a month. More realistically, it'll end up being in test for a few months."
The test beta we saw was remarkably complete, even though Richard was using the in-house Ascension 'level editorI to move around from scene to scene.
"The world itself is now essentially complete, although there are still plenty of bugs to be ironed out. In fact, you'll probably see it crash once or twice because I'm going to be quite thorough in what I show you," he explained.
While the progress bar on the loading screen chugged away, we asked Richard how long Ultima Ascension had been in development. "It's probably been about five years since Ultima Ascension was conceived.
Admittedly, the UA team took a two-year hiatus while everybody went to work on Ultima Online, which we thought was gonna be a little six-month task... And when we came back to UA, we saw that the technology was two years out of date, so we rewrote the entire engine."
Drawing our attention to the posters on the walls of the demo room, Richard continues to extol the virtues of his latest adventure. "There are a couple of features of this room that are exemplary of where we're headed with this kind of game, and one is my Ultima VII poster, which was on the wall of my office," he says, pointing out the poster in question.
"That's there to describe the first big goal of this game - to be the most immersive virtual world ever created. And, in my mind, Ultima VII was the best virtual world we'd created. I expect you guys agree." We do - at the time, it had an unparalleled mix of realism, depth and detail.
"Well, hopefully, today I'll convince you that we've met and exceeded that level of world simulation. The other thing in this room is the Ultima IV poster. In my mind, Ultima IV was a kind of watershed event in epic storytelling. It wasn't really the best story told within an Ultima, but it was clearly a big event towards storytelling in the series, and this is also what we're trying to do with this game. This is the end of a trilogy of trilogies. It's got to be the biggest, most bad-assed game ever, from a story standpoint. And that's why I moved these two posters from my office, so that I can show you guys what we're shooting for with this game."
"In most games," says Richard, "in most role-playing games - and especially most Ultima games - you go through a process where you get the CD, you install it, and it takes a bit of time. Then you go to a main menu, then an options menu, where you set up the screen resolution or whatever. Then you usually go through a character creation process, which is generally in some other mode of interaction... In some role-playing games, it can take over an hour before you're playing properly, and then - oh, wow - you're suddenly overwhelmed by all the things you can do."
But what are the alternatives?
"We've taken a cue from some of my favourite games over the years, such as Command & Conquer, WarCraft, Heroes Of Might & Magic II, and we've been playing a bit of Lands Of Lore III recently. One of the particularly important aspects of those games is that you start off with a fairly simple set of rules to understand and learn, and it only becomes complex over time. Unlike past Ultimas, or Lands Of Lore III, you don't start with any of your physical interface - you actually discover it as you go and are rewarded for finding and learning new things. Which is a much more powerful way to introduce the player to the arena than the Ultima version, which is: Ta da! Good luck - go for it!' As opposed to having an install, then main menus, then character creation, then getting dropped into the virtual world, with UA you install the game, watch a brief movie, then go directly into the gameplay. There are no main menus. In fact, there's no main menu even when you're in the game - everything's done in the game engine. So all you'll see is game and movies. Then it's a case of discovering the interface as you go along."
As you may already know from past Ultimas, you're a person from Earth who finds his way to a magical land called Britannia, and it is here that you come face to face with the bad guys - or, in Ultima Ascension's case, the Guardian and his evil minions (as seen in the past two Ultimas). The difference with Ultima Ascension is that instead of starting off in Britannia, you begin on Earth.
After a particularly impressive intro sequence, Richard continues his demonstration: "We're inside the Avatar's house now. He's woken up after having this bad dream. You can hear the narrator giving us basic information about how to work the game, and I'm just kinda skipping through it so I can narrate myself. You can move the mouse to look up and down, and left and right, click the right mouse button to 'move' and the left one to 'use'. This entire first area of the game is there for you to pick things up, walk around and explore. There are lots of cool things to do."
Richard obviously takes great pleasure in demonstrating the level of interactivity in his game - he hits a key on a harpsichord and it chimes. He shows that light switches can be turned on and off, that the TV works (currently showing various channels advertising existing Origin games), that the clocks are accurate and that the toilets flush.
"Do you guys know about the issue of 'baking bread'?" he asks. There's a show of blank faces. We have no idea. "There was an issue where people were really concerned about whether you'd be able to bake bread or not in this game. A previous Origin producer and I were having a conversation online one time and we were asked: 'How deep is the real-world simulation? Will I be able to grind wheat to make flour, then mix it with water, then use it to bake bread?' The producer said that Ultimas weren't about baking bread, they were about other adventuring aspects. And everybody just slammed him, saying: This guy does not get Ultimas,' and 'He's got the wrong angle.' So, thinking that Ascension is a deeply simulated Ultima, we decided to add the 'Mister Bread Maker' TM, which you can activate and use to make bread. Of course, there are other ways of baking bread in the game... and we definitely wouldn't want to leave them out."
Richard continues: "Your first task, the narrator tells you, is to go and collect a number of essential items, starting with your clothes. Of course, the Avatar hasn't done any laundry for a while and there are no clean clothes in the house. As you can see, there are some dirty clothes lying around. Pick up your dirty shirt and pants, and clean them." He washes them in a virtual washing machine. "Everything works," Richard smiles, proudly, filling a nearby wash basin with water.
'Then you have to find the first piece of your interface. And here it is - a utility belt. When you pick it up, a shortcut bar appears. This gives you quick access to a handful of inventory items." With a quick change of direction, Richard leads the Avatar into the study. Here, shows us even more detail - the computer works, and the foot locker opens, revealing more items. He even tests the battery on the overhead smoke alarm. Then he comes across a backpack which, once acquired, fills the screen with a swirl of motion and adds even more to the interface. Finally, there's a small compass resting on a nearby mantelpiece, which fills another gap in the Avatar's travel kit.
There Are People Out There Who Can Hurt You
Richard then takes his 'bare bones' Avatar outside - to continue his adventure in the woods beside the house. Although Ultima Ascension falls short of the graphical splendour of a game such as Blade, its colourful, stylish graphics are beautifully realised and the simulated flora and fauna seem remarkably lifelike.
"This is modelled on a park near us in Austin, Texas," says Richard, before turning our attention back to the Avatar. "We know that the act of jumping is highly political and must be carefully done. If you played Ultima VIII, you'll know that jumping was a real problem. In this case, you'll notice the little aiming reticle on screen. When it's green, it shows the distance I can jump with 100 per cent reliability. Yellow indicates my shootable, throwable range. And red is further away from that - you might be able to hit something, but not necessarily reliably."
Seems simple enough. What about combat? "When you start off, you have only one simple attack." Richard moves his character over to a sparring ring and demonstrates various weapons techniques. "As the game progresses you'll learn other moves. Each weapon has its own set of attacks and different skills to get to grips with. Either way, once you've learned all the basics, you go off and find the Gypsy."
As Ultima fans may already know, the Gypsy is responsible for the Avatar's persona on Britannia itself. She poses 'ethical parables' (soul-searching questions) and deals Tarot cards to help create the Avatar you want. She features in Ultima Ascension but, as Richard explained, her role will be handled in-game using the 3D engine. Once that's all done, it's off to find a nearby circle of stones and - bam! - you're in.
"Then you get the last two pieces of your interface - the journal, where you can save and load games, and record things that will help you later on, and finally your spell book," adds Richard, before wrapping up the demo. "We wait for you to get to Britannia before teaching you magic because, of course, magic doesn't work back on Earth."
An Epic Tale
The story of Ultima Ascension will pick up where Ultima VIII: Pagan left off. The Avatar discovers Britannia in a ravaged state, tom asunder by The Guardian. Inexplicably, eight huge columns have sprung from the ground and are slowly ripping their way through the land, agitating the seas, disorientating the moons and emitting eight anti-virtues that inspire dark sentiments in the people of Britannia. The Avatar's quest will lead him down a virtuous path based on three main principles - truth, love and courage (as has been the case in pretty much every previous Ultima game), each of which will play a key role in defeating his enemies.
It sounds like Ultima Ascension will be one hell of an adventure game when it's finally finished. It'll span four CDs, require a 3D card to run, and will no doubt introduce a whole new generation of gamers to the way of the Ultima. Believe us when we say that's no bad thing.
Processor: PC compatible,
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Ultima IX: Ascension Screenshots
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