The development of Origin's epic fantasy world. Ultima Online, has so far clocked up an estimated 6 million in expenses and is still only in the beta test stage (a process being carried out by thousands of 'volunteers' around the world). Naturally, it has a lot of expectations to live up to. On paper it is a true Garriot-esque epic, a sprawling landscape of mixed character - all vying to make a name for themselves in a fantasy universe created by highly-experienced adventure designers.
Ever since the first Ultima game, players have wanted to be able to mix it up with other human-controlled characters in the world of Britannia. Now that it's here, the question is: how well does the long-awaited concept compare to the physical implementation?
More than any other game of this type, Ultima Online fits the description of a role-playing game. During your time on-line you really become your alter ego. Eating, sleeping, resting and working are all essential activities in this non-linear world. It's up to you to make the game.
With your Internet connection up and running, you are taken from the cold blue of Windows 95 into the oak-panelled splendour of UOs main screen. From here you can proceed to create a character, complete with statistics (strength, dexterity and intelligence), a character class (anything from warriors to wizards to shepherds) and an initial ballot of three skills.
Unlike previous RPGs, the idea of experience levels has been scrapped. Ultima Online gives your character skills to learn instead. There are 44 in total, all defined by percentage, which increase the more you use them or see them being used. For example, the more you camp, the more your camping skill improves. Just like Quake really.
The skills vary from Cartography to Magery to Swordsmanship, encompassing every aspect of the game. The idea is to create a rounded character. From here you choose your hair and skin colour and which town to start off in. Then it's on to Britannia itself for fame, fortune and. if you're lucky, a butt-spanking from Lord British himself. This is all seamlessly integrated into Windows 95. The only way you know you are on the Internet is by your modem's flashing lights and the constant presence of annoying Americans. I've been able to get an average ping time of 300ms to the US server (presently the only one available). This makes for a reasonably playable game with intermittent periods of lag. However. Origin have assured us that things will improve as the beta-testing period progresses.
The look of war
The first thing that strikes you on entering Britannia is the graphics. Origin have gone back to the classic look and feel of Ultima VII and VIII for this one. The human animations are impressive, although the same cannot be said for the monsters and animals. Also combat, at the moment, is erratic and unpredictable. First you have to switch your character from Peace to War mode and then double-click on the enemy. Only it's never too clear whether you're hitting anything or not.
Making your way
It's very daunting at the beginning as you spend the first few days wondering what to do and how to progress. You start off with next to nothing, just basic weapons and/or tools based upon which skills you chose when fashioning your character. For example, if you were a Ranger you would start off with a bow, 50 arrows and a knife to skin your catch with. As with the real world, the driving force behind society is money, which you need to equip yourself with to stand a better chance in battle. For this you need to work, and work depends upon what you start the game with. A Ranger, for instance, would kill monsters, skin them and sell their hide and meat to shopkeepers. The scale of Britannia is not as large as expected, and it can get quite populated in some areas, especially near towns. Although this adds to the community feel, you can find yourself tripping over other people's feet. Origin hope to address this by introducing more worlds to handle the extra load expected when the game is officially released. The beta-test of Ultima Online doesn't provide you with any real goals besides the betterment of your character. The odd mission or task can be found but these are pretty onedimensional (get me object A and I will give you reward B). Extended quests, scenarios and non-linear storylines have been promised by Origin, and a regular on-line newsletter outlining the goings on in Britannia is being planned.
Hello, my name is Kevin
Probably the most significant aspect of the game is the character interaction. Instead of roaming the land of Britannia and meeting boring computer-controlled bitmaps, you are roaming the land of Britannia and meeting boring human-controlled bitmaps. Okay, it's not that bad and at times can be good fun. Whether you're just saying hello or shouting out orders mid-battle, knowing that people are on the other end of the line adds something which artificial intelligence can't.
In a typical session, more time is probably spent conversing than adventuring and it is this, more than any other feature, that makes it so different. You dictate what happens in Britannia, not Origin. If you're after a long drawn-out storyline that tells you where to go, you might as well save your phone bill and play Ultima VIII.
But just chatting barely scratches the surface of human interaction. Killing other players, setting up guilds, engaging in politics, gaining notoriety, trading goods and equipment, and researching magic and alchemy are just some of the ways that human-controlled characters enrich the game's world.
It will be interesting to see how Britannia develops as the beta-testing progresses. Origin have created a world within the boundaries of an economical, social and ecological environment. It will take time for them to set up a balanced gaming environment, just as it will take time for players to find their niche in this society. Only when the dust has settled and the game is finally released will we see if order springs from the chaos.
MUD's are crud. It's a well known fact - out in the game playing world though, there are some punters who are so die-hard for the genre that they'd rather indulge in the suffocating, dry and archaic worlds that make up 99.9 per cent of Multi User Dungeons than play hide the sausage with Gillian Anderson. They get a kick from reading turgid text descriptions, using parsers that a two-year-old child's vocabulary could put to shame, and spending hours whittering on about how good the old days were when Hobbit on the Spectrum was king. Certainly a classic in its time, but such nostalgic pinings for past glories have nearly killed the adventure and, some would argue, the role-playing genre stone dead.
While the likes of Grim Fandango and Starship Titanic have dragged the corpse-like adventure genre out of its coffin, Ultima Online has played an equally important role in bringing adventure and role-playing back to the masses. Indeed, we can hear the letters of outrage pouring in already - you see, Origin's classic is (technically at least) a MUD in the eyes of purists. Despite some fairly horrific 'teething problems', its mix of gaming and graphical finesse have managed to move the whole genre forward - unlike its text-based counterpans - capturing the imagination of players who don't want to spend hours reading exotic location descriptions that have clearly been written by someone who has never ventured outside their bedroom.
One such convert to the Ultima Online cause is Adrian Selby, who's been so enraptured by the game that, if we weren't so scared of Vp being sued, we'd wonder if he's displaying classic symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder - the boy's mad about the game. An ardent role-player for the last 12 years, Adrian's life changed forever at the beginning of'98 when he shelled out for the seemingly innocuous game.
Just One Look...
Logging on for the first time was all it took: "I was stunned - I really couldn't believe it," enthuses Adrian. "I was hooked straightaway, absolutely. The whole premise promised just what I wanted - instant role-playing with thousands of other people that couldn't be matched by conventional desktop RPGs."
So fond of his life online, Adrian even remembers where he touched down for the first time: "Near the tailors in the east side of the city of Britain", for those who want to know. And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Ultima Online, the game enables you to travel the vast world of Britannia in isometric 3D, meeting with people, tackling quests and choosing professions. And Adrian's most successful online career to date? A baby-eating warlord? An assassin poisoning the rich and infamous? Well, no, a tailor called Tony actually. Like some of the bizarre people who inhabit the Ultima Online world, our Adrian is the kind of person boasting a successful 9 to 5 job who when wanting to escape into a fantasy world... er... gets a successful 9 to 5 job. And his own shop. So he can measure the inside legs of muscle-bound warriors.
His character's story reads like a cliched Hollywood movie - a scrawny young man arrives in a strange land and is beaten up by the other players. He heads off to the mountains and starts cutting trees to build up his strength. Like the Charlie Atlas muscle ads, he returns a new man, makes new friends and wins the respect of his gaming peers. Oh, and buys a castle. It's only taken Adrian ten months and 20 hours a week to get to this point.
So just what is the appeal of spending so much time and money on such an endeavour? It's just a game-right? "Each session is different," waxes Adrian. "You create goals each time you log on, or continue to pursue long-term ones of your own choosing. If you want to beg and spend all your money on ale or simply hassle people, you can; if you want to fish and cook and sell the fish steaks, you can. You can slay dragons, tailor clothes, shepherd and tame animals, learn poisoning, baking - it's up to you."
At this point, we checked the Ultima Online employee list just to make sure we weren't falling victim to a cunning sales rep from Origin, but Adrian is the real deal. To be frank, the game doesn't need marketing anyway - he's incessantly rabbiting on about it to his mates as well: 'They've been shaking their heads in disbelief for a long time at my phone bill," says Adrian. "One mate, James, took the plunge and bought it a few months back. Now, sadly, we sit down the pub and discuss guild matters while egging on my other muckers to get the game." And how do they respond to such pleas? The answer's short and sweet: "They call us the Stepford Wives."
Isn't there anything he hates about the game though? The 120 a month spent on phone charges? Time that could be better spent, let's say, socialising in the real world? While the phone bill will always be a thorn in his side, Adrian also wants to see improved graphics and an easier start-up process for newbies.
A Hopeless Case
Despite these gripes though, we has never witnessed someone so utterly in love and happy with their lot in life - ask him about his fondest moments online and it's like listening to a doddery old veteran recalling the camaraderie of WW2: "I remember the guild's tailors all singing national anthems and telling Monty Python stories in Magincia's tailor shop," reminisces Adrian. " Dying on a lonely island in Shame at the hands of earth elementals and calling out to my guild mates. They dropped what they were doing, teleported in, resurrected me, got my stuff back and got me to safety without so much as a word." Enough already! quietly leaves, the misty eyes of Adrian's nostalgia proving rather too much. Maybe the Daily Mail's hysterical headlines about gaming addiction were right after all... (You're fired - Ed).
Ultima Online: The Second Age
Both the games on test here set out to achieve the same thing in different ways. They both attempt to create a living, breathing fantasy world in which the character you've created can progress from a fledgling hero (mage, warrior etc) into an accomplished veteran in a thriving online community. But first things first, let's create a character.
The way your character develops throughout Ultima Online is very much dependent on the skills you choose on this screen. Put a lot of points into magery, for example, and you'll be well on your way to becoming a competent magic user. You'll also need to choose a trade skill at this point so you can make money. Magic users normally choose tailoring so they can make clothes to sell on to tailor shops; fighters have a reputation to uphold and so will often choose a more masculine profession such as lumberjack, because it builds strength. But even if you mess up completely here and choose skills that aren't particularly relevant to your 'path' through Ultima Online, all is not lost. The beauty of this game is that your skills evolve depending on how you play: cast a lot of spells and your magery will go up; fight often with weapons and your melee combat skills will increase. Or you can choose a mixture of both, creating a sort of mage warrior (this is frowned upon by hard-core role-players). Either way, once you've created your character and given him/her a name (you can call your character anything you like, unlike in EQ, but more on that later), you're ready to enter the world and interact with other players, which of course is what it's all about.
People in the game are generally very friendly and you'll have no trouble finding other players who are willing to help out 'newbies' who haven't a clue what they're doing (ie you, to begin with). In fact, simply standing by the location you start off in looking dazed and confused (which you probably will be) is often enough to prompt a more experienced player to take you under their wing and give you better clothes and equipment. Nice people, clearly. But some of them will be helping you in the hope that they can persuade you to join their guild and boost their numbers. Accept their assistance anyway, and when they ask if you'd like to join their guild say: 'No thank you, I have several important meetings over the next few months which will take up all my time.' The reason for this is that you'll be better placed to choose the guild that's right for you when you're more experienced and have a better understanding of the game. So basically you've taken advantage of this kind person and then told them to sod off once you've got what you wanted. You're a disgrace.
The next step is both the easiest and the most enjoyable: talk to people. Lots of them. UO encourages player interaction on every level, from simply standing around in the street chatting to hunting in the wilds and meeting other players to team up with, to buying and selling in shops and asking advice on various aspects of the game. Players will give you hints on armour and weapons, and tell you which areas are safe to hunt in (well, some of them will, but others are complete bastards and won't tell you anything). At this point you'll delight in discovering your new environment and how to make the most out of the wealth of information available to you in the form of other people who've been playing the game a long time. And no doubt you'll be itching to get outside the city and get involved in a bit of a fight. Well, sorry, but you can't - you'll be completely, totally and profoundly useless at absolutely everything to begin with. All your skills will be so low that the first rabbit you take on in the wilds will tweak your nose and call you a wuss before kicking your head in. You need to train. In a gym. With dummies. Punch them, stab them, club them to pieces, and slowly but surely your skills will improve: swordmanship, fencing, even hand-to-hand will all go up after you've spent a long time in the training area. Sooner or later, however, you'll be ready. You've got a dodgy set of cheap armour, a budget-price sword, and are ready to brave the terror-filled areas outside the city gates.
You are about to enter the most controversial combat set-up ever seen in a virtual reality videogame.
Death Or Dishonour
Ultima Online is home to many monsters. Some are easy to kill, some are very difficult, and you'll find no shortage of beasties to take on wherever you go. But as much of a headache as these things can be they're nothing, nothing compared to your biggest enemy in the game: other player-controlled characters. There are people who play Ultima Online with the sole intention of killing other people and stealing everything they own. These people are called player killers (PKs), and there is a very large section of the Ultima playing community who hate these people with incredible intensity. Many PKs tend to prey on new characters who don't have the equipment or skill to fight back, or, worse still, they travel in large groups and pick out lone travellers as they make their way from one city to the next.
There are two sides to this argument. Most of UO's law-abiding citizens will argue that it's simply 'not fair' for PKs to kill other players and take all their things. The PKs will in turn argue that they're 'role-playing' evil characters, and this necessitates taking advantage of lesser players. Forget both these arguments, they're irrelevant. Player-versus-player combat (PvP) is so indescribably tense and exciting that you'll soon forget minor details such as who's right and who's wrong. Play a bad guy hunting down innocent human prey, play a good guy searching out PKs and bringing them to justice, but for God's sake play one of them or you'll be missing out on one of the most amazing multiplayer encounters of your life. Forget Doom, Quake, Half-Life and all the real-time strategy games you care to mention, the first time you come up against a real player in Ultima Online your hands will literally be shaking. You will not be able to function. You won't be able to find the shortcut keys on your keyboard. The spells which you've conveniently placed at the top of the screen will suddenly seem miles away, and your eyes will constantly be darting to your health bar to see how much life you have left before you die. This is not a visually rewarding experience, nor is it the most complex combat system in the world, but the fact that you will lose everything you are carrying to the other player if you die (including that ludicrously expensive suit of armour you just bought and stupidly decided to show off in the dungeon from hell) lends an edge to the battle that you will never experience in any other game. In short, it's all or nothing, and for that reason alone most players will run immediately to get away from PvP. But they're fools. Take my advice: get your combat and magic skills maxed up as quickly as you can and take to the dungeons in search of other players to mix it up with. You'll eventually overcome your nervousness and become competent enough at PvP to enjoy it tor the exhilarating experience that it is.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ultima Online is not a linear game, and there's so much to do that you'll never, ever get bored. It combat is your thing, search the land for the best possible weapons you can find for your character. If you're a magic user, find a secluded spot and cast spells till they're coming out of your ears - one of these days you'll eventually reach Master Mage status and be the envy of your friends. Or if you want to make money and buy a house of your own to keep all your stuff in, choose a trade skill and make things to sell to other players. There are people who specialise in all the skills in the game, so if you're not sure how to proceed, talk to them and ask their advice.
A final word of warning: this game took over my life completely for about six months, and although EverQuest is currently my online RPG of choice (that will change, for reasons explained in the fvertjoesf review), I'll always return to Ultima Online because the player community is so friendly, and there's always something new to try which changes the gameplay experience dramatically. Ultima Online is the first truly amazing multiplayer game I have ever played, and I urge you to check it out forthwith - but don't blame me if you lose your life to it.
United We Stand
Join a guild and you'll be safe forever. Probably
Returning to the world of Ultima Online after a 10-year break is like watching old reruns of '80s low-budget sci-fi shows: you never noticed the ropey special effects as a child, so you're left with a sense of disappointment in just how primitive it was back then.
Released in 1997, Ultima Online wasn't the first massively multiplayer online game to hit the market, but it was the most successful, snagging well over 200,000 subscribers in its first year alone. Everyone wanted a slice of virtual pie and gamers were willing to mount up enormous phone bills to quest in the fantasy world of Britannia.
This was a game marred by some poor development decisions and the release of EverQuest in 1999 stole much of its player base. It's not hard to see why, for UO sets out to be as difficult to play as possible. The basic control systems are far from intuitive, and little things like the lack of icons k over quest giver's heads and the Old Worlde-style text boxes, which are too difficult to read, makes the f game feel exceptionally clunky and dated. Nothing works as it should, which makes for an arduous and time-consuming online experience. A major criticism of the game was that the death penalty was too punishing. The death of your character resulted in the loss of everything you were carrying, resulting in a desperate search to recover your corpse (and your gear) before someone stole it Bands of player killers would lay in wait along the major travel routes, ready to attack and steal your hard-won gear, leading to frustration levels for casual gamers being high.
This controversial death system was adopted by EverQuest, but was refined in Asheron's Call where just a few of your high value items dropped when you died. Blizzard further refined the system to a more player-friendly stance in World of Warcraft, where a player dropped a small amount of gold and perhaps a trophy on death. Players don't like losing their hard-earned items, especially to other players, yet compulsory PvP continued in UO until blessed items, that didn't drop when you died, were introduced.
Finally, the Renaissance expansion gave players the choice of PvP or non-PvP worlds in which to reside.
Another criticism of the game was its graphics, which were dated even back in 1997 The developers released a 3D client in 2001 to compete with rising 3D MMOs. Buggy and unstable, it was axed in 2007, in favour of a new 3D engine in the Kingdom Reborn add-on.
On a positive note, UCfs in-game community is made up of decent folk who've been playing for years and who are only too happy to take time to help a newbie. There's a satisfying lack of trash-talking gamers with ridiculous names, and the general chat channel isn't spammed with endless out-of-character discussions - a definite plus. Sadly, a player new to the game won't see many other characters as the starting areas are all but deserted, except for NPCs and monsters - a sign that fresh blood isn't coming into the game with any frequency.
Ultima Online offers little for the modern gamer. It's an antiquated throw back to a more naive time and the developers have done little to modernise the game over the years. It might be great for a weekend of retro gaming, but getting a character to the highest levels is a quest way too challenging, especially when there are more visually appealing and accessible MMOs out there.
While the developers have recently released Sygian Abyss - UO's first expansion in four years, which is only available online, more recent MMOs will continue to drain subscribers from Ultima Online, as there is very little here to draw in newer gamers.
The lack of modern developments has served a death blow to the virtual world of Britannia, and while the hardcore devotees will continue to support the game for as long as the servers are operational, Ultima Online is in its final death throes. Soon, even the Guild of Necromancers won't be able to save it from extinction.
Download Ultima Online
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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