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Review by: Emil Pagliarulo
Published: November 9, 1997
Any gamer worth his or her weight in 5 1/4 inch floppies has heard of the Ultima series of role-playing games. Before the AD&D Gold Box series, before the Build engine, and yes, even before the X-Com trilogy, there existed Ultima. The brain child of Richard “Lord British” Garriot, the Ultima series has often been regarded as the pre-eminent force in computer role-playing. Set in the Realm of Britannia (or Sosaria, for those die-hards), Ultima and its sequels tell the story of a man from a strange universe, presumably 20th century Earth, who mysteriously appears in the strange, magical land during a time of great need. For unbeknownst to him at the time, it was this person’s destiny to be the hero to a realm besieged by evil. In fact, there have been as many diabolical villains in the Ultima series as there have been games themselves. From the evil wizard Mondain to the demonic Guardian, our hero has certainly faced his share of bad guys. But there was always something about Lord British’s games more involving than just simple bad guy beating or dungeon hacking. Integral to the storyline and gameplay was you, the player. Throughout the series, from the first Ultima, into the Underworlds, and finally to the mysterious isle of Pagan, your character continued to grow. He (or she, in the later games) evolved from simple hero to mighty Avatar — a living symbol of virtue and good will. Because of this deep focus on character growth and development, the Ultima games have been as much the chapters in an epic morality tale as they have been great role-playing adventures.
Well, the Ultima series has finally come full-circle, and the Avatar’s epic adventure is almost at an end. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Britannia is bigger and better than ever, and open to everyone — literally. Ultima Online is certainly Richard Garriot’s most ambitious project ever. In fact, it’s got to be the most ambitious massively multiplayer Internet game, role-playing or otherwise, ever created. Ultima Online is rooted in a bit of Britannian revisionist history: apparently, when our noble hero slew the evil Mondain way back in the first Ultima, he inadvertently planted the seed Richard Garriot would need to grow his immense gameworld. You see, at the time of his death, Mondain was clutching in his hand the Gem of Immortality, which contained the very essence of Sosaria (Britannia) itself. When he was killed, the gem slipped from his grasp, shattering into a thousand pieces. Because each piece of the gem held a likeness of Sosaria, so were created a thousand parallel worlds — and server channels — each identical, yet unique in its own way.
It is in one of these parallel fantasy worlds that the player begins his or her adventures in Ultima Online. No, you are not the Avatar; you’re not even a hero. You assume the role of a humble citizen of Britannia who must make his or her own way in the world. Will you survive long enough to emerge from poverty? How will you make a living — carpenter, adventurer, assassin? Can you trust anyone besides yourself? Will you pay to play after the free month-long trial period?
Ultima Online is more — and in many ways less — than your average, run-of-the mill role-playing game, even your standard Internet MUD (multi-user dungeon). Central to the entire gaming experience is the world of Britannia itself. This is no ordinary gaming world, and I mean that in the strongest possible way; Britannia is a living, thriving, active world in which anything can happen, based largely on the efforts of the players involved. It is no exaggeration to say that Britannia has replaced the Avatar as the central focus of the Ultima experience. Allow me to elaborate…when you come right down to it, Ultima Online could care less if you’re there or not. Why is this? Because once you log off and go back to your own boring life, Britannia will still be there. Food will grow, animals will wander in search of that food, and monsters will hunt those animals. There are cycles of night and day, and some beautiful fall foliage may even be an indication that there is a seasonal model in place. The world is populated by an endless supply of NPCs who also carry on their own little lives — working, fighting, and struggling to survive. It is into this medieval microcosm that you, the player, are thrust. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
When starting a new game, the player of Ultima Online is faced with several initial decisions, the most important being what type of character to create. The kind of adventurer you decide to become is entirely open-ended, because the game doesn’t use a standard character class based creation system. Instead, the player may choose a “template,” which is essentially a loosely defined guideline for playing a certain type of character. This includes base scores in the three initial attributes: strength, dexterity, and intelligence, which in turn affect your hit points, mana, and stamina; and high scores in three of the game’s many skills. For example, choosing the assassin template would give the player the following scores: 13 strength, 20 dexterity, 21 intelligence, 19 hit points, 32 mana, and 20 stamina…and 33 hiding, 34 poisoning, and 33 taste identification. Likewise, choosing any other template, such as that for the Shepherd, would produce an entirely different set of attribute scores and skills.
For those really adventurous players, though, there is another alternative. The templates can be bypassed completely, allowing the player complete freedom to choose any kind of character he or she chooses. Want to be a wandering archer with a penchant for knitting dresses? Feel free. Or how about an evil sorceress who likes to train and sell llamas on the side? You can be all of these things and more; the choice is entirely yours. The initial attributes are controlled with slide bars, and all three have a minimum score of 10 and a maximum of 45. Raising the score of one attribute lowers those of the other two, and vice versa. Altering these three initial attributes also directly affects the other three derived attributes — strength determines hit points, dexterity determines stamina, and intelligence determines mana level. Instead of accepting a template’s three main skills, the player may opt to assign his or her own, choosing from everything from animal handling to baking. The scores for these skills are also controlled using slider bars, with the minimum score being 0 and the maximum being 50.
After the player chooses attribute scores and skills, it’s on to the character appearance (ironically, known as an “avatar” in MUD-speak) screen. Although all Britannian residents are apparently in perfect physical condition, with trim, well-toned bodies, the player does have some control over a character’s physical appearance. Skin tone, hair style, hair color, and facial hair (for male characters) can all be changed, so there really is a great deal of variety, especially when you get in the game and don any kind of apparel you want.
Once the character is created, it’s time to begin the adventure that is Ultima Online. The player can choose his or her starting location within the game, and there are places to suit every kind of character type. A budding wizard may choose to start out in The Scholar’s Inn of Moonglow, while a stalwart ranger would probably prefer the wilderness setting of Yew’s The Sturdy Bow. After that, the game really opens itself up. You can literally go wherever you want, do whatever you want, and…ahem…kill whatever you want. But, you may ask, where exactly does your insignificant player fit into this huge, living gameworld? Well, that’s really up to you. The important thing to remember is that the world of Britannia is much like our own world in that you get out of it whatever you put into it. The harder you work, the better you will do. The better your attitude, the more friends you will make, and ultimately the more fun you’ll have. At least, this is the way Ultima Online is supposed to work….
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