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Graphics: Anyone who has played Ultima VIII: Pagan will feel at home in Ultima Online. Although UO does not use the same game engine, its SVGA graphics strongly resemble those of its stand-alone predecessor. Britannia is a lush, colorful realm with a variety of topographical features. Forests are dense and detailed, and there is enough flora to satisfy even the most jaded Britannian botanist. What’s more, the trees are such that when you maneuver behind them, they actually become transparent so you can see where you are and what you’re doing. The large cities are incredibly detailed, and actually feel like living, thriving centers of activity. There are cycles of night and day; in the daytime, characters and objects cast shadows, while at night, torches and lanterns light up the darkness. The most impressive aspect of Ultima Online’s graphics is in the characters themselves. Thanks to the almost endless array of clothing and equipment, you’ll be hard-pressed to find two adventurers who look exactly alike. Every weapon that is held, every piece of clothing or armor that is worn, show’s up on your on-screen persona. Unfortunately, there are some downsides. The forests, where my ranger character spends most of his time, can be a bit too detailed. Hunting birds is a chore, because their bodies often get lost in all the graphical splendor. This may be more realistic, but it’s also a huge pain in the neck. Also, the transparency effect used on the trees in the forest is not used in the cities, so it’s all too easy to get lost (or even worse, to lose your pet!) behind a building. And here’s an odd little graphical feature — when you’re inside of a building, you can see everywhere around you, even outside. But when you’re outside of a building, you have no way of looking inside, through a window or an open door. This causes some real problems, particularly in crowded cities. When trying to enter the blacksmith’s shop in Britain, which is notoriously crowded any time of the day or night, it’s impossible to see who’s inside, and if getting in is even an option — until you’re actually inside the shop and jammed between 8 other players, with no chance of exiting. This could be, and should be, modified.
Interface: Installing Ultima Online was a snap, and the setup program guided me effortlessly through the entire online registration program. Origin actually scored some major brownie points with their online registration for a very important reason: unlike most Internet games, which require a valid credit card before you can even take a peek, this is not the case with Ultima Online. Your first month of online play is “free” — or rather, that’s what you get for your 60 plus dollars. If you decide to take advantage of only these first 30 days, you need not enter any credit card information; after that time, you account will be put on “hold.” If you do supply your credit card number, then the monthly fee of $10 will kick in once the trial is over. Once you get into Ultima Online for the first time, you will be faced with a horrible realization: you have absolutely no idea what to do. You are thrust into this harsh, totally unforgiving virtual world with absolutely no idea how to control your character. God forbid you are attacked by something in these first crucial moments, because you’ll have absolutely no idea how to defend yourself! For a game this advanced, Ultima Online has to have the least intuitive interface I’ve ever seen. True, Diablo is nowhere near as complex as Ultima Online, but I knew how to play the game after only a few minutes. In UO, it took me a few hours. The gameplay should be complex, and should keep me involved for hours; the interface should not. Much like in Diablo, moving and performing actions is accomplished by a point-and-click interface. Unfortunately, most actions must be accomplished by opening up a list of skills, and then using the appropriate skill in the right manner. For example, taming a dog would mean opening up the “skills” list, finding the “tame animal” skill, clicking on it, and then chasing after the animal in question, in the hopes of nailing it with your targeting cursor. Yes, this is as impossibly difficult as it sounds. This is where the macros come in. In essence, the player can program any number of moves into macros, which allow you to bypass all of the menu opening and just hit a couple of keys. For example, I have macros set up for calling my dog, selling items in a store, and hiding in the wilderness. These are a real life saver, and are really tantamount to my enjoyment of the game. What’s totally unacceptable is the fact that they are so impossibly difficult to initially figure out. For more on this and other issues of game difficulty, check out the Intelligence & Difficulty section below.
Gameplay: Enjoying Ultima Online requires that one thing that has become increasingly scarce among gamers — patience. In Meridian 59, and Diablo, I found that my first few hours playing were incredibly exhilarating, but the more I played it, the less enjoyable the game became, simply because I felt I had done everything and there just wasn’t much more excitement to be had. In Ultima Online, the complete opposite has proven to be true. My first few hours in UO were a gamer’s nightmare. I had no idea where to go, what to do, or how to do it. I played for awhile, around 5 or 6 hours, and then quit out of sheer frustration. But, in the interest of writing a fair and critical review, I knew I had to play the game for a longer period of time. So I did, and an amazing thing happened. The more I played Ultima Online, the more I learned about the interface and the incredibly lifelike game world. And the more I learned, the more I enjoyed. So far, I’ve logged about 30 or 40 hours online, and my enjoyment keeps growing. I now have specific goals — I want to join the Ranger’s Guild, buy a lodge out in the woods, and some day own my own tavern near Yew. These are all things that can be accomplished within the scope of the game, so my expectations are very real. Let me be perfectly clear here — Ultima Online has the most unlimited gameplay of any single computer product on the market today. I love this game, and if you can put up with the hassles, you will too. Of course, it’s also important that I keep my patience level up, because Ultima Online has also made me want to pull the hair out of my head — on more than one occasion. Server trouble means lag, and lots of it. It doesn’t seem to happen that often, but when it does, the game can come to an absolute halt. The worst single thing that happened to me is something I will never, ever forget, and it goes down in the annals of gaming history as the biggest crime ever perpetuated upon an online gamer. There I was, minding my own business, when some ugly lizardman thing bum rushed me from out of a swamp. In a head-to-head fight he would have killed me in a second, but being an archer does have its advantages; I managed to keep my distance and fill him full of arrows in no time flat. When I checked his body for goodies, my jaw hit the floor: he had more treasure than I had even thought imaginable. So much, in fact, I couldn’t even carry it all! There were items in his possession that had obviously been owned by previous characters, and I felt damned lucky to have escaped unharmed. I quickly gathered up as much as I could carry and was just about to head to Britain to sell my wares, when the unimaginable happened — I got disconnected from the server. Okay, I thought, no problem…I’ll just log back on and pick up from there. Well, I logged back on all right, but was completely horrified by what I discovered. The server had crashed, and the game was restored to the previous system backup, which had occurred a half hour earlier! Aaaaaarrrrggghhhh! Needless to say, my spirits were completely crushed. All my treasure — gone. The hundred arrows that Galahad had so generously given me — gone. I would rather get PK’d ten times in a row than ever have that happen again. Still, though, that was an isolated experience, and as bad as it was, it did not shatter my enjoyment of the game.
Sound FX: Generally, the sound effects in Ultima Online are very good. Every animal and monster has its own unique sound, and when you give a pet a command, it responds appropriately. There are footsteps when you walk, the sounds of carving as you make arrows, and screams when you die in battle. There are some ambient sounds, but it’s often difficult to tell if they’re are there just to add ambiance, or are actually indicative of wildlife or monsters. For example, travelling through a forest might illicit the sounds of chirping birds; sometimes there may be birds present, and other times maybe not. One thing Ultima Online could really benefit from is some digitized speech within the game itself. I’m obviously not suggesting that Origin go in and add voices to the thousands of NPC characters — that would be ridiculous. But some speech, somewhere, would really help to flesh out the gameworld and make it seem even more real than it already is.
Musical Score: Ultima Online uses MIDI music at stages in the game, more to indicate what is going on in the world around you than to set the mood. There is music that is specific to fighting, entering towns, encountering NPCs, and entering taverns. There are some tunes I haven’t even figured out the significance of yet, but I know they’re playing for a specific reason simply because of their tone. Overall the music is effective for what it is, but is really no more impressive than that of some of the older Ultima games.
Intelligence & Difficulty: I have to give credit where credit is due — the webmaster of the official Ultima Online website has done an incredible job of giving gamers all the information about UO they could possibly want. Thank God. Because this is the only place you can get that information! That’s right, Ultima Online does not come with a printed manual. Apparently, Origin figured it was enough just to have all of this crucial information available on the website, since UO is an online game. That kind of attitude is downright insulting to the consumer. Packaged with the CD are a cloth map of Britannia and a pewter UO pin. Stuff like this used to come in the Ultima games as extras, in addition to fully detailed instruction manuals and game guides. Origin could have at least had the common courtesy to throw in a printer ribbon and some paper, because printing out as many of the online docs as possible is an absolute necessity. Without this printed information at your fingertips, you are forced to Alt+Tab out of Ultima Online back into Windows 95, and then search through the online databases to find the relevant data. This is ridiculous, considering the fact that this is happening while your character is still in the game, completely vulnerable to monsters and player killers alike! In fact, it is this lack of any solid printed documentation that makes Ultima Online such a chore to learn. There’s no two ways about it — the game is just way too hard to learn how to play. It’s really a shame, too, because this category would have gotten a stellar intelligence rating due solely to the intricacies of the Britannian gameworld, and the lifelike actions of the monsters and NPCs.
Overall: This has been the most difficult review I have ever had to write. Fairly and honestly evaluating Ultima Online has been akin to serving on the jury of a high profile murder case after you’ve already been exposed to the negative reaction of the press and unfavorable public scrutiny. The newsgroups are loaded with people who claim that “Ultima Onlag” is a waste of money, player killing is rampant, there’s not enough to do, etc., etc. These people are certainly entitled to their opinions. Hey, they paid good money for this product, and if they don’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth, they are entitled to gripe. I have experienced the worst of the worst, so I can completely sympathize. I would argue, however, that for every person who returns Ultima Online to their local software retailer, there are 20 people who play UO, and enjoy it immensely. After all, when you’re happy with a game, you’re usually too busy playing it to defend it in the newsgroups. I especially love the gamer who protests, “I play Ultima Online all the time, and all this bad stuff keeps happening to me!” Well you know what? That person is still playing the game! If that’s not an indication of something special, I don’t know what is. Yes it’s expensive, and it has some serious problems that need immediate attention, but it can’t be denied that Ultima Online is a unique, intriguing, thoroughly enjoyable gaming experience — once you learn how to play, and accept it for what it is. It’s no secret that computer game reviewers get their games for free; that’s part of the job. After my one-month trial is up, I am going to pay the $10 a month for Ultima Online, and I will continue to do so until I find another game that keeps me so thoroughly immersed. Somehow, though, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I love games, and there are certainly gems that stand out above all others; I play these whenever I can, and they bring a smile to my face. Yet no game in recent memory has compelled me to keep playing like Ultima Online. No game has completely and utterly immersed me in a gameworld so involving, so life-like, I actually care about the NPCs! No game has even come close to giving me a character I care about so much, and have invested so much time and effort in. So give me the player killers, give me the often unbearable lag, and give me the soul-shattering restorations after I’ve spent a half hour collecting loot. Origin asks, “Are you with us?” I’m with you all right. I see a game with limitless possibilities, and it’s only going to get better.
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