Ultima IX: Ascension

a game by Origin Systems
Platform: PC
Editor Rating: 8/10, based on 2 reviews
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It's hard to believe, but the Ultima legacy is finally drawing to a close. Ascension, the ninth and final chapter in the mythology's main story line, wraps up the Guardian Trilogy in grand style, boasting an all-new 3D engine, 16-bit textures, and native 3Dfx support. In Ascension, The Avatar of Virtue's final quest requires him to free the people of Britannia from the Guardian, who has seized control of the world. Can Origin take the most successful 2D RPG ever into the 3D realm without losing the series' magic (or any of its fans)? We'll know more after E3, so check back in a future issue of GamePro for all the details.

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Game Reviews

Overview

In the words of the Ultima IX website: "Prepare to embark on an adventure beyond imagination with the return of the best selling role-playing series of all time. In the ninth and final chapter in the 20-year legacy you return to Britannia for your last epic quest. As the heroic Avatar, only you can save Lord British and his people from the evil Guardian who has devastated the landscape and tainted the eight sacred virtues. Valiant combat, magical prowess and knowledge of the eight virtues are your weapons against evil in Ultima IX: Ascension, the most epic role-playing game ever created for the PC."

And they weren’t kidding. Ultima IX is perhaps the most immersive, detailed, and seamlessly constructed digital fantasy world ever constructed.

Gameplay, Controls, Interface

The gameplay in Ultima IX, though not entirely innovative, is near-perfectly executed. From a storyline perspective, the game holds your hand through the beginning sequences and swiftly opens up to allow you to go just about anywhere and do just about anything you can imagine. It still suffers from some of the telltale signs of a scripted storyline, but don’t mistake that for a limitation -- the script is extremely large and there are an estimated 18 hours of recorded voiceovers.

I must confess that I am new to the Ultima series of games. I may have dabbled with Exodus for about 10 minutes on the NES, but that was years ago and it wasn’t graphically rich enough to hold my interest for long against the likes of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. Fortunate for a neophyte like myself, Ultima IX: Ascension draws the player into the story and gives more than enough information to jump right in and start solving Britannia’s troubles.

Ultima IX: Ascension has one of the most ingenious (if not intuitive) interfaces of any role-playing game ever. The mouse is normally used for movement and to direct an over-the-shoulder free-look camera, but can be shifted (via the Q key) to a stylized mouse-cursor for selection and manipulation of on-screen objects. If the Tab key is pressed, combat mode is entered and the mouse changes responsibilities yet again.

The games inventory system is fairly standard. The player is strongly urged to pick up a backpack in the beginning of the game, as well as some other essentials for the trip to Britannia. A rather innovative interface feature (in my experience) is that a few of the items in the game (the Journal, Spellbook, Backpack, and Map of Britannia) actually enable permanent interface features once they are picked up.

Origin also added some intelligence to the act of collecting items and swapping gear. The player character is used as a convenient medium for accessing the backpack or other inventory storage places. For example, if a book of interest is lying on the ground, the player can press Q to enter cursor mode and drag-and-drop the book on the Avatar. Because the book is just a book and not a piece of clothing of some kind, it will be intelligently placed in the first available inventory slot in the backpack. If there is no room in the backpack or one of the bags contained within it, it will be placed in an empty slot on the tool-belt, and so on. If the item in question is actually some form of armor or weapon, it will be exchanged for whatever you’re currently wearing (in the beginning of the game this is actually useful, as much of what you find is better than what you have).

Graphics

The graphics are stunning, though a bit overwhelming for more lightweight systems. A ready example of this complexity is the complete weather system it spends time thinking about, including such often under-done elements as thunderstorms. When it rains, the sky darkens, thunder rolls, lightning strikes, and each raindrop is actually generated in the clouds and tracked as it falls to earth. While this may seem like an excruciating amount of realism (especially when your poor 400 MHz processor rolls over and starts begging for mercy), it definitely helps maintain the believability of the world.

True to form, Origin outdid themselves on all levels of production; even the rendered movies are of very good quality and consistent with the game graphics. (Often times, the current environment smoothly transitions into a cut-scene, though there are some obvious discrepancies with regards to what the Avatar is wearing -- he always appears in his standard garb, regardless of what you’re watching).

My only gripe with the game's graphics (aside from being overdone) is the movies. Call me a traditionalist, but I really think Origin was on to something with later games in the Wing Commander series. Full motion video shot on film with an all-star cast just can’t be beat, not even by the best rendering package out there. And with the proliferation of PC DVD-ROM drives, offering a version of the game on DVD with a cinema-quality video transfer would have been awesome. I would suggest it for the next installment, but Origin swears that this is the last Ultima.

Audio

Ultima IX supports EAX and DirectSound3D and utilizes both formats very convincingly. There are lots of high quality mood sounds like splashing water, birds chirping, as well as a dynamic musical score that tells you when you’re in trouble. The musical score, mastered at their in-house THX-certified studio, is very good -- perfect for a medieval setting and unique to each of the game's many areas. The sound effects for things such as magic and combat are also convincing and sickeningly real at times. Voiceovers are convincing and there is an option to turn on full text of all spoken dialogue in case you don’t quite understand some of the accents in the game. Overall, the lip-synching is very good, reminiscent of Milli Vanilli before they were "discovered."

System Requirements

Minimum: Windows 95 or 98, 266 MHz or faster Intel Pentium II processor, 64 MB RAM, 8x CD-ROM drive (1200K/second transfer rate) using 32-bit Windows 95/98 CD-ROM driver, 8 MB 3D graphics Accelerator with DirectDraw and Direct 3D or Glide compatible driver, 640 x 480 screen resolution, DirectX 7 compatible sound card, 600 MB free hard disk space, plus space for saved games (additional space required for DirectX 7 installation), keyboard, & a mouse.

Recommended: 400 MHz or faster Pentium II processor, 128 MB RAM, 1 GB free hard disk space plus space for saved games, 16 MB 3D graphics accelerator using the Voodoo3 chipset, DirectX 7 compatible sound card with EAX and DirectSound3D support.

Performance: Despite testing the game on a system with all the recommended hardware, I still had difficulty maintaining more than 20 fps even in 640x480 with all the in-game settings optimized for performance. This gave gameplay in general an overwhelming feeling of choppiness. I also noticed that the game (even with 128 MB of RAM) spent a majority of the time swapping things around on the hard drive while I was playing, seemingly the cause of the lag. Some people might propose that I need a faster hard drive, but I find that hard to believe as the drive in question is an LVD Seagate Cheetah running at 10,000 rpm through an Adaptec 2930-U2 SCSI controller, arguable the fastest HDD / controller combination on the market for a single drive. If the game is written correctly, I can only theorize that this swapping is by design or more memory is required to achieve good performance. If you seriously want to experience this game in its full glory, borrow an extra 128MB DIMM from a friend and cross your fingers.

Documentation

The provided documentation is more than adequate. The game even comes with some collectible tarot-style cards representing the in-game Virtues and a full-color cloth map similar to those included in previous Ultima installments.

The website is also noteworthy both in appearance and in content. It contains some rather cool stories that are completely extraneous to the game. These stories walk the visitor through the new incarnation of the Virtue system, explaining in detail their interactions and giving fantasy anecdotes about their usage.

Parental Warning

This game is rated ‘M’ for Mature by the ESRB -- it contains graphic depictions of medieval combat, spurting blood and all. It also contains adult language, which is inappropriate for children. In the small part of the huge adventure that I played, I did not encounter any "adult situations" or nudity, but I cannot say, with a rating of ‘M,’ that they do not exist.

Watch What You Eat: If I were rating this game as a movie, I would give it an ‘NC-17.’ Something that may or may not be factored into the ESRB’s rating system is what I perceive to be the greatest moral danger in the game. The game is wrought with magick symbols and lengthy discourses on ritual magick, both in the form of books and conversations. (I use the term ‘magick’ rather than ‘magic’ to differentiate between what stage magicians do and what various Occultic religions actively practice). The game also enforces the use of various forms of magick that bear resemblances to both ancient and modern-day Occultic rites, including (but not exclusive to) the requiring of various spell components and the binding of spells to a spellbook, which is ever-present on the screen with the embossed symbol of a pentagram circumscribed by a circle. (Please note that I am not claiming that these representations are entirely accurate, but they bear striking resemblance to the "real thing," and within the game carry much of the same demonic influence and power).

If these gameplay elements were optional and not thrust upon the player as a requirement, I would not have nearly the same spiritual burden with this game that I do. In fact, I would leave it at an ‘R’ equivalent and move on. But for those who care to pay attention to what their children are digesting, I strongly suggest considering the moral and spiritual implications of exposing your children and yourselves to enforced simulation of magickal rites.

Bottom Line

Anyone who has spent serious time browsing through the pages of the Ultima IX website can easily see that Origin did not slouch on any facet of this game. The whole package, from site to software exudes commitment to quality. This commitment to excellence has long been a hallmark of Origin’s software titles, consistently pushing the boundaries of what can be done with current hardware and software, as well as scope and storyline.

Despite my personal issues with some of the game’s magical components, these are standard fare with the genre, and any criticism of mine will likely be taken with a grain of salt. This game is targeted at role-players, and role-players generally expect and even appreciate the level of accuracy that this latest incarnation of Ultima puts forth. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ve probably bought it already. If you’re looking for a good fantasy game, you’ll enjoy this one. I personally can’t recommend it (due to my aforementioned reservations), but I can truthfully say I am amazed and even awestruck at the depth of gameplay, storyline, and technological advancement that this game embodies.

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