Ultima IX: Ascension
The trials and tribulations surrounding the release of Ascension in the US last November have been well documented in this magazine. The game was so bugged when it was released in the US that it has taken Origin five months (and three major patches) to clean it up and get it ready for release in Europe.
The good news is the UK version of Ascension is much more stable than the patched US version (don't be fooled by the reviews you may have read in other UK games mags which were based on a version of the game you will never see, and were a work of fiction as a result). It is still far from perfect (see the Bugwatch boxout for exact details of the bugs Origin couldn't sort out), but at least it is finally playable - more than can be said for the US version, which is still in a mess if reports on the Internet are to be believed.
Finally, we can take a good long look at the game which ends the trilogy of trilogies, the game that so many Ultima fans have waited so long for, the game that ends a series which has been a landmark in PC gaming for so many years, and after five long years in development, it had better be good. Unfortunately...
Tomb Raider Anyone?
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, being the last game of the series as we know it. If leaping about in dungeons and flicking switches is your thing, this is the game for you. On the other hand, if you're expecting Ascension to be 'Planescape: Torment in 3D' you will be sorely disappointed. There are some token RPG elements in the game, but if you blink you will surely miss them. Even the character generation process at the beginning is largely pointless.
Character generation is done through the standard Ultima routine of answering a gypsy's questions and arriving at a virtue that determines your class for the duration of the game, but the class you choose makes little or no difference to the gameplay. Whether you choose to be a fighter or a magic user is entirely up to you, but the difference between the two will exist quite literally in your mind. To the rest of the world you will still appear to be a multiclass jack of all trades, donning whatever weapons and armour you see fit and casting whatever spells take your fancy. After the incredibly complex and satisfying character development system Origin created for the excellent Ultima Online, Ascension comes across as being painfully shallow. Longstanding Ultima tans will play this game and think 'how could they do this to the Ultima series?'. Conversely, new gamers brought up on a diet of Quake and Tomb Raider clones may well take this simplistic 'RPG for babies' to their hearts. Regardless of this, one thing you could always count on with Ultima games is a constantly evolving and engrossing plot, which immerses you fully in Britannia and its environs and colourful characters. Oh dear.... another disappointment looms.
Keep It Simple
It wasn't enough for Origin to take the greatest RPG series of all time and turn it into a simplistic dungeon romp. The programmers evidently decided that a plot of any complexity would simply be too much for the new generation of gamers to take, so they quite literally did away with any semblance of a plot or storyline whatsoever. By way of example, the object of the game is thus: the shrines of Britannia have become corrupt. You must restore them all by going into a dungeon close to each shrine, killing some monsters, flicking a few switches, leaping about a lot, and in doing so restoring the shrines in question one by one. That, literally, is Ultima Ascension in a nutshell. If that sounds a little too repetitive and tedious for your taste, you should try actually doing it. I played Ascension for many, many hours and I had a distinct feeling of d6ja vu after 'completing' a shrine and then journeying to the next town only to discover that I had to repeat the whole process.
Admittedly there are many sub-quests which presumably are meant to provide brief respite from the endless shrine-fixing nonsense, but they are all boring and pointless in the extreme, without exception. If you are the sort of person who can be bothered hunting round the place for a water valve and returning it to the character who asked you for it, you will be rewarded with a 'thank you' from the citizen in question. That's it. No treasure, no secret items, and no gold to reward you for your efforts. As a result you are unlikely to venture out on the next pointless quest when the opportunity is presented.
There are other problems too. Conversations with characters in Britannia are totally uninspiring. The character voice-overs (which incidentally are abysmal) dictate that the text is identical, so complex conversational routes are a no-no. Couple this with a highly comical combat system (frantic mouse-clicking as you wave your weapon about randomly is the order of the day), and a spellbook with lots of spells which is nice but not necessary, except when you need to heal yourself or cast light spells in the dark, and suddenly Ultima Ascension is beginning to look 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.
So, Itscrap Then?
Not quite. Ironically, Ultima fans are likely to extract more entertainment from this game than the action adventure fans the product is aimed at. There is much to be said for walking round a 3D Britannia for the first time. The towns in the game may be ludicrously small compared to their counterparts in Ultima Online, but I defy you not to feel a surge of nostalgia as you walk into Britainnia and see it in all its 3D glory. The dungeon sections are perfectly acceptable and even engrossing in places, though you are led by the hand through most of them. And the graphics are breathtaking in places. We have said time and time again that graphics are not important, but we lied. Ascension has incredible graphics and a wonderful atmosphere. The familiar lands of Britannia come to life before your very eyes, and for many Ultima fans this alone will be enough.
The same cannot be said for non-Ultima converts, unless they are big Tomb Raidertans in which case they will find Ascension perfectly playable, but nothing special. Incidentally, spare a thought for your American gaming counterparts, who unwittingly paid good money to playtest this title for Origin so that you would get a game that was playable straight from the box. And don't forget to read the Bugwatch boxout (right), very important information lies therein.
UA is finished, but not perfect, oh no...
When Origin released this in the US, it effectively put alpha code into a box and sold it to unsuspecting gamers all over the US. Over the last few months, while the American public has been trying to play the game, Origin has been busy completing it Ha ha ha ha ha. Highly amusing? No. The software available in the UK is the game it should have released in the first place. Amazingly, it is still unfinished even now. Shopkeepers still float about 3ft above their chairs. Savegames still get comipted for no apparent reason. Sound effects get 'stuck' and repeat themselves, sometimes they work again if you leave them a minute, sometimes they simply hang your machine. As for the frame-rate, don't get me started. On an Athlon 600 with 256Mb RAM and a Voodoo 3 card, the game still jerked. You need a killer machine to get this thing to run acceptably. 030 support is still suspect, particularly on TNT2 cards (and notoriously on a GeForce). If you really want to play Ascension, buy a Voodoo 2 card or better, if you don't already have one. Despite all this, the game is playable for the first time since Its release. Ascension has been cleaned up considerably during the course of the three huge patches it has had since November, but it is no easy ride. And don't expect any new patches either. Origin closed the official Ultima Ascension website and announced there would be no more patches after patch 3, which was nice - in one fell swoop disowning all the people who had bought the game and moving on to other projects. My advice to you is very simple: if you really want to buy this game, you go right ahead and buy it, but buy it from somewhere that has a no-quibble, money-back policy, so if you have too many problems you can send it back from whence ft came. You have been warned.
Download Ultima IX: Ascension
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.