Ultima Online: The Second Age
|a game by||Origin Systems|
Ultima Online has changed considerably since our first review. There are now more than 100,000 players on dozens of game servers (or shards) and that has resulted in quite an evolution of the game. This update and add-on pack for the original is really quite essential for the serious UO player. The biggest addition is the Lost Lands, a whole new map full of mostly uncharted territory that can be accessed from various points in Brittania. Other changes include new monsters, modifications to the interface, better access to game options and more elaborate chatting capabilities. This is an extremely complex game with a lot of issues to it, which are addressed below.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The new interface design is nice, especially the option of having your playing field in a window, instead of full-screen with all your other little windows clogging the picture.
In terms of the biggest change -- the Lost Lands themselves -- we had mixed reactions. On one hand, the extra territory is quite nice -- less crowded, plenty of monsters and animals to make use of, etc. On the other hand, the stark, unforgiving landscape and the 'uncharted territory'? feel of the new place has already made it a haven for murderers, thieves and general miscreants. We strongly recommend that anyone who plays the game for the economic and social aspects remain in Brittania. The Lost Lands are great when you want to go kill things, but you are very, very likely to be killed yourself if you venture that direction. Don't take anything over there but a high-level character, or a sacrificial one, and don't even think about going alone. This is also still a game that really is only for the very dedicated RPGer, willing to sacrifice sleep and 10 bucks a month for skill-building time, which may be part of the reason for the high number of immature dweebs with nothing better to do than kill innocent tailors and blacksmiths.
It is also still a very social game, as trying to be a lone adventurer is basically suicide. It's too bad that it isn't easier for a single player to hook up with others -- the bulletin boards around the towns could stand to be updated into real newsgroup-style message boards, with sections for guild notices, help wanted posts and such in addition to the scores of ads for bounties on murderers (which on one shard was three pages long). If the player killers are to remain, roaming around basically unchecked (and nothing seems to indicate otherwise), it makes sense to make it easier for the non-player killers to band together and defend each other. As it stands, it's almost impossible to connect with other players unless you already know people in Real Life who play the game with you. Trying to talk to people in the towns usually gets you, at best, ignored and, at worst, robbed. Talking to people outside the towns is more or less asking to get killed. Joining a guild is all well and good, but if you have a newbie character to build up before you can do so, it's nearly impossible to do without leaving town and risking death, and therefore your hard-earned status. Not to mention that there are certain players who have made it their goal to infiltrate and destroy the guilds from the inside out -- rendering the idea of safety within a guild moot.
Unfortunately, add-on or no, many issues still remain. While in a technical sense, the game has vastly improved since our previous review because of the very nature of the game itself, there continue to be some serious problems. Some, like server downtime and lag, probably will never be able to be fully resolved for reasons beyond the developers' control, but many others are still in the process of being dealt with. This is such a vanguard of a game and otherwise so well put together that it's a shame to see that these problems still exist and have not been fully addressed. Unfortunately, many of those problems are things inherent in the type of game Origin is trying to produce. RPGs, especially those played in an online environment, have always been subject to player-based problems. From a review of UO player web sites, there are several common themes to the complaints, nearly all having to do with issues with other players and some game design features that have made it easy for people with violent tendencies and a bad attitude to make trouble for others in the game. They do seem to at least monitor player complaints and make some attempts at addressing them, such as sending out patches on a regular basis. They are currently, for instance, revamping the entire housing system to deal with several problems it had and supposedly are continually trying to come up with ways to deal with the inordinate proliferation of player-killers. The recent holiday lottery they had was also probably an attempt to get people to socialize more. Non-online games could never give this many updates. However, the system they currently have in place for dealing with both in-game issues and concerns and suggestions outside of game time needs serious help. When we sent mail to Origin through the response area on their website, the responses we received back were terse form letters that basically said, 'There's nothing we can do for you. You might want to post something on the message boards located on other sites. Our designers sometimes look there for ideas.'? In-game help was even worse. The one time we used it, the person responding gave one small piece of useless advice and then proceeded to ignore every other message that was sent. This is apparently not a unique experience, either, as testimony from many other players has also pointed up the very poor quality customer service.
Same as the original -- still quite a lot. Trying to run anything besides UO at the same time on a less-than-stellar system can cause the game to crash -- which is really frustrating if you're in the middle of a battle.
Minimum: Pentium 166, 16 MB RAM, Windows 95 or Windows 98, 2 MB PCI video card (DirectX supported set to 16-bit color), 16-bit sound card (DirectX supported), 383 MB hard drive space, 4X CD-ROM drive, mouse, Slip/PPP or direct connect at 28.8kbps or better with 32-bit TCP/IP stack.
Recommended: Pentium II 233, 32 MB RAM, 4 MB PCI video card, 16-bit sound card, 589 MB hard drive space, and 8x CD-ROM drive.
The huge new Playguide is very useful, especially to a new player, but still lacks some essential details. The monsters and animals sections, for instance, are almost totally useless because they give absolutely no way of rating the creatures. You could think, for instance, that a Slime might be a terrible creature to run away from, when in fact it's basically harmless. Or you could also decide to try to take on a Dire Wolf, and die almost instantly. Without any sort of 'least to most' nasty rating, there's no point in even looking there. The maps, both in the playguide and the big map of Brittania and the Lost Lands, are very helpful, however, and the controls card is welcome, too. When it comes to actually playing the game (and doing well at it), I would instead advise visiting one of the player-run web sites for all the info you need -- the best one was uoss.stratics.com. Even Origin's own UO site is pretty pathetic when it comes to useful information (aside from server downtimes). Also, whether it is from not wanting to admit what the game has become, or just not wanting to scare off newbie players, nothing in the documentation or the website gives you any clue of exactly how nasty the other players are. Perhaps even Origin never expected the game to attract so many players who are frank sociopaths, and therefore had no idea how to prepare for it, deal with it, and warn new players about it. For anyone who cut their teeth on D&D, Infocom games and non-graphic MUDs, and who expect the game to be more traditionally RPG-styled, the sheer numbers and utter viciousness of player-killers and other criminals is a nasty surprise. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of players on each shard who exist simply to make your day miserable (including folks who just hang around outside banks waiting to steal from people, and people who will kill you, then follow your ghost to a healer just so they can kill you again). There is no warning anywhere about this. There is some noise to the effect of 'be careful outside the towns,'? and a page or two telling you that they do allow evil characters, but nothing that prepares you for being ambushed by a gang of murderer/thieves when you've just finished fighting off a monster, are half-dead and are also dealing with server lag. This alone seriously put us off the game. Had we known from our pre-game documentation review to expect this, our experience with the game would have been much less disappointing.
Room For Improvement
The crux of the problems seem to lie in the fact that Origin is trying to keep two types of games -- player vs. player (PvP) and traditional role-playing -- on one playing field. The two playstyles, and the personalities behind them, are so vastly different that they constantly clash. Origin has to make a decision as to what type of game they really want this to become, because their current practice of fence-sitting isn't fixing any of the problems. There are plenty of things that they could do to make it harder to be a criminal, for example, but they have been hostile to those ideas -- probably because they're wary of making the PvPs mad and losing those subscribers. This despite the fact that PvP players are in the minority and that their actions make it impossible for a non PvP player to enjoy the game -- to survive, you have to get involved in that sort of action, whether that's the type of game you want to play or not. The only people who can really enjoy the game are the criminals, and that makes for a seriously unbalanced -- and un-fun'game. What seems at first to be a great role-playing game where you can spend months building your character into something nearly real, whether as a lumberjack or a blacksmith or a monster-killer, is instead a ruthless kill-or-be-killed deathmatch, where non-combat skills and activities are pointless. Ask anyone who has recently tried to create a character who is primarily a bard or a woodworker. The PvP style game isn't a problem if that is what they really want the game to be, and what they clearly advise new players it is. Judging from what can be seen in the basic game design, I don't think that that was their original intention. Why even have a bard character, for instance, if s/he is basically useless? Of course, one can enjoy a good vicious conquest game of Age of Empires, for instance, just as much as the next person, but that's because that is what is expected from that game. Going into UO with different expectations is like starting to play a nice game of checkers, only to see your opponent whipping out an AK-47 and asking if you want to up the stakes of the game. Despite Origin's protestations to the contrary, it's probably not necessary to leave things as they are and to try to make everyone happy. There is no way, with the current game setup, that they can. What they have to decide is which side they're going to fall on.
It's apparent that the folks at Origin have been working very hard to create an add-on that addresses many of the issues they've been having with UO since its early days. The addition of the Lost Lands is an attempt at dealing with a few of those -- most notably, the issues with housing that have created a sort of urban sprawl'? in the old lands.
Technically, it's still an outstanding game and there's a lot of hard work behind it, but it's almost a guarantee that Origin will steadily lose subscribers to the game if the big issues aren't resolved completely and not just band-aided. To quote someone from a post to a player site, 'The biggest problem isn't the game itself, but the players.'? UO isn't merely a piece of software; it's an online service, and any online service where people interact -- whether it's a BBS, online game or chat room -- will always have several immature idiots who come in just to harass other people. If the service or chat area in question has a strong policy for dealing with these troublemakers, they usually survive, and keep their subscriber population intact. Those that try to ignore the problem eventually fail. UO's original game designers must have thought about this at some point, but current effects of that planning are nowhere to be seen. The service agreement, for instance, contains a piece on their harassment policy which states in part that a player can be booted for making it impossible for other players to enjoy the game. The game also has the ability to 'ignore'? other players who may be harassing you. Neither of these measures is in any way useful, given the current environment of the game.
UO is currently immensely popular, and not without good reason. You don't get 100,000 players by being a totally rotten game, but that number is more than likely artificially inflated for one simple fact: they're the only game in town. From what we've read on the various player sites, other games of this type, such as the upcoming Asheron's Call and Everquest, have already thought about these problems before the games were put together and have put certain r