Ultima Online: Third Dawn
This is the latest in a series of updates to the original Ultima Online. Many changes to the game simply come through downloaded patches, but Third Dawn is an almost entirely new client, with a new set of 3D graphics. Don’t expect the kind of 3D experience you’ve seen in other games however; this feels far more like Diablo 2’s graphics. To be compatible with the 2D version that’s still out there, this update only puts a 3D skin on characters and monsters, and upgrades some textures. Those familiar with the 2D version won’t really see much change in the look and feel of the game. The playfield and angles are exactly the same as before, as is perspective. To see any real effects of the 3D, it’s necessary to zoom in for more detail (a neat new added feature). Still, it’s a nice face lift to an otherwise outdated graphic.
The other major change is the addition of an entirely new continent -- Ilshenar. Like the Lost Lands addition a couple of updates ago, this is new territory with new monsters. It’s also accessible only with the 3D client.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
The game is played the same as it has always been, though the interface has been upgraded somewhat. There’s a nice shortcut bar across the top for frequently used things like the character window and backpack. The character creation screens have been nicely updated as well and it’s pretty cool to actually see your character in fully-rotatable 3D on the character window.
The tutorial apparently hasn’t been worked on since the last update, since there are quite a few errors in it related to the new interface. New players are still likely to be very confused, even while running around Haven before they go play with the big kids.
And one more pet peeve: the NPCs still wander far too much. It’s a really big pain to have to go drag your vendor back into his shop in order to buy stuff from him -- especially when he’s halfway down the street or, in one case, on the roof of his shop!
Lag in Brittania is still problematic, especially in towns and near banks, and the 3D rendering actually makes this worse. It's best if you have a lot of memory on your machine to make your trips through town somewhat smoother. UO also doesn’t seem to be interested in adding new shards, aside from the specialty and test shards they put up from time to time. This only makes crowding much worse.
I think the PK changes from the last update have actually created a somewhat more polite brand of player as well. Someone actually cast a healing spell on my newbie swordswinger while she was poking at a timber wolf early on. I can’t remember that ever happening before. There’s still a contingent of K3wLd00ds but I think they’ve mostly moved on to other games by now. It’s overall a kinder, gentler UO, and this change alone makes the game almost worth playing now.
I’m more than a little perturbed that there’s still no support for Win2k. It’s time they got out of the dark ages on that one. It was also a little bizarre to see the game take 10 minutes to patch (on a DSL line) on install, when the box was just barely off the shelf. Did they really mess up that much after it shipped?
Originality / Cool Features
In addition to the zoom-in feature, which is my favorite update, there’s also a few cool new little things. Moongates now give you a choice of where to go, including going to the new continent. I’m also still happy with the change of giving new players "young" status, which makes them immune from monster attacks and sends them to a healer on death, with all possessions still on them.
I do like the new graphics, though it seems like they’re really wasted being so small.
My biggest complaint about the game, now that some of the major disabilities have been fixed, is something that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Namely, that many items are so incredibly small and the landscape so incredibly detailed now, that you will nearly go blind looking for small things on the ground. The 3D graphics haven’t exactly helped this, as there’s just more to look at -- with one exception: the zoom-in feature. Available most easily if you have a wheel mouse, you can now get pretty darn up close and personal with your character and his/her immediate surroundings. This is very valuable when looting a monster and random clicking on what looks to be a corpse part doesn’t get you anywhere. Unfortunately, backpack items are still very small and randomly scattered (though they have made the backpack area slightly larger), so you still have to waste a lot of time looking for little things. Some of the more recent housing updates seem to be working well, too. It’s now possible to run around the countryside and not run into a wall every six steps. The new continent also will be entirely devoid of housing as well, which should make it one giant playground.
One minor annoyance about the new trade window -- it isn’t immediately obvious where the scroll handle is, which is a bit confusing at first.
A few of the sounds have been upgraded and, of course, new sounds for the new monsters have been added in. Otherwise, it’s the same ol’ boring music they’ve used for years and the same annoying footstep sound that has to be turned off.
As before, the playguide that comes in the box is pathetic, forcing you to buy their "official" playguide, or do the smart thing and find the websites with the best info. At least they finally gave up on including any sort of monster guide in the booklet, since the ones they had before had no use whatsoever.
If you still have an unfortunate addiction to UO, and a machine with enough memory and a decent 3D card to run it, you’ll probably want this update. Of course, this will likely mean that you’ve now spent around $200 just on the boxed game and updates alone, not to mention what you’re spending on the subscription fees and playguides. But, if it floats your boat, go for it. I gotta give them credit for trying, though. It’s obvious that they want the game to survive, even after all its slings and arrows. The last update with the creation of a non-PK world solved one of the eternal problems, and the continual updates to the feel of the windows are nice. The way they have set up the new graphics also allows them to more easily add in new monsters and items, too, so I’m sure there will be many new patches down the pipeline. Still, the game itself is showing signs of wear. There’s only so much cosmetic surgery they can do and so many new lands they can create before it becomes obvious that the game is just on its last legs. Perhaps EA realized this when they recently scrubbed UO2, which was in development for several years.