|a game by||Origin Systems|
Sharpen your swords: Origin's taking RPGs to the next level with Ultima Online, a revolutionary approach to multiplayer gaming that allows thousands of players to interact in a massive real-time RPG via the Internet. By hooking up to Origin's servers, gamers can join in an ongoing RPG adventure where they build their characters' skills, cut deals with other gamers or NPCs, amass wealth, create and run guilds, slay dragons, and otherwise embroil themselves in intrepid adventures. This dazzling fusion of online gaming and a classic RPG will surely score big with PC gamers.
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A Day In The Life of Viper
A Day in the Life of One
Ultima Online is an online-only role-playing game of the dragons/magic/swords variety. The environment covers 200 million virtual square feet and contains about twelve towns and seven dungeons, with monsters, wildlife, and surprises in between. The population of this virtual world varies somewhere between two and three thousand individual human beings at any given time. Live people, just like you, playing from all over the world at once.
Some of them are struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile world. Others, who've been around a little longer, are economically stable and socially secure. And, of course, there's the usual assortment of wanton idiots, thugs, self-righteous player-killing 15-year-olds, etc.
Sound like a fantastic idea? It is. The reality, however, falls short of the mark. Origin is venturing into uncharted territory here, which is an easy thing to want but a difficult thing to make a success. Of course, there are those that love the game and those that hate it -- for a sampling of what daily life in Britannia is like from a first-hand perspective, see the "Day in the Life" pieces of two adventurers: One.and
Very simple -- single and double clicks of both the right and left mouse buttons control most of your item handling, movement, combat, and so on. A click and slight drag brings up the health window of whomever you clicked on. Clicking to some things might seem like a bit more trouble than it should be -- using a skill, for instance, requires that you double click your character, click the skill button, then select the desired skill from the scrollable list -- a series of tasks that can be kind of a pain when you want to use a particular skill several times in a row. Fortunately, however, you can circumvent this by creating macros that allow direct access to any number of skills you like. A keystroke or two, and you're taming an animal, tracking, building an item -- whatever.
Comments On The Overall Design
Well planned and implemented. If you live in an area where you regularly visit or pass through a handful of cities, you might recognize a few things. Yew, for example, is sparse, woodsy and without paved roads. It feels very much like what it is -- a somewhat isolated village on the far northwestern end of the main continent. The businesses tend to cater towards rangers and other outdoorsy types. Trinsic, on the other hand, has an upscale feel, with bright yellow brick streets, and a sedate, but active, economy. Britain is, of course, the bustling metropolis, with gray, paved roads, and ample opportunities for the burgeoning adventurer. It feels very alive and very old. It's also a good place to get your pocket picked.
The Economy is real. One of the best ways for a starter to make money is by making items, like sextants, clocks, bows, and so on, and selling them to NPC proprietors in town. The caveat is this: if there's a glut in the market, you might not find anyone to buy. If someone arrived a minute earlier and sold tons of the same item you were hoping to sell, then they won't buy from you. Things found, like furs, are practically a dime a dozen, and very difficult to unload. Meats are a little easier to hock, but still no great moneymaker. (They are a little easier to sell, and fetch a better price, when cooked, but cooking for profit is a basically fruitless endeavor unless you have a cooking skill of at least fifty percent. When you fail to cook, it burns to a crisp.) If you want the cash, then it's time to get to work.
It isn't enough in UO to simply choose a category like "fighting", or "magic". The former, for example, encompasses a wide variety of skills: "tactics", "swordplay", "parrying", and more. While "animal taming" is a good skill, if you're not up on your "animal lore", you might not know what to feed your pet, and it may eventually leave you or attack you, depending on it's temperament.
The jury is still out when it comes to the real value of this kind of system, however. In many cases, it still comes down to the numbers, it's just that there are more of them. (See the combat section immediately below.)
Something pleasantly unexpected about this game was the ability to form a party for a quest and have all the members be valuable, regardless of their stats. In your usual multi-player RPG, those with lower stats are dead weight -- people who can't go where the big guys and gals can go and be something more than a burden. In UO, it's actually feasible to enter a dungeon or fight monsters above ground (in a group), even if you're a lower level character. You can still get a few hacks in and back away, letting someone else take over for a minute while your recuperate. To be clear -- while I do say that it's feasible, I don't mean to imply that it's easy or without risk.
This, I think, gets very much to the heart of the game. Ultima Online is, more than anything else, a game about social interaction. While you can play as a loner, the moments that are the most satisfying involve other live people. Friends are valuable and revenge is personal. Getting killed by an Orc Captain or some such thing is frustrating, to be sure, but another live human being killing my little guy -- the guy I'd nurtured into a hero, trained and fed -- pisses me off!
The problem with combat skills, regardless of how complex and involved they may be, is that the activity of fighting still comes down to your character's statistics. The way it works is this: if you want to fight somebody or some thing, you enter combat mode and click on whomever you wish to attack. From then on out you are no longer involved in the activity unless you decide to disengage and run away. You'll be a voyeur to your own victory or defeat. This is something of a double-edged sword, I suppose, in that I appreciate this system when I'm sure to be victorious, but not when I lose.
Never perfect. Sometimes the lag was bearable, with only minor snaps and glitches. Other times, hover, it was enough to make me give up playing. Especially notable was a habit the server had of booting me off when I entered combat mode. Ultima is built with certain safeguards against those that would make mischief and then vanish into thin air, one of which is that if you log off without camping or staying at a lodge, your character stays plainly visible (read: killable and lootable) for quite some time afterward.
The detail of character/creature images/animation and the surrounding environments aren't up to snuff with the finely drawn images provided by, say, Diablo. And while the Origin website strongly implies that the game will look better than the screenshots they have available, it doesn't. At least not to any measurable degree. The graphics, in their quality, are average at best.
There is, however, some variety available. Gender, hairstyle, and even skin tone are all customizable at the beginning of the game. And if you decide, for instance, that you'll traipse through town wearing nothing but a hot pink cloak and a g-string, then you can bloody well do just that. (Buck-naked is not an option, however.) In town you can have your clothes dyed or purchase more garments -- which provides numerous possibilities for creating your own special "look"
While there are some very nice touches (you can hear the approaching footsteps of other people, and your entrance into a city is accompanied by appropriately majestic music), I'd have liked a little more. In the cities, for instance, it would have been nice to hear a little urban ambiance. This would be especially true of certain places like the forge, in Britain, which is always crowded. As far as the general quality is concerned -- the music nice, but the sound effects are (to reuse a phrase) average at best. Animal and monster noises aren't very exciting, and don't do much to really enhance the gameplay.
The minimum system requirements for Ultima Online are: Pentium 133, 16 MB RAM, Windows 95, 1 MB PCI video card that supports DirectX set to 16-bit color, 16-bit sound card, 261 Megs hard drive space, 4x CD-ROM drive, Microsoft-compatible mouse, Slip/PPP or direct connect at 14.4k bps or better with 32-bit TCP/IP stack.
The preferred system for Ultima Online is: Pentium 166, 32 MB RAM, 2 MB PCI video card, 550 MB hard drive space, 8x CD-ROM drive, Slip/PPP or direct connect at 28.8k bps or better with 32-bit TCP/IP stack.
Valid credit card required for game installation. Internet connectivity required to play.
Documentation & Support
As of this writing, the website listed for tech support, http://www.origin.ea.com/tech/uo, doesn't provide anything but an error message. I would have expected them to have fixed this by now. Taking a stab at http://www.origin.ea.com/tech/ provided me with a default page and a dropdown box of games to choose from, but Ultima Online wasn't among them.
The literature that comes in the box is refreshingly sparse. Most of the things that aren't included -- NPC vocabularies, animal commands, and so on -- are easy to find out while playing the game. All you have to do is ask somebody.
A fantastic, ambitious idea that that isn't quite ready for the prime time. Or that prime time isn't ready for. However diligently the Origin servers are maintained and their connections sped, the Internet simply may not be ready for this game. To say that lag can ruin the game is to belabor the point -- it can ruin most games on the market. But here, with the persistence of your character and the investment of time required to make playing fun, lag can b, and is, deadly.
Also, as is evidenced by the newsgroups and other forums, opinion is heavily divided over this title. Designing an environment that can keep up to 5,000 people happy at once is a formidable task, and I'm not sure that Origin has succeeded. At this point, Ultima Online rates a 73 for a great idea whose time has not yet come.