#358 Ultima Online

Posted: 23rd March 2013 by Jeroen in Games
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226th played so far

Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1997
Developer: Origin Systems
Publisher: Electronic Arts

And I suppose it’s about time we start with the granddaddy of them all. Ultima Online is one of the first MMORPGs, and with its rise being at the same time as the rise of the internet, it’s little wonder it was the first to really take off.

For that reason, it’s been a game I’ve always been curious about. Ultima has always been a bit of a magic name (I used to love Ultima Underworld) and playing it online? With other people? That sounds awesome, right?

It’s dated. I know that’ll affect our opinions (it’ll definitely lower my expectations). Let’s see how that goes.

Our Thoughts

Oh my god. Okay, I knew this was an isometric game, on some level. I know that’s what the old Ultima games were like. It’s just almost scary how unused I am to this. No it isn’t, it’s fricking confusing!.

That’s not to say I don’t like isometric in general – I’m loving my current playthrough of Baldur’s Gate 2 and don’t get put off by the graphics, but this feels different. Despite us using the enhanced client, the graphics are dated. Not terrible (I somehow remember worse screenshots) but just unclear enough that they feel off and harder to get into.

The controls don’t help with this either. The left-/right-click choices feel off and unintuitive and the stance mechanic (attack or talk is decided by a toggle on the taskbar, rather than using context) is difficult to get and adjust to. Add to that an impenetrable interface that seems to have grown randomly instead of being designed with some amount of care.  Seriously – a wheel of virtues sort of thing got a main button on the task bar, while getting to some of my skills or abilities or whatever took two or three clicks. Note that ‘some’ – different types were spread out over different pages, with some of my skills having to be dragged out of a book in my inventory. The hotbar seemed a bit random in what it can do, mostly taking experimentation.

There is a brief tutorial in game to help you get used to this, but it’s brief and doesn’t cover even a lot of basic actions. It’ll start you playing, but you’re mostly on your own, hoping you figure it out. This game dates from the time of the manual, and I guess that’s probably obvious in how little it holds your hand (I still don’t buy that you were meant to be killed by the first zombie you meet…).

There are, obviously, many similarities with Everquest. One of the more interesting ones is how it expanded its playing time. As with Everquest, Ultima Online seems to have added a large number of crafting mechanisms. I didn’t really get into it – it’s just not my thing – but I suppose I see how it can keep you interested. Playing these two early MMORPGs so close together means that it is impossible to not make comparisons between these two games.

In the end though, I suspect that by now this game really is only for the most hardcore fans, people returning and those who have the perseverance to go through. For its legacy it’s worth the inclusion in the list, and I’m glad I’ve given it a go. Still, if you want to play more online with others, it’s worth looking for other offerings. Whether it’s World of Warcraft or Guild Wars, many games derive from the formula and made it more up to date. And with there being stories of a new MMORPG in the Ultima world being developed, who knows what else we might find to play?

Final Thoughts

It is not a universal truth that we find older games hard to judge. There are many older games (such as Super Metroid and Railroad Tycoon) where much enjoyment has been derived because there is a sense of timelessness about their elements. As long as a game is tight and well designed it will be immortal; that’s all there is to it. However, like the grinding in Everquest or the menu systems in this game,  flaws become more and more pronounced as time goes by (something felt with Skool Daze) to the point where it is hard not to riff on their seemingly archaic nature. Sorry Ultima Online, I know you were a trailblazer but Everquest was far more impressive.