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Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn Preview

Posted Wed, Jan 28, 2009 by Dalmarus

Ten years ago, no one could have guessed that the MMOG genre would explode like a star going nova. There was little in the way of choices at the time, and in the early days, Ultima Online and EverQuest were the big dogs of the yard. Before his involvement in Tabula Rasa garnered such hard feelings from the online community, Richard “Lord British” Garriott was hailed as a visionary for creating the original Ultima series of games, an incredibly detailed world that would unfold over the course of nineteen years. He was also deeply involved in the early creation and evolution of Ultima Online, so much so that he would often be present for live events within the game. In the end, Ultima Online may not have won the MMOG war, but no one can argue that it was fundamental to the genre's beginnings.

In last week's Forever Fantasy column, I talked about going back to some of the most influential MMOG games. Ultima Online had never really been my particular cup of tea, but last week I realized things had changed a lot over the course of ten years, and I decided to take a deeper look. I'm happy to report that so far, I haven't been disappointed by that decision.

The bank may be messy, but it's a great place to leave loot for new players!

When Ultima Online originally hit store shelves, Garriott’s world was a complete free for all and although the concept of griefing wasn't new to those familiar with other online games (Diablo, anyone?), this is where it truly began to hit its stride. The hopes and dreams of a completely open world in which your players are free to do whatever they can imagine is a noble one, but there was one crucial part of the equation that the developers had forgotten about in its creation – human nature.

There will always be someone in the world that gets their rocks off by killing new players with reckless abandon, even if they do get “murder points” in the process. Heck, for a lot of people, this only adds to the thrill. This is nothing surprising in today's online world, but it's important to note because the very first thing I noticed after creating my current 2009 character is the new built-in safety net. Unless you type “I renounce my young player status” and hit enter, you will be completely safe from other players for the first 40 hours of gameplay or the first 450 skill points accrued. To me, this is the most important and fundamental change in the game's history.

Others may argue, but the number one reason most players never gave Ultima Online a  fair shake (myself included) is because they never had a chance to actually learn anything about the game before the shard's local tool patrol ganked them within minutes of stepping outside of town. There are plenty of players that put up with this and simply trudged on, slowly gaining skill until they could fend for themselves, but I, along with many others, could not be counted among them.

Since I haven't had to worry about other players killing me right off the bat in my recent return, I've finally been able to discover the real reason why Ultima Online has continued to release expansions and attract new players over the years, despite its age. The game has an indescribable depth and inherent beauty in the design of its mechanics. For years now, the games I've played (along with most of you, I imagine) have gotten far easier and arguably more shallow. This isn't necessarily a complaint since the games I play now are generally a better fit with the time constraints of my life, but there are days where the newer games don't have the same sense of satisfaction that the older games provided. It could just be me, but I doubt I'm alone in this feeling.

Don't let the old school graphics fool you.

When compared to other games, Ultima Online doesn't possess a fraction of the classes and/or races available in the majority of today's titles. Rather than viewing that in a less than favorable light (as I'm normally wont to do), I think in this instance, it lends to the game's strengths. By limiting the number of choices, it has allowed the development team to focus more on the fundamental aspects of the game and its classes.

Ultima Online is not a game of levels. Initially, this was the strangest thing to get used to for me. I'm a level kind of guy, as it's a quick and easy way to have a general idea of a character’s strength. Not necessarily for PvP purposes, but as a tool for creating a mental image of the character when thinking of what to do or where to go. In Ultima Online, skills are the name of the game and unless you've played the game before, you wouldn't believe how many of them are available to you. No longer do you have to be a tree hugging hippie of a ranger to have an animal companion or pet. No longer are you restricted to one or two weapon types dependent on your class. Want to have a timber wolf for a companion? Start training your animal taming skill. Want to learn how to use a new weapon? Pick one up and start using it. It's as simple as that. Every skill is increased in the most organic method available – you learn by doing, and it's brilliant.

Ultima Online may be far from perfect, and it's certainly no where close to being the top dog in the yard anymore, but so far, it's proven itself to be far more fun than I've ever given it credit for in the past I'm happy to report that I'm looking forward to exploring the game further and bringing you a review in the near future. There's a reason Ultima Online has endured longer than almost any other MMOG on the market and I'm glad to finally be discovering why. Better late than never, right?
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