Ultima 9: Ascension

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Prepare to embark on the final adventure in Ultima–the best selling role-playing saga of all time that has nurtured generations of gamers. Answer the call and return to Britannia for your last epic quest. As the heroic Avatar only you can save Lord British and his people from the evil Guardian who has devastated and corrupted the land. Buy from Good Old Games


A New Age of Enlightenment?

Long ago, a role-playing game of epic proportions appeared on my computer screen. Instead of the normal hack-n-slash dungeon crawl that defined the genre, the game dealt with virtues, emotions and sacrifice. I was drawn into that world like no other before or since, with its own history, values, epics and challenges. The game was Ultima IV, and I was instantly hooked. Since then, I have played every Ultima incarnation and have rarely been disappointed. Many consider (myself included) the Ultima series, especially IV and VII, to be the finest RPGs ever made

However, in an effort to mass-market the Ultima series, Originstumbled badly with the abominable Ultima VIII: Pagan. After that debacle, Lord British himself (Richard Garriott) promised a return to the Ultima of old, a return to Britannia and the virtues that make up the core of the series. So it was with great expectation that I received my copy of Ultima IX: Ascension (U9) – the final game in the ‘trilogy of trilogies” that makes up the Ultima series. U9 had some pretty big shoes to fill and while it may be a good game, it is not a fitting end to this series.

Eye Candy, but the Jar is Broken

The first thing you’ll notice when you load up U9 are the graphics. Origin’s slogan has been “We Create Worlds” and did they ever in U9, which has some of the most amazing 3D visuals found in any game. This world is alive – water flows, butterflies fly around, storms move in and out, night falls and the sun rises, all with breathtaking results. When the Avatar (the male hero, no choice here) is climbing a trail in the mountains, it truly feels like you’re climbing up rugged, steep terrain. And when that trail bends to the left or the right, the views are sweeping visages of the splendor of nature. It all lends an immersive effect to the land of Britannia. There have been times that I have stopped playing and just stood there, admiring the sunrise coming up over Trinsic or watching the sky clear after a thunderstorm. Lighting, spell effects and characters have also been excellently modeled. The light dances off the walls as the Avatar carries a torch through a dungeon, shadows flicker as a spell is cast and the characters themselves look good. The Avatar and even the monsters move very fluidly, much as you think they should. It’s all a very impressive visual display.

Beautiful Spell Effects
Beautiful Spell Effects

However, all of this beauty comes with a price and U9 extracts a high toll. The D3D support is nonexistent. While RPGs don’t require the same smooth frame rates as do a flight simulator or first person shooter, the frame rates on even the fastest systems are abysmal. It’s obvious the game was rushed out the door with Glide support, but not with D3D optimization. A patch is forthcoming, but for now, non-Glide owners beware – this will run slowly no matter what hardware you have.

Sadly too, the world of Britannia seems to have shrunk. InUltima VII, the last time I visited Britannia, the capitol city of Britain was huge, with well over two dozen buildings. In U9, Britain has maybe 10 buildings and far fewer people. Islands that were once separated by miles of ocean now seem close enough that you can try to swim to them. Of course, if you haven’t played any of the Ultimas before, this may not bother you. But as an experienced Ultima fanatic, I don’t believe less is more in this case – I wanted to see and explore more of the world. Perhaps the small size of the world is due to the beauty of the graphics and adding more of the world would make the game too large to fit on normal-sized hard drives. Whatever the case, I’m left wondering what force mysteriously shrunk my beloved Britannia.

Origin, thou has lost an eighth of the plot!

The plot is a continuation of Ultima VII and Ultima VIII – the Guardian is again menacing the land of Britannia, and you’re back as the Avatar to save the world one last time. This time, the Guardian has caused huge columns of evil to erupt from the depths of Britannia. These columns destroyed the eight shrines of virtue, the code that the Avatar champions. At the same time, the Runes of the eight great Virtues were stolen, twisted in Glyphs of Vice and put in the bottom of eight dungeons. This has caused the people in each of the eight major cities of Britannia (one for each virtue) to commit perverse acts in the name of their virtue. Your mission is to find the Glyphs and the appropriate Sigils to restore the various shrines, which will restore the virtue of the people and right their deeds.

An evil column
An evil column

This sounds like a great plot, but it ends up lacking in depth. Most of the game is spent doing the same thing: crawling along a dungeon to find the glyph that you need to restore a particular shrine. You end up doing this eight times and it will take up most of your time. Now I enjoy a good dungeon hack as much as anyone, but what I want to do most in a RPG is explore the world, a hallmark of the Ultima series. Unfortunately, U9 is more linear than any other game in the series. You’re whisked from location to location, often on islands with no way to leave until the chosen task is completed. It all feels contrived and restricting and can be a real pain if you need to restock some supplies, because sometimes you can’t go back to Britain (the main city) to do so. The game does start to open up as you make progress but I never felt that I was really free to just explore. In addition, if you do get a chance to go exploring, you’re often penalized because you can easily break quests if you complete things out of order.

In addition, parts of the plot are hackneyed and forced. Right at the beginning of your quest, the Guardian has a chance to eliminate your puny existence. This is one evil demonic monster whose dastardly plans you’ve defeated twice before. So does he squash you like the puny bug that you are? Of course not – he commits the classic “bad guy” mistake and he lets you live so that you can see what he’s turned Britannia into. Over the course of the game, the Guardian has other opportunities to stop you and never seizes the opportunity. It’s a pretty large insult to the intelligence of the average gamer when your archnemesis only has about as much intelligence as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies.

Even worse, there’s a love interest in the game, a character named Raven. Now it was my understanding that RPG stood for Role-Playing game, but here you’re forced to shamelessly flirt with and presumably fall in love with Raven. There’s not even a choice in the dialog screen. Now considering that Raven is about as paper thin as a character can be, it gets very annoying to be forced down that road. While that may help continue the storyline, it makes U9 feel much like a console RPG, not the open-ended gameplay that has been a series staple all these years. Even philosophical dilemmas are a thing of the past in U9– there’s no place where you have to make a decision that would adversely affect the people of Britannia until the very end of the game – too little, too late.

What’s the value of an empty backpack slot?

The interface on U9 is a unique one and is somewhat hard to describe. You move by using the right mouse button and interact with objects by using the left mouse button. The mouse is used to point the Avatar in the proper direction. There are keyboard commands for sidestepping, jumping, running and other actions. By hitting the “Q” key, you get into hand mode, which allows you to pick things up and move them around. “Tab” takes you into combat mode and you use the mouse button to swing at your enemies. Sounds confusing? Well, at the start it was very confusing.

However, the interface has grown on me and I find that it’s quite useful in most situations. I do still try to enter combat mode from the hand mode, which the game won’t allow you to do, so I end up getting beaten up by a rat until I figure out I have to get out of hand mode to get into combat mode. A quick-switch mode would have been helpful here. Some people love the interface and others hate it – your mileage may vary. Combat is nothing more than standing in front of your chosen target and clicking the mouse, although there are other combat moves you can try with the proper training. I never felt like I needed these moves and was able to slay monsters without using them. It’s a pity because the extra moves could have been an integral part of the game and it would have added a missing element to combat.

Unlike Ultima VIII: Pagan, jumping is now a breeze since there’s a cursor that shows you where the Avatar going to land. If the cursor is green, he’ll make the jump. Yellow means he’ll usually make the jump, but not always. If the cursor is red, the Avatar won’t make the jump so don’t even try. It’s the best 3rd person jumping interface out there. However, if jumping was the bane of Ultima VIII, swimming is the bane of U9. The Avatar gets stuck on walls and outcroppings, stops swimming for mysterious reasons, swims into dark areas where you can’t see a thing and the third-person view of U9 doesn’t help a bit here. It wouldn’t be so bad except the Avatar must have smoked for twenty years because he doesn’t have any lung power whatsoever and swimming is crucial to completing certain mandatory quests. The simple rule of thumb for U9 is if you have to swim, save first.

The biggest downside of the interface, even more than the swimming aspect, is the inventory system. Past games used a weight/volume system to calculate how much you could fit into a backpack. Well, in U9, it’s a straight slot system, which helps reduce the clutter. It all sounds good, but since you can’t stack small items like potions, reagents or scrolls, you quickly run out of backpack room and have to leave things behind. I’ve left behind enough potions to fill all the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. While having bags can help alleviate this, they also use the “slot” system and there are few bags to be found in U9. As a fighter, I could get away with having only a couple of reagents, but magic users and bards have an awful time trying to cram everything they need into a backpack due to the no-stacking limitation. Another drawback is that due to the linear game plot, if you leave something behind it can be difficult to go back and get it.

Example of the backpack
Example of the backpack “slot” storage system

Want to Party?

While you’re walking along in Britannia, you’ll notice something after a while. The dialog and voice acting are of mixed quality, ranging from acceptable to the simply atrocious. The Avatar sounds about as excited as Al Gore on valium, but that’s not too bad compared to some of the others. In particular, the voices of Iolo and the tavern owner in Yew are some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever had the misfortune of listening to. I know Buccaneer’s Den is a pirate haven, but why does everyone sound like a character from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride? Not everyone is this bad, but the overall level of the voice acting isn’t very good.

Maybe they wouldn’t sound so poor if the dialog wasn’t so, well, just plain awful as well. The dialog tree isn’t as deep as other recent games of the genre and NPC’s will just keep repeating the same things, as if they didn’t realize what they told the Avatar just two minutes ago. Overall, there’s very little depth given to the characters of the world. I’d much rather have to read the dialog and have a much higher quality than to put up with spoken scenes like this:

Avatar: What is this?

Raven: It’s my dad, he is dead, ahh.

Raven: You are cute.

Avatar: I am sorry to see this.

Raven: That is okay, Where do you want to go?

Avatar: Wherever you are going baby.

Or the escort you have the opportunity of getting…romantic with…in Buccaneer’s Den:

Escort (imagine Fran Dresher’s voice): Waaant to PAAAAARTY?

Avatar (imagine Al Gore imitating a California surfer): Sure, let’s go.

(Closely followed by an agonized scream by yours truly as I turned off my speakers and vomited)

On the upside, I thought the music was very well done and appropriate. In a nice touch, the tunes in the major cities were similar or the same as the music in past games. So as I entered Britain, I heard “Hail Britannia” and “Stones”, which instantly drew me back to past Ultima games and put a smile on my face.

Critter Infestation

If I were ending the review now, I would conclude that Ultima IX: Ascension was a good, but not great, RPG. But I can’t because there are a number of things wrong with U9 that sucks the life out of the program. The first, and most telling, is the number of bugs that shipped with U9. This is one of the buggiest releases in recent memory – almost as bad as BC2K andFootball Pro ’99. I’ve already mentioned the total lack of D3D support and briefly touched on broken quests, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a memory leak with both Glide and D3D (although it’s worse with D3D) that causes slowdowns after playing the game after a length of time (one hour or so, but your mileage may vary). It’s not the most stable program in the world, and I had quite a few crashes to desktop. 16-bit compressed textures wouldn’t work with my TNT2 card, so I had to use uncompressed textures – I kept getting a DirectX 7.0 error. In fact, even though DirectX 7.0 ships with U9, Origin has stated that the game may be more stable on DirectX 6.1 and to reinstall the earlier version. Do they realize what they’re asking people to do by trying to uninstall Directx?

It’s not just memory and video bugs either. I once lost an hour of gameplay because the Avatar got stuck in a wall because of a clipping problem. I also suffered the dreadful fate of many of my fellow players – corrupted saved game files. After the aforementioned clipping problem, I tried to go back and load a saved game, but U9 crashed to the desktop. I tried another – same thing. I had to go back over three hours of gameplay to find a saved position that worked. After another corrupted save file, I had a friend send me a saved game file at a later position so I could make progress. There are a number of quests where if you don’t complete certain things in an exact order, the quest no longer works and you won’t be able to go any further in the game.

Overall, there are over 100 bugs that are to be fixed in the next patch, which is due out a little after Christmas. Origin has been very proactive on their message board, especially Wild Bill, the head programmer. I salute their effort in trying to right this wrong and I don’t blame him or any of the programming staff atOrigin for the problems in U9. It’s obvious that the game was forced out the door in time for the Christmas shopping season, either by Origin or EA management. Or mismanagement in this case, since there’s simply no excuse for shipping a game in this condition.

There are a couple of other play-balance issues that point to the fact that the game was rushed out the door. The AI of the creatures is…entertaining. It’s far too easy just to run by monsters time after time rather than having to fight them. While I can understand running by a giant spider, why can I outrun a dragon? In addition, sometimes monsters don’t react to you, allowing you to either pick them off from a distance with a bow or spells or even walk right up to them and hack ’em to pieces. If there are two monsters together, one may react while the other stands there blissfully unaware of your presence. Gold is fairly easy to accumulate, but there’s often nothing to spend it on. Many players can get to the 9,999 GP limit and stay there the whole game.

One of the small touches that made Ultima great in the past was that the NPC’s had normal work/home schedules. It made the game more lifelike when you knew the shopkeeper was only going to be at his shop until 5:00 PM. If you didn’t make it to town in time, you had to find an Inn in which to spend the evening. Those schedules don’t exist in U9, which is a disappointment and an opportunity missed by the programmers to add more atmosphere in a game sorely needing it.

Finally, there are two editions of the game. The regular version and the “Dragon” edition, which contains more reading material as well as the first eight games of the series. Origin did not modify these older games to work with Windows 95 or 98 and these can be very tricky get to run properly. If you want to buy this edition, please know that the classic Ultima VII (both parts 1 and 2), used a proprietary memory manager called Voodoo, which can be extremely difficult to use in a Windows environment. Consider yourself warned.

The Final Cut

Ultima IX: Ascension isn’t a bad game by any means. It has an entertaining premise, beautiful visuals, uplifting music and over 100 hours of gameplay. However, it bears the deep and bloody scars of a product pushed out the door too quickly. U9 should have, and could have, been the final great chapter in what may be the greatest RPG series. But the numerous bugs and the linear plot made this an unfulfilling end to a great story. The Avatar, the consumers and even the programmers on the project deserved a better fate. The final epitaph could read something like this: “Here lies the Avatar. Conquer of worlds and champion of the virtues. Vanquished Mondian, Minax and Exodus. Made peace between the gargoyle and human races. Battled the Guardian across numerous worlds. Killed by bugs while playing Shrine Janitor.”

Author’s note: Contrary to the policy of GamesDomain’s Traveller’s Inn and my own personal beliefs about reviewing games, I did not finish U9. Frankly, I just gave up. The long hours of play, combined with the corrupted save game issue and the numerous crashes to desktop just sapped all of the desire for me to go on. While I may try to go back and complete the game after the patch is issued, I could no longer force myself to play. I have over 100 hours of time invested in the game, so I believe that this is an accurate portrayal, but I wanted readers to be aware of all the facts. For those who are reading this and have played U9, I surrendered after visiting Valoria for the first time and having yet another corrupted save game issue.







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