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Ultima Online Previews: The New Life of Ultima Online

By Jon Wood on January 31, 2007

The New Life of Ultima Online

The recent EA Mythic Press Event was an eventful one for the ten-year-old Ultima Online. Managing Editor Jon Wood fills us in on the details.

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Ultima Online is one of those rare MMORPGs that almost everyone has heard about at one time or another in their gaming careers. You don’t even have to have been a gamer when the game was released (nearly ten years ago). In fact, it has always been a bit of a legend in the industry and when MMO people get together, you can bet with pretty good odds that someone will start telling a story from the “good old days” in UO. It’s a game which, if it were a human, would be likeable, charismatic and wise in its advanced years. Unfortunately, for many of the new generation of MMORPG gamers being brought into the genre by games like Guild Wars, Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft, the wizened look of age leaves the game unappealing to many 3D gamers.

Recently (and even not-so-recently), people have been speculating that the old MMO giant would soon pass quietly into the gentle night, joining so many games that have come and gone within its lifetime. Last week, we learned that not only was there life left in her, but that the entire game would be getting a whole new lease on life.

When EA (the company that was most recently responsible for UO) obtained the popular MMORPG studio, Mythic Entertainment, Ultima became the adopted sister of the well established and with Dark Age of Camelot still showing strong, and the new little brother on the way in Warhammer Online, the new parent company could easily have neglected their new step child. Instead, they announced that they would be sending her off to 3D college so that she could continue to be a strong, contributing member of the family.

When Aaron Cohen, the game’s Producer, stood at the front of a room full of press it felt akin to a doctor standing in the waiting room delivering the good or bad news. Would the patient live or die? With the announcement of Kingdom Reborn, a free to user graphical upgrade, the crowd had their answer. The mood in the room seemed to be one of genuine surprise as the announcement was made, and I know that I heard an impressed murmur from time to time as we were treated to a side-by-side showing of the old look of the game, with the new.

Fans of the old game shouldn’t be too concerned though. Kingdom Reborn doesn’t change the game so much as coat it in a brand new, younger skin. While the graphics still aren’t exactly what recent 3D gamers are used to, I have to admit that the difference is astounding.

As former Senior Editor Dana Massey once mentioned in an editorial titled, “Graphics Whores”, I am the kind of player that is easily turned off by a game that doesn’t have the flash and sparkle (call me sallow) I’ve become used to in my gaming experience. I am not the only one, there are many people out there just like me. When I tried to play UO for the first time (to try to build up my own retinue of UO stories I could bring out at parties), I decided that the game simply wasn’t for me. Now, after seeing Kingdom Reborn, I find myself feeling the need to go back.

The details are sharper, the lighting is prettier, even the props set around the world look brighter and clearer. It all looked, in a word, better. Looking at the side-by-side, you can tell that everything is the same, but different. The buildings are still in the same places, with the same architecture, but the walls are smoother and more vibrant. The monsters, which didn’t appear to be fierce by today’s demanding standards, seemed somehow more threatening in their new treatment. Even the drab cobwebs (which had been applied liberally to the dungeon that we looked at) were in the same place, but looked somehow stickier.

Some of the monsters are going to look a little bit different now that the developers have the ability to add a higher level of detail. The example that best fits is the earth elemental. Before, it looked like a kind of mud-creature, now it appears to be made out of joined boulders. This is because the developers went back to the original design documents. They are “re-building the original vision of the designers” by doing the things that couldn’t be done justice back in 1997.

More good news in that this update will be free to players (something that you don’t hear nearly enough of these days), and will be phased in over time, allowing players to choose to keep the old look or move into Kingdom Reborn.

Along with the new graphics engine, Kingdom Reborn will also feature a new, more modern interface that makes gameplay easier for player more familiar with current UI layouts as well as an “inviting new player experience combined with improved skill training”.

As it turns out, the new step child is not only doing well, but she’s also an over-achiever. Along with the announcement that Kingdom Reborn will launch and re-invigorate the game, but EA Mythic also plans to release a new expansion for the game as well.

Stygian Abyss is the name given to this newest add-on (this one is going to be a paid expansion). We are promised that this new expansion will mark the first time that humans will be able to travel to the homeland of the Gargoyles. Why Gargoyles? You may ask. The answer is simple; Stygian Abyss will be introducing them as the new playable race. Not only that, but it will include the largest dungeon in Ultima Online history.

When all is said and done, the question of whether or not Ultima Online has a place in the merged EA Mythic family, the recent press event has proven that not only is the game welcome, but it is also a vibrant and contributing member. Or, as the tagline for Kingdom Reborn states, “The game that started it all, starts again”.

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