But it’s still worth romping around in.
Every player has that one special MMORPG. You can remember like yesterday as your eyes met over a crowded videogame store; you remember feeling your cheeks spread to an uncomfortable red; you remember as your palms became clammy; you remember holding the box and taking in its art for the first time, slightly trembling with nerves and uttering a wordless “hello”. And then time hurtles forward; you’re looking at a webpage, your hand gently hovering over the “end subscription” button, in your eye you feel a desperate salty tear, and yet your mind is focused and concentrated. Then you click. And it ends. You don’t look back.
But that is a lie isn’t it? You often wonder, dream, and feel nostalgic pangs for your first virtual love. You wander through forum posts, sometimes brave enough to write a message titled “Veteran Player Returning?” or “Is it worth it?” and yet you still feel doubt and fail to finish the re-install. Well never fear, MMORPG.com has your back, and starting with Ultima Online we are entering long-forgotten worlds, checking for a pulse, and searching for signs of life, and ultimately adventure.
Ultima Online was released in 1997 and is widely considered the first ever MMO “sandbox”. Countless players have passed through its virtual doors, and many speak of wondrous sights, excursions, and memories. But with age comes a sad decline into inactivity; Origin’s once proud game now inhabits a strange hinterland in the genre, many proclaiming it past its best, many simply declaring it deceased, but from spending time with the game, a very different picture emerges.
Trammel and surrounding planets, realms, islands, and abysses are still very much places of activity. The newcomer town of New Haven buzzes with activity, old and new, the city of Luna is a hub of market trade, NPC-players vendors, and socialising players. Furthermore, each settlement scattered throughout the land is usually littered with one or two players going out their daily activities.
Of course a lot of this depends on the shard that is chosen, the most active being Atlantic, but others also show sign of population. One of the major problems Ultima Online faces as an aging title is the enormous selection of servers to pick from, and with a slimmed down population you cannot help but wonder why the 20 or so shards are not consolidated into 5, each with a healthy populace. Also it is worth mentioning that the game has seen a rise in several “unofficial” shards, each supporting different rule sets and expansions. Piracy is obviously not to be condoned, and this only serves to split quite a healthy population of gamers into several different pockets of play.
While you will come across plenty of activity, one off putting thing however is the amount of “dead” housing within the game. Travelling through the wilderness towards a location will usually see you passing by a dozen or so abodes that were once loved, cherished and occupied. Walking through an empty settlement can almost feel eerie, and yet the depressing pangs that this can conjure also lends to the element of excitement when you regularly come across an active house and have a brief chat with its owner.
Of course the wealth of players is one thing, but the actual gameplay is the real mainstay for any aspiring returner or newcomer. Ultima Online has thankfully aged well, and this is due in part to the general direction of new MMORPGs. Simply put, Origin’s creation misses out on feeling archaic simply from the virtues of its sandbox nature. There aren’t many games that attempt what this title does – the skill system is unique, the tools for crafting, building, and creating virtual life are all here, and these are some of the reasons the game is still so infinitely playable today. The amount of skills to choose from is staggering, and the complexity and depth of affairs are enough to excite anyone looking for an online game with more to it than semi-consciously left-clicking and accepting quests.
A major point of contention will of course be the UI and this will be paramount to enjoying the game at all. At present Ultima offers two clients, classic and enhanced, with the former packing a certain, if uncomfortable, Garriott charm and the latter boasting a modern hotbar and inventory system. Which you chose will roughly reflect how you wish to experience the game, with the original system being somewhat of an acquired taste, and the newer version being easier for those who have spent time in MMOs such as World of Warcraft.
Throughout my journey, I also found a number of people to both socialise with an adventure alongside. While there aren’t huge amounts of young players, there are plenty of people starting afresh, and a steady influx of those who are interested in sampling the game. I found myself grinding through dungeons at certain points and also engaged in interesting chat. Admittedly the game is most alive at the level of “grand master” but guilds are still active, and most regularly hold weekly hunts and other such events. The most interesting part of it all is just how player driven everything is.
And now we come to the disappointments. Sadly it is apparent that Ultima isn’t the game it once was. The economy for instance suffers from the type of hyper-inflation only experienced in post war Germany, and finding a way in as a relative newcomer can be a real pain. This isn’t to say that the community is not welcoming. On the contrary throughout my play testing I received armour, gold, and all manner of goodies, it is just that the markets themselves have become top-heavy, and the demand for lowly goods has diminished considerably.
And this is a thread that runs constant throughout older MMOs; they become more about those in the higher echelons of advancement, than about the journey itself. Progressing skills such as those in combat is now a fairly easy affair; hunting for an hour will see you advance in the 60th percentile, and the need to group with others to grind or enjoy harder aspects of the game has become avoidable. Of course to counter the feeling newcomers never being able to catch up is important, but no MMORPG has yet come up with a solution to make sure that new experience isn’t spoiled by age.
Truthfully however, and with the above in mind, Ultima Online is definitely one game that is worth checking out once more. It may not be the same adventure it once was, but the graphics still retain a certain charm, the skill systems are engrossing, and the whole atmosphere of the game can easily engulf anyone in a mist of both nostalgia, and new found love.
With a nice population, and a very friendly community, it is easy to see that this game that is still worth playing. The rumours of entrenched veterans, in my experience, proved false as I saw a near-healthy game that was both enjoyable and challenging. Returning or coming to Trammel fresh faced and wide-eyed with wonder, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by one of the genres most important and aged titles. If you feel the Ultima itch, I’d say pull out your old CD-ROMS and give it a good old scratch.