For those who remember the beta test and/or the initial launch of Ultima Online, it's hard to believe that the game is now in its eighth year. It's even more astounding to those who remember playing the original Ultima back in the very early 1980s on an Apple II with 48 kilobytes (yes, kilobytes with a K) of RAM. The franchise has come a long way from the days of Ultima I, which included everything from wizards and dungeons to time machines and spaceships, to the very popular MMORPG that has been captivating over a quarter million subscribers for the better part of a decade. As such, it's interesting that for its newest expansion the Ultima team has reached all the way back to the original game for a bit of inspiration.
Ultima began when a programmer named Richard Garriott decided to combine his computer expertise with his love of role playing games. He wrote a game called Akalabeth in which the dark Lord Mondain did battle with a champion named Lord British. For his next project he brought Mondain and Lord British together again and the Ultima series was born. In the original Ultima game, there were four major lands. While two of those lands became part of ongoing Ultima lore, becoming Britannia and Serpent Isle, the other two were lost. One of those was known as the Lands of the Feudal Lords. Now, almost 25 years later, the Feudal Lords are making a comeback, at least indirectly, in Ultima Online: Samurai Empire.
The Ultima universe has always had a largely Anglo-European theme to it. When looking to expand Ultima Online, the EA team spoke with players and found that a large number of them wanted a samurai class. As Jonathan LeCraft said in a 2004 interview with MMORPG.com, "We...did focus tests with many groups of gamers, both Ultima Online players and not, to see what themes and professions resonated best for our next expansion. The Japanese theme was only one of several possible choices. Overwhelmingly, the Samurai was the most popular, and just felt right as an addition to medieval Europe." The team looked back through Ultima history and discovered the all but forgotten Lands of the Feudal Lords. This, along with the popularity of UO in Japan made feudal Japan an obvious choice.
According to the game's lore, when Mondain shattered the Gem of Immortality, the Lands of the Feudal Lords were rent asunder. From the remnants were formed the Tokuno Islands, an isolated archipelago on which a fierce but honorable warrior culture evolved. This is where new players will find themselves when they enter the world of Ultima Online: Samurai Empire.
Tokuno consists of three large islands and several smaller ones. The main city of Zento is located on the island of Makoto-jima, the island most friendly to younger players. The island of Homare-jima contains two new dungeons and is home to the renegade ronin warriors. On Isamu-jima one will find the active volcano Mt. Sho and the frozen land of Winter Spur. This new expanse gives players a large new area in which to hunt, explore, and build houses.
Not only is the culture different, so are the beasts that call Tokuno home. In keeping with the theme, new creatures inspired by Japanese folklore have been introduced. From beasts like the three-headed Tsuki Wolf to human adversaries like the Fan Dancer, to spirits like the Lady of the Snow, Tokuno's bestiary imposes an entirely new culture on UO. Most interesting are the Hiryu, fierce winged dragons that may be tamed and ridden by higher level players.
Strength and Honor or Stealth and Deception
More directly, UOSE gives all those players who spoke out what they want: the chance to be a samurai. Ultima Online characters do not level in the traditional sense. Rather a player levels a set of skills that allow him to play the type of character he desires. To play a samurai, a player must become familiar with the skill of Bushido. New characters can start with an archetype character and go through a series of seven trials to get started (a "directed experience" in UO terminology). The Bushido book in the new player's backpack includes six attack styles, including one that gives the player a chance to kill his opponent with a single blow.
In the UO tradition, the player can choose his own direction and can combine skills to make some interesting characters. Samurai are not prevented from wielding traditional weapons, but some of the new swords are designed to complement the samurai fighting style, so most players will likely choose to wield them. Traditional samurai armor is also to be found, from leather to plate. A samurai taken to its extreme is a formidable warrior indeed.
The counterpart to the samurai is the ninja, a character that is based more on stealth and magic than straight fighting. Ninja specialize in the art of Ninjitsu and learn a number of fighting techniques that give them a unique advantage in the game. Ninja can cast mirror images of themselves, throwing off their opponents. They have the ability to backstab for high damage. They learn how to make smoke bombs for diversion and train in stealth so they may disappear. Ninja also get the ability to change into animal form, allowing them the ability to infiltrate or move about undetected. If the samurai are the noble warrior class of UOSE, then the ninja are the skulking rogues.
Young ninja have a different directed experience which is focused on hiding and avoiding. Before gaining access to Zento, the new player must prove his worth by sneaking into an old inn and recovering a stolen sword. The ninja is not a tank class at all, but is a deadly apparition using surprise and deception to gain the upper hand. The two new classes complement each other well and add another facet to role playing in UO.
My Own Pagoda by the Sea
One of the more popular aspects of UO has been the ability of a player to build and design his own house. The problem that has come with that has been that there is only so much real estate and many people who want to build. The new expansion gives players a whole new location where they may locate their virtual home. But rather than just maintain the existing set of building options, the development has included a whole new set of building tiles with an eastern flavor.
The architecture of Tokuno is distinctly Japanese and requires a different approach to creation than traditional medieval castles. Even veteran home designers may find the new housing a bit daunting. Samurai Empire includes a quick guide to building an abode that would fit right in amongst the houses of ancient Tokyo. The new tilesets allow players to build walls of bamboo and ricepaper, add small gardens with bonsai trees, construct training dojos, and more. The touches are nice and keep the theme of the islands alive.
The southern island of Makoto-jima is a popular location for many homes as players are creating suburbs of Zento. Areas around the moongates and the shrines on the other islands are seeing a housing boom as well. It seems that the new virtual real estate is a hot commodity and players are eager to cash in.