Whither the Player Base?
Expansions to MMOs should accomplish at least one of two things, if not both. They should either appease the games existing, dedicated fans or provide an incentive for new players to join. So the question becomes, "Is Ultima Online: Samurai Empire a successful expansion?" In one respect, it most definitely is.
UOSE provides much for the existing players: new lands, new beasts, new dungeons, all sorts of new content. Those who have given years of their lives to developing their UO avatars will find much to slake their desire for things to do and places to see. On the other hand, how effectively does UOSE bait the new player - he or she who has never spent time in Britannia?
Ultima Online: Samurai Empire comes with the complete UO game included. This is obviously a move designed to garner gamers who have never before played Ultima Online or who left long ago. The problem lies not with the expansion, but with the game itself. When viewed within the scope of the Ultima Online universe, Samurai Empire is a very nice and satisfying addition to the game. However, when one steps back and views it as a brand new product - the way a first-timer would - the chinks in the platemail become evident.
The most obvious shortcoming of Ultima Online is its graphics engine. Over its history the graphics have been updated somewhat, including support for a 3D client, but the game has not kept pace with the genre. UO is a seven-plus-year-old game that looks like a seven-plus-year-old game. The look of Ultima Online was great in 1997, but it is dated and unappealing in the 21st century. There's a distinct nostalgic/retro look to the game that some may find charming, but those unfamiliar with Ultima Online will be turned off at first glance, which is a shame because graphics are no substitute for gameplay, and UO has proven that it has the gameplay just by virtue of its longevity.
Sound is also an issue. UO's sound is better than average and the background music adds a nice ambience, especially the far eastern theme that wafts through Tokuno. There are some good effects, but some are not so good. Sound is not a major selling point, but it adds much to a game when done well. Ultima Online's sound is better than it was in 1997, but it still leaves something to be desired.
Beyond graphics, the biggest area in which UO needs improvement is the interface. The game plays in a window that can be stretched to allow blank space for tools such as the paperdoll, various bags, the map, etc. Full screen mode works the same way, with blank space on the right and bottom edges. The play area can be no greater than 800x600 in windowed mode and 1024x768 in full screen. Interaction with most items is achieved through point and click. This can become frustrating when dealing with tiny items such as rings or lockpicks. It's easy to miss the item and end up dragging the entire bag around the screen. Stacking items is also difficult. This is essential for items such as gathered reagents used in spell making.
There are some inconsistencies in the UI. For example, in dealing with a vendor, a player clicks on him and chooses buy or sell from a menu, but at the bank, the player interacts by typing "bank" in the chat area. There is a robust macro tool that allows players to tailor their commands, but the default interface is arcane and often maddening to negotiate. This even extends to communication. It is difficult to converse with people in game. Most players depend upon chat tools like ICQ or AIM or speech servers like TeamSpeak or Ventrilo to communicate. It's not easy for the new player to break into such closed communication channels. Veteran players would surely howl at a change to the UI they know so well, but new players will likely be put off by the unintuitive nature of the interface.
Still Fun After All These Years
If newbies can weather the difficulties of starting out in UO, they will likely find the experience rewarding. The game is still a blast to play. Ultima Online hit on a great formula all those years ago and has honed it to a nice point. Other newer, sexier games are getting a lot of attention these days, but while they are experimenting with all sorts of revolutionary new features, UO is continuing to do what it has always done and is keeping its players addicted.
Because the game doesn't have huge graphics requirements it runs with almost no lag. Performance is great, even on older systems. Although the learning curve is a bit steep for the uninitiated, the game is really fairly simplistic in its controls. The player community is one of the friendliest out there, at least to new players. It's easy to find a higher level player in town to give advice or offer a bit of help. Players who are used to other games may be put off initially at the lack of helps the game provides, but UO by its very design forces the player to become much more self sufficient than in other persistent worlds. So much so that players who leave Britannia for another world may find the numerous tool tips and help menus overwhelming.
Even beyond the game are the "games within the game" that have given UO a unique dimension. The house building and the real estate market have players scrambling all over when a new server or new world (such as Tokuno) comes online. Rare items are a hot commodity and are put on display by proud players - virtual badges of honor, if you will. There are even people who reportedly make their living buying and selling property and items within UO. These are evolutionary aspects of the game that are genuine. Had they been planned, they would feel forced and ersatz. Ultima Online's continuing popularity has proven there's no substitute for the real thing.
With the momentum it has and the dedication the development team has shown to the game, it's likely UO will be a thriving and relevant MMORPG when it celebrates its tenth anniversary. With Samurai Empire, the UO team has taken the game in a new direction while maintaining that which makes Ultima Online special.
Now, if EA would only show the same dedication to an Ultima Online sequel...