Way back in the Summer of 2003 our very own Craig McGregor (one of the Big Cheeses here at MMORPG.com) was on hand to witness the unveiling of Electronic Arts’ sequel to Ultima Online - Ultima X: Odyssey. It’s hard to write that out and not sigh while shaking my head or beating it on a table. UXO is a prime example of “games that could have been great”. Much like WISH, there were a slew of people looking forward to the next game in the Ultima series before it was unceremoniously cancelled and relegated to the pages of online gaming history.
Ever since getting my invitation from EA to attend the UXO special unveiling event I could not help thinking "why are these guys spending all this money to fly hundreds of fans, guild leaders, media and sleep deprived code-monkeys like myself to San Francisco from all over the country just to tell us about an upcoming MMORPG title?" I now have my answer…because they are creating one of the most breathtaking massive multiplayer RPG's and they wanted to see our faces and mop up our drool. This game has most of the elements that make MMORPG's great, as well as some new and creative additions.
Contrary to early rumors, this is not a sequel to Ultima Online, nor does it even take place in Britannia. UXO will actually take off where the single player "Ultima IX" left off…or in other words, this is Ultima 10. Let me give you a breakdown based of what I witnessed and responses from the dozens of questions that I had answered from various members of the development team.
The graphics in UXO are simply amazing and the best I have ever witnessed in any MMORPG. This comes from the fact that EA decided to license the Unreal® engine for use in UXO - a decision that allows them to focus on making great game content and a detailed world without having to waste their time programming complex 3D engines. Running through the forest you immediately feel as if you are in a living, breathing world. Grass and plants sway in the breeze, light filters through the high treetop canopies and water laps gently against the riverbanks. Characters slip on the ice, get blown into the air by powerful steam vents and other very interactive elements in this dynamic world. Spells effects are vibrant and spectacular and combat animations are very smooth and realistic looking. The machines we were using for the demo were powerful, but obtainable (3.0 GHz, with ATI Radeon 9800 video cards) - which should be a semi-mainstream machine by the time of release.
Sound & MusicThe musical score that accompanies UXO is second to none. You feel like you are inside of a blockbuster movie, not a computer game. The sound effects were also very realistic and immersive…although a bit annoying at times as some pre-alpha phase bugs seemed to keep certain sounds endlessly repeating! But, that is to be expected in a project this young.
The InterfaceThe user interface is simple, very easy to use and navigate. Your basic overlay consists of a simple chat window, your character portrait which contains your health and power meter, spell/attack shortcut bar, and some bars indicating your experience and virtue. Everything else is neatly tucked away into a all-in-one interface that handles your inventory, skills/spells, attributes and other character related items. This can be brought up by pressing the "I" key. Some other great features included the ability to right-click on a persons name in the chat window and pull up a menu of items like "Tell", Trade" and "Invite". You can also drag items from your inventory directly into your chat window - allowing other people to quickly checkout the item by clicking the hyperlink in the chat window.
Role-PlayingThere are great character development elements including experience points, levels, a skill system that enables characters to learn new spells and attacks by spending skill and "virtue points" - which are earned by questing. Once your character reaches the level cap, you will be able to "ascend" - this will enable you to create disciple characters from this character. As the disciples progress they will propel your master character even further until they eventually reach the highest status of "Avatar". Traditional RPG fans might be a little disappointed by the lack of feedback from combat. You won't get to watch the numbers roll down your chat window showing the amount of damage you are putting out. This would not be very useful in UXO, simply because the combat in is so fast paced you would not have time to read it anyway!
Combat Combat is probably where UXO really separates from traditional MMORPG games. Instead of "sandwich combat" (a phrase the dev team uses to describe combat where you can engage your enemy and go grab a sandwich while you wait for the battle to end) you will control the timing and combat actions in real time. Combat in UXO is more like that of an arcade game where you will need to fine-tune your motor skills in order to succeed. When in combat you have 3 elements to focus on: chance to hit, momentum and defense. Your chance to hit increases the longer you wait to swing or cast. You see a percentage bar near the center of your screen that rises from 0 to 100% in about 2 seconds, clicking it early will allow you to swing/cast more often, but you also take the risk of missing your target. Momentum is more or less a reward for hitting your target. After every consecutive hit your momentum will rise, making it easier to land your next blow on its mark. Finally your defense skill will help reduce your opponents chance to hit you. You will start with 100% defense, as you are struck it will drop 25% per blow. Clicking the right mouse button will raise it another 25%, but at the cost of your precious power points. Basically, combat in Ultima X is a blast. You find yourself having a completely different experience with each battle you fight, even if it is the same monster. Engaging 2-3 creatures at a time is normal and is a nice change from the "pull more than one mob and your dead" concept of most MMORPG's. I don't know how much of this was because this was a pre-alpha demo - but I hope this concept exists in the final release. Player vs. player combat will be purely consensual. You will be able to challenge other players to duel, and even duel in private zones - or have giant guild vs. guild wars. Another creative addition to PvP will be wagering - or betting gold/items on the outcome of a duel.
The CharactersThe character system in UXO should be complex enough to satisfy most RPG gamers. There are 6 main races, and many classes to choose from. The races are Human, Ogre, Elves, Phodas, Pixies and Gargoyles. Some of the classes (or diciples as they are called) that we managed to take note of were: Fighter, Barbarian, Knight, Necromancer, Mage, Sorcerer, Tinkerer, Ranger, Druid, Shepherd, Bard and Paladins. Also, all races are equal…the only thing that is different is the appearance…in other words, a ogre barbarian is every bit as tough as a gargoyle barbarian. Although you will be able to select many attributes to make your character look different - such as skin color, hair styles, and heads - many of the advanced character sculpting features found in newer games will not be present in UXO. Characters have a very "cartoonish" feel and I found it refreshing and new. You will see the developers great sense of humor shine through as characters and monsters do humorous animations while left idle - some examples are headless monsters looking for their heads and doing "end zone" dances in your face. Monsters and characters have high complexity ranging from 1000 to 3000 polygons per model - the result is very detailed models that look at feel lifelike.
The Game FeaturesThe game play in UXO shows that the developers know some of the pain that players experience when playing MMORPG's. One of the exciting features is the "Odyssey Adventure System" which allows the developers to create powerful quests quickly and easily. It will also give the ability to have your quests span into private zones to protect you (and your party if you have one) from having your quest experience ruined by "griefers". One of the most exciting parts about UXO is that quests will come to you - that's right! Unlike other MMORPG games you will not have to tug on the shirt of every NPC to find one willing to give you a task. NPC's will come up to you while you are adventuring and request your aid. Quests will also have many possible paths and outcomes…which will in turn affect the "virtue" or path that your character will follow. Many players will be saddened to hear that UXO will not ship with crafting or housing features. They have made it clear that their primary focus will be on questing and combat. Later expansion packs are planned that will add crafting and housing to the game - once the developers feel they can make the process as fun as the rest of the game. The design team was aware that their real-time combat engine would likely result in a lot of deaths for inexperienced players…so to encourage people to get into combat they have made death a not-so-bad experience. When a player's health is reduced to zero they will fall unconscious - within the next 20 seconds certain classes will be able to "stabilize" the player and bring them back. After this the player will either have to be resurrected or journey back from their last bind point. However, there is absolutely no penalty in terms of experience or virtue - and all of your items will stay with your character. Here is a quick rundown on some of the highlights of Ultima X: Odyssey:
- 55 massive and interactive zones to live your adventures in
- Real time combat
- Private zones for you and your groups
- Items can be modified by virtue points
- Items will level with you
- 8 paths, and 9 skills/spells per path
- Consensual PvP combat
- No death penalty other than returning to your bind point
- Instant teleport to meet up with people on your "buddy" list
- Moongates to teleport you to all the zones you have visited in your journeys
- No more camping, important quest items will be in private zones
- Bazaar system will be incorporated to aid in player trading
Within these two pages as we step into our Wayback Machine this week, you saw Craig go into detail as to why gamers everywhere got all frothy at the mouth when UXO was announced. It just goes to show… you should not get excited about a game until launch is officially imminent. Maybe one day we’ll see more proper Ultima. EA still owns the IP, but other than a F2P online city management game and the occasional nod to remaining UO players, they haven’t done much with one of the RPG genre’s most beloved franchises. Until something does come up, maybe we can live in nostalgia with UXO for a just a little bit…