Mobile Gaming Gets Serious
Last week, Ultima Forever, the re-imagining of the classic RPG Ultima IV, quietly launched to limited release on the Canadian App Store for the iPad. The goal, as has been stated by the fine folks at Mythic developing the game, is to give the mobile quasi-MMO a bit of a test run before opening it to the masses in the US and abroad. If you’re a tricksy hobbit, you can easily find a way to get the Canadian app and start playing now. Whether or not your account and characters can carry over to the US release is unknown to me, but considering you can link your account to Facebook, I’d wager it will be. Chances are you’ll just want to delete the Canadian app and download the US app when the time comes, so that you can purchase “keys” and other account upgrades. More on all that later though.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate was the RPG that showed me videogames can be so much more than jumping on turtles and breaking bricks. I was absolutely in awe of what I consider to be the greatest game in the series and one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Seriously, download it now on GoG.com for $6 bucks and be prepared to be blown away by its depth and scope if you’ve never played it. It’s worth noting that Ultima Forever (U4E) is a recreation not of the later open world RPGs or Ultima Online, but rather a direct “remake” of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. If you go into U4E expecting something akin to VII or UO, you might be disappointed. This isn’t supposed to replace Ultima Online.
If however you go into Ultima Forever expecting a faithful recreation of one of the series’ key turning points, you just might be pleasantly surprised. Add to that the fact that it’s more MMO than most “Mobile MMOs”, and that it’s probably the deepest RPG I’ve yet played on the iPad. It’s a game I’d gladly sit down and play on my PC if they ever port it over. My biggest complaint is one that does need to be addressed before a wide release, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Character creation in U4E is very similar to Ultima IV: you are asked a series of moral questions by a Gypsy, and the decisions you make are neither right nor wrong: they just determine the values you represent in the eight virtues: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Humility. Unlike the original, you do choose a character class (currently either a Mage or a Fighter with others to come). I went with Fighter, but beyond a chosen portrait there’s little actual character customization for your avatar. Fighters are brute behemoths with big swords, and Mages are wiry little casters with staves. This is definitely an area to be worked on, and from what developers have said in many avenues, is one of the key parts still being tweaked.
Navigation is handled via tapping where you want to go or holding down a spot on the screen to guide where you want your character to go. Either work relatively well, though my character tends to easily get stuck trying to pathfind his way around stuff in some instances. Combat is simple, but addictive like any good action-RPG. You highlight a target by tapping on them and your character will auto-attack that enemy until it’s dead or you tap another. My Fighter has AOE damage in a cone in front of him so that he actually swings and hits multiple foes if I get the positioning right. You can also flank and backstab enemies, which is a nice touch. Special abilities are slottable over to the left of the screen. You start off with one skill, but gain more as you level automatically. Extra slots to equip more than one must be bought using the game’s one and only currency: Keys.
I’m totally onboard with mobile games employing a Freemium model. And in fact, I’d wager that a large group of the game’s players will gladly spend money to add to their experience. But the core games that are going to be genuinely drawn to a brand new Ultima title will be put off by just how much of the game is unlocked by “keys”. They come in three varieties: bronze, silver, and gold. Bronze drop often enough off of enemies, silver can be awarded from quests, and converted to from bronze keys (15 bronze will get you five silver). Meanwhile gold keys are typically only awarded when you level your character or if you get lucky when opening a chest.
Speaking of chests, they’re littered everywhere in an obvious ploy to get you to buy more keys. Silver keys are cheap, if you don’t have bronze ones to convert, and gold keys are the more expensive premium currency. You can unlock any chest with bronze keys, but the loot inside will pale in comparison to what you get with silver and gold. There are no shops in U4E to buy stuff from, no regular world currency either... just keys. Enemies themselves don’t drop loot, and quest objectives like the stuff you must collect for people only come from chests... you see where I’m going here.
On top of that, you have to unlock rows of your inventory space per character with gold keys only. You have to permanently unlock ability slots with gold keys only; your second one will cost 25 gold keys, which is easy enough to earn by playing, but the third slot will cost 75 gold keys which you’ll either be waiting a long time for or will be forced to pay for. You can also equip tarot cards that drop from chests to give you a boost in dungeons, but to unlock more than one slot? You’ll need gold keys, of course! And the boosts are healthy enough to be required in some cases, especially when you’re adventuring solo.
Oh, and then there’s your gear. It all breaks down and needs repairs or you’ll have to equip new items. Say you find a really epic piece of equipment you want to use for a while. Well, as you use it it’ll start to break down and lose effectiveness. And unless you use (you guessed it) silver or gold keys to keep it repaired, you’ll eventually break it and find it unusable. I also hope you like running a lot, because even something as simple as fast-travel to a dungeon is gated by silver keys. Mind you, you can get silver keys simply by converting the multitude of bronze keys you’ll find. But you’ll quickly realize that you’re not getting enough to play the game at its full potential, and you’ll start itching to buy some gold or silver keys to make your experience more convenient. You can complete “offers” from various sponsors to get free keys, and even I signed up for a FreeCreditReport.com account just to get 90 gold keys, spend them, and then cancel the free account... but is that really what these freemium games are coming to?
I get that Mythic and EA hope to make money from this game by offering it for free and then having people pay for convenience, but some of these tactics just go too far. If I were them, I’d definitely tone a lot of it down before unleashing it to the masses later this summer. Make items repairable by one or two bronze keys, make fast travel take bronze keys, and perhaps also let the first two ability slots be purchasable without gold keys, and things would be less frustrating already. Permanent account features like more back-pack space, more ability slots, and all of that should be premium. But regular game convenience features being gated behind a paywall is very off-putting.
Oh, and it's okay to have us buy potions, since respawning and death are not a big deal. But how about something like a pack of potions for five golden keys, not one heal? That's one of the worst offenders, really.
But it’s definitely not all bad. In fact, despite these troubles, I can’t put the thing down. I drained my battery on Sunday afternoon, and was ticked I needed to wait to charge up the tablet before I play again. The entirety of the game’s content is there for the taking without ever paying a dime. And patient people will likely never feel the need to get more backpack space, fast-travel, or unlock more tarot card slots. They’ll also not care if they’re constantly using common gear and dropping the broken stuff. But the game’s more fun when you can get and keep shiny purple loot, and it’s frustrating to see it go broken unless you spend a little cash. And, praise be to the gods of gaming, at least they don’t monetize death. If you fall in battle or to a trap, you’re simply able to resurrect at the nearest Ankh checkpoint in the dungeon.
The story is pretty decent, with mysteries to solve as you progress like a classic Ultima RPG, though I wish I could skip dungeon cutscenes after a first playthrough. Considering how many times you might play through a place to do some repeatable tasks or just to go back and do something you missed the first time, it gets annoying to have to revisit the same bubble-dialog each time. Dungeons themselves are nicely labeled with the level range intended and the estimated time they take to complete. Some are lengthy puzzle and trap ridden labyrinths while others are quick trials against your character’s combat meddle. But most will take you no more than 15-20 minutes, which is ideal for a mobile device and some are even completable in quick five minute session. These are the ones you’d want to fast travel to, if you have the keys. Boss fights are varied and interesting as well, and though I’m only level eight, they’re escalating more in more in intricacy and difficulty.
One of the best parts of the game though are the moral decisions you’ll make along every step of the away, and how it ultimately affects the way your character is seen in Britannia. I did one mission where I took the necklace off of a corpse in a dungeon, only to have the deceased’s relative get pissed at me because he didn’t ask me to do that, and I defiled his relative’s remains. Oops. In every town, at different times, you’ll be posed with quandaries and asked your advice (because you’re one of the mythical Strangers from another land, as in every Ultima, and seen as a person to be respected and revered). These are almost more entertaining than the action of the game itself, which is fun in its own right. Ultima IV was great at making players think before acting, and Ultima Forever nails this aspect of the original.
Graphically, U4E is faithful to the original top-down view of Ultima IV, while obviously giving players a more updated and exaggerated fantasy look. Background environments are hand-painted, while characters and enemies are 3D. Sound effects, music, and voice overs of the Virtue that guides you (again determined by your answers at character creation) are all very well done. The game performance itself tends to slow down a little at the most intense of times, but also at the most randomly quiet of times. I’m wondering if this is because of its online nature, or just optimization issues to be ironed out.
Lastly, I want to touch on why I consider U4E to be a Mobile MMO, even if Mythic and EA are hesitant to say so. At any time in U4E you can group up with strangers or any number of friends that also play the game (either connected via Facebook or just added via the game’s UI). You can bring up to four people with you into a dungeon, but the overworld is constantly populated by other people you can chat with. The only things that are missing are guilds and a sort of economy. It’s no Ultima Online or anything, but it’s the closest you’re going to get on your iPad, and far more enjoyable than the slew of other games that claim to be an MMO on the platform.
While I think I’ll wait until the game actually launches before assigning a score to it, I can safely say that Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar is poised to make a splash on the mobile gaming scene. It’s the first attempt at bringing an RPG to the platform that actually feels like a game I’d play on my PC. My main worry about the game is its monetization, but there’s still time for Mythic to rein this in. There are more classes to come, tons of places on the overworld map that are yet to be unlocked and populated, and loads more story to uncover. I’ve played several hours with my Fighter, and yet by all counts I’ve just begun my adventure. If Mythic wants to make more money in a righteous fashion? Charge for more classes and content packs, and leave the convenience features like fast-travel and repairs to the regular free bronze key currency. If they can rein the greedy money-grabs in, and fix some of the bugs like pathing and performance slowdown, U4E could very well be the iPad game to convince a lot of people that mobile gaming can be core gaming.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.