Enjoyable Game, Terrible Cash Shop
Being as I was just a tiny kiddy wink when Ultima's seventh and most celebrated installment was released, I sort of missed out on all of the Britannia fun. Of course I was mildly conscious when Ascension was released, but bad review scores and a dire lack of pocket money put the kibosh to all of that.
Sadly, when I did finally get my teenage self in order, ready to join the RPG par-tay, the adventures of the Avatar disappeared somewhere in to the EA offices; presumably with an employee half-heartedly searching behind desks and under sofas muttering "Lord British, Lord British...if only I could find Lord British".
Gameplay - 8
Ultima Forever is the product of a long game of hide-and-seek between Origin and EA. Over a decade since they used the iconic license (and we aren't counting bad flash games) we have something of a canonical entry into the world of goblins, demigods, and pitchfork murders.
This iOS half-remake-half-reboot brings thumb swiping adventures back to Britannia and in the conspicuous service of "Lady" British: who says that complicated legal wrangling has to ruin your fantasy world eh? Under the service of the good "Lady" (Lord's daughter) you are tasked with saving the land and all with the aid of the classic series' eight virtues.
While the story rarely troubles anything past your eye sockets, the core of U4E is surprisingly sound. Utilizing the best that mobile has to offer, this hack-and-slash-athon revels in the same kind of gory, squishy delight as Diablo - with loot drops a plenty, repeatable dungeons, and most importantly: co-op multiplayer.
Playing with friends and marauding through dungeons makes U4E really stand apart from the crowd. Like so much witchcraft and trickery, you can group together with strangers and friends, taking on the "The Weep" and ridding Britannia of evil. And trust me when I say that this pokey-screen quest is deviously addictive, and deliciously fun.
Of course, canonical stats and attributes accompany each player's character sheet, with inventory systems to juggle, and a hefty amount of levelling to be done. Interestingly, the virtues are used here to denote a form of experience, with quest paths constituting not so much of "kill X of Y" but posing mild, philosophical choices.
"Will you destroy the beast, oh dear Avat... Adventurer?" says the bland NPC. You reply either: "Yes I shall, and with gusto! +1 Honour" or "What about the children! The sweet, sweet children? +1 Humility" or just maybe "Go f**k yourself! +1 Badass". The thing is, we're not sure how any of these choices actually matter, as you're not really building a life of consequence with your decision. Instead, the Honor, Humlity, and other virtues just serve as a means of obtaining higher ranks with different factions and gaining XP to level. It's not exactly a role-playing system as it should be.
Mythic, the developers entrusted by EA, have managed to do a fine job with U4E, perhaps not exactly invoking the original Ultima 4, but nonetheless creating something worthwhile with its brand identity. The adventure is snappy and fun, and for a brief moment it all gives players hope that perhaps Ultima does indeed have some sort of a future within the mega-publisher.
Aesthetics - 8
The art style within U4E veers drastically away from those pixelated landscapes of yesteryear, but does keep an essence of Origin's vision with the graphical styling. Towns are laid out almost identically to their Ultima 4 counterparts, 3D character models overlay onto hand drawn maps, each of varying quality. Running on iPad and even an iPhone, the game looks superb, but may suffer from the dreaded cartoon look that some players hate.
Social - 7
But if you’re willing to look past some of the more “child friendly” elements of EA’s latest handheld adventure (there’s buckets of gore too) there is much to like. Facebook integration makes it easy to invite friends into your groups, and failing any RPG-loving acquaintances, there’s plenty of scope for drop-in groups.
U4E does come with a chat channel, but like most half-way MMOs, the chances of striking up conversation and friendship are few and far between. This is a decent community, but a slightly shy one.
Innovation - 7
Slight social moans aside, I’m always slightly bashful when it comes to online games running on my mobile phone or tablet. I poke at them with awe, stopping only to rub my cheek on the side of the screen whispering “what sorcery is this?”
For the most part, U4E’s online side works like it should, and only serves to impress when you attempt what equates to a Diablo-like MMO in the palm of your hands. Mythic, once again, have done a fantastic job integrating the social aspects of the world; and although it may not be groundbreaking it some senses, the technology the developer deals with makes it something truly special to behold. I’m a sucker for a good iOS game, really.
Polish - 7
Looking past my tablet-loving-ways, U4E is basically a sound quasi-MMO. It attempts to bring Ultima back into the mainstream, and while it may not exactly reignite the flames of gamer passion that Origin's original forged, this is a solid, fun online adventure. There are only few bugs and just a few latency issues to be had. But it's the next category that stings the most.
Value - 3
Just as arms are opened wide and Britannia is allowed back in your heart, it crumbles in such spectacular fashion. Let me preface this by saying that Ultima Forever is a very fine game and is easily recommendable to anyone because it's free. But... EA have managed to crash this adventure with a fantastically ill-judged pay-to-play shop. It's a model that will stunt almost anyone trying to enjoy the software without at least a few hundred dollars.
Taking the form of "keys", the game's loot chests require either a down-payment of bronze, silver, or gold to unlock increasingly more attractive tiers of loot. While the copper keys are easily found throughout the game and can be converted to silver, the gold are rarely doled out for free.
But you can buy a ton for $99, and I'm sure we're all ready and willing to do that (note: there are cheaper groups of gold keys, but they're all relatively pricery). And herein lies the problem. With loot chests giving out the majority of equipment, growing your character past ill-suited gear is almost impossible without delving into major grind through repeatable dungeons. Unless you are willing to part with some green to pay for your burgeoning sword collection, advancing through Britannia is going to be a very slow and painful process. Your armor breaks constantly throughout the game, and repairs cost (you guessed it) silver keys that are slow to obtain for free, or purchasable again with real money.
This cash shop stops Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar from becoming a very worthwhile Britannia curio, and makes it into just another pay-to-play money sink. It's a shame, but greed really kills this game.
Ironically in reaching out to revive Ultima, EA have missed out on two of its virtues: humility and compassion.
Longevity - 5
This all depends on how you view EA’s attempts to fiddle with your purse strings. On the one hand, this is a great online action RPG with tons to do and many dungeons to explore, but the Achilles' Heel is the golden keys. If you’re willing to spend, you’re going to find a lot of good in this MMO - but without, look towards a lot of grind. EA and Mythic would have done a lot better to make the cash shop unlock actual content within the game like dungeons or classes (think Plants Vs. Zombies 2's model), but instead this iteration just sours the party.
Ultima Forever is a very fine casual MMO for your mobile device. The adventure is crisp, enjoyable, and interesting - but that cash shop really lets it down in the end.
Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humor, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle