"Dupre, Dupre, where hast thou gone? Shall the people rejoice and pay homage to their new... Guardian?"
Years ago on Serpent Isle, your companion Dupre sacrificed himself to save Britannia from evil. In doing so, he ended one of the greatest chapters in PC gaming, Ultima VII. Soon after, the Guardian transported you to the world of Ultima VIII: Pagan where you, the Avatar, languished in inappropriate, arcade-like gameplay that hardly fitted your past exploits.
Years have passed. Much work has been done to transport you once again to Britannia to finish your final quest, to vanquish the Guardian, and to unite you with Britannia in a far more intimate and immersive way.
But it seems that the Guardian's influence is not limited only to fantastical realms. Somehow, his evil leaked into our world and ordered the premature delivery of the product of all those years' work. Now, the Avatar must face his most difficult task. Not only must he save Britannia, but also he must conquer a nation of gameplay bugs and Olympian system requirements to do so. Poor Avatar - the odds are not in his favor.
Things in Britannia have taken a turn for the worst. In your absence, the Guardian, red-skinned champion of evil conquests, has made eight huge columns leap from the soil, corrupting the eight Virtues of which you are the Avatar. It is indeed a dark time, and Britannia needs a hero. In your luxurious estate, you are awoken by a mysterious voice that bids you to arm yourself and venture forth into the night. It tells you to seek the gypsy who determines which of the 8 Virtues your path follows and sends you through the moongate to Britannia. From there, one of the most ambitious, stunning, expertly designed (and even more expertly sabotaged) games you'll ever encounter starts off on an epic quest. For this adventure, you are advised to pack plenty of Zantac, as frustration shall be your constant ration.
Ultima IX Ascension is an important game. It is the conclusion of the Ultima series, one of the longest running and most widely respected role-playing series on the PC, and it is also the last single player game that Origin systems will ever release. So it is a pity that the entire game will most likely be known not for its splendid design, gripping plot, or rich atmosphere, but rather as an example of what's wrong in the gaming industry.
First, what is right. The gaming system in Ultima IX is just about as good as it gets. Playing from an isometric 3D perspective, you control the Avatar on his quest through Britannia. The interface is similar to the previous games, with a backpack for storage, spell-book for casting, and a compass for navigation. New to Ultima IX is a toolbelt for quick weapon equipping, using potions, etc. The mouse is used for controlling the viewpoint, but whenever an item is picked up, the old mouse interface for moving objects with the little "hand" is still there. All in all, the interface feels like Ultima VII drawn out into a 3D perspective. Although it would be nice to be able to re-configure the controls, the system is nonetheless seamless and intuitive.
The 3D perspective was thought to be a gamble when it was first announced, but the result is clearly a more immersive game. You really feel a connection with Britannia as a gamer. Ultima IX is a shining example of how successful the synergy of adventuring, fighting, and character development can be.
Once you get into the game, Ultima IX really shows its charms. Although at first your path is clearly set and your spell-casting and combat options are limited, your abilities flower as the game unfolds. As you vanquish the columns, you gain more spells related to the Virtue that each individual column is corrupting. Your combat options can be expanded with training, and the places to go, people to talk to, and things to do become more and more plentiful. In fact, there are at least 40-50 hours of side quests and things to do that aren't essential to the plot. This open-ended gameplay allows you to further explore Britannia, collect useful items (though none as slick as Ultima VII's "Hoe of Destruction"), and just generally have a deeper playing experience. And that is on top of about 70 hours of straight, plot-based gameplay.
As all this happens, the excellent plot of the game unfolds to the absolute delight of the player. Ultima IX draws you in with a great story, a good interface, terrific gameplay, and graphics that, under proper conditions, create the mysterious and enchanting world of Britannia with more success than perhaps any game has ever had at creating its setting.
Given the rich back-story and enticing plot, the sense of awe you feel as you walk up to the fallen head of an ancient statue or venture to a tree-village that would put Endor to shame is nothing short of breathtaking. Britannia is brought to life by a powerful 3D engine that creates rich, expansive, colorful, and believable scenery. That is, assuming you can run it.
Though this review has been waxing lyrical on the excellent play aspects of Ultima IX, it is with great sadness that the great game design, excellent production values, and fantastic gameplay is so thoroughly sabotaged by the largest collection of fatal bugs that PC gaming has seen in a major release since Battlecruser 3000 AD.
For starters, unless you have a fast system with plenty of RAM and an AGP Voodoo 3 based card, Ultima IX will be an exercise in graphical choppiness. The bugs are so bad they would reduce even the most proud Althon-750-with-GeForce256-512MB-of-RAM-owning-gamer to tears and curses. Although the Glide (3dfx Voodoo) support is reasonable, Direct 3D, which most cards use, is an utter mess of lousy performance and curtailed visual appeal.
Beyond that, save games get corrupted, crashes are routine, the AI performs erratically, quest specific bugs often halt your progress, and some nasty memory-leaks make the game run slower the longer you play it. A RPG is supposed to be the sort of game you become engrossed in for hours. Here, it's a miracle if you can play for 15 minutes and be able to save your game before the onslaught of the blue error-screen-of-death.
Given that the first patch was dated before the game was released, it's evident that Ultima IX was released in Beta form (before the developers were finished with it) in order to get on store shelves for the Christmas season. Score another one for the evil suits.
Ultima IX is the legacy of gaming companies focusing more on the dollar than the quality of the product: an 'A' game murdered by an 'F' game's bugs. As this is the last single player game that Origin will ever release and the end of the Ultima series, it should have been a swan song. In our preview, we stated that Ultima IX was "destined to be a classic," and if they can ever manage to fix it... it still is. If you're interested, wait until the game is fully patched or wait for the inevitable 'Gold Version.' By then, the problems should be solved. Until then, the day this game was released prematurely lives in infamy in PC gaming history. Some things in gaming are sacred - Ultima was one of them. Don't give up on it quite yet, but for now... the Guardian has won.