Once upon a time I played the very first Ultima game on my Apple II (the one where you could fly a space shuttle to the moon). It was a new type of game, and was totally revolutionary in more ways than I could count. It also had some serious problems. Parts of the game were confusing and irregular as if no one had really thought the whole thing through. It was also quite buggy, and it crashed a lot, and I was happily, gloriously addicted to playing it.
Ultima Online takes me back to those days of yore. UO is revolutionary, unpolished, buggy, brilliant and frustrating. Yet I find myself coming back to it time and again, sneaking in hours of play whenever I can.
For the uninitiated, the Ultima universe is one of warriors, magic and dragons. The continent of Britannia is ruled by Lord British, vying for power against Lord Blackthorne. You can be a soldier or a mage or anything in between in a classic RPG setup. The key difference between UO and the previous Ultimas 1-8 is the fact you are now in a world populated by other human RPG characters from all over the world. This turns the game into an almost entirely different animal.
The graphics are classic solid sprites. Well done, but with no real innovations except in the variety available representing the character that you can play. Aside from the dozens of different weapons and armor, you also have lots of clothing options and a nearly infinite number of color combinations you can dye them. Even better, you can design the characters themselves, selecting hairstyles, different facial hair (for men only), hair color and skin tone. With this variation, I was even able to make a character with a passable likeness to myself. However, this will not be possible for everyone as there is only one body type for men or women.
The viewpoint also feels quite familiar with a now-traditional isometric 3/4 perspective. The animation is fairly good in most cases, and I have only a few minor quibbles. First, the programmers used a shortcut and mirrored all the left/right positions. While I'm sure this saved them time, it means that your sword and shield switch hands every time you turn around. Also, the graphics when you are riding on a boat are TERRIBLE, as the boat moves badly and can only face in four directions, with no graphics at all for the turning.
Speaking of boats, you can buy, own and keep them; as well as homes and towers and shops and castles. With thousands of other people in the world, there are those who are richer and poorer, stronger and weaker. Real estate is an expensive commodity on the more established servers where most of the developable land has already been bought.
It is these other people that really make the game, though. The interaction with those weaker or stronger than yourself is fascinating and makes you yearn to be mightier and wealthier. Like the real world, there are nice guys and jerks, smart people and idiots. There are honorable lords who might help you or snub you. There are thieves and brigands and murderers (called 'PKers', short for 'player killers') who will kill you and/or take your money and possessions if they can. You can BE any of these people.
Many people join player created guilds to team up, pool wealth, and act as a powerful group. I haven't joined a guild, but I still have friends I try to meet up with and play with. It even turned out to be a great tool for me to stay in touch with some of my friends who live in other parts of the world. I now regularly meet up and adventure with some old school chums of mine to whom I never previously wrote (I'm not much of a letter writer), and saw perhaps once a year. Great fun.
But all is not camaraderie and high times. There are some problems, too. Ultima Online is constantly in flux, and often seems more like a beta than a completed product. Every couple of weeks, there is a new patch automatically and painlessly updated by the game itself when you start (kudos to Origin!). But this means changes all the time. Since I began playing, archery has been modified four times. Magic spells have been changed and one spell has been canceled altogether. A delay has been added to the casting of spells and they can now be interrupted if the caster is wounded. Damage modifiers have been changed. Some of the rules for PKers and bounty hunters have been modified. Several bugs have been exploited, including one that let you copy items infinitely, and another that let you artificially enhance your skills. Some of the command keys have been changed. The amount of damage done in all combat has been halved. And to this day, about one in 10 times I kill a monster and check its body, one of the items I find is still a large black diamond shape with the words 'NO DRAW' written on it. Huh?
Starting up is also very difficult. Instructions provided are sparse, inadequate, unclear, and in many cases, dead wrong. The interface is difficult at first, although the macros and hotkeys are well done (and necessary). You will need the help and advice of experienced players when you begin, or you will simply be lost. People who are easily frustrated might want to try Meridian 59: Revelation instead, which is a simpler game, has better interfaces, no lag problems, and has already gone through its growing pains.
These changes and difficulties affect all players, though, and you just have to take them in stride. The real problem with UO is the lag. The technology and the internet are just not quite up to the task that Origin has set them. Gameplay often slows down, depending on the area of Britannia you are in and which server is powering it. Sometimes the lag is so bad, the game becomes simply unplayable. Origin often blames the internet for this and says that it is not the fault of their servers, but this is not always true, and is still a problem either way.
I know this is a lot of complaining, and it's all true, but despite this Ultima Online is still quite a good game. Sure it's a rough product, but Origin is going for something new and revolutionary here. This is a new type of world that they are trying to build, not just a glorified MUD. Britannia has its own economic flux, political turmoil, battles and wars, and even a simple model ecosystem. If you want, instead of fighting monsters, you can become the worlds finest baker, or make a living as a fisherman, a tailor, a farmer or a blacksmith. When its running well, it's great fun and more addicting that anything I've played in years.
The cost may daunt some at $10/month for unlimited play, but if you get hooked, that could be the world's best entertainment bargain as you wonder how all those hours slipped by without you noticing. If you are looking for polished software with amazing new graphics and seamless play, Britannia is not the place to go. However, if you are more daring (and tolerant), and have been looking for a way to stay in touch with all those old friends with whom you used to play Dungeons and Dragons, invest some effort into Ultima Online. You may occasionally bang your head against the desk in frustration, but you won't be disappointed.