Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge Preview

Ultima Online 2's demise spawned another game designed to extend the life of the long-running online RPG. We take a look at a nearly complete build.

Monsters in the game, such as this one, are being designed by Todd McFarlane.

Ultima Online 2 died a painful death, but it appears that some good will soon rise from the ashes of that ill-fated, many-named project. Comic and toy magnate Todd McFarlane, who was brought on board to design monsters for Ultima Online 2, has now turned his attention to the creation of beasties for the newest Ultima Online expansion, Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. In addition to the new McFarlane monsters, Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge will feature a slick new in-game event engine and a new emphasis on the virtue system, an ingredient that has long been missing from the world of Ultima Online despite its critical role in the single-player Ultima games.

As the name of the new expansion suggests, Lord Blackthorn's Revenge focuses on the evil machinations of Lord Blackthorn, the former nemesis of Lord British and now just an all-around unpleasant person with unwholesome aims. It seems that Blackthorn has made his new home in the land of Ilshenar, which was the new continent introduced in Ultima Online: Third Dawn. With Blackthorn's relocation comes the introduction of two new races--the meer and the juka. These constantly warring creatures are actually supposed to predate human beings in Britannia but had long since vanished. Now that they are back, Ultima Online players have some new foes to battle.

Lord Blackthorn's Revenge will add about 30 new creatures to the UO universe.

Perhaps the most noteworthy new feature in Lord Blackthorn's Revenge is the inclusion of 30 new creatures, each of which was either designed by Todd McFarlane or inspired by his work. These include both monsters and rideable mounts. Also, while the artwork and animation files for all 30 monsters can be found on the game disc when it is first purchased, the monsters themselves will be introduced a few at a time. So when you first fire up Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge, you might see a handful of new monsters if you wander far enough into uncharted territory, but you won't see them all until certain key events take place in the gameworld.

This unlocking of new creatures is all part of an all-new dynamic content system. Basically, Ultima Online players will now have a hand in the way the world develops. Better yet, this time it will go beyond how many walking paths they can block with their houses. As Origin explains it, events will take place or not take place according to the way players react to in-game situations. And while these situations maybe different on every shard (server), the players' reactions and therefore the in-game results will vary from shard to shard. For example, a specific type of new rideable creature may become available on one shard if players take the requisite actions to discover that creature. On other shards, if the players fail to take those actions, that creature might not become available. Much of the dynamic content system is still very much a mystery, as it will unfold over time and was therefore not spelled out in the beta version we tested. The inclusion of such a system, however, is long overdue in Ultima Online and a welcome addition to Lord Blackthorn's Revenge.

Virtual Virtues and Minor Tweaks

A key component of the Ultima single-player adventures since Ultima IV hit the streets, the virtues have been curiously absent (in meaningful form) from Ultima Online since its inception. Lord Blackthorn's Revenge will change that. After the game is released in February, a new system of virtues will be phased into the game. The eight basic virtues--valor, compassion, humility, and the rest--will become new stats for characters to improve over time. Each of the virtues will promote a different style of gameplay, in order to accommodate the varying tastes of Ultima Online's established fan base.

New spell and environmental effects will accent the overall visuals in the game.

So while players who like to hunt liches and gazers may focus on improving their valor rating, others not as interested in combat will be able to focus on a virtue more in line with their peaceful nature. Players looking to improve their humility rating, for example, will be able to undertake certain tasks that help new players get their bearings. As the new players improve, the experienced player's humility score will improve. Like other skills and ratings in Ultima Online, once a virtue score reaches a certain level, the player will acquire new skills and abilities. The new skills and abilities have not been revealed as yet, but the system appears to be well conceived and should be a welcome feature for Ultima Online fans.

Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge also includes a slew of minor enhancements, including a complete update of the 2D artwork. Since the 3D client was not very well received in Third Dawn, many Ultima Online players continue to use the 2D client. However, the new lands introduced in Third Dawn were not available to 2D players. Furthermore, many of the 2D monsters introduced via patches over the past few years were basically just variations of existing 2D artwork. That will all change in Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. The 2D client now has full access to Ilshenar and the artwork has been fully updated so that all 2D creatures look like their 3D counterparts.

Although you can't tell from looking at this screenshot, this player is listening to a Bon Jovi MP3...trust us.

The 3D artwork has been enhanced as well, as the avatar models and textures have been undergoing a gradual overhaul since their introduction in Third Dawn. Additionally, the music system has been completely redesigned in Lord Blackthorn's Revenge. All the theme and situational music in the game is now stored in MP3 format. Players who feel the need can easily swap out any piece of music they don't like (or have simply grown tired of) for their personal favorites. After copying and renaming some files, players can hear music from the Gladiator or The Lord of the Rings soundtracks during combat instead of the default Ultima Online tunes. Finally, the 3D client, after many months of gradual tweaking, has reached a point where it is very stable and--according to Origin--even faster than the 2D client.

All told, Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge is shaping up to be a solid update to Origin's long-running online RPG. It is important to note, however, that 2D players will have to purchase this upgrade, while 3D players can opt to patch their current installations. As some consolation to those longtime players who are required to fork over more cash for this game, the retail box will include a 24-page Ultima Online comic book created by McFarlane.

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