After an unprecedented five years of commercial longevity, Ultima Online continues to battle for the attention of fans of massively multiplayer online role-playing games in an increasingly competitive market. Last year's expansion pack, Blackthorn's Revenge, was an unambitious release that highlighted the game's maturity, both because it seemed to have outgrown the problems that plagued its initial release and because the developers appeared to be running out of new ideas. However, Age of Shadows, the fifth expansion pack, introduces significant gameplay changes and breathes new life into Ultima Online. Unfortunately, these changes have also reintroduced problems that had previously been addressed.
In most online RPGs, players spend almost all of their time hacking and slashing away at monsters in order to make their characters stronger and better equipped by gaining experience levels and acquiring loot so that they can then spend their time hacking and slashing at even more challenging monsters. It's a simple, addictive formula, but it's so common to online RPGs that many players simply refer to these games as "level treadmills." Other than repetitively dispatching monsters or, less frequently, battling other players, there's generally little else to do in online RPGs. Although these games typically include at least a rudimentary system for crafting items, Ultima Online remains the only game of its type that comprehensively attempts to create a virtual world in which you can develop characters who are adept at activities other than devastating the resident fauna. It's a trait that meaningfully distinguishes Ultima Online from its competition and likely explains the durability of its appeal, in spite of its increasingly outdated interface and combat system.
Age of Shadows is largely successful at both making Ultima Online's virtual world even more compelling as well as enhancing core gameplay by significantly modifying the combat system. The most far-reaching and controversial change is the adoption of an entirely new magic-resistance system. In previous versions of the game, all damage inflicted upon your characters was treated in the same fashion; there was only one type of damage, and armor and magic resistance offered correspondingly universal protection. Age of Shadows diversifies the generic treatment of character damage by introducing five different damage types: physical, cold, fire, poison, and electricity. Every type of spell and attack inflicts one or more of these damage types, and armor no longer provides universal protection against all types of damage. This addition fundamentally changes the combat system and provides additional tactical depth to player-vs.-player combat.
Another significant change to the combat system is the introduction of special attacks for each type of weapon. Once your character earns at least 70 skill points using a particular type of weapon, you acquire the ability to launch a more devastating type of attack. Upon earning 90 skill points, a second special attack becomes available. In addition, Age of Shadows introduces 10 new weapon types, so overall, combat is more interesting, especially for melee combat characters. Monsters have less health overall, but to offset this change, you no longer get damage bonuses while fighting them, while pets and other controllable creatures have been weakened so that you must be more actively involved in fighting battles. Though some veteran players (who had previously mastered the earlier versions of combat) may find the new changes annoying, Age of Shadows' changes do, in fact, result in faster, more involving battles.
Age of Shadows also adds another landmass to explore, Malas, which is considerably larger and features a score of new creature types of various sizes and fantastical shapes. Unlike the misplaced batch of robotic characters that were introduced in Blackthorn's Revenge, the new creatures in Age of Shadows fit well within the game's medieval fantasy setting. The expansion's large new dungeon gives players who cooperate in teams access to the best new magic items, providing an additional social activity to a game that is otherwise extremely accommodating to solo adventurers. Ultima Online has always lacked a decent quest system, since quests have been limited to a few introductory tasks, as well as escort or rescue missions. While that's generally still the case, Age of Shadows introduces several significant new quests and puzzles to solve.
Two new character templates--the paladin and the necromancer--and their associated skills have also been added. Using a book of chivalry, paladins can use a variety of spell-like abilities, including one that lets you teleport without needing a mage's recall spell. Necromancers have their own magic spells, like animate dead, and also can assume various physical forms. Any established characters can be modified to become paladins or necromancers by developing the associated skills, and new characters can conveniently choose from templates designed to emphasize these skills. Like each of the territories in the past four expansion packs, Malas doesn't allow nonconsensual player combat or theft, but the expansion's general changes to combat as well as the new paladin and necromancer templates do change the rules of player-vs.-player combat. Fans of player-vs.-player battles will also appreciate that they no longer lose statistics when slain and that they can now use recall spells to travel to and from Felucca, the only area in the game where player-vs.-player combat is still permitted.
Age of Shadows enhances your ability to immerse yourself in the game's virtual world by introducing customized housing. Provided you can find a suitable location and have the necessary funds, you can now customize the construction of a virtual home. Coupled with the already existing ability to manufacture or find an immense number of unique items and the recent addition of a comprehensive gardening system, customized housing gives you the opportunity to decorate and otherwise personalize the environment for your characters in a manner that may ultimately be as addictive as such features proved in The Sims. To free up virtual real estate to give you better access to this feature, the new land of Malas has been designed to accommodate 1,500 new housing locations for each server shard. However, there was such an overwhelming existing demand for housing locations that most of the choice new spots were scooped up almost immediately. Despite the abbreviated opportunity to partake in the land rush, customized housing is a great new feature that more players should get the opportunity to enjoy once the recently introduced "one house per account" rule forces all of the virtual real estate barons to reduce their holdings to a single lot.
Unfortunately, Ultima Online has a history of technical problems when it comes to managing server load and server lag, and these problems remain as ugly as ever. Probably as a result of the mad rush for housing spots immediately after the expansion's commercial release, it became frustratingly difficult to upgrade accounts, access servers, or even make any progress within the game due to frequently horrific lag delays. Server stability and performance deteriorated so badly that Origin/EA was recently forced to take servers offline for extended periods of time. Even worse, players lost the benefit of many hours' worth of achievements when servers had to be reset to their status as of an earlier point in time. It's not surprising that a major upgrade would have a few teething problems, but these issues are difficult to overlook, especially considering Ultima Online's past.
Then again, these technical problems may be related to the sheer number of changes that have been introduced over the past five years. Aside from introducing new territory, the various expansion packs have changed the core game's karma and reputation systems; modified and introduced skills, spells, and abilities; significantly revised the combat and housing systems; introduced a system of virtues and expanded the roles of guilds and factions; eliminated theft and nonconsensual player combat in most areas; and also allowed the use of third-party programs such as UO Assist and UO Automap. All of these modifications have resulted in a tremendously complicated system of rules (and equally complex technical aspects, no doubt), especially since many older rules have exemptions for longtime players. The developers have generally done an admirable job of responding to bugs and exploits, but the game's complexity makes it less accessible to new players and may never allow it to consistently provide as stable and lag-free an experience as offered by other online RPGs.
Age of Shadows makes other minor changes and tweaks to the core game, though these don't affect Ultima Online's gameplay significantly. The windowed interface for the gaming world is now easier to resize, and hovering your mouse over items will now automatically bring up descriptions, although it's still often awkward to target creatures or get feedback, especially during periods of lag. Ultima Online previously offered support for a 3D client and a 2D client, and Age of Shadows (and all its new areas) continues to support either. The 3D client offers a few additional graphical perks, such as trees that sway, but the 2D client is still at least as viable an option, especially for player-vs.-player combat, since it seems to provide quicker response times. The 2D client is also still very playable on computers that are several years old, although the hard drive space requirements have significantly increased with recent expansions. There have been no notable changes to the game's sound effects or music, which remain relatively basic for a role-playing game.
Age of Shadows has other new features, such as allowing players to craft magic items and purchase insurance on their items. The expansion also makes other changes to level the playing field between veterans and beginners so that veterans have less control over the game's virtual economy. In addition, Age of Shadows features a "guaranteed gain system" that ensures all players benefit from whatever time they spend with the game, even casual players who don't have a lot of time to invest. Finally, new players who wish to purchase a high-level character can do so directly in the game, without having to turn to the eBay black market.
Age of Shadows' many enhancements help make Ultima Online quite possibly the most interesting game it's ever been. Despite being over 5 years old and featuring a dated interface and relatively simple graphics, the uniqueness of Ultima Online's design allows it to retain a significant audience and appropriately rewards this audience with commercial longevity. But while veteran players may be accustomed to Ultima Online's problems with lag and server load issues, it's more difficult to recommend the game to new players, since Ultima Online still seems unable to consistently overcome its technical problems.