Ultima IX: Ascension is one of the most important games released in years. It's not just the only installment of the Ultima series proper in half a decade, but it's also the final game in the highly respected, long-running line of role-playing games. Origin has also announced that Ultima IX will be the last single-player game it will ever release, and there's still more at stake because this last Ultima abandons the series' traditional top-down perspective in favor of a third-person fully-3D engine.
Fortunately, fans of the series will find that the new perspective is mostly unobtrusive and the 3D interface for jumping and climbing is actually rather effective, and they will be pleased to find that Ascension is filled with references to earlier games in the series. At the same time, Ultima IX assumes no previous experience and does a great job of acclimating newcomers to the world of Britannia and in setting the stage for the final showdown between the Avatar and his archenemy. However, Ascension isn't likely to win over anyone who doesn't already cherish the series, because even in spite of its many positive traits, it's a game whose ambitious design ultimately caves in upon itself due to the game's inconsistent quality and many technical problems.
Ultima IX looks so good that its sacrifice of performance for the sake of quality is almost worthwhile. It features a three-dimensional Britannia that looks much like fans of the series must have imagined it based on the old Apple II games. In Ultima IX, the lush vegetation, rolling hills, mountain peaks, and classical architecture that lend the fantasy world of Britannia its distinctly plausible appearance all serve to effectively convey the seamless alternate reality that Ultima fans have always hoped to see. Although you can't see very far into the horizon no matter how you adjust the view setting, the sheer detail in any single location in Britannia is impressive. The world is never static; birds and butterflies flutter about, the weather and ambient lighting change slowly as the day passes, and the scenery is consistently unique no matter where you are. There's plenty of detail whether you're outdoors or not. You'll also find yourself traveling beneath Britannia, and what you'll experience in its various subterranean settings, such as catacombs, sewers, and prisons, is nearly as diverse and impressive as the plains, swamps, and snowfields on its surface.
However, this stunning new Britannia is not uncompromising. It's on a substantially smaller scale than in previous Ultimas, such that players revisiting the land may feel claustrophobic or disappointed as they jog along its short roads. But by any other standards, the world of Ultima IX is as beautiful as it is expansive. The seamless transitions between surface and underworld areas further accentuate the feeling that you're exploring a life-sized living, breathing world. Unfortunately, the various creatures and characters that inhabit the world don't look nearly as good as the world itself, and their blocky features come across as generic and uninspired compared to the intricate scenery.
Would that the plain-looking character models were the biggest problem with Ultima IX's graphics. Unfortunately, the real concern is actually getting the graphics to run at an acceptable speed, which will prove to be the greatest challenge of Ultima IX for anyone who doesn't own a top-of-the-line computer with a 3dfx card. Ultima IX isn't a fast-paced game, so you'd think a low frame rate wouldn't be cause for alarm; however, the poor graphics performance is such that it can make extended play sessions very hard on the eyes, yet the game's languid pace makes such marathon play sessions necessary.
Ultima fans will be glad to know that such play sessions necessarily involve a great deal of conversation with Britannia's inhabitants. These players will also find that the process of interacting with the characters of Ultima IX is identical to that of the last several games: You choose what to say from a few different choices at a time. Ultima IX's dialogue generally doesn't give you much choice in how to respond so much as it lets you choose the order in which you acquire particular information, although you'll sometimes have to make decisions that are significant and even drastic. Part of the reason you'll spend a lot of time in conversation is that all the dialogue in Ultima IX is spoken and thus takes longer to get through than if you simply read the subtitles. But that's only if you actually listen to it, which you shouldn't; the fact is, Ultima IX's voice acting is almost uniformly horrible. Almost every character speaks in some sort of awful, inconsistent accent that trivializes not only the gravity of the game's premise, but also the characters themselves. Even the Avatar himself sounds inappropriate, not so much because of the characterization of his voice, but rather because of his deadpan delivery. At least the game's symphonic soundtrack fares better, but it becomes disturbingly repetitive in short order. You may as well toggle off the speech if not also the music, though whether or not you actually listen to Ultima IX, you'll find that the game's dialogue is consistently dry and straightforward and that the plot is interesting only because of its situations rather than characters.
Whether the plot is interesting in the first place is further cause for concern. Unlike previous Ultimas, in which the purpose of the Avatar's goal becomes clear only after hours of deduction, in Ascension, your goal is projected quickly and clearly. Although there are plenty of unpredictable and oftentimes effective plot twists over the course of the game, that the overall goal remains consistently evident paves the way for Ultima IX's unrelentingly linear structure. There is no inherent problem with a linear story; on the contrary, such a narrative can be much more complicated and cohesive than one that lets you experience it from any direction. But Ultima IX is linear not for the sake of a complicated plot, but more so in an effort to prevent you from ever getting lost. As such, the game confines you to small areas at a time - you'll be trapped on an island or in a dungeon until you solve it - and this diminishes the sense that you're actually free to explore Britannia. Though you'll find the occasional reward if you carefully investigate the outskirts of each environment, more often than not, you'll feel as though you're being punished for straying from the designers' intended path. You'll either end up wasting your time, or in the worst cases, you'll actually break one of the game's quests by completing its objectives out of order, thus making victory impossible.
Such problems are so numerous and apparent in Ultima IX that they cannot be overlooked. An almost immediate patch fixed dozens of problems in the retail version but put just a small dent in all the technical problems that plague Ultima IX to its very core. Quest problems notwithstanding, the game is prone to crashing, the Avatar is prone to getting hopelessly stuck on objects, and his enemies, no matter how big or how powerful, are consistently mindless.
The combat system in Ultima IX is utterly inept; it's evident the designers had no idea how the actual fighting should work, even up through the very last moments of development. Because someone must have insisted on making the game action-packed, and someone else must have insisted the game shouldn't require much manual dexterity, the consequence is one of the worst combat systems in a role-playing game to date. You simply draw your weapon and hammer the left mouse button as quickly as you can, which wouldn't be so bad if the game did a decent job of letting you know you were actually hitting anything. Dodging your enemies is essentially impossible; then again, you don't really have to, since most of the time your enemies just stand there and let you kill them. You can learn new weapon techniques as the game proceeds, but there's no real reason to do so. Besides, you can avoid most any fight by simply walking around the enemy, and you don't gain experience for fighting anyway. In fact, the only benefit of fighting is that your fallen foes, both human and animal, drop gold coins whenever you kill them. The terrible combat along with the terrible voice acting sucks all the drama right out of most any significant hostile encounter in the game.
The combat and acting actually cheapen the quality of the game. Ultima IX comes across both as an epic and a farce; you'll try to take it seriously as you play, because the game's beautiful scenery and grave situations demand it. But there's nothing serious about the Avatar letting out a battle cry as he hits a giant rat in its back and collects its gold, nor is it possible to keep a straight face while listening to half the characters in the game. And though the game has a lot of variety, some sequences are far weaker than others and sink to the very lowest form of role-playing cliche, as they force you to stumble blindly through pointless mazes in search of keys and whatnot. Add to this the game's long list of technical problems, a selection of which is guaranteed to adversely affect your experience with the game, and it's plain to see that Ultima IX isn't really worth it. However, such a warning probably won't discourage the devout Ultima fan who would force his way through the game regardless of any fact or opinion that indicates he should do no such thing, if only so that he could see the 20-year-old series finally reach a conclusion.