Its uniqueness has allowed Ultima Online to boast an unprecedented record for commercial longevity, but the game is finally running out of steam.
In less than six months, Ultima Online will celebrate the fifth anniversary of its initial retail release. Ultima Online is still the only massively multiplayer game that meaningfully attempts to create a virtual world in which you can develop characters that can be adept at activities other than devastating resident fauna. While that novel aspect of the game may still appeal to new or established players, Ultima Online is otherwise so dated that it is unlikely to be able to sustain its unprecedented commercial longevity. Lord Blackthorn's Revenge is the most recent, and least ambitious, of the four major iterations of the game, and it's unlikely to induce new players to an increasingly dated game.
Ultima Online has changed a lot since it was initially released in September 1997, but Lord Blackthorn's Revenge doesn't significantly alter the game's status quo. Lord Blackthorn's Revenge adds a relatively small new area to explore, which is located in the center of the large continent introduced by the game's last major expansion, Third Dawn, and adds a handful of new items to craft and monsters to fight. The new monsters are largely cyborg creatures designed by popular comic book artist and action figure designer Todd McFarlane. Although the first couple of games in the core Ultima series had science fiction elements, the introduction of these science fiction monstrosities seems incongruent with the medieval swords and sorcery setting established by the past 20 years of Ultima games. Their inclusion doesn't seem to be indicative of a significant change to Ultima Online's design, however, and was more likely just motivated by a desire to at least get some utility out of designs previously created for Ultima Online's aborted spin-off, Ultima Worlds Online: Origin. The Lord Blackthorn's Revenge iteration of Ultima Online plays almost exactly the same as the Third Dawn version of the game.
Even the developers seem to be treating Lord Blackthorn's Revenge as a less significant event than the earlier expansions. The first two expansion packs provided purchasers with a large bound paper version of the game's playguide manual, but that practice was abandoned for the Third Dawn release. Lord Blackthorn's Revenge also ships with only an abbreviated version of the game's playguide, but the developers haven't yet bothered to update the online version of the game's manual to account for the changes introduced by the new iteration. The new creature types have been gradually introduced, while the game's overall plot is developed through in-game events, but such events do a poor job of conveying any comprehensible storyline. A comic book and an unpainted action figure are included with the retail release of the game to help introduce the plot developments apparently contemplated by the expansion, but the new fictional elements are unlikely to have any significant impact on the experience offered by Ultima Online. As always, the generation of novel events remains primarily dependent on the efforts of Ultima Online's players, just as in many of the multiuser dungeons (MUDs) on which Ultima Online was originally modeled.
While it doesn't introduce significant changes, Lord Blackthorn's Revenge is likely still a worthwhile upgrade for existing Ultima Online players, particularly if they are still using the game's 2D client software. The 3D client introduced by the Third Dawn expansion has proven to be less popular than Electronic Arts anticipated, and Lord Blackthorn's Revenge recognizes the continuing appeal of the 2D client by finally letting players access the lands introduced by Third Dawn using the 2D client. Rather than continue to hope that players will eventually migrate to the 3D client, the developers have enhanced support for the 2D client by improving some of the game's 2D graphics. Lord Blackthorn's Revenge also finally retires the game's dated MIDI music by replacing it with MP3 digital tunes. The new player tutorial has also been improved, and there are also a few general interface tweaks, but Lord Blackthorn's Revenge will primarily appeal to existing players. Just having access to new areas to explore, creatures to fight or harness, and items to craft or otherwise acquire is probably reason enough to justify an upgrade for fans still enamored with the existing game.
The release of the latest iteration of Ultima Online is an appropriate occasion to summarize the game's current state, particularly to allow gamers who are either new to Ultima Online or who abandoned it months or years ago to judge whether it would now be a worthwhile purchase. If you played Ultima Online since the Third Dawn expansion was released and didn't enjoy the experience, the latest iteration won't prompt you to change that opinion unless the sole reason for your dissatisfaction was the inability to use the 2D client to explore the entire gaming world. If you only played the game prior to the Renaissance expansion or have been avoiding the game because you heard horror stories of characters being consistently killed or looted by other players, you can now completely avoid that sort of harassment. If you actually liked the prospect of fighting other players, you can either engage in sanctioned guild battles or just hop in a moongate to travel to an alternate version of the game's main landmass where you're still free to hunt other players, subject to some punitive sanctions for players designated as murderers. On a dial-up connection, gameplay is still more susceptible to lag-induced slowdowns than more recently released online RPGs, but optimizations introduced by the developers combined with the fact that areas are much less likely to be overpopulated than they once were now usually make lag inconsequential. Accordingly, the two biggest problems with the initial release of Ultima Online (the game's poor handling of Internet lag and being forced to deal with player-killing and other antisocial behavior) have been rectified by the game's subsequent development.
- Game Universe:
- Ultima Online 7th Anniversary Edition (PC),
- Ultima Online: Age of Shadows (PC),
- Ultima Online: Lord Blackthorn's Revenge (PC),
- Ultima Online: Third Dawn (PC),
- Ultima Online: Renaissance (PC),
- Ultima Online: The Second Age (PC),
- Ultima Online (PC),
- Ultima X: Odyssey (PC),
- Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn (PC),
- Ultima Online: Mondain's Legacy (PC)
- Number of Players: