Ultima Online Preview

The world's most popular role-playing universe becomes a nation unto itself, and an interesting experiment in sociology as well


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It's an idea that has been dreamed about by RPG fans ever since the first CRPG showed up on computer screens. Take a complete role-playing universe and fill it with living, breathing players, all of which have their own unpredictable goals, biases, and quirks - and let the true role-playing begin. With Origin's Ultima Online, players will finally have a chance to enter a rich RPG environment and chat with townspeople who can utter more than just the same three lines over and over, team up with co-adventurers who have depth and importance beyond their combat ability - and have the ability to betray as well as cooperate.

Designed to look and work much like the company's immensely popular Ultima 6, Ultima Online will feature a constantly changing world where much more goes on behind the scenes than most players will ever notice. Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The "virtual ecology," as Starr Long, the game's associate producer calls it, affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources - say, deer. When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he's accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.

One of the great concepts of Ultima Online is that you don't really have to do anything that you don't want to. There's nothing to stop a player from eking out a living by collecting wheat, grinding it into grain, baking it into bread, and then selling it to hungry adventurers. Players with enough cash can even go to the builder's guild and have a shop or home built for themselves. In the local taverns, players can catch up with a friend that they haven't seen for a while or talk to adventurers passing through about the conditions outside the city.

With so many actual human players involved, many adventures, due to revenge or greed form by themselves, based entirely on player interaction rather than programmer creation. Not everything is controlled by human influence, though, and an in-city police force with realistic AI routines is currently being designed to give new players a fighting chance. Anyone who attacks another player within the confines of a city is likely to be incarcerated, or worse. The team is still putting the final touches on the game's judicial system, and are trying to find a way that keeps new players alive without unrealistically discouraging players from the darker professions.

For those who are seeking adventure opportunity, Ultima Online is filled with loads of changing quests and smaller subquests. Players will be able to explore a vast new Ultima world, larger than every other Ultima game combined. Monsters include many of the Ultima favorites, from huge dragons to the more common orc. The AI for these computer-controlled characters is pleasingly complex, sending monsters to attack for reasons that are economic and political, instead of just randomly violent.

Ultima Online is a phenomenal undertaking, and, judging by the way things look now, may represent the future of computer role-playing. As you might expect, players will be charged a fee (as yet undetermined) for the time they spend in this new realm; in the final analysis, this cost will be the determining factor in this game's success. Price questions aside, this is the title that role-playing fans have been waiting for since the beginning, and, along with Diablo, it stands ready to create an entirely new way of playing games.

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