Ultima X: Odyssey Preview

We give you the details on Origin's upcoming MMORPG sequel to the famous computer role-playing series.

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These days, the slogan "We create worlds" doesn't resonate with computer game players the way it once did. However, 10 or 15 years ago, that slogan was routinely affixed to some of the best computer games ever released. Back in that day, Origin Systems, the Austin, Texas-based computer game developer, was firing on all cylinders with its Ultima and Wing Commander franchises, and in so doing, the company was truly living up to its ambitious tagline. However, in the last few years, Origin Systems seems to have quietly slipped into obscurity, even as its parent company, Electronic Arts, quickly built up momentum with its own EA Games brand. Now, it appears, Origin is poised to make an about-face and may finally be ready to return to the spotlight--and in so doing may even recapture some of its past glory. The reason for Origin's return to grace resides in the fact that it recently announced the upcoming release of Ultima X: Odyssey. Ultima X: Odyssey, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, continues the legacy established by one of the world's most famous, and most beloved, series of RPGs.

Ultima is back, sporting a brand-new look.
Ultima is back, sporting a brand-new look.

We recently attended Origin's fan-focused launch event for the game (be sure to check out our video interview with Rick Hall, the project lead on Ultima X: Odyssey), which Origin has casually dubbed "UXO," and, having seen and played the game firsthand, we're very hopeful that it will live up to the Ultima name. It appears, based on what we saw and experienced, that the latest version of Ultima will introduce much-needed changes to the MMORPG genre. UXO is a game that some longtime Ultima fans are going to snub their noses at initially. The game does sport a stylized, almost cartoonlike look that's a significant departure from the rather serious visuals the series has been known for. More importantly, however, UXO is an online-only game. Unfortunately, those hoping for a direct continuation of the single-player Ultima series proper won't find it in UXO.

Long-time fans of the series will recognize these creatures as zorns, and will catch plenty of other references to the classic Ultimas.
Long-time fans of the series will recognize these creatures as zorns, and will catch plenty of other references to the classic Ultimas.

Actually, though, that's not entirely true. UXO is, in fact, a direct continuation of the Ultima storyline, whose most recent chapter unfolded in 1999's Ultima IX: Ascension. Since Ultima IV, the Ultima storyline has revolved around the Avatar, a man summoned to the fantasy world of Britannia, who became a paragon of virtue--a genuine hero. The Avatar systematically righted the wrongs of Britannia and gave the people hope. Your typical hero-type stuff. However, then he encountered a grave danger in the form of the Guardian, a demonic creature with godlike powers, bent on destroying Britannia and all its inhabitants. At the end of Ultima IX, the Avatar used his powers to fuse with the Guardian, in a last-ditch means of thwarting his evil plans. It is here that UXO picks up the storyline, in the wake of that dramatic event. The Avatar and the Guardian are now one entity, fighting for control of itself--with the Avatar losing the fight. However, his new powers have enabled him to create a new world--a land accessible to Britannians and whose terrain and inhabitants literally come from the Avatar's own memories.

This is where you and thousands of other players may enter. This new land, a reflection of the Avatar's trials and tribulations, invites Britannians to take up the quest of the Avatar for themselves. The Avatar's plan assumes that if enough people can successfully follow in his footsteps, their combined power may be enough to defeat the Guardian once and for all. The storyline of UXO is interesting, but, not only that, it seems to do a perfect job of setting the stage for an MMORPG that many Ultima fans have wanted all along--one that truly lets them become heroes. Avatars, no less. Find out how UXO differs from games like Ultima Online and EverQuest next.

Leading a Virtuous Life

At first glance, Ultima X: Odyssey resembles other massively multiplayer online RPGs, like EverQuest. The game lets you create and play as a fantasy character who specializes in swordplay, magic, archery, and more. The game also lets you traipse around in a sprawling fantasy land filled with monsters and treasures. You can brave many dangers and go forth on many quests, either alone or in groups. As you defeat foes and solve quests, your character will gain experience and will probably also find plenty of new and improved equipment. This is all pretty standard.

An intuitive mouse-driven interface and highly customizable character classes should make UXO both accessible and deep.
An intuitive mouse-driven interface and highly customizable character classes should make UXO both accessible and deep.

However, if you're familiar with other online RPGs, it wouldn't take you long to notice that UXO seems, in a word, faster than other games of this type. Indeed, it may be no coincidence that the game is based on the Unreal engine, which is typically used for first-person shooters. Characters in UXO run quickly, and the combat in the game is much faster-paced and hands-on than is typical of the genre. The result doesn't appear to be Ultima: The Action Game; the result seems more like an online RPG without the painfully slow pacing the genre is infamous for.

The developers at Origin Systems have clearly done their homework while working on UXO, and the game's refreshingly fast pace is just one bit of this evidence. The entire game seems to have been designed to address numerous other common complaints with games of this type--essentially, the goal is to make the gameplay accessible and entertaining for both short periods of time and for long periods of time. Admittedly, these goals have been shared by most MMORPGs lately. Unfortunately, it seems that most of them have attempted to bring new types of players into the fold to dispel the notion that this style of gaming is exclusively suited for people with lots and lots of time to spare. These goals are easier said than done, but UXO, between its fast-paced gameplay, its look, its intuitive interface, and its virtue system, certainly looks to be on the right track.

Fighting solo or in groups will be equally viable for characters of all types.
Fighting solo or in groups will be equally viable for characters of all types.

The virtue system is something that diehard Ultima fans will really appreciate. Rather than just gaining generic experience points, characters in UXO strive to earn proficiency in the series' eight virtues: valor, honor, justice, sacrifice, spirituality, honesty, compassion, and humility. Valor points are gained by questing, and, much like the single-player Ultima games, quests in UXO are open-ended. This challenges you to make moral decisions that aren't necessarily clear-cut. For example, you might choose to bring a bandit to justice by submitting him to the proper authorities, or you might prefer to slay the bandit in valiant combat. Origin promises that most of UXO's quests will have multiple solutions, allowing you to play and replay quests without experiencing the same outcome with each campaign. You may also opt to role-play your characters of choice in a consistent fashion. Bear in mind that characters who specialize in particular virtues will probably grow stronger in a shorter amount of time than those who try to broaden their horizons.

Ultima fans will recognize many other references to the series, including enemy creatures, such as mongbats, ettins, and reapers; character classes, such as the tinker and the fighter ;and the Ultima-style character stats system that consists of strength, dexterity, intelligence, and constitution. But there's plenty more in store for UXO players than just a nostalgic trip. Read on!

Ascend Yourself

UXO doesn't have to be a game about playing the goody-two-shoes if you don't want it to be. There's a full-on player-vs.-player component, for example (though a majority of players will probably want to group together and set out into the wilderness). Like a number of other recent MMORPGs, Ultima X will allow you to venture into private areas, unfettered by other players looking to do the same thing. This means you won't have to wait in line to kill the big bad guy, and you won't have to wait for the quest nonplayer character to spawn in or anything like that. In fact, UXO seems rather surprisingly convenient to play. The interface is completely mouse-driven, and it's customizable by dragging and dropping. There's no need to memorize (or guess at) cumbersome keyboard commands or anything along those lines. All characters have a compass, which doesn't just show them where north is, but also automatically points them toward the next stages of any quest they've undertaken. Elements like this should allow UXO players to concentrate on gameplay rather than on the frustrations of figuring out what to do or where to go next.

The virtue system will allow players to fight in the name of valor, honor, and justice--or maybe to take a more cerebral approach.
The virtue system will allow players to fight in the name of valor, honor, and justice--or maybe to take a more cerebral approach.

The developers also promise that any of the character classes, even characters like healers, will be viable on their own as well as in groups. Groups of characters can, of course, take on greater challenges than can individuals, but, for the solo gamers and those gamers who want to play for shorter periods of time, UXO should allow them to play as they wish.

Combat in the game is certainly a key point. Unlike Ultima Online, UXO is indeed an action-oriented online game, and the designers have no qualms about admitting it. Not only does the speed of the combat make it look rather enticing when compared to other games, but numerous twists should make battles in UXO engaging and perhaps even much more entertaining than you'd expect from an MMORPG. For example, characters can hit harder and more accurately if they bide their time between swings. This is somewhat similar to the systems in games like Morrowind and Ultima Underworld. Characters also gain bonuses to both their attack and defense as a battle progresses--the idea here being that the characters will pick up on their opponents' strengths and weaknesses. The character building system will be quite open-ended. Though characters initially choose a basic path, such as the path of the arcane, within the character's chosen path, he or she can pick and choose from a number of different character classes. This is in addition to bonuses already conferred by gaining points in the various virtues.

UXO is far into development already, and may be just the breath of fresh air that the genre needs.
UXO is far into development already, and may be just the breath of fresh air that the genre needs.

Possibly the most exciting aspect of UXO is that characters may eventually achieve Avatar-like status by mastering each of the virtue paths. The designers promise that this is a long and difficult road for the hardcore player. The designers went on to say that more casual players should still be able to build up relatively powerful and experienced warriors and mages by playing for reasonable stretches at a time. Another very exciting aspect of UXO is that it's nearing its beta stages and is tentatively scheduled for a winter release in early 2004. The game has been in development for the past 18 months, and, since the graphics technology was licensed, most of this time was spent building content, creating quests and gameplay, and ensuring that UXO will be a game that Ultima fans, MMORPG players, and those who have yet to get into this style of gaming can all enjoy.

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