Faced with fierce competition from the latest 3D online role-playing games EverQuest and Asheron's Call, Ultima Online has recently undergone a significant overhaul and has been republished under the name Ultima Online: Renaissance. In doing so, Ultima Online has finally reached the state it really should have been in when it was first released nearly three years ago. If you've played Ultima Online before, you'll find that many of the original game's problems have since been corrected and that the game's overall design is far better than it used to be. On the other hand, if you've never played Ultima Online and have instead gotten into EverQuest or Asheron's Call, then you'll likely find the look and style of Ultima Online: Renaissance to be dated and unappealing by comparison, since it's still essentially a three-year-old game. At any rate, Ultima Online: Renaissance is worth a try whether or not you've played it before, given its low $20 price tag.
The most important new feature in Ultima Online: Renaissance is the addition of a second, parallel version of the gameworld. The game now offers a light and dark version of Britannia and its accompanying lost lands. The light half, Trammel, is the good Lord British's realm, in which you cannot harm other players unless you are taking part in a guild or faction war. You cannot wantonly kill one another and cannot steal from or cast harmful spells on one another either. The dark half of the gameworld, called Felucca, is a fetid place ruled by the evil sorceress Minax. Where Trammel has flowers and lush green trees, Felucca has tombstones, bloodstains, and dead trees. More importantly, Felucca maintains the original game's full player-versus-player society, where player killing is possible and is still rather common. Best of all, you can hop back and forth between these two mirror-image worlds through the use of special moonstones found on the many monsters inhabiting both worlds. Former Ultima Online players should note that Felucca is the original gameworld, so that's where all of the many houses, castles, and other player-established scenery can still be found. Housing will also be available on Trammel, but as of this review, the housing placement had not yet been activated.
Ultima Online: Renaissance is targeted squarely at new players, since all of the many changes offered by the new retail product have already been made available to current players via free, automatic updates and patches. While the original Ultima Online was extremely intimidating and difficult to learn for a new player - and The Second Age expansion did little to improve this - Ultima Online: Renaissance is notably more approachable and novice-friendly. To begin with, when you create a character on a new user account, you'll be given the opportunity to take a fully interactive tutorial. This brief but thorough learning session educates new players on the game's movement, communication, trade, and combat systems.
Upon leaving the tutorial, new players enter the city of Haven, located on Trammel. Haven is what used to be known as Occlo (and is still on Felucca). Access to the town has been limited to new players and volunteer helpers called "companions." Exploring Haven and the small island on which it resides can help new players get a handle on the game's interface and features such as the banking system before entering the full-blown gameworld. When you want to leave Haven, you simply walk through the portal in the middle of town and pick a destination city from a menu. It's important to note that all new players start out in Trammel (whether or not they choose to visit Haven) and so are protected from player killing as they begin.
New players are also protected from monsters at the outset of their online adventure. Brand-new characters started on a new user account have the label "young" next to their names. Monsters will not seek out and attack young players, though young players may still pick a fight with monsters. The downside of this new feature is that it doesn't account for new characters begun on existing Ultima Online accounts. For instance, if a father wants to let his child start a new character on his account, now that he knows the kid won't be preyed upon by misanthropic player killers, that new character won't be able to enjoy the monster-protected status.
Another significant new feature implemented in Ultima Online: Renaissance is a party system, which lets you group up with other players for monster hunts and dungeon crawls. Fame and karma gains are split among the party, but loot still goes to the first player to double-click on a slain creature. It isn't quite as smooth a system as the one in EverQuest, but it's a good addition to the game.
Also, because there's twice as much landmass but essentially the same number of players as there used to be when there was only one version of the world, the monster spawn rate seems to have skyrocketed in Ultima Online. Evil creatures cover the landscape - powerful creatures like gazers sometimes even venture into the cities on Felucca - so there's never a shortage of things to hunt and treasure to obtain. The surge in the monster population, together with the resolution of the player-killing problem, leads to the sort of gameplay that many players originally expected from Ultima Online when it was first released.
Even though Ultima Online has suffered from many problems in the past and gone through many changes over the years, it doesn't seem as if all that many people have given up on the game since it was released. At most times of day on just about any American server, you can expect to find thousands of fellow players wandering the gameworld in search of fame and fortune. The game recently surpassed 200,000 active subscribers worldwide.
Even so, Ultima Online: Renaissance is not a panacea for all of Ultima Online's ills. Performance is still a problem at times, as lag can prove to be at least as dangerous as any orc mage or elemental. The backup system has been modified to reduce the number of time warps and lost hours, but problems with lost data still crop up from time to time. Also, many of the game's terrain problems still exist, such as the impassable patches of wildflowers.
However, what looms over all other concerns with the game is the simple fact that Ultima Online is getting rather long in the tooth. While it remains an entertaining and addictive game that continually improves, newcomers to the genre may not be quick to recognize the qualities that have hooked so many Ultima Online fans over the years, and they are likely to dismiss Ultima Online's increasingly dated graphics and choppy animations for the superior 3D graphics of its competitors. That's unfortunate, since much of Ultima Online's original charm remains intact, and if anything, Ultima Online is now stronger than ever. If you give it a chance, you'll find that Ultima Online: Renaissance can offer a truly rewarding, enjoyable, and long-lasting gameplay experience for all kinds of players of varying skill levels.