Ultima Online is the most complex fantasy role-playing game to date, with thousands of players simultaneously online in a persistent, dynamic gaming world. Unfortunately, at least for now, Ultima Online is more ambitious than it is successful. Design and technical issues will limit Ultima Online's appeal to gamers who possess a tremendous amount of patience and available time to invest in a game that is still in the process of being developed.
Set in Britannia, the same world featured in Ultimas IV through VII, Ultima Online takes place shortly after the events that transpired in the very first Ultima. The evil, power-mad mage Mondain has been defeated and his Gem of Immortality has been shattered, creating countless parallel worlds. The events that subsequently transpired in Ultimas II through VII occurred in one world created by the shattered gem, while each Ultima Online server contains a separate parallel world. It's an intriguing premise, as it allows Origin to pull events, items, and figures from the Ultima games into Ultima Online. But, unfortunately, with the exception of one scheduled event at the premature end of Ultima Online's beta test, this ability hasn't been effectively utilized.
Like prior Ultima games, Ultima Online uses an isometric, third-person-perspective view of the gaming world. A transparent "sighting bubble" allows you to keep an eye on objects that otherwise might be obscured behind walls. The graphics and character animations are detailed and very well done. The extensive musical score largely consists of high-quality General MIDI versions of music from earlier Ultima games. The mouse and hot-key driven interface is intuitive and customizable.
The world of Britannia really comes to life in Ultima Online. Scissors can be used to cut cloth that can be used to tailor a new shirt; an axe can be used chop up wood that can be whittled into arrow shafts; a fearsome wandering chicken will yield feathers that can be combined with wooden shafts to make arrows. If you have the inclination, you can really live out the life of a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. Of course, this "interaction" merely consists of clicking one object onto another, but the levels of detail really help to create an immersive environment.
Ultima Online emulates pen-and-paper role-playing games in that it creates an environment in which you can develop various characters who are largely free to live out a virtual life within a "realistic fantasy gaming world." Gameplay is completely nonlinear and you aren't confined to playing a traditional hero - you're welcome to create a noble fighter-mage, a humble tailor, a mischievous thief, a malevolent assassin, or an ornery fisherman (or my favorite, combine the last two types into an ornery, malevolent fisherman-assassin). There's a cost to such open-ended gameplay, however. Fans of the existing Ultima games who are looking for a story-rich setting filled with epic quests and larger-than-life scripted characters and events are going to be sorely disappointed. Ultima Online's gameplay has more in common with the text-based gameplay of MUDs than it does with the other games in the Ultima series - which is not necessarily a bad thing, but be aware that this ain't your mother's Britannia.
Which would be fine, if Ultima Online didn't suffer from numerous design and technical flaws. Origin's own statistics indicate that, on average, players spend three to four hours every day in Britannia, so obviously Ultima Online has its share of supporters. Since the game must be difficult enough so that even hard-core players don't become demigods too quickly, skill development is extremely slow. New players are relegated to performing repetitive, relatively mundane tasks in order to increase their skills and wealth before they are capable of partaking in some traditional adventuring. Some players, of course, may enjoy a lifestyle of fishing, mining, or cooking in Britannia, and therefore may not consider "putting a bun in an oven" mundane. But even if you want to be a "hack and slash" fighter or similar adventurer, you'll still have to spend several hours making and selling objects to often frugal merchants in order to save up enough money to buy appropriate equipment. There is a notable absence of a "beginner's dungeon" or an introductory area for new players to strengthen their wimpy characters in relative safety. You must initially spend a significant amount of your gaming time standing around casting spells at each other to increase skills, lining up to swing at a target dummy, or scurrying around the forest trying to squash a rabbit or those crazy wild chickens. In a touch that's reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, those rabbits are actually tough enough to do some serious damage to a character fresh out of the blocks.
Ultima Online is, of course, an Internet-only game, but to date it has done largely a poor job at handling the finicky nature of the Internet. As a result, lag seriously limits the game's enjoyment and, at times, renders the game virtually unplayable. During peak hours (6-12pm), lag is often so bad that your character will be unable to walk more than a few steps without pausing, even if you have relatively speedy Internet access. Simple tasks, such as moving inventory items or talking with other characters, become tedious exercises in frustration, and combat occasionally becomes an uncontrollable nightmare. Origin can't be held responsible for the nature of the Internet, but Ultima Online was designed from its outset to be played exclusively over the Internet and it should do a better job of coping with lag. Other online games handle lag more effectively, and Ultima Online's inability to provide a consistently playable experience is its greatest flaw. Obviously some players feel that the lag is tolerable, otherwise the game wouldn't be so crowded during peak hours, but you'll be doing yourself a favor if you play during off hours whenever possible. (Bump up this review's "Gameplay" and "Reviewer's Tilt" ratings by three points if Ultima Online ever manages to sort out the problem.)
The heart of Ultima Online is interaction with other human players and there are always plenty of players online - perhaps too many. The wilderness is full of players tromping around looking for something, anything, to kill. Monster respawning locations are typically surrounded by huge posses of characters out for blood. Naturally enough, if Ultima Online's bloodthirsty populace, er, "role-players" can't find monsters to attack, they start killing other players ("pkilling"). There's no escape from this pkilling in Ultima Online except in the relatively safe cities. Of course, if you happen to commit even a minor crime within a city, the all-powerful guards will promptly execute you (ah, nothing like a little frontier justice - jaywalkers beware).
Ultima Online does impose a price on criminal actions within the game, in the form of reducing your character's reputation, or "notoriety." Origin has made it progressively more difficult to role-play a character who has negative notoriety. "Bounty hunting" characters with negative reputations now have official sanction. These measures have reduced the frequency of pkilling and have made the game more playable for characters who just want to walk the Earth, but they have also made it more difficult to play a thief or other petty criminal. Woe to you if you get caught in the wilderness with a negative notoriety rating. For example, when I accepted a quest to escort a merchant to another town, the merchant was attacked by another player. But when I attacked the aggressor, my notoriety went down, even though I was just diligently defending my charge. Having successfully defended the merchant, I continued down the road only to run into some "lawful good" paladin vigilante types, who immediately executed me because of my negative notoriety. Fun? Nope, and even though Origin recently added a welcome "notoriety" prompt, which warns you when you are about to take an action that will reduce your notoriety, it doesn't encompass all situations and it still wouldn't have allowed me to protect my hapless merchant.
A character's speech is displayed in the gaming world above the characters' head. This conversation system worked well in Ultima 8, a single-player game, but it doesn't work as effectively in Ultima Online. Too often speech from different characters overlaps, or nonplayer characters will wander away before your typed speech actually appears on the screen (a situation exacerbated by lag). Interaction with nonplayer characters, always a strength of the Ultima series, is a huge disappointment in Ultima Online. While you can occasionally get quests from nonplayer characters, the game's cumbersome conversation system frequently prevents you from being able to accept the quest before the nonplayer character runs away, and it's not easy to get the nonplayer character to reinitiate the quest.
There are other problems too. An online game like Ultima Online may never really be "done," as it should be constantly updated in order to remain interesting to veteran players. But while the development team has diligently continued to improve the game and fix bugs, it has also continued to make fairly major changes in the game's design in order to address game balance issues that should have been resolved during the game's beta testing stage. A month into the release of the game, a complete "notoriety wipe" took place because the existing system was badly in need of repair, effectively granting amnesty to characters who had killed hundreds of their peers. Patches have been released at a fast and furious pace - the last one contained dozens of fixes and adjustments.
There are some strange design quirks as well. Although you can't alter terrain or knock down buildings with the game's strongest spells, if you happen to get too involved in your work/school/nonvirtual life to log onto Ultima Online for a few days, perish the thought, that house which cost your character thousands of coins will vanish without a trace - the result of an unfortunate design decision, which is particularly punitive on part-time players.
Origin has done a good job of improving the game since it was initially commercially released: Quests are now available more frequently and they work a little better than they used to, the dynamic economy isn't chronically in a recession, spell effects have been altered so that they are no longer too powerful against other players, and the notoriety system works more consistently. Since Ultima Online doesn't ship with a manual, Origin has now made a printable MS-Word version of the game's Playguide available at the Ultima Online web site. Still, you will have to rely on the Ultima Online site, or pick up a $20 strategy guide, in order to get such basic information as a list of available spells.
Ultima Online may eventually become the game fans had hoped for, and already it has more than its share of devoted followers who are willing to live with certain compromises. Playing now will give you a sampling of the game's potential, but unless you are incredibly patient, can tolerate constant lag and design changes, and you have the time to devote considerable attention to your characters, chances are you will simply find Ultima Online extremely frustrating. Hopefully Ultima Online's development team will continue to work on the game in order to make it a better experience for all players - whether they are hard-core MUD-masters, or just gamers who'd like to occasionally spend a few hours adventuring with friends from around the world. In its current form, Ultima Online is a major disappointment.