My brother and I have been playing Ultima Online off and on since the early days of the game's initial beta test. We entered the online world of Britannia as wide-eyed adventurers, somewhat naive in our hopes of establishing a name for ourselves as heroes in the legendary lands of our favorite role-playing series. Over a year later, after playing and suffering through countless bugs, numerous deaths at the hands of player killers and server crashes, and a world gone mad with house building and grand-master titles, we are disillusioned, bitter, and even somewhat paranoid veterans. No longer do we log onto UO for the novel joy of participating in a truly unique gaming experience. Rather, we merely find ourselves reluctant to give up on characters that took so many months to whip into shape. That and we have to justify the fact that our credit card companies are nailing us for $10 every month.
When Origin announced Ultima Online - The Second Age, we looked upon the news with mixed emotions. On the one hand, you have an expansion pack that promises to add more lands to explore, more creatures to fight and tame, and more gameplay features to ease your suffering. On the other hand, you have a game developer expanding upon a game that still isn't quite where it should have been when it was released. To us, that seems sort of like declaring a foreign war to call attention away from domestic unrest. Still, we ventured boldly forth into the new lands, eager to encounter the challenges of this untamed realm.
Unfortunately, The Second Age makes a fairly awful first impression. After buying and installing the new software, you might expect to be able to move quickly and easily into the new lands. This is not necessarily the case.
Should you choose to enter the new lands via the Moonglow gateway (which appears to be the only gateway that takes you from a guarded location in Britannia to a guarded location in the new lands), you must first say some magic words. Of course, there is nothing in the game's printed manual or readme file about these words. You simply have to find them for yourself. So after what seemed like a lifetime of searching through files and asking for help from other players, we finally discovered the following: To move from Moonglow to Papua (one of the two villages in The Second Age), you must say "recdu" while on or near the teleporter. To return, you must say "recsu." Seems to us that a simpler method would be better - especially when you consider that this is the only one of the landlocked gateways that requires a password (why not make them all the same?).
After we made it into the new world, things improved somewhat. One of the new features in The Second Age is support for player-built cities. Because of this, the only premade settlements in The Second Age are relatively small and sparse. Delucia is a decent-sized town at the southwest corner of the rectangular world map, while Papua is a smaller town of grass huts closer to the center of the map. Someday, player-owned dwellings will fill out these towns and give rise to others, but it's a little too early to report fully on that aspect of the game. We're just hopeful that it goes smoother than the messy home building in Britannia. It often seems as if you can't take two steps in that world without running into somebody's house.
For the most part, the lands surrounding Papua and Delucia are much like those in Britannia. One notable difference is the abundance of wildlife and monsters - a major improvement over Britannia where creatures only seem to be regularly found near a handful of key, well-known respawn sites. In The Second Age, deer and other wildlife roam in large numbers. Monsters are rather plentiful and - better yet - well balanced so that players of all skill levels can find something they can handle. There are a few too many snakes (one of UO's most annoying creatures) and giant toads, but otherwise the monster population is quite good. Respawn rates seem to be much better in the early going, but that could just be the result of fewer players (predators) in the new lands.
The two new races, the snakelike Ophidians and the spiderish Terathan, are impressive and tough to kill. Both races include multiple types of fighters and mages, so you have to be careful to check which type you're actually fighting, lest ye get summarily whupped upon. Ostards are the new, rideable creatures, and they look a bit like a cross between a bird and a small dinosaur. Other new creatures include the mammoth Titans, a formidable Cyclops, a magic-wielding red mongbat (or imp), and a bunch of ice and frost variations of familiar UO beasties.
While the monster population and respawn rates are much better than in the original UO, one other aspect of the new world is much, much worse than its predecessor. Simply put, the terrain in The Second Age is horrendous. The art is the same, but the layouts look very much like the work of someone who discovered the terrain editor and was unable to practice restraint. It is vastly overdone and unconvincing, with swamps, plains, mountains, and lava pits all thrown together without any sense of purpose.
The terrain design is made all the more annoying by the many oddities of the UO landscape that have carried over to the new lands: impassable wildflowers and mushroom patches, saplings that can stop a warrior where an Ettin can't, that sort of thing. These ridiculous terrain glitches have gone from being mere annoyances to obstacles requiring teleportation or long detours. According to Origin, there are areas of the new lands in which this was done on purpose, and (even worse) it was done to accommodate players who rely on ranged weapons and magic. So rather than free up as much space as possible within the tight borders of the new lands, Origin has instead packed the new lands with obstacles.
And with sections of the landscape purposely designed with ranged weapons and magic in mind - the offensive combination preferred by most player killers - Origin has actually tailor-made an ambusher's paradise of gullies, ravines, canyons, and unreachable sniping spots. This simply boggles the mind. One would imagine that Origin would take every step possible to eliminate (or at least severely curtail) the player-killing problem in UO.
UO's perspective problems have carried over to The Second Age as well, making it tough to spot a slope or a ridge, especially when it's covered with too much vegetation. To make matters worse, there are several spots where you can actually fall from enough of a height to wound yourself (resulting in a particularly startling scream from your onscreen persona). The nonsensical road system is equally annoying. In UO, a road is the only path that you know will (eventually) lead to safety. In The Second Age, many roads go nowhere at all (a real pain when you're trying to learn the route from Delucia to Papua) or lead to dead ends. Dead ends abound, in fact, which is an awfully frustrating state of affairs when you're trying to navigate these new lands on foot.
There have been mutterings about the new lands being based on a mysterious lost land from previous Ultimas. Even if this is true, we couldn't help feeling that the new lands were a bit contrived and tacked on. Why not have a "new land" that already was a familiar part of the Ultima storyline? Serpent Isle, for instance, or the Gargoyle lands from Ultima VI? Overall, The Second Age just feels a little forced and does not mesh well with the Ultima world.
On some of the more basic fronts, The Second Age gives us the big-window feature, which is actually now available to all UO players. This welcome new feature lets you arrange miscellaneous items (paper doll, backpack, etc.) around the border of the game window instead of on top of it.
Server load on the new lands varies pretty widely. At peak hours, you can't swing a dead mongbat without hitting a dozen other players (at least one of which always seems to be a player killer). At other times, the servers seem to be nearly vacant. Performance issues are still a concern, and lag still causes as many deaths as most monsters in the game, but in general we found performance in The Second Age better than in "old" Britannia. Time warps and server crashes still occur frequently, though not nearly as often as in the unstable days of UO's infancy. Also, morning players are still plagued by Origin's baffling backup system, which apparently stops saving data at around 10:30am but allows players to keep playing for another hour or so before taking the servers down for maintenance. Here's an idea: When the backup is done, take the servers down immediately or come up with an onscreen icon to indicate that the backup has finished, but the daily maintenance has not yet taken place. This way, players won't lose an hour or so of hard-earned advancement simply because they missed the fleeting "The Servers Are Going Down Soon" notice.
Still, The Second Age is a no-brainer for current UO players. At only $6.95 to upgrade, it's hard to resist the idea of an expansion pack that provides more room to breathe and more creatures to fight. Newcomers to the UO universe should be a bit more wary, however, especially with other games like EverQuest just around the corner. The Second Age adds some nice new features and fixes a few things, but it introduces a whole slew of its own problems. Does this mean that we won't play the game? Of course not. We'll still log on every day to bash monsters, gather gold, and build upon our reputations. That's just part of the love-hate charm of this addictive and frustrating game. But we had honestly hoped for more from The Second Age and, after all this time, from the state of Ultima Online in general.