When it was first announced, Ultima Online: Third Dawn seemed to have a very simple purpose. It would give Ultima Online a much-needed facelift to keep hard-core players interested and also to attract some new ones, all to bide time for Origin's eagerly anticipated follow-up, a game called Ultima Worlds Online: Origin. But then Electronic Arts pulled the plug on Ultima Online's would-be successor, and thus the context for Third Dawn changed dramatically. While the game originally seemed like a modest but respectable update to the long-running massively multiplayer role-playing game, Ultima Online fans are now left to wonder whether this is it.
To be sure, Third Dawn represents a significant change in the basic design of Ultima Online. Specifically, it strips out the original 2D graphics engine and replaces it with a 3D polygonal one. The results, though mostly for the best, are nonetheless mixed. While the new 3D engine allows for some very cool effects--for example, the glowing particles during spell animations--the visual quality of many items in the game has actually gotten worse. For instance, the player portrait artwork (the "paper doll" used for equipping items and so forth) is not particularly impressive. Although each type of weapon, shield, and piece of armor has a unique look, few of these things actually look very good. Characters' faces are nicely detailed in the new engine, but things like chain mail are rather ugly.
Thanks to the 3D engine and some new motion-captured animations, combat looks much more impressive than it did in the original 2D game. Characters swing their weapons with fluidity and even get beaten down with equal grace. The appearance of most monsters has also been dramatically improved with the new engine. Dragons look especially good, but even weaker creatures, such as orcs and ratmen, are very nicely updated. Those creatures that don't look as good, like the silly new earth elementals, are the exception rather than the rule. The new engine also lets you zoom in on the action, which has little function but for giving you an up-close look at monsters or other players.
The world itself is somewhat better looking than before, thanks primarily to the newly designed trees, which add much greater depth to the visual appearance of Britannia. Unfortunately, Third Dawn still suffers from some annoying problems with its terrain, and a few of these have been around since the earliest days of the original game. These include patches of wildflowers that cause the player to rebound while running, as well as odd terrain elevation differences that can completely hide a dead monster's body.
Another change in Third Dawn is the revamped interface, which features a handy toolbar that runs across the top of the screen. This bar includes buttons for the paper doll, your inventory, a list of your skills, and a pull-down menu of numerous social animations you can use while interacting with other players. These include things such as "vigorous arguing" motions and elaborate bows, and they're all generally quite well animated.
The backpack graphics for your inventory, as well as the graphics for other containers found throughout the gameworld, have all been replaced with generic gray windows labeled with icons. So if you double-click on a dead monster to loot it, the icon on the gray window is a skull. Or if you double-click on a backpack to look inside, and the image of a bag appears as the icon. This change does make the game look more refined and definitely provides a more consistent styling to the interface, but many players have complained about how bland this looks in Third Dawn--so the switch has not been universally welcomed.
The other significant addition in Third Dawn is the new land of Ilshenar. This new landmass promises to offer new monsters to fight and new weapons and armor types to discover. It can be accessed only through moongates, which now use a convenient menu system that lets you choose your destination quickly and easily. Mark, recall, and gate spells do not work on Ilshenar, and many of the monsters there are quite powerful. This makes it more suitable as a high-level character's stomping grounds.
One of the best things about Ilshenar is that there will not be any player-built housing allowed on the new landmass. This should make it a popular place for players looking to get away from the mainland areas, which are now glutted with houses no matter where you explore. Though many players clearly like the housing features, the buildings simply take up too much room and are far too numerous on most servers.
But that's the least of the game's problems at the moment. It's true that Ultima Online: Third Dawn is a solid update of a game that has evolved into a fine online role-playing experience. But compared with the competition--both currently available and forthcoming--Third Dawn doesn't have all that much to offer. Although the switch to a 3D engine may be seen as an attempt to attract new players, Third Dawn is nonetheless best suited for Ultima Online's current users (who can upgrade for $9.95 or get it for free if they participated in the beta tests). That's because, despite Third Dawn, Ultima Online still isn't easy to get into; it's an acquired taste, which many acquired back when there was nothing else available or similar. But now, anyone entering Britannia's universe for the first time will probably find the world less appealing and less novice-friendly than those of EverQuest and Asheron's Call, to say nothing of the many other online alternatives currently in development.