SummarySucks to be you Avatar!
The GoodFor years Mr. Garriot had to submit his creative impulses to immense technological limitations, yet as with most games of those years, the player's imagination managed to patch up the holes and bring forth the ideas and concepts in the developer's mind. No more!
With ever-increasing processing power, gigantic data storage possibilities, humongous production values (courtesy of EA as usual) and the new possibilities brought forth by the 3D revolution, Origin and Richard Garriot finally set out to deliver what the world had been waiting for all along: the final "next-gen" Ultima game... if only we had known...
Anyway, first what's right: the graphic and physical design of the game is fabulous. It's hard to believe that one could ever have believed those clunky sprite-based flat backgrounds could have immersed anyone in it's gameworld, everything is shattered the first time you fire Ultima IX up. Done in full 3D, the game is Extremely easy on the eyes, proving to be one of the most impressive pieces of eye candy in it's time (and still holding it's ground to this day). The 3D environment brings Brittania to life like never before, not just by allowing you to see the same locations you know and love from a much closer and detailed perspective, but also by giving the land a facelift with hills, mountaintops, valleys and all sorts of detailed accidents that make exploration a much more involved and rewarding experience. Following that line of thought, Ultima IX's 3D environment also allows the player to interact with the world like never before, as the avatar now has to navigate a true virtual world that calls for him to run, jump, swim, climb and generally explore as never before.
But before you think this is just a flat-shaded polygonal upgrade to the classic Ultimas you should know that the graphics are fully textured and even feature some impressive special effects that remain spectacular to this day (check out the specular glow on the plate armor!). To it's credit the game's artists managed to exploit some barely impressive 3D tricks like volumetric fog and other niceties to create truly unique effects that compose Brittania's magical surroundings. Dynamic lighting and particle effects make spell effects a sight to behold, and the descent to a dangerous dungeon with only a torch to light your way brings new meaning to the word "ambience".
The gameworld also has it's unique day/night cycle, which cycles the sky textures and the ambient lightning accordingly, and you also have a nice collection of weather effects that go beyond being just eye candy and actually help increase the game's more dramatic elements (the localized weather around the corrupt shrines being the foremost example). But enough about the amazing graphics, the sound department is no slouch either, with one of the most pleasing instrumental soundtracks developed for a game of that time that dynamically changes according to the situation at hand.
Uh... well, I guess that's were I stop for now. I can point out other interesting details, such as the nice ritual-like way you have of binding the spells to your spellbook (which includes hunting the ingredients and then chanting the correct incantations by typing them down), as well as the interesting and often challenging traps found on the many dungeons, which make each one a unique experience regardless of their common objective; the mapping of each of the F-keys to a quick access item; the lovely made tutorial intro that starts you in modern day earth and includes the classic meeting with a fortune teller; or other subtle details such as armor bringing you down when you swim, etc... I don't know, I could continue to point out other elements that brought forth tremendous quality for the game such as Raven's boobs and the ocasional interesting quest, but unfortunately they are isolated patches of greatness when one is confronted with the overall reality of the game.
The BadWell... the final entry in the Ultima series pretty much serves it's purpose as to be the final nail in the coffin of an aging and ultimately forgotten rpg series. Plenty of old geezers might be willing to rip me to pieces for having the balls to uther those words, but not even the most jaded Ultima fan is able to ignore the dismal flaws in it's final title.
Yes, I've never been a "true" fan of the Ultimas, disliking their goody-goody approach at gameplay and it's stories (only being able to really enjoy the spinoffs from the series such as the genius Underworld games), but before you go on and dismiss me as just another one of those stupid kids that have no respect for "ye olde ways" let me tell that that is EXACTLY why you should listen to me: after all I couldn't care less about what it does with it's virtues or parties or rpg angles or whatever regarding it's previous outings. I only regard Ultima IX for what it its: and that's a boring, generic, fantasy-adventure failure. And a buggy one too!
First of all, one of the cornerstones of every game of this kind is it's story. After all it hasn't been long since medieval/fantasy developers realized that we have played one too many generic fantasy games about the valiant knight rescuing the kingdom, so from that point on they usually try to deliver something more in the way of premise and storyline.
Not so for Ultima IX, oh no. Ascension harkens back (almost in an intentionally retro way) to the generic fantasy games of yorne, and while that might have it's charms it's undeniably dumb and boring in these days. Not just because of the basics (good and honorable land in distress needs the help of a saviour that must defend everything that is right and destroy the evil, evil bad guy that caused all the problems), after all those are the primordial elements of every Ultima, but because of how it's additional elements are brought into the new age: the kingdom's inhabitants are bidimensional goons that can barely open doors without the aid of the mighty Avatar and await, devoid of any emotion, the arrival of "He who shall fix things". The bad guy is your typical evil evil EVIL badass that awaits you sipping a daikiri while he sits comfortably in his Caribbean island (no, really, he awaits you in his "Island of Evil" (tm)) and not even the use of a devious henchman and the involvement of the whole good vs evil, virtues, et al in your final confrontation can change the fact that the Guardian is your typical cardboard cutout fantasy bad guy (fact that most fans sniffed out early on back in the Black Gate).
I really don't know what else to point out story-wise, there's just nothing more! Basically the bad guy fucked up the land and you have to go around fixing his mess as an excuse for us to see all over again those virtues and how they work and marvel at Mr. Garriot's finely crafted moral values... right. I'm not even going to get into that...
Most people like to point out the many encounters with familiar Ultima characters and seeing how they fared and what revelations they have as a way of compensating the storyline, but these amount to barely more than in-jokes and extra info for those who care. I do not, and can clearly see how they bring nothing to the game. Oh but wait!! There's the love story!! What a fantastic collection of scripted events that is! Let me run you through it: Basically the pirates need your services at one point in the game and in order to fetch you the pirate leader sends his daughter your way to save your life and take you to him (you can tell early on that she's gonna be a romantic interest thanks to her massive boobs and her propensity to lean forward and show you her cleavage). After that she becomes sort of your ferryman in the game with the only interaction between the two of you being you asking her to take you to x place, and after clearing out a number of shrines she tells you that she has feelings for you after all the things you've both been through (??). From that point on the "romance" develops with the same credibility as a late-night Cinemax movie, with Raven going all "I have so much feelings for you" and the Avatar retorting with such genius "passionate" phrases such as "Hey... waddaya say if we go below deck and...(nudge-nudge, wink-wink) huh.. "Drop anchor".. heh "... (I swear I'm not making that up, save for the gestures, the line is taken verbatim from one of the game's most... uh... "romantic" moments).... anyway.
So much for the game's plot, what about the gameplay? As stated elsewhere the game takes a departure from the previous installments in the series by forgoing practically all of it's rpg elements in favor of a more simple 3D adventure design. Once again, I couldn't care less if the Ultima legacy is roleplaying. Well actually I lie, as I did care somewhat, mostly because I enjoyed the amount of depth it brought to the games. But I was prepared to let that go and heck, if I had to be content with a PC version of Zelda then I could do that, I have done worse really. Unfortunately as far as gameplay goes Ascension doesn't even come close to being a sub-par clone of Zelda.
Basically the game is a glorified scavenger hunt in which you have to go around the gameworld looking for a pair of magic items that when used in conjunction allow you to cleanse a virtue shrine, usually each of these items are held in a dungeon or similar location that you must clear out and then take the magic pearls of the dragon or whatever it is you went looking for to the shrine, clear it out and repeat.... for about 8 TIMES. And then when the developers get really creative they have each of these magic items locked in some special way that requires you to find another group of magic thingamathingies and on and on and on... It's Outcast all over again! But this time it also teaches you morality in the way... yay!! See? It makes you cry, but it also makes you think!...
Anyhow, while that is the basic gameplay concept, the rest is based around having inane conversations with the many stupid npcs (whose dialogue trees reset after you talk to them, so you have to go through introductions again and again and again just so you can get to whatever mr. signpost has to say) in order to find out what it is you need to do to find those stupid thingies, and then you proceed to trek around the gameworld hacking away at the most braindead enemies you can find this side of Robotron, with the world's most sluggish combat engine (there goes your action gaming), and possibly the worst non-customizable control scheme ever built for a game of this type (mouse button for movement instead of a "forward" key? Genius!), I mean, my memory is a bit rusty here but I think I needed to press like 8 keys plus the left mouse button to make the Avatar walk backwards...
Moving on, after you get tired of shaking down giant rats and spiders for their lunch money, you'll get to whatever dungeon you were supposed to get and then it's time for platform puzzles!! Oh boy, let me tell you, you don't know what excitement is all about until you point your target across a pit, hit the space bar and watch as the Avatar winds up for a full second and makes a fool of himself and an entire generation of gamers by attempting to do something that barely resembles a jump...
Forget about any promises of non-linearity, there is only one way to play the game and it only admits minor variations such as doing one shrine first before the others or doing/not doing the stupid sidequests. The different classes offer only a different starting point, but the Avatar you finished your game with is pretty much the same as my Avatar, as the only "extras" as far as character advancement goes revolve around doing more sidequests and thus getting a bigger karma, or finding all the trainers or every piece of the Blackrock armor. And after you've had enough of the "fetch me this, fetch me that, FedEx quests" you'll see why the little karma points they give you are not worth the hassle (neither are the many treasure hunts as you have a ridiculously low money cap, and killing enough rats can make you just as rich in the end).
Furthermore, blatant design flaws manage to drive what little enjoyment is to be had in the ground. The Journal is a useless piece of crap, as it just writes down whatever happens without following any sort of ordering or logic (not to mention that you can never go directly to the last entry, in order to do that you have to go to the next topic [the bestiary] and then turn the page back.... How lame can you get?) really, anyone who thinks Morrowind's journal is a mess should check out this bad boy.... Do you know the difference between a scimitar and a longsword? Neither do I, or the Avatar, or the manual. You have to equip each item to figure out for yourself if it's any good for you! Don't you love shopping in those conditions? Need to pull a lever underwater but you dropped into that pool while in combat mode? Sucks to be you pal, you can't change modes while underwater and need to reload :). Want to take another potion with you? Forget it. Items are non-stackable and you have barely enough room as it is (but don't worry, a battleaxe takes the same space as a pearl. Isn't that nice?). Do you want to know how to keep track of your position in a map? Duh! On the patched readme they explain how you need a sextant in your inventory to do so... Couldn't you figure that out on your own? Pffff...! Do you know what time it is? Neither does the Avatar, good luck figuring out how much you need to rest to recover your health.
And last but certainly not least you have the bugs. Ohhhh the bugs. Do I need to elaborate on this? I played this game twice: upon it's release and early this year (finally finishing the bastard). The original release is UNPLAYABLE. Period. The final .18 patch and the unnoficial patches move the game up towards "Barely Playable", really, to say that Ultima IX is buggy is an understatement, to say that it's "just as buggy as every other 3D game" is a blatant lie. Ascension is probably the buggiest game I have ever encountered in my gaming career.
One just has to assume that the code must be irrevocably fucked up and there's just no way to fix it without rewriting the whole thing, as even with all the fan made patches the Avatar still gets stuck on pixels, enemies swim out into the air, and entire areas need to be cheated out of as they become corrupt and kick you out whenever you want to access them. Other assorted nightmares come in the form of corrupt savegames (and since the game automatically loads up your last savegame on startup guess where does that lead us to..?) Oh, and don't forget about those lovely and completely unpredictable times when the game just decides that you've played enough and kicks you back to Windows! Don't you love those? Only Adobe Premiere kicked me out so much, and that's saying something! Really, some people say bugs shouldn't affect your enjoyment of a game. To those people I say: play Ultima IX.
Oh and the voice acting is even worse than in the horrible (yet groundbreaking) opening for Ultima Underworld, ironic, isn't it? Truly horrendous too, but ironic.
The Bottom LineI think I've written more than enough. Ultima Ascension has it's share of interesting details, and for what it's worth, it's probably the first game of it's kind to provide gamers with a physically impressive gameworld free for exploration.
Unfortunately since it happens to be dull as a rock, buggy as hell and is about as fun to play as hammering your testicles to a wall, I would say that there are better things to do with your time. Then again if you are into that sort of simpleminded, retro, naive, fantasy heroic thingie... well, you should really get your hands on the latest Zelda game.