Written by  :  Donn Thomson (4)
Written on  :  Jan 15, 2004

5 out of 8 people found this review helpful

write a review of this game
read more reviews by Donn Thomson
read more reviews for this game


Everything you've heard about its beautiful aesthetics is true

The Good

As a fantasy adventure game, Ultima IX is terrific. There is so much to explore and there are so many subplots to discover, you will never ever see it all. (The only remote chance you have to see it all is to play it through as each of the 8 possible starting characters, and maybe not even then.) The music is wonderful, the world is suitably large, and the quests are complex. Contrary to popular belief, you can make a lot of decisions about how you complete the game. The plot is pretty linear, but how you accomplish each task is up to you, and there are different ways to approach the problems.

Now, many of the complaints out there revolve around the differences between Ultima IX and the classic Ultimas I-VII. You have to let that go. In order to make the transition from top-down text to 3D third-person audio (or first-person, if you hit K), you have to give up things like an 8 member party, a name other than Avatar, and other things. This medium of game is more suited to visual exploration and spatial problem solving than stat-building, as in a "true" RPG. Myself, I love Ultima V. But you could never do Ultima V in 3D and keep it the same. There are tradeoffs for being visually and aurally immersed in Britannia.

And Britannia is glorious! Everything positive you've read elsewhere about the beautiful graphics, birds chirping and fluttering, atmospheric dungeon sounds, in-town music, etc. is absolutely true. It's very easy to believe that you've been somewhere else after you've played for a few hours.

Some people complain that the inventory system is cumbersome; they don't like to have to choose what to carry and what to leave behind. Hello! That's part of the game! One of the decisions (dare I say, roleplaying decisions) you have to make is what sorts of things you are going to carry or leave behind, and I love that. A warrior type might carry a lot of potions and bandages, while a mage might rely upon his spells for healing, thus freeing up inventory slots (at the expense of the many hitpoints a warrior might have). There are many points in the game where you will find yourself with a full inventory in the depths of a dungeon, and you come upon valuables or items vital to the quest. What to leave behind, what to take with you...

Some people complain about the spell system being cumbersome. I disagree. Casting a spell, once you bind it into your spell book (a nice ritualistic touch), is as simple as hitting the number of the spell level and selecting the spell. Or even better, keeping a shortcut to your spell in your tool belt, which you can activate by a function key. No problem.

The movement in Britannia is intuitive. Point where you want to go and go. Point and click to attack, with sword (or other melee weapon) or bow. Point and spacebar to jump. No worries. The hand-to-hand combat is pretty simple, but this is an adventure game, not an FPS where you need twitch reflexes. In other words, Ultima fans (or other top-down, turn-based RPG fans) who would like to experience Britannia, a fantasy RPG world, in beautiful 3D without becoming a Quake god to survive can do so with ease, and enjoy some good old adventure puzzles and dragon slaying.

In this game you: save the damsel(s), slay the dragons, thwart the pirates, return the church's stolen money, search for many a sunken or buried treasure (bet you never find them all), save a doomed race from extinction, journey to the planes of the four elements, inspire paladins out of retirement, find wondrous items and magical weapons, and pretty much save the world. If you are an Ultima fan, you will encounter old friends in surprising situations, have to make moral choices, hear familiar songs, visit familiar yet altered places, free the shrines once again, and experience the eight dungeons as you've never done before. Sound like fun?

The Bad

I have a few quibbles with the game, but bugginess isn't one of them. By now, any machine remotely worth its salt will be fine with Ultima IX, and the few crashes you do experience can happen with any game, save early and often as usual. Got better than a PIII 500? Got 256mb of RAM? Got a 3D card? You're fine.

I wish rats wouldn't give you gold when they die. That's just silly.

The taverns never seem crowded enough to justify the background sound of bustling conversation.

The directions other characters give you in this game are not very useful. Sometimes they are deliberately misleading you (not everybody is to be trusted), but often there is a lack of scale context, making some destinations hard to find. "In the mountains to the east of the city" doesn't say to me "East most of the way across the continent," but that's apparently what they meant.

I prefer the old-style keyword system of conversation. As reported elsewhere, the menu system of selecting a response can be cumbersome, and tiring when you are having a repeat conversation looking for missed information.

There is a dungeon whose design was so difficult, they ended up putting the exit in the middle, though you can go on and complete the rest of it if you want to. I wish there were some cool but nonessential incentive for completing it, like a great item or even just an easter egg.

The Bottom Line

Adventure gamers looking for a lengthy quest through a beautiful and believable world, or Ultima veterans willing to try a new format to visit old haunts and old friends in need of their Avatar would do well to experience Ultima IX. RPG purists who need to customize every aspect of their character should look elsewhere.

One last point: do you love maps? Play Ultima IX! There are maps of towns, maps for lost treasure, maps of Britannia... in full color on your screen! They work with a sextant to tell you where you are! Just one more immersive element to the game.