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Ultima IX: Ascension (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  George Shannon (100)
Written on  :  Feb 21, 2000
Rating  :  2.29 Stars2.29 Stars2.29 Stars2.29 Stars2.29 Stars

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George gives a blank stare at U9 box, CDs, and materials

The Good

Well, I just finished Ultima 9 last night. I've been an Ultima fan for a LONG time, and have always been interested in it. I wrote a novel-length fanfic about it, plus a shorter, humorous one. I'm working on a total-conversion of Warcraft 2 set in Britannia. I while away the hours on an Ultima-themed MOO. I argue Ultima philosophy with all my friends. Pretty sad, huh?

Anyway. Where should I start? I have a million mixed feelings about Ultima 9, very few of them are good. What did I like about the game? A lot of the graphics were pretty. A few choice moments during play I encountered a pretty thoughtful plot element. A few moments during play (probably a total of 10 minutes) I really felt like I was in Britannia.

But... that was about all. These topics are, seemingly, what Origin would like you to think is all that happens. But come on... those who have played it know there's more to it than this. And Origin's recent track record exactly create happy fans all around. So... onto my criticisms.

The Bad

One of the biggest features Origin touts about U9 is the immersive world. They insist it is the most immersive world in a computer game, ever. Most of my uses of 'immersive' don't seem to apply to U9, and I certainly wasn't immersed when I played it. So let's turn to Webster for a real comparison. My dictionary says to immerse is (the definition not involving water, anyway) "to involve deeply, absorb". How does a game involve or absorb the player? What exactly, about the gameplay, acts to *involve* the player in the world, or causes a suspension of disbelief so great that one becomes *absorbed* into the world?

One answer is atmospherics. Use sensory input to create the sensation of 'being there,' such as proper visual and aural input (via surroundings, characters, and story elements) that stimulates enough thought about the game world that the player (for the moment) forgets about real life and immediate surroundings. Thief: The Dark Project is an excellent example of immersion via atmospherics. Does U9 succeed in immersion via atmospherics? Not particularly. Suspension of disbelief is a very tricky thing to get right, yet some games do it quite well. A good example to use might be... you're sitting watching a movie, a really good movie. You're immersed. Someone in the front row stands up, blocks part of the screen, and burps really loudly. You're not immersed anymore. You're just annoyed. The bugs and annoyances in U9 ruined 95% of the immersiveness that was supposed to be there. Yes, I patched the game before I played it through. There are a lot of bugs still present, mostly annoyances that simply ruin the suspension of disbelief. Much of the story design, which is cliched and utterly predictable, the voice actors, 2/3 of which make my teeth grind in anguish, and enemy AI, of which there is seemingly none, ruin this idea as well. U9 is not immersive through atmospherics.

Another method of immersion is world interactivity. A world that thinks, and lives, can really cause a player to be drawn in simply through the detail inherent in an interactive world. Possibilities become actuality, through the player trying to accompish the action, such as eating edible items, igniting flammable items, crushing grain to make flour to make dough to make... bread. In this manner, the player learns the un-restrictiveness possible in an immersive world. Ultima 7 and even UO is a pretty good example of this. It is easy to wander and lose oneself in the pure *depth* of the world as one travels through it. This is a much more cerebral method of immersion. Does U9 succeed at immersion through interactivity? Not really. I can douse and ignite candles and braziers, I can sometimes sit down on chairs, but unfortunately, this seems to be the limit of affecting the world. U9 seems to be more about creating a simple world where your tasks are set, limiting possibilities of what you, as a player, can accomplish.

I don't know of another method of immersion, but it may be sufficient to say that while playing U9 I was not immersed, either via the variety of things I could do, or enjoying the visual and sound experience. I was annoyed nearly all the time at simply *dealing* with the world, like the bugs and out-of-place elements, and could not put myself into Britannia. For all the game touts itself as, it fails miserably, and I am amazed the developers and designers still say it IS immersive.

The frustration with dealing with the 'immersiveness' of U9 might sum up my opinion of it. However, my other main gripe with it is the story and characters. Within an hour of play, I knew how the story was going to turn out. U9 is sometimes praised as having deep, interactive characters. Uh, no. Nearly all the characters have limited dialouge, and the Avatar's choices are just as simplistic and 'forced'. NPCs in U9 have, for a large part, been reduced to the 'signposts' of Ultima 3 and 4. The storyline is, as I said, quite 'dumbed down' and is often 'forced' on the character, ruining any chance of 'becoming' the Avatar. I have no sense of having a choice about playing a role, I simply click along while the story is forced down my throat. This is the level of action/adventure games, not of Ultimas and other role-playing games of the past. I also found the story to be extremely manipulative - the role one is forced to play is cliche and meaningless, it is even insulting in some places, as if the designers did a half-assed job at creating that role - which is unforgivable for a group trying to make an RPG. The 'bad guy' of the game, the Guardian, is horribly weak. He is unintelligent, uninteresting, and is little more than a cliche fantasy villian. Ultima has returned to its roots, providing a 'Kill The Bad Guy At The End' game such as in U1 and 2.

A lot of U9 is simply half-assed. Some cinematics are used simply for filler material. Some make it obvious that the story was redone *simply* to include that movie in some manner, as if including the movie on the CD was more important than having a good, coherent story. So much of the story elements seem 'thrown' together, like some kind of whatchagot stew, then expected to taste like a gourmet meal. Game balance, such as with level design, combat, and spell systems, is obviously skipped over to simply finish the game. At times I had reagents all over the place, at others, I couldn't find some to use in the simplest of spells.

Overall... I found nothing to be true about what was touted by Origin to be in U9. It is not immersive. It does not have a grand, epic, storyline. It does not feature deep characters. It is not, as I've so often heard, a masterpeice.

The Bottom Line

My defining U9 experience happened last night, as I was finishing the last steps of the incoherent quest. I was walking through Britain on my way to the ship that would bear me to the last battle. I wanted to enjoy the world while I had the chance, experience the supposedly epic story. Instead, I saw bug after bug, characters repeating the same tired lines without any emotion in their voice, a static world that I, seemingly, could not enter into. At this point, my disappointment with the game became disillusionment, wondering what happened, why such a culmination of one of gaming's oldest series had become so... half-assed.

So, I went and finished it, utterly mystified by the direction of the plot, and sighing in frustration as the Avatar's role was thrust upon me. I watched the ending cinematic (still confused) and sat through the credits. I uninstalled it 5 minutes later.

I finished it because I'm an Ultima fan. I hate it for the same reason.