Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181424)
Written on  :  Feb 17, 2004
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Nail in the coffin - but what a nail!

The Good

I'm a big admirer of Ultima. I love the open-ended worlds, the meticulous interaction, the flexible role-playing. However, the hardcore elements of the series have declined over its course. Already the seventh game was less of an RPG than the sixth; and the eighth decisively shifted towards more streamlined action. Ultima IX is even less of an RPG: it is an action-adventure game with RPG elements - in fact, something not dissimilar in concept to Zelda games.

But to me personally, the Ultima experience never really depended on what you'd call core RPG traits: leveling up, combat, etc. When I want more dedicated role-playing (and that's what I always want) , I turn to something like Might and Magic. For me, Ultima was (and is), above all, about having my own adventures in a detailed, lovingly crafted world. When I play an Ultima game I want to do things just because I feel like doing them, playing with items and visiting every corner. In that respect, Ultima IX does not disappoint: it is a rich playground full of stuff to fool around with - only this time, realized in marvelous 3D.

Much has been said about the reduction of the game world; but did anyone seriously expect the developers to render in 3D the same amount of terrain as in Ultima VII? It's a wonder they managed to create what they have created using such an advanced engine. At the time of its release, no other 3D game came close to the sheer scope and magnitude of the world of Ultima IX. It was the most detailed, awe-inspiring fully polygonal world ever created for a game.

Ultima IX is the realization of a dream: this is probably how Britannia looked in the imagination of Ultima players, when they were playing the first Ultimas with CGA graphics back in the early eighties. Houses, forests, dungeons, mountains, rivers, seas - everything is absolutely gorgeous. There is an internal clock in the game, so you will see how the sun rises in the morning, or how the first stars appear on the sky, and so on. It is wonderful to see how everything moves and breathes in this world; butterflies fly around, skeletons wander near a dungeon entrance, waiting for their victims; people walk around in towns, the night comes upon Britannia; it rains, and the Avatar, equipped with his sword, is resting on the bed in Lord British's castle, gathering the force for his new quest. I really didn't want to leave this world. It was a pleasure just to run around, listening to the sweet orchestral music, and looking at everything around you.

Following the great Ultima tradition, Ultima IX is wonderfully interactive. Everything that is not nailed down can be examined, pushed, removed, and taken. You can interact with pretty much everything you see, exactly like in the previous Ultimas; the difference is that it feels absolutely awesome when it's all done in 3D. In addition to that, you also have physical abilities: jumping, climbing, and (for the first time in Ultima series) swimming. Every part of the game's world is therefore open now, and you can explore it physically. In every corner there is something to find and try, and at any point during your quest, no matter how linear its design is, you can just wander around and explore, admiring the lovely graphics and enjoying the amazingly high level of interaction.

You can jump whenever and wherever you want to. You can swim and dive everywhere there is water. You can climb on anything which can be climbed on. Most of the game is entirely physical; the dungeons are full of jumping or diving puzzles, but they are not nearly as frustrating as in some other games of this genre. Each time you are facing a puzzle you have to solve, like "how do I enter this dungeon if the entrance is sealed?", you can try many things, look for secret passages, underwater areas, try to cast spells, or anything else that comes to your mind. The new engine makes the game world physically immersive like no other game before it.

It is true that the gameplay is not as non-linear and open-ended as in earlier Ultimas; but it is still very much so for an action-adventure. There is plenty of ground to cover, and if you wish to see everything the game has to offer, expect to dedicate some time to it. The difference between its world and the much bigger playing area of, say, Daggerfall, is the fact everything in Ultima IX is hand-crafted. Every area in the game feels different, and you can feel how much love was put into details such as character animation, beautiful art decorating many rooms, atmosphere-enhancing objects in dungeons, and so on. Even in terms of quantity, the game trumps most of the competition. You'll be restricted at first, but once you get your ship, it's off to explore and have fun like before.

Combat is simple, yet dynamic and more rewarding thanks to the new engine: it doesn't have the intelligent elegance of earlier Ultimas, but I'd take it over the chaotic skirmishes of the seventh game and the frustrating clicking of the eighth any time of the day. The enemies look impressive and range from goblins and spiders to dragons and lyches, as well as cool creatures such as hellhounds and skeletons that fall apart and combine their bones again if you don't take some into your inventory.

There are lots of weapons in the game, also many secret ones, and most of them look cool and are worth looking for. In addition, you can cast spells using the complex system reminiscent of earlier Ultimas. You can memorize spells you find using the classic Ultima system of combining various ingredients scattered throughout the game. There will be surely many things you still haven't tried out after you have finished the game for the first time. In each town there are sub-quests to perform. Each location is full of unexplored areas, which you can search for some items, spells, or other things. Since the game offers you full contact with its world, there is always plenty of things to try.

The Bad

It is quite clear that the most glaring flaws of Ultima IX are, for the most part, a result of the unfortunate rushed release of the game. Given the proper time, its problems could - and should - have been ironed out.

Interaction with NPCs has been greatly reduced, sometimes to the level of rather pointless information-hunting reminiscent of much earlier installments. While there are still a few interesting dialogues and books in the game, most of the writing lacks the depth and the refinement of the conversations in previous Ultimas. The dialogues in Pagan weren't better, but there, the writers had the excuse of setting the game in a hostile world. Back in Britannia, it looks like most characters have lost any charisma they might have had before. The poor voice acting didn't help, either. The formulaic, thoroughly old-school storytelling harks back to trite fantasy cliches, neglecting the clever touches of the Age of Enlightenment Ultimas.

The realistic character behavior of Ultima VII is gone: characters often don't move at all and don't seem to depend on the game's internal clock. Britannia is also severely underpopulated; combined with the lack of AI routines, it almost looks like the Guardian has not only deprived the inhabitants of Britannia of their virtues, but also reduced them to the "signpost" status they have enjoyed in Ultima IV. It's not even the smaller size of the world that hurts the hearts of fans, but the coldness and indifference of the characters populating it. I'm sure that, with a little more time in development, those issues would have been addressed.

The initial release of the game was infamously buggy, to the point of refusing to run on many machines. Subsequent patches helped greatly: but even with the latest patches installed, sudden freezes, collision detection problems, awkward movement, and an occasional corrupted saved game are not too uncommon. Be sure to install the community patch as well as fan-made enhancements to the poor dialogue.

The Bottom Line

Ultima IX fails to reach the level of its predecessors in gameplay depth, losing many essential design elements in transition. And yet, it blows every other 3D game of its generation out of the water in terms of interactivity and physical immersion. That says a lot about the incredibly high standards Ultimas had us accustomed to; but it also speaks for a game that was ahead of its time, breaking its own legacy to pave the way for modern 3D game design.