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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  :  אולג 小奥 (168688)
Written on  :  Feb 17, 2004
Rating  :  4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars

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Am I the only Ultima fan who loves this game?

The Good

Ultima IX is the conclusion of what many video game fans perceive as the greatest role-playing game series ever.

Shortly after its release, Ultima IX was heavily criticized by fans. Ignoring the frequent "bug" complaints (by now the game has been patched, and the version I bought was fully playable even on a low-end Pentium III), I would like to concentrate on the most significant criticism: its gameplay, which allegedly was below the quality of the previous Ultimas.

First of all, I have to announce that I am a big fan of the Ultima series. Starting with the groundbreaking fourth installment, I have played (and completed) all of them. I love those games. I love the open-ended world, the meticulous interaction, the flexible role-playing.

Yes, Ultima IX loses much of that. But unless the previous game failed to deliver the message, fans of Ultima had to be prepared for the series' genre mutation. Already the seventh game was less of an RPG than the sixth; the eighth completed the transition to action-adventure. That's what Ultima IX is, too. An action-adventure.

"Duh", - say the critics, - "that's exactly the problem!" No, it is not. We have to remain objective when judging a game that belongs to a genre different from what we have expected. We can't say Ultima IX is bad only because it's not a real RPG any more. It is an action-adventure, and it should be judged as such. If you reproach this game for not having enough role-playing, you reproach it for something it wasn't supposed to have at the first place.

"Yes, but what about the great legacy of Ultima RPGs?!".. What about it? Is it written somewhere that every single Ultima game should be an RPG? Why is it wrong to have a series evolve into a different genre? Isn't a good game in a different style a more interesting result than a remake of the open-ended stat-based Ultima V?..

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 3D world ever created for a game.

The new engine makes the game world physically immersive. This wasn't achieved only thanks to the graphics. There is now more physical contact with the environment, thanks to the jumping, climbing, and swimming abilities.

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. Wooden houses, forests, caves, mountains, rivers, seas - everything is absolutely gorgeous. There is also 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 wonderful music, and looking at everything around you.

Speaking of music: it is absolutely beautiful. Fans of Ultima will recognize the good old melodies, which are now superbly orchestrated and accompany you during your entire journey. Together with the music come impressive sound effects, to create one of the best video game soundtracks around.

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. The gameplay in Ultima IX follows the golden rule: let the player explore the world, and don't bother him too much with other things. The fights in Ultima IX aren't difficult; maybe in the beginning they might seem a bit uncomfortable, but once you get a good weapon, you won't encounter too many troubles. The game also doesn't throw in an insane amount of super-hard bosses. The enemies are fairly standard, from goblins and spiders to dragons and lyches, but there are some really cool ones, such as hell hounds and skeletons that fall apart and combine their bones again if you don't take some into your inventory.

The simple real-time combat has many nice details and features. Each enemy type is more or less sensible to a particular kind of weapon. It's not to hard to figure out which weapon to equip against which enemy. There are plenty 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.

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 marvelous 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.

It is indeed true that the narrative of Ultima IX is linear; there are no decisions you can make to influence it in any way. The game is divided into large sections, each one of which is a quest concerning a part of Britannia, and in each one of them there are dungeons you must complete before moving to the next section. However, together with this linear advancement, there are many things you can do in this game beside just following the main story. First, in each town there are sub-quests to perform. Second, each location is full of unexplored areas, which you can search for some items, spells, or other things. Since the game offers you a full contact with its world, there are always lots of things to try.

I don't think the story of Ultima IX is so much worse than in the previous Ultimas. A lot of things have been obviously rushed; but I was rather impressed by how this story turned out to be in the end. I think the final confrontation was an appropriate conclusion to the overarching story of the last four games.

The Bad

The 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.

The writing can be considered the most serious problem. While there were still some interesting dialogues and books in the game, much of the writing lacked 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 many characters have lost the charisma they had before. The poor voice acting didn't help, either.

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.

Every Ultima fan will have his own nitpick about what has been changed or removed from the final release. Many characters appear to be oblivious to the events that happened in the previous games; the old pals Iolo, Shamino, and others behave and talk like pale copies of themselves.

Combat tends to be too easy; even with a druid character I had very few problems with hand-to-hand fights. Enemies (even such as wolves or rats) give you gold when dying, like in early Ultimas, which is pretty unrealistic and unnecessary.

The Bottom Line

You are in the world of Ultima IX. Breath the fresh air. Raise your head. Look at the clouds. Look at the beautiful nature, those trees and mountains. Run around, jump around. Enjoy yourself. Don't grumble. Have fun. There are other good things in life beside non-linear open-ended RPGs. Don't worry. Be happy.