When I first began to read about Ultima 9 I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, everything about it sounded superb from the plot right down to the game engine and the massive amounts of object and character interaction that were being branded about. Here are some of the features:
In a world where action heroes flail blindly in the mire of humanity, you have the upper hand. Engage Evil in the final epic of the legendary series: Ultima Ascension, a fantasy masterpiece where Virtue is the weapon with which Evil is brought to its knees.
You are the Avatar, who must free Britannia from The Guardian's sinister machinations. With the help of allies, both old and new, you will battle powerful foes, unravel mysterious puzzles, and struggle to restore the eight basic virtues to the land, before engaging The Guardian in the final battle for Britannia.
In the ninth edition of Ultima, otherwise known as Ultima Ascension, the player awakes in his own home in real time. As he begins playing and passes through a magical gate, he finds that he has been incarnated as the heroic Avatar in the land of Britannia--a time-bent, enchanted, but often troubled world ruled by the benevolent Lord British. Inexplicably, eight huge columns have sprung from the ground and are slowly ripping their way through the land and concurrently agitating the seas, disorienting the moons, and emitting eight anti-virtues that inspire dark sentiments in the people of Britannia.
Understandably, Lord British is deeply troubled, and though he himself had originally joined the fractured peoples of Britannia into a prosperous whole, he has been unable to act in the face of evil. Historically he has come to rely on the person he knighted as Avatar, originally a mere Stranger who proved himself through countless acts of courage. And while Lord British has also in the past had the assistance of loyal companions, this time many of these friends are not responding to his distress. He agonizes that even his loyal Avatar seems slow to appear, though when he does, Lord British entrusts him with the salvation of Britannia.
As the Avatar prepares to solve the riddle of the columns and dismantle the evil loosed in Britannia, he is once again aware that this is the handiwork of his arch-enemy, the Guardian. It seems that Britannia, in spite of the Avatar's protection and service, has not been able to sustain peace and prosperity, but has been vulnerable to the forces of evil, particularly those of the Guardian who wishes to conquer it once and for all. As the Avatar accepts the task at hand, the spirit Hawkwind tells him that this will be his last visit to Britannia. The Avatar, having come back to Britannia repeatedly for the purpose of saving it, wishes to teach it to become a self-sufficient system for good that is resistant to evil. Having undertaken this noble task eight times previously, the Avatar is no longer the boy enthralled with the challenge of battle, but a man with a maturing perspective. If in the future Britannia is to survive without him, it must prepare itself for forthcoming battles and prosper independently and beyond direct help. Britannia must not remain in a position of helpless stasis, but must ripen into an empire capable of defending its borders, protecting its people, and ridding itself of those who would harm it. Likewise, the Avatar must face the challenge of ascending as a being, of becoming actualized morally, ethically, and spiritually. He is ready to attain closure with Britannia and call an end to his perpetual adventuring there.
The Avatar learns that he must find the Codex, or holy book of past, present, and future, for it will impart unto him vital information. He must also journey to the Shrine of Compassion and there the physical mechanism will be revealed which will allow him to dismantle the columns. But his ultimate success will be contingent on matters spiritual but tangible. The Avatar will be tested in regard to the three primary virtues of truth, love, and courage, as well as the eight auxiliary virtues of honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honor, spirituality, humility. He'll be faced with the eight anti-virtues of deceitfulness, hatred, dastardliness, wrongfulness, covetousness, shame, evil, pride. He will visit cities which embody virtues: Moonglow, Britain, Valoria, Yew, Minoc, Trinsic, Skara Brea, and New Magencia. He may be imperiled in dungeons of Deceit, Despise, Dastard, Wrong, Covet, Shame, Abyss, and Hythloth. He may or may not encounter his former companions: Mariah, Lolo, Geoffrey, Jann, Julia, Dupre, Shamino, and Katrina. And in performing his tasks he will use magical runes, which in some cases have been transformed into evil-emitting glyphs.
The Avatar will encounter a new companion, a pirate/thief named Raven, who at first will seem nothing more than a cunning new opponent. Though the Avatar's original interest in Raven will be to find help in accomplishing his tasks, he will gradually come to see her as an accomplice, romantic interest, and spiritual ally. Together the Avatar and Raven will inspire one another to new heights of actualization.
The Avatar will also be faced with Blackthorn, the Guardian's greasy lackey who confidently believes that he will most easily defeat the Avatar and inherit Britannia. Instead, Lord British will finally be roused from his paralysis and will defeat Blackthorn.
After successfully performing all of his tasks, the Avatar finally faces the Guardian who toys with him sadistically and threatens to rape and kill Raven. When Raven responds with horror and disgust, he savagely kills Samhayne right in front of her, thereby infuriating the Avatar.
The Guardian, sure that victory is upon him, finally reveals his intense jealousy of the Avatar; in fact, this is the thing that caused him to so passionately oppose the Avatar. But upon securing the Codex, the Avatar reads that he and Guardian will die together in a bloody embrace as reunited twins. This is unfathomable to the Avatar; how could he and the Guardian be twins? But Hawkwind tells Avatar that to perform his final task, to undo the evil force and destroy the Guardian for good, the Avatar himself must die with the Guardian, and in doing so he will actualize and transcend his destiny. The Avatar knows that he has been called to his final sacrifice.
When Raven and the Avatar learn that he must die they are filled with agony and despair. Raven especially is devastated as the Avatar is the first person she has really loved and now she must lose him. Yet she herself has become heroic, and when the Avatar tells her that his sacrifice will save all of Britannia and allow her to live, she realizes that his love for her is true and real. "To stay here with you would be to kill you," he says. Raven has transcended her destiny as pirate/thief and is willing to die for love, and she asks to remain with him, but he will not let it be. The Avatar tells Raven that in dying for her and Britannia, "I will be free."
The Avatar and the Guardian literally struggle to the death, thereby undoing the Armageddon force and absorbing it. All goes black and silent. Then the ghosts of the Avatar and the Guardian join together in Oz-like illusion: man dueling with himself, with the angels and demons of his nature, the good and the bad, the chaos and the order, the selfishness and heroism. The Codex lies open. It says, "You, Avatar, and You, Guardian, are One-aspects of the Same." Like night and day, like winter and summer, they are natural forces that flow into one another.
Through the deaths of the Avatar and the Guardian, their opposite energies are loosed in the world in a balanced form. The Avatar's selfless heroism and ethics and the Guardian's selfish solipsism and quest for pleasure join to form a healthy whole that is embodied in an advanced new ideology: that of Ethical Hedonism. Ethical Hedonism is the marriage of ethics checked by healthy desire for fulfillment and pleasure, and pleasure which in turn is checked by a healthy regard for the health of others and society. Thereby, the severed forces are reunited.
To ascend is to rise upward, to succeed, and to achieve a position of domination. The word is usually used when referring to the triumphant climb to the throne or the rising to a better place after a long and arduous struggle. In Ultima Ascension, characters and player are challenged to ascend, to transcend, to live out potential, to quench a destructive force and allow those that are constructive to flourish.
Installation And Settings
Ultima 9 comes on 2 CD's, one is the installation CD that contains all of the graphics and sound, while the second CD has all of the CD music tracks and the Full Motion Video cutscenes on it. Installation is pretty easy to get through. First the game checks to see if you have DirectX 7 installed then moves on to a system performance window displaying information on you CPU etc, next we get to the important part where you select the 3D card which you will use, you have the choice of either a 3Dfx Glide version of the more widely used Direct3D. I went with Direct3D as I have now done away with my 3Dfx card.
Finally we have the area from which you choose more graphical/sound settings such as 16-Bit Textures, Mip Mapping settings and EAX sound enhancements for the SoundBlaster Live! card. Once everything has been decided on, the game finally starts to install. You can also change some graphic settings in the game such as how far you can view into the distance etc...but it is probably best not to fiddle around so much here as I will explain later on in the review.
Ultima 9 is built around completing various quests around the world of Britannia, the main aim of the game is to stop the columns from bringing down the virtues that remain one of the key parts of daily life in Britannia. Quests can vary from bringing a certain object to a person to completing a complex group of puzzles in a certain world. Character interaction is similar to many other adventure/role playing games where as you get a choice of responses, the conversations are thankfully never long-winded but unfortunately are sometimes quite repetitive if you accidentally click on a person you have spoken to before as you cannot press any button to pass by the speech.
Ultima 9 uses a new 3D interface to walk around the world of Britannia, you view the game from behind the main character called the Avatar, from here you can move him around via a combination of the mouse and keyboard. As you move the avatar around, you also move around a mouse pointer on the screen, this can be pointed at objects/characters etc so you can interact with them. Along the bottom of the screen you have your inventory such as a belt with a number of objects held on it which can be easily accessed by pressing one of the F* keys on your keyboard, this inventory also displays how much money you have along with various spell books and journals (The journal keeps key quest information written down for you along with save game and graphic settings).
I can't really think of a better interface that Origin could have used for Ultima 9's 3D world as it works pretty well but can sometimes be very frustrating when trying to move objects around the screen and placing them in certain areas where they are needed to complete a quest etc. There are also a number of buggy movement modes in the game where your character can get stuck in a position and take sometime to get out of it, before the patched version of the game came out it was also extremely hard to do some of the jumping bits that were needed in the game.
The gameplay side of Ultima is excellent in many respects, but as I have begun to mention, there are a large number of bugs present in the game (Even after the final patch) which can still hinder the game playing experience, there range from various crashes to the desktop to getting stuck in walls, all of which are very annoying and can sometimes make you feel like giving up on the game altogether.
Graphics, Sound & Music
The graphic engine used in Ultima 9 can be both superb and downright bad. It certainly isn't going to worry Carmack or Sweeney but it can be superb in displaying visual effects such as time changes (Night to day) and weather effects, not to mention some great lighting and atmospheric fog effects in certain areas of Britannia. There is also some great detail used on various buildings and settings which really do make the game great to look at. So what is wrong? Well for anyone with a Pentium 500 or under the game can sometimes fall into being unplayably slow (Yes even with the final patch). Admittedly I keep being told how fast the game can run with a 3Dfx card (The game was originally designed for 3Dfx cards) but nowadays Direct3D is the standard and the performance you get from Ultima 9 is pretty bad for what is displayed on the screen, I know there is a lot going on while playing but even when there is very little on the screen it can be arse-achingly slow. I have been playing in 640x480, 800x600 and 1024x768 in both 16-bit and 32-bit color and I rarely notice any difference in speed no matter which settings I choose.
Both sound and musically I can't really find any faults bar the fact that some of the CD music tracks can get a little repetitive, but that is hardly noticeable. Another thing that Ultima 9 does very well is to give a feeling of being in a new world, there are so many sounds going on from Birds chirping to the sea hitting the beaches that you really feel as if you are there in Britannia some of the time...Until the next crash that is.
What can I say, this is probably the hardest review I have had to write as there is an excellent game here but it is hard to give it a high mark because of all the bugs that crop up throughout. There are some very good puzzles, a great story, some of the most atmospheric gameplay you will get here in Ultima 9 and if you can get it to run well then I'm sure you will love it, but if you can't there isn't going to be another patch coming out for it as far as I know so some parts will remain broken. I'm not quite sure who to blame, Origin stated after Ultima 8 that they would never be forced to rush a game out again by EA. So why has it?