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Stephen (Scribbler) Zillwood June 6, 2000 Review Feedback

Ultima 9

Well folks, I’ve just finished playing the “Final Patch” version of Origin/EA’s Ultima IX: Ascension (version 1.18), and I’m here to tell you what my feelings are on it. I purposefully put off doing a review of the game until I had access to Origin’s last word on the title, as frankly it was pretty much unplayable in the initial release version. So, now that all patches have been released, most people have received their patch discs in the mail, and they’ve officially put this one to bed, is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no. I’ll start this article by doing a breakdown of the current state of technical issues I found in the game, and finish it up with a standard review.

First, let me tell you that I was able to play the entire game, from beginning to end, with no game-ending bugs rearing their ugly heads. This does not mean, however, that the game was glitch-free. Second, if you found the game to be a bit laggy when you first tried it, or have heard that it may have frame-rate issues on your computer, it is likely that this will still be the case. Third, if you don’t have a 3DfX video card, it is not probable that this game will run at all well on your system. Sounds pretty damning so far, right?

The infamous “Shamino” bug did not happen to me, and it appears that Origin has fixed this particular issue. On about a dozen different occasions, however, for no apparent reason and under different circumstances, the game had an illegal fault and dumped me to my desktop. On every occasion I was simply able to restart the game, and was never able to replicate any of the crashes. Fortunately, I never had to face the “Blue Screen of Death”, nor did I ever have to do a hard boot to get the computer running again. These bugs were more on the annoying side than the agonizing, though if a person were not to save the game often, it could be particularly frustrating having to retrace your steps. Most of the time that this happened to me, it was due to my own forgetfulness, and an untimely death, rather than to a game crash.

Lag was an issue that did cause me some frustration. I ran the game on the lowest required processor, a PII-266 with 64 MB of RAM, and for the most part U9 ran very smoothly. However, in certain locations (especially towns) I faced extremely low framerates, and some skipping control. Even with the detail levels turned all the way down, and a horizon that drew only a few feet beyond the tip of my nose, I was unable to relieve this issue. In those areas that were less populated, and had fewer textures to draw, I found the game surprisingly smooth, especially considering how lag-ridden the demo had been on this same system. I would have to say that, despite the lag, the game was a worthwhile play.

All of this comes with one huge caveat: if you do not own a 3DfX card, be forewarned. Origin, for reasons known only to themselves, did not optimize U9 for Direct3D, instead choosing to go with a card-specific optimization. Non-3DfX card users will find increased lag, graphical artifacting, and odd-color/texture schemes. I tested this out on two other machines, one using an ATI 128 chipset, and the other a GeForce. Neither was, in my opinion, a very playable option. So, is this game worth the cost of buying another video card? Well, it actually might be, especially if you’re a huge fan of Ultima. I’ll get into that a bit more in the review below, but suffice it to say that if you are a longtime fan of the series, it would be worth it for you to pick up a cheap second-hand Voodoo 2 card and play the game. It is pretty ridiculous that in this day and age a computer company couldn’t optimize for more than one chipset, but unfortunately that’s exactly what they have done; either go with the flow, or avoid the game.

So now that you know my opinion on the playability of U9, post-patch, I’ll tell you a bit about the game itself. As the last game in a monumental series, the purpose of U9 is to tie up a bunch of loose ends, and give you a rollicking good adventure in the process. For the most part, it delivers on both accounts. The story is complex and fairly well written, though at times there are questionable storylines, especially for someone who has played all of the previous titles in the series (yes, I’m old). You are the Avatar, champion of the eight virtues, and eleven-time savior of Britannia (okay, so I’m counting Sosaria, Pagan, Serpent Isle, and the two Ultima Underworlds in here). Unfortunately, old enemies don’t die easy, and you must return to your beloved Britannia to save it yet again, once more from the foul Guardian. After a basic introduction to the game controls that takes place in and around your home on Earth, you step through a moongate and into the game itself.

You find yourself in Stonegate, former home to the three Shadowlords from Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. Fortunately, they are long gone, and you simply must find your way out, learning a few more game controls along the way. This is basically a beginner dungeon, and it foreshadows my biggest grievance with the game: linearity. You start at the top of the tower, and must make your way to the bottom. The path you follow is completely linear, without so much as a side-passage to give you another option. The entire game, from other dungeons to the order of the towns you visit plays out in very much the same manner. There is the occasional choice along the way, and a few dungeons with more than one path through them, but ultimately you need to do the appropriate things in the appropriate order to succeed. Go to Room A, get Gold Key, go to Room B, use Gold Key to get Gold Key #2, return to Room A, etc. etc. ad infinitum. While this is repetitious and rather tedious, there is enough variety in other ways to at least keep the interest level up. Once you’ve successfully followed the path out of Stonegate, you end up in the Castle of Lord British, talk to the old guy, and begin your quest to save the world.

The situation is dire (isn’t it always?): eight massive pillars have appeared, each associated with one of the Shrines of Virtue. The Shrines themselves have become corrupted, and it is your job to cleanse them, find out the source of the pillars, and prevent the catastrophic from occurring. All in a day’s work for the Avatar. The plot of the game is pretty straightforward, and nothing is really surprising after about the first two hours of gameplay. Yet, the game kept me enthralled for the entire 100+ hours I was playing it. Perhaps this is more due to my own gaming roots, and past experience with the series. Something about running into old friends and enemies, and finally dealing with the Guardian once and for all, kept me coming back. The game follows the classical quest archetype, with the hero facing a test prior to embarking, a number of challenges, a voyage (or rather several) across water, a journey to the Underworld (where he must face the Gate Keeper), and ultimately, a sacrifice before he can earn redemption. Though this is formulaic, it also works very well. Read Joseph W. Campbell’s excellent book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces to see why. And if you’re worried that the game is hackneyed, try reading Lord of the Rings again - same plot, same story, and yet so very much worth the time.

This is, of course, not the first RPG to be run with a 3D engine. Its look will be more familiar to players of Asheron’s Call, or even Tomb Raider for that matter, than it will to players of the Might & Magic series or Everquest. The third person over-the-shoulder view actually works quite well, and you can constantly change the viewpoint simply by moving the mouse up and down, so you’re bound to find a camera angle that’s comfortable for you in almost any situation. In places where your onscreen character might otherwise get in the way of the action, the camera zooms in and allows you to view the action up close and personal. At times, this can lead to a little confusion as to which direction you’re actually facing, though these situations are easy to get out of quickly. Each of the eight towns and eight dungeons are unique in their design, lending a sense of the new even as you attempt to complete very similar quests. The main plot line is not your sole option, but frankly most of the side-quests are of the Fed-Ex variety, and none are necessary, even for experience. Rather, you gain levels each time you cleanse one of the eight shrines, and gain nothing but loot from anything else. You can take them or leave them at your pleasure.

Despite the lag issues I’ve already discussed, the graphics in Ultima IX really shine. Never before has a fantasy world been realized in such well-rendered beauty. Even running at a lowly 640x480, the graphics are never something to complain about. There are a few standard NPCs (Non-Player Characters) that you will see with some frequency from town to town, but all of the major characters and many of the secondary ones have unique appearances. As I have mentioned, the towns and dungeons are all unique, and the architecture is something to behold. My personal favorite was the town of Buccaneer’s Den, which is largely built on docks and platforms supported on stilts along steep cliffs. The FMV sequences (of which there are around ten) are crisp and clean, though the first time the game runs one you may suspect that you have crashed - be patient, it’ll load. Monsters and beasties of all sorts are well drawn, and are plenty different enough for you to be able to tell at some distance what it is you’re about to fight. There is a great variety here, from the ubiquitous Giant Rat, to several varieties of Dragons. Unfortunately, there are no Headless’ in the game, one of my favorite enemies from Ultimas past.

Music has always been a strong suit in the Ultima series, and U9 is no different. Each town has its own particular theme, as well as several other areas in the game (including “Rule Britannia” whenever you approach Lord British’s castle). When a monster comes within combat range, a fast paced battle theme plays, though it can become somewhat tedious after a number of fights. Monster sounds are well done, though nothing to write home about. More impressive are the ambient sounds, with the wind blowing, birds chirping, surf rolling, and the tread of your footsteps - accurately reflecting the surface you are on at all times. Every single character in the game, primary or not, is voiced. The performances run the gamut from decent to poor, with most of the primary characters being fairly well done. Unfortunately, with a set number of lines to work with, there are times that characters do not display the emotion you might expect from them. For example, in one scene where you have just told a character that her father is dead, as soon as the “dead father” dialog tree is completed, she goes right back to her regular jaunty, flippant attitude. Perhaps a bit more work in the sound studio would have lent itself well to the suspension of disbelief. The Avatar’s voice is nicely done, which is a good thing as you hear yourself speak a lot. Dialog is not nearly as comprehensive as it has been in previous Ultimas, with rarely more than three or four dialog choices appearing at any one time, and the option to go back and redo a conversation over and over again renders the choices mostly meaningless. After seeing the way that character interaction was handled in Planescape: Torment, this just didn’t quite hack it for me.

Technically, the lag was a real bother at times, but for the most part the game remained playable. There are a few issues with your character getting stuck, but this is usually resolvable by moving around, jumping, or trying to climb out of your situation. Besides, this only happened to me three times in the entire time I was playing, so it is not a common problem. There were some odd programming choices that I noticed, particularly the habit of your Avatar to equip any weapon or armor you happen to pick up. This is fine if it’s a better piece, but he’ll even do it when you’re wearing full plate, and decide to pick up a leather helm. I’m assuming that Origin chose to add this “feature” to aid people not familiar with RPG-style games, but it becomes quickly annoying. The worst side-effect of this occurs when your inventory is one item short of being full, and you have a sword and shield equipped. If, under these circumstances, you decide to pick up a two-handed weapon (bow, staff or the like), your sword will return to your inventory, but you will drop your shield, as you are now out of room. This is fine if you happen to notice this happen. The first time this happened to me, I did not, and ended up having to retrace two hours of gameplay to find the nifty magic shield I’d dropped in a swamp outside of Paws. If there’s one thing I hate in an RPG, it’s having to retrace my footsteps due to a programming choice. I get frustrated when it’s due to my own stupidity as well, but at least then I can shout at myself; QA testing should have caught this. Creature AI can be a little confounding as well. In fact, the vast majority of your enemies in the world of Britannia have the IQ of a louse, and the pathfinding of a deaf bat. If there is so much as a potion on the ground betwixt you and an enemy, odds are pretty good he’s not going to get at you until you’ve decided to come back from that coffee break. There really is no excuse for this lack of AI in a game that had as much time sunk into it as this one did. Additionally, when your enemies do finally realize a way around that potion bottle, they are invariably simple to dispatch. Combat, while common, is really not challenging unless you have three or more enemies on you at once, and this only happens two or three times in the entire game. What this game is really all about is the puzzles.

Once again, we come back to the similarity to Tomb Raider. Not only is the viewpoint much the same, but the manner in which dungeons are presented is along the same lines as well. Each dungeon has one or two items which you must retrieve in order to cleanse the shrine you are currently working on, and in order to do so you must collect keys. They come in different sizes and shapes, and are called by different names, but in the end keys are all that they really are. Combine that with a few levers that must be thrown, and about four different “push the buttons in the right sequence” puzzles, and you have a fairly simplistic game. This is both a pro and a con. It is fairly difficult to become stuck in the game, as most solutions are fairly intuitive, and the huge size of many of the dungeons means that you aren’t going to just breeze through in under 20 hours; but the sense of “been there, done that” is hard to shake, even with the wonderfully different settings you find yourself in. It was a combination of a need to see the end, along with the occasional pleasant surprise, Easter Egg, or unique situation that kept me going.

If you are a fan of the Ultima series, and you have a 3DfX video card, I would highly recommend buying Ultima IX. Though the plot is linear, the story hackneyed, and the programming still somewhat buggy, this is still Britannia, and a Britannia more fully realized than in any previous title in the series. The fact that loose ends are being tied off, and you have an opportunity to learn who the Guardian really is, makes this game worth the time of any Dragon worth his or her salt. Tons of in-jokes and allusions to previous games in the series are present, and yes, there is a way to kill Lord British (no, no love children). There are some questionable choices in both the programming (poor Direct3D optimization) and the storyline (a rather unnecessary love sub-theme), but this game is still worthy of the name “Ultima”. In my personal list of best to worst, I’d place Ultima IX: Ascension somewhere in the middle, which still makes it a good play, and a damn good play from time to time. This is supposedly the last of the single player Ultima titles that Origin/EA plan to make, and with the recent departure of Richard Garriot (AKA “Lord British”) from Origin, it is likely that this is true. If you are a fan of Ultima, and you have yet to play this game, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you are not, or do not have a 3DfX card, don’t get near it with a ten-foot pole.

Game Title Stats


Release Date:

Electronic Arts



System Requirements :
Windows 9x
Pentium II-266 MHz or faster
8x CD-ROM (1200K/second transfer)
DirectX7 compatible sound card
8 MB 3D graphics card



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