Shit in a box
  Ultima 9 review
Developer: Origin
Publisher: Electronic Arts
reviewed by Great Bob

Note:  When I first wrote this article I was angry and bitter.  I had played Ultima games all my life and spent years following the development of U9.  I still don't like the game, but after working for Origin I began to understand it a little better.  Nobody ever sets out to write a bad game, and most bad games don't feel that way when they're written.  The people who worked on this game were some of the most talented and just plain decent folks I ever met.  Of course, I still hated the damned thing.

Lord British should have just taken a shit in the box Ultima 9 came in.  Instead he sent a certificate of thanks.  The shit, at least, would have been more in keeping with what the game was going to be like.  Parents, you might wish to have you children leave the room for this review.  It's a rocky ride ahead of us as we take a look at Ultima: Asscension....or as I like to think of it "I waited 5 frickin' years for this?"
I don't care if you're buggy and
unfinished!  Out the door with you!

    The very first computer game I ever saw was Ultima.  I was over at my friends house and I saw his father sitting in front of the green glow of the Apple IIE screen.  He didn't even turn his head as walked into the room.  I stared over his shoulder to see what he was doing.  He was playing a game, and it was different from anything I had ever seen before.  This wasn't shooting at rows of pixels as they moved across a screen. This wasn't Pong.  This was something new.  For the next two months I did anything  in my power to get in front of a computer.  I smuggled a copy of the game into my school where a teacher had just brought in an Apple.  I would stay after class just to finish the game.

    The years went on and so did the Ultima series.  Each game was bigger and greater than the last.  In Ultima II you traveled through time.  In Ultima III you fought a living machine.  Ultima IV changed the ground rules for games by introducing a moral code and offering the gamer not word puzzles, but genuine moral dilemmas.  Each time I entered the land of Brittania I was captivated.  Eventually I found others on BBS's who loved Ultima as much as I did.  I introduced people in real life to the game.   When Ultima VII came out, I didn't own a computer so my friend and I found someone who did.  Instead of going out searching for parties, we spent four days in a marathon sitting trying to defeat the Guardian.  By the time we saw sunlight again, we were seeing the world in pixelated form.

    Then Ultima 8 came out.  Everything that was grand and epic about the previous 7 games was missing.  The characters we had gotten to known we no longer present.  The virtues that mattered so much were missing.  Worst of all was the game play.  The plot was linear, the story wasn't captivating, the world was too small and every challenge the Avatar faced involved jumping puzzles.  I felt cheated.  Perhaps, I reasoned, Origin was forced to make the game like this because of pressure put on them by Electronic Arts.  I think every Ultima fan felt the same way.

    For five years us Ultima fans waited as Ultima 9 was being made.  "we understand" said Origin "that Ultima 8 wasn't what you expected.  We will be returning to our roots to make the epic final chapter of the Ultima series."

    The fans were appeased.  We would wait.

    Finally we caught our first glimpses of Ultima:Asscension.  The natives began to get restless.  Here was this 3-d engine that suggested "Tomb Raider" style game play.  There would be no party.  The full motion video suggested that the plot would be linear.  At E3 they showed off the jumping and the arcade like combat.

    "You're giving us Tomb Raider!" us fans shouted.

    "People don't play games to bake bread" they replied.

    Then things seemed to be getting better.  "Of course you can bake bread" they assured us "Lord British himself is now writing the code.  This isn't tomb Raider.  It's every bit as much an Ultima game as you've come to expect.  We'll have a dynamic, epic plot.  Just give us a chance."  I decided I would.  They had listened to the fans.  They knew what we wanted.

    Finally the day came.  I called my local software store three times that day to see if my copy had arrived.  Finally it did.  The box was large and impressive.  Inside were Tarot cards, a cloth map and a pin.  Not to mention that little certificate from LB.
    After playing U9, Ultima 8 has started to look good.

    I'm not going to bitch about the bugs.  It worked fine on my system.  I was lucky.  The world itself is beautiful.  Butterflies drift across the screen, the sky is lovely to look at, and everything ran smooth.  The programers did a hell of a job.  Most other people, however, will never be able to get it to run.  My friend has a system identical to mine, but a slightly faster processor.  He can't get it to run.  For other people it crashes.  Somehow they managed to ship a game out that wouldn't run on 60% of the machines out there.  Still, for me it worked wonderfully.
    Sadly the problems run deeper than that....much, much deeper.

    Remember as a kid reading all those epics about the lab rats who run around in mazes pressing buttons to defeat the enemy?  Well, I don't either but Lord British sure does!  He must because he promises us a game that is more like an epic novel.  It's just that in his mind epic novels involve pulling levers and jumping.  Alot.

    You see, that's all the game is.

    You start off in Britain where the people have lost track of the virtues.  Well, that's allright as far as that goes.  We've seen it before.  In fact, evertime the Avatar shows up the people have lost track of the virtues.  Unappreciative bastards.  How many times do we have to save them from themselves?  This time though, you don't have to teach them to be better people.  You don't even have to find the cause of their problems.  You really don't have to care.  You know why the people have lost their way?  The people are no longer virtuous because some shrines in the mountains are broken.  Really.  Want to make society better?  Well, just find two pieces of a rune and put them on the altar....the problems sort themselves out afterwards.

    I wish I was joking, but I'm not.

    Well, at least the quest to retrieve the broken rune must be somewhat epic, right?  Nope.  Here's the game in a nutshell.

    Watch movie.  Go to dungeon.  Run around in dungeon jumping and pulling levers.  Beat up on on bad guy guard.  Repeat process per virtue.
    There.  I just saved you 60 bucks. I just wish problems in the real world were as easily solved.

    You see, people at Origin listened to when we said "we don't want jumping puzzles and a linear plot".  They just thought that what we really said was "we want different kinds of jumping puzzles and a different linear plot."  Simple mistake.

    Have you folks ever played a game of Dungeons and Dragons where the GM would run adventure after adventure which was nothing more than a dungeon full of death traps?  No plot, just an implausibly designed dungeon with traps?  Well, that's what this game is.

    Perhaps part of the bitterness involves the missed opportunity.  They had all the time in the world to create a masterpiece.  Who knows, perhaps it had started off with good intentions.  All I know is that they wound up with a game with less depth than a playstaion game.
     In the end, whose fault is it?  Was it our fault as fans for promising to buy this game sight unseen?  Did we not shout loud enough?  Yeah, I guess.  In the end though what happened to the Ultima series is the fault of one man...Lord British himself.  The story of the Ultima series ends at the hand of the man who created it in the first place.  What started as a game by a man who loved games, ended as a piss poor product at the hands of a man who doesn't even play them anymore.  Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here.

    After promising us that U9 would not be Tomb Raider, the delivered a game just like Tomb Raider, only missing the one redeeming quality Tomb Raider Tomb Raider, at least, we can stare at Laura Croft's chest.

    A saga is over with.

    Now let's never talk of this again.