The release of the commercial version of Ultima IX: Ascension heralds the final chapter in one of the computer gaming world's most prolific titles, bringing an end to the epic, near 20-year struggle of the Avatar against the forces of evil in Sosaria and Britannia. The features promised by the designers, including a completely seamless 3D representation of the world (with no loading times), seem almost too good to be true.
To be sure, in its initial release, many argued that the game was completely unplayable. It sputtered along at a snail's pace in anything but the lowest possible graphical settings, obnoxious bugs made some players unable to advance past various crucial segments, and countless smaller bugs made the overall experience riddled with anguish for many others. Some games would merely be forgotten in an onslaught of complaints such as these; however, the years of hype surrounding its development (combined with the years of high expectations of former Ultima players) ensured this situation stayed firmly in the public spotlight.
By the time the last patch was released, most fans had given up hope. And, just as many people feared, this final version of the game does not fix all the bugs. It does, however, eliminate all of the game-stopping bugs and also does an admirable job of covering up or removing many of the game's other many annoyances, as well as providing a reasonable speed boost for many systems. Finally, about six months after the initial release, Ultima IX: Ascension was ready for mass consumption despite the widespread apathy regarding the title.
From the time the game loads, it seems apparent that the designers had every intention of creating their world using "total immersion" in its most literal sense. After a reasonably long introductory movie, the game jumps directly to a close-up of the bedroom window on a modern house and moments later you assume control of the waking Avatar. The absence of a menu to start the game is an important indicator of the entire theme, as the designers clearly strove for a completely all-encompassing, seamless world, even at the expense of traditional gaming sensibility. And, as a result, the overall performance suffers in the long run.
The game's interface is extremely simple, maintaining and modifying the approach that Ultima games have possessed since the Ultima VII titles -- the left mouse button controls the hands and the right mouse button controls the feet. Further instructions are left entirely up in the air since you can either make the conscious choice to activate all of the help-beacons in the house to hear additional instructions or just ignore them all and run straight out the back door, plunging into the heart of things.
Whichever choice you make in beginning the game, the attention to detail cannot be ignored. The graphics are almost universally outstanding with only certain polygon animation faults really taking away from their immense beauty. Simply wheeling back on the mouse and gazing at the night sky can briefly captivate even the most jaded gamer as the softly drifting clouds glide silently over Britannia's twin moons.
Just then, unfortunately, the harsh reality of the game engine kicks in. Even with the graphic quality and the clipping plane only turned up halfway on the option screen's sliders, even a Pentium II running at 450 MHz with a Voodoo3 card and 256MB of RAM cannot run the game smoothly. Now, this is hardly top of the line hardware by the standards available at time of release (c.2000), but even the highest-end systems available cannot bring smoothness at higher resolutions.
Origin explains that their designers did not play the game at the highest graphical settings and designed the game so it would look even better on systems to come in the future. Now, assuming this is true, it is an interesting new way to design games. But, at the same time, it cannot be denied that the ploy will likely leave gamers feeling cheated out of the ability to play the game at its most beautiful potential.
Graphical quandaries aside, the game generally sounds reasonably good, though not as good as it looks. The orchestral score is often fantastic and always quite appropriate for the scene. However, the ambient noises are lacking in depth. Doors creak, footsteps are audible, and water drips in caves, but the ambience is never as believable as in games like Baldur's Gate or the Fallout series, with their completely immersive sound design.
The voice acting, while it has high points in the Avatar, the Guardian and Lord British, is often as comically wooden as a bad high school play. Hearing a fearsome bandit cry out for your death in a feeble, high-pitched tone does very little to promote the atmosphere. Furthermore, the game also suffers from the same problem as many of its medieval RPG counterparts, namely, the urge to have medieval villagers from another realm sound just like caricatures of hillbillies. "Yee-Haw" is a phrase surely never heard in any Ultima (except, obviously, Ultima Online) until this release came along.
As the game progresses, its linearity, an essentially new feature to Ultima games, becomes quite prevalent. The destroyed bridge to the east of the city of Britain, for example, impedes your progress to the eastern regions of the main continent until after you complete a few tasks of choice. This variety of story-advancement can work fine but the Ultima series has always prided itself largely in freedom of choice, an aspect that is woefully missing through large parts of Ultima IX: Ascension.
To its credit, however, the plot remains engrossing throughout with a few major surprises toward the end of the game. Also, the ending itself is worthy of a spot in the best game endings of all time, if not the best ending ever created. It seems impossible that the game can possibly provide an ending suitable for the development of a character over 20 years but it delivers the goods in a big way. More than a few long-time Ultima fans will be driven to tears at the culmination of the ending movie and with good reason. The Avatar's finale is simultaneously joyous and depressing, exactly the kind of bittersweet end the character needed to remain infamous. If only the rest of the project had been done as well.
While the controversy over the game's release may never end, the book is at least closed on its development. The end result of this public relations nightmare, surprisingly, is actually a reasonably solid game. The final send-off of the Avatar, after a great deal of tweaking, keeps sight of its initial goals. While there are still fairly legitimate problems with the game's engine, noticeable flaws in sound design and a slight overall lack of creativity, the initial unplayable quality which first overwhelmed the game itself is long gone and the remaining brilliant design is left to shine.
Ultima IX: Ascension is one of the most notable examples imaginable of a game that could have been among the best ever made in its genre if only its release had been held off another half year. With all the bugs gone and the overall game speed increased, any remaining problems would have been virtually insignificant.
People who downloaded Ultima 9: Ascension have also downloaded:
Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima 6: The False Prophet, Ultima III: Exodus
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