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Game Over Online ~ Ultima IX: Ascension

GameOver Game Reviews - Ultima IX: Ascension (c) Origin, Reviewed by - Lothian

Game & Publisher Ultima IX: Ascension (c) Origin
System Requirements Pentium II-266, 64MB Ram, 8MB 3D Accelerator
Overall Rating 90%
Date Published Friday, December 3rd, 1999 at 09:45 PM


Divider Left By: Lothian Divider Right

Every game is categorized into a genre; Be it action, adventure or arcade, there is a myriad of titles for each. However, when it comes to RPGs, the category is synonymous with very few games. For any one who has ever delved into the dungeons of a PC RPG, the name Ultima will rarely ever be unknown.

In Ultima VIII, there was a sub-plot pertaining to Lithos’ sealing of the Zealan’s within the Lost Vale. ORIGIN had scheduled an add-on which was eventually cancelled. Since that chapter of the story of Ultima was closed to me, the release of Ultima IX: Ascension was less anticipated for it’s improved graphics over its predecessors or the new weapons, puzzles and other such superficial aspects than it was the conclusion to a saga that has spanned nearly 20 years. Bare with me if you will as I am about to delve into a brief history of the world of Ultima.

The year was 1977. A young sophomore by the name of Richard Garriot was feverishly trying to better himself at the art of computer programming. Richard attended Clear Creek High School in Nassau Bay, Texas with its one programming course. Determined to master the art of computer programming, Richard and a few of his fellow classmates proposed to create a course: all that was involved for a passing grade was a programming project. Though at the time, computers consisted of a teletype keyboard connected via modem to a large mainframe, Garriot pushed on and consistently wrote and rewrote his games, numbering then as he went along. He had reached number 28 by the end of his senior year. After graduation and in preparation for college, in the summer of 1979, Richard got a job at a Computerland store and was introduced to the Apple computer. For this platform, he would proceed to write his first fantasy role-playing game: Akalabeth.

This not being a retrospective (you can sigh now PseudoNim), Garriot’s rise to power as the head of his own software company: ORIGIN Systems, will be cut short and a summary of the Ultima’s leading up to Ascension will follow.

The first three Ultima’s spanned what would be know as the Age of Darkness. They took the adventurer across Britannia to battle the dark wizard Mondain, then his disciple Minax and finally their love child Exodus. The following three showed the progression of the character through the Age of Enlightenment to the level of the Avatar after finding the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, then into the catacombs of Britannia to save Lord British and finally into the world of the gargoyles to disprove the theory that you are the False Prophet. Finally, the Guardian Saga pits the Avatar against this new threat to Britannia as he proceeds to vanquish this fiend by sending him through the Black Gate and then pitting the elements against him after being exiled to the land of Pagan in Ultima VIII. Ultima IX: Ascension is the conclusion to this trilogy of trilogies and possibly the most important Ultima to date. Even during the initial training of the Avatar behind his home in Austin, Texas when he meets the fortuneteller, she describes his path for this mission, then hints at what may follow; the latter being hidden to her, implying something unforseen (possibly Ultima X: The Beginning Of Yet Another Great Trilogy).

Though there have been more than just eight Ultima titles in the past (including two Ultima: Underworlds, 2 Worlds of Ultima several console ports, Ultima Online and even a couple incarnations of Ultima VII), gamers will most likely recall the Ultima games that continue the series. We last left our Avatar as he entered the Black Gate, concluding his imprisonment in the land of Pagan where he had been sent by the Guardian. For the hard-core Ultima fan, that was a gruelling five years ago (1994). For those who have followed Ultima over the years, you will have noticed the small changes to the graphics system of each Ultima. The tile-based graphic system developed by Ken Arnold for the first Ultima was in use more or less unchanged throughout most of the series. Though the number of tiles in use increased gradually as did the Ultima’s from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Enlightenment, it wasn’t until Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny that something drastic took place: 16 colours. Though the palette was stunning, even more impressive were the 256 colours available in Ultima VI: The False Prophet which also boasted a new tileset as well as a total re-write to the C language. Though Ultima VI first introduced a mouse interface, it wasn’t until Ultima VII that it became more commonly used. Ultima VIII: Pagan had stunning backgrounds and character animation and incorporated the mouse fully. If you’re beginning to notice a trend now, Ultima IX: Ascension is just visually stunning. 3D backgrounds, creatures and characters bombard the player’s eyes from the moment you begin your quest in the Avatar’s home. Character interaction is now done with close-up zooms and the transition from explore to combat mode is seamless (as it always has been). Everything is beautifully detailed and rendered in this title, which is apparent when you look at the recommended hardware requirements: 400 MHz or faster Pentium II processor, 128 MB RAM, 1 GB free hard disk space plus space for saved games, 16 MB 3D graphics accelerator using the Voodoo3 chipset, DirectX 7 compatible sound card with EAX and DirecSound3D support. Though this may seen like a ludicrous amount of memory to run an RPG whose predecessor was DOS based, you’ll need every meg to take full advantage of this game’s visuals. Though I had to play it using 8bit textures since my system doesn’t nearly match the above, the playing experience was far from hindered.

Ultima IX just reeks of a nostalgic odour. Several aspects of the game will strike fans as pleasantly familiar. The travel music and Lord British’s castle themes fly us back to the days of the False Prophet whereas the fortune tellers cards remind us of the onset of the Quest of the Avatar. The music is all re-done to support 3D THX, truly blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The Voice acting is also well done and, as has happened in some titles, doesn’t cheapen the feel of the game. Though I cannot go into depth about the speech in this game as I had to turn it off for better performance, what I heard, I liked. For those with better systems, there are over 30,000 lines of professionally recorded dialogue for you to enjoy.

The game is controlled via mouse and keyboard. Long have most titles strayed from conventional keyboard controls or for that matter, Ultima’s original 26 commands (corresponding to each letter of the alphabet). To move the Avatar around Britannia, the mouse is used for control, while several keyboard characters are linked to certain actions. The Avatar can walk, run, fight, strafe, moonwalk, jump and swim. Inventory is controlled by means of the familiar backpack as well as a new addition, the tool belt. The tool belt adds an extra 12 slots of storage space that allow for instant-access to an item since each slot is linked to a function key. The tool belt, like the backpack, must be found, though this is not at all taxing since they are hidden in your house and the tutorial explains to you where they can be found and how to equip them. The same goes for the compass and your journal. Although the compass is self explanatory, the journal in Ultima IX serves as more than just an options screen when you access it. Though you can save or load, alter you game options or quit the game from within the journal, there are several new features added. For instance, every time a quest is mentioned by an NPC during the course of the game, it is logged in your journal. The journal is also full of useful information pertaining to the land of Britannia and it’s inhabitants. For those that recall Ultima VIII, the game saving algorithms have been greatly improved in this incarnation of the saga; No longer will you have to wait up to three minutes for all you characters performance data to be saved to disk as the process is now almost instant. Upon choosing how your character will enter Britannia via the fortune teller’s cards, you are deposited in a tower. After going down the stairs, you will find your spell book. Though the conventional Latin sounding names still correspond to spells, you no longer have to combine Latin terms via a parser to conjure up magic; just click on the appropriate spell and if you have enough mana and/or reagents, the spell will work. Spells look spectacular once cast.

Although Ultima Online was an exception, most RPGs don’t support multiplayer and Ultima IX is no exception. Due to this fact, the points normally allocated to this category will be transferred to Storyline. I will reiterate once again how important this final installment of the Ultima series is to us who’ve been waiting for this title, more or less since the original Ultima was published in 1980 by California Pacific. Ultima IX once again begins with the Avatar being summoned to the land of Britannia by Lord British. This time however, Lord British informs you that his people are shedding their belief in the eight virtues and are starting to lose faith in his rule. Above that, there are eight giant columns have appeared throughout the land. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to solve the mystery of the eight columns and bring peace back to Britannia. I found it interesting that the plot is somewhat the opposite of Ultima V, where after Lord British’s abduction, the self proclaimed king Blackthorne wanted the eight virtues upheld at all cost. Anyone who opposed this was banished or imprisoned. Yet another interesting parallel is that near the onset of your quest, you are accosted by a minion of, yes you guessed it, Blackthorne. I won’t get into a lengthy discussion of the virtue system due to the concept surrounding them being quite simple: be good and good things will happen. For those new to the Ultima system of virtues however, they are: Humility, Honesty, Compassion, Valour, Justice, Sacrifice, Honour and Spirituality. Depending on how you uphold the virtues drastically affects the outcome of most situations in Britannia.

Noble adventurer, if you have read this far, you truly are a fan of the Ultima series or just enjoy reading lengthy tomes pertaining to the greatest genre of gaming ever conceived. Ultima IX: Ascension has been well worth the wait and I hope that all questions will be answered once the game has been conquered. Richard Garriot is less of a creator of games as he is a creator of worlds. What has always drawn me to RPGs again and again have been the intricate storylines and dialogue that stir emotions while the story unfolds. For this reason, it saddens me to see less effort being put into this genre than into the more popular FPS or RTS style games. Though I’m not knocking those genres, they are rather plentiful on the market whereas Ultima IX may be the only good PC RPG since the port of Final Fantasy VII. My hat goes off to those who spin such intricate tales for our imaginations to consume.

 

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Rating
90%
 

 

 
 

 

 

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