This game was released to almost universal scorn in late 1999. It was years in development and suffered a myriad of hiccups on its way to release.
The main issues are heavily documented elsewhere on the Web; a search on any search engine will bring up more than you wanted to know. In essence, Ultima 9′s main dramas were a) lack of code optimization b) memory leaks and c) conflicting storyline. For the latter issue, I’ve posted the original plot-line. These issues caused reviewers and fans alike to shun the game. In all honesty it isn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It is visually jaw-dropping (by the standards of the day) and is actually extremely engaging and enjoyable. Yes, the memory leaks do require a periodic reboot of the computer and the occasional crashes are to be expected.
The game starts off well enough with a lovely animated cut-scene of a peasant pushing a barrow in some wheat field of Britannia. Lo and behold, the Guardian raises his columns and a boulder lands on the head of said peasant. Funny thing is, in the game itself, you can see the remains of this poor individual at the turnoff to Despise just past Iolo and Gwenno’s home.
You, the Avatar, wake up in your bedroom. In the original game (pre-Fansforultima patch) you get a voiceover telling you how to equip stuff, use stuff, load and save games, use weapons, run, jump and generally do all the things any good Avatar is meant to do. In the Fansforultima patch, we get dialogue from Shamino himself which expands on the plot a little more.
Either way, you’ll leave your home and make your way to the gypsy’s wagon and choose your destiny. A sign tells you are in Austin…funny that, I’ve been to Austin, TX, and it never looked so mountainous to me. Must be a part the locals don’t want you to see. After choosing your path, the moongate awakes, a gazer appears…and you end up in the fortress of Stonegate. A few more lessons in object manipulation happen and you head outside to the real Britannia, and this is where I wax lyrical…
Britannia Does Eye Candy
One of the things you’ll notice as you walk or sail around Britannia is just how beautiful it is. The terrain and architecture seems to be all individually crafted. You know, in first person shooters, you can see the tilesets and graphic entities they’ve used to mould environments. In this game, it seems different. Every area looks like it was crafted. No two areas look the same. Obviously, there are many objects in the game that are repeated; books, barrels, crates, doors, etc.
Everywhere in this large world you go, whether it’s the streets of Britain or the chasms of the Great Stygian Abyss, there’ll be moments were you’ll be impressed at some graphical feat. The folk in the game are reasonably animated, though there’s not a whole lot of variety in dress or facial features.
The magical effects in this game are superb. Cast Meteorite for a gag sometime. Awesome spell! The magic system is the reagent-based setup of other Ultima games…nightshade, mandrake, all that. Putting spells in your spellbook could be easier (and less buggy) but the developers made it interesting for us all, to understate it. Weapon-based combat is something that seems to be in alpha stage.
There’s no real sense you are battling it out with a foe; sometimes the enemy freezes and you’re wailing on him or her to no real effect. Sadly, this is one part of the game that gets old real fast. None of the variety of weapons you get seem to be lesser or greater than any other. To be fair, there are a few that do work against certain types of bad guy better than others, but this is far from the norm.
The sun rises and sets like any good world has it. The moons skirt the night sky (and actually have meaning later in the game). Clouds roll in and it rains or snows depending on where you are. Moving around this virtual reality is a mouse and keyboard driven method familiar to a gazillion shooter players. What you can climb or jump over (and what you get stuck on) would test the patience of a saint.
Seems some things you should be able to walk up, you can’t, and some impassible objects, you can blithely jump over. There’s not a whole lot of rhyme or reason to this. Swimming is something that you’ll learn to dread very early on. It uses the same principle as walking or running, but the over-the-shoulder third-person perspective this game uses makes swimming a sometimes infuriating affair. Collision-detection is something else left in a beta format.
Shrine Cleansing, the Avatar way
The plot-line is fairly linear. You have to cleanse the eight virtue shrines scattered around Britannia. To do this you need the corrupted glyph of the appropriate virtue and the symbol of the virtue, usually held by some key NPC in the vicinity.
E.g, to cleanse Britain’s shrine, the Shrine of Compassion, you need the glyph from the column in Despise and the Heart of Compassion held by Britain’s mayor. You’ll find that the columns have corrupted the virtues held by each town and the populace are all acting in contrary to the virtue they’re meant to uphold. In addition, you need the mantra to each shrine, and this knowledge is held by another nearby NPC.
This cleansing is also Ultima 9′s levelling system. After successfully restoring a shrine to its pre-Guardian state, you are awarded an advancement. You get to choose an increase in one of your prime attributes, strength, intelligence and dexterity. How far you can advance in any given skill is based upon the career choice you made back on Earth, by answering the gypsy’s questions. A side effect of the shrine cleansing is that the theme music of the town changes to a more sprightly version and the populace assume their roles and embodiments of the virtue once more. The post-cleansing music of Britain and New Magincia, for example, is downright beautiful.
Cleansing Britain’s shrine is straightforward. Despise is a beginner’s dungeon, so to speak, and obtaining the Heart of Compassion isn’t particularly hard. They do become more difficult as you progress. The game is engineered so you have to do things in a certain fashion. Evade this or do things out of order and you may be presented with serious show-stoppers.
You meet up with all your old Companions from earlier Ultima games, though they never join you as comrades. This is truly a solo game. Geoffrey, Iolo, Dupré, Shamino, Lord British, Mariah…they’re all here, usually bent by the Guardian’s corruption, or ethereal in Shamino’s case…or dead in Dupré’s. This is the last and ultimate Ultima. You will never return home through a moongate. You will never be summoned to Britannia to right wrongs ever again. This is it.
The ending of this game leaves no doubt that the Avatar is no more. I won’t ruin it for anyone who intends to play this game but you’ll learn some surprising things about your nemesis, the Guardian, as well as yourself.
In summary, the good outweighs the bad in my opinion. The story and sense of achievement you get from completing cleansings, NPC interaction and dungeon-crawling definitely make up for the memory leaks, the slowdowns, the weird collision detecting, the meaningless combat system, the occasional crashes and bugs.
Sorry way to end one of the most famous of all computer game franchises nonetheless. Oh, what could’ve been…
- Ultima Dragons Long-standing association devoted to all things Ultima. I joined UDIC ages ago as Choronzon Dragon.
- Whacked-out Ultima This place is great fun. It takes gleeful advantage of some of the dreadful clipping and collision detecting in the game. Ocean travel without a boat, indeed!
- Sir Cabirus Nicely laid out site both in English and in German.
- DMOZ Ultima Listing Open Directory’s listing of Ultima links.