Ultima IX: Ascension
A walking wax cake of contradictions.
Ultima IX Ascension is the last title in a series that extends back to the beginning of computer gaming. Few game series have made it through nine installments, each one anticipated more than the last. But trouble with the Ultima series started surfacing with the development of Ultima VIII, a shallow, bug-ridden mess that was a far cry from its predecessor. Ultima IX would fix this debacle, promised Origin, and fans crossed their fingers.
The plot is uncovered early in Ultima IX. The Guardian has summoned eight great columns, which have risen from the ground near the eight shrines of virtue and corrupted them. The nearby townspeople have become twisted as well, acting opposite to their sacred virtue. Thus, the Avatar is summoned once again to Britannia to cleanse the shrines, restore virtue to the people, and defeat the Guardian once and for all.
Knowledge of the land
The good news first – Ultima’s game world is very large, and the 3D engine – when not glitching out – does justice in portraying it all. The Avatar will travel from one end of Britannia to the other. He’ll control ships, teleport to locations, repair lighthouses, and, of course, combat a plethora of creatures bent on his destruction. In its heyday, Ultima IX easily offered the most detailed and lush 3D landscape in any RPG, with the system requirements to match it.
Viewing the action from a third-person perspective, players manipulate a cursor to pick up items, initiate conversations, aim spells and ranged weapons, and use objects. Hot-keys give access to everything, including the Journal, which stores clues and information from NPCs, game options, and a history of Britannia (the world’s history from the first eight games). Alchemy sets provide a means to mix new potions from reagents, and books scattered all around provide recipes and clues about what’s going on in the world.
Combat in Ultima IX is simply a matter of discovering the best weapon to use. Skeletons fall quickly to blunt weapons, ghosts are greatly harmed by magic, and sea creatures can’t stand lightning. As you progress, you’ll find people who can train you to learn new moves, and combat gets even more complex when you start mastering magic. Each of the eight spell circles is available only after you cleanse an additional shrine, so your magic options grow steadily. This is all for the best, as Ultima IX is probably too much for most players to handle all at once.
Though the general “world interaction” interface is good, it does present limited inventory management. The handy toolbelt provides twelve slots to place items or spells, so that they may be used with the single press of a function key. The problem is the backpack – it’s just too small. You’ll find bags as the game progresses and these help ease the inventory constraints, but you still have to make too many hard choices about what useful items to take and what to leave behind. There’s really no good reason not to allow some items to “stack” in a single inventory slot.
The biggest reason Ultima IX sucks is because it was rushed out to meet that vital hollyday cash grab, and the state of the game shows it. Besides simple crashing problems, there is a veritable legion of other bugs that don’t completely ruin the game, but sure make it hard to enjoy it. Sometimes the Avatar will simply get stuck, unable to move or perform any action, making it necessary to return to a previous saved game. Objects will sometimes hang in the air when they should fall, the cursors will disappear, a walking person will mysteriously warp to a new location, and certain conversation and plot events can glitch
One of the more frustrating technical problems with the game is the broken creature AI. Most of the time the enemies just blindly run at you, swinging their weapon every few seconds. Sometimes they don’t activate at all, and you can safely shoot them full of arrows or blast them with spells from a distance while they stand there oblivious to your assault.
But even if you remove the bugs, crashes and problematic design, Ultima IX would still have a cold day in hell’s chance of pleasing the die-hard fans. The game is riddled with continuity inconsistencies, ignoring or outright contradicting events from previous games. Newcomers to the Ultima series won’t be familiar with old lore to recognize these errors, or even care really, but the oldest, most loyal fans are bound to be aggravated.
Underneath the sea of bugs and technical problems lies a fairly contradictory game. For every reason to love Ultima IX – the visuals, huge world and number of characters – you’ll find something else to hate it. It’s a wax cake of gaming, delicious on the outside but nausea-inducingly bad on the inside.
System Requirements: Pentium II 233 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 8 MB Video, Win95