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We Must Kung-Fu Fight!
By Heath Hindman
Despite having started way back in 1997, Ultima Online maintains one of the larger, more loyal communities in the online game world. In standard MMORPG fashion, the game has expanded numerous times to give the faithful players more content and deeper play. The upgrade in 2004 goes by the name of Samurai Empire.
This expansion's highlight features are the additions of the Tokuno Islands and the new job classes of samurai and ninja. Other new toys include tweaks to the guild system, Asian-themed housing, and other things that would normally be expected from an expansion pack. The downfall here is that these only amount to the standard bells and whistles that come with any MMORPG expansion pack. New equipment, spells, and items are always nice to have, but surely the Ultima Online crew can come up with more than that. Such speculation is normal when looking at Samurai Empire from the outside, but once in the game, one realizes that even though the new content is of standard variety, the actual quality of the things added is quite high.
In a way, that's much of Ultima Online's appeal; nothing in particular is overly flashy or "cutting edge," but what is there has the proper attention paid to it. For example, take a quick look at the graphics. The 3D client the game offers looks absolutely terrible, but it doesn't really matter, because the game has some of the best-looking 2D gameplay available in today's world of uber graphic cards. To satisfy the masses, the team behind UO could have attempted to do what some other MMO expansions have done and update the graphics. Nope. Ignoring what the general public calls "standards," UO still flashes its 2D client with pride, and for good reason; the colors are very vibrant and lively. The game is 2D, but still pretty, especially on the new Tokuno Islands. And thus is the apparent pattern of all things in Ultima Online: do a certain number of things really well rather than try to do too much and diminish quality.
With that in mind, we move our attention to that new content. The two new job classes, samurai and ninja, are welcome additions to the other, more medieval jobs that already existed in UO. They give a breath of fresh air to the seven-year-old gameplay. Samurai make good melee fighters while the strength of the ninja class comes from speed and a variety of unique items. There's nothing quite like busting out a smoke bomb and making a ninja-style escape with a party of armor-clad knights. Each new job's respective skill set goes as deep as one should expect, and the starting missions attached to each of them suit the jobs well. For example, the very first ninja mission focuses on using the ninja's "hide" skill to get through a certain part of a cave. Another involves sneaking into an enemy hangout and stealing back a certain sword, and so on.
On that same note, the samurai/ninja homeland of the Tokuno Islands will take the player quite a bit of time to fully explore. All the while, one will enjoy the previously mentioned visual splendor, manifesting in the form of old-Asian architecture. Players are also given the opportunity to collect construction pieces of that same Asian theme and build their own house from them. Roaming the Tokuno Islands while practicing the dark arts of Bushido and Ninjitsu for hours, then returning to your own personal, Asian-looking hangout creates a surprisingly immersive experience, all without relying on flashy imagery. Ultima Online's music, while repetitive over long play periods, suits the game rather well, although the transitions in and out of battle/peace tunes are prone to delay.
All things considered, Ultima Online: Samurai Empire seems poorly planned in its offerings. Even among the plethora of things to do in UO, SE's new additions can be appreciated by the long-time players, but such things make no difference to a new player. In fact, the biggest hook that could attract new players is the "soulstone," which is a special item allowing skill points to be traded amongst characters. However, the soulstone was only a preorder bonus, so not all new players will even get that. On that same note, that item really doesn't do any good for players who've been in the game for five or six years and already have ruthless characters. New players will certainly be met with a game that provides endless hours of fun enhanced by interaction with what is possibly the best overall MMORPG community out there, but this expansion lacks an exciting new attraction that would appeal to a great number of new players. Ultima Online is worth getting into for all who enjoy MMOs, but Samurai Empire doesn't do much to add to the convincing power of that statement, despite its quality.
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