Graphically, Ultima Online is lagging behind most of the commercial MMORPGs out there, yet the number of subscribers to the virtual realm of Britannia is counted in the hundreds of thousands. It must be quality gameplay that keeps them coming, and it is this area that the new expansion, Age of Shadows is aimed to, um, expand.
The standout new thing is the addition of original professions/classes, for the first time in the game's history. There are only two, but they could become a totally new dynamic in the gameplay. The jobs "Paladin" and "Necromancer" are hardly unknown to RPGamers, and their skills won't come as a surprise. The Paladins are a sword-wielding, armor-wearing bunch who are proficient in dramatic healing and holy spells like "Cleanse by Fire" and "Enemy of One." Altogether, they have ten new abilities. The abilities are impressive in their effects but intimidating in their cost. Several of the spells result in some physical damage being done to the Paladin, but on top of that, there are karma and tithing considerations. Paladins are expected to be good, pious fellows, so their abilities will weaken as their karma grows more negative. Also, the abilities have a "tithing cost" that the Paladin must meet by donating an appropriate amount of money at a shrine.
The Necromancers, on the other hand, are less concerned with such niceties when it comes to the 16 new spells at their disposal. Most of them have to do with inflicting poison or other maladies on a foe, and only one is actually dedicated to reanimating the dead. More interesting, however, are the various summoning and transformation spells in the Necromancer's artillery, which grant him or her the powers of fearsome beasts, one way or another.
Age of Shadows also adds a large new area to Britannia, called Malas. Malas will be a breath of fresh air for those who were beginning to get tired of the largely green and pastoral setting. It is dark, dry, and full of malice (hence the name, presumably.) Malas will also bring back that classic piece of Lord British ingenuity - The Void, the starry nothingness at the edge of the world. Whether this has any purpose other than decorative is not clear.
Malas will be home to some new attractions. First off there is a sure-to-be-popular Player versus Player arena, where player killers actually have permission to blow away innocent avatars. The impressive structure is surrounded by spectator seating, so even the timid can join in on the fun. There is one place the timid dare not go, however - the DUNGEON OF DOOM! Don't worry though - despite the corny name, Doom is still a formidable locale. It is the largest dungeon in all of Ultima Online, and takes the game's love for team play a step further. Some of the puzzles in Doom require multiple players in the party to solve, and they had better come from a diverse range of classes, too. This is a bit reminiscent of some events in The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords, and could mark the beginning of an enjoyable trend in multiplayer RPGs. Malas is more than a couple of innovative battlegrounds and a lot of empty space: it's proactive empty space. The new country has room for about 40,000 player houses.
Player houses, mundane sounding as it is, is another beloved aspect of Ultima Online, one that is also getting plenty of attention from Origin. They've added a house building/customizing system, which in turn adds a whole new source of diversion for subscribers. Players can buy a house placement tool from a NPC, which replaces the now-refundable house deeds. It must be said that Origin left no stone unturned with this new system. There are 48 wall types alone to choose from, and about 1000 different tiles altogether. Players can add multiple stories, then they can add staircases or even teleporters to travel between them. If all these options are too much to scroll through, there is a dropper tool that can copy a tile from somebody else's house. Of course, all this comes at a significant price, but houses can be built in advance and saved until funds are available to commence building. Not only is all this customization very cool, it can also serve practical purposes. Houses may now be built inside town walls for added protection, and players may choose to build a shop or party pad instead of a house.
The Ultima series has always suffered from unwieldy controls and interface, at least from the standpoint of this console gamer. Origin has added a few new features in hopes of making the game more accessible:
- "Content Menus:" relevant menus that appear by clicking on something. Clicking on a shopkeeper brings up the shopping menu, for example.
- Damage numbers that slide over enemies once they've been hit.
- New combat skills along the lines of "Unhorse" and "Ignore Armor."
- Extra information in the status screens, accessed by rolling the mouse over items.
- In-game books with useful information about the UO.
- 20 new monsters for your fighting enjoyment.
- Particle graphics that enhance spell and weapon effects.
- Best for last: players can now pay a flat rate fee that protects items on their body from posthumous purloining.
MMORPGs dominate the PC gaming market now, and Ultima Online is one of the biggest. When changes occur in UO, the industry takes notice. Age of Shadows, without offering anything unprecedented, might just make this franchise more popular then ever before. Look for it on the eleventh of February.