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Ultima IX: Ascension
Review by: Jared Black
Developer: Origin
Publisher: EA
# of Players: 1
Genre: Role Playing
ESRB: Mature
Online: No
Date Posted: 6-18-03

System Requirements:

400 MHz Pentium II or faster
128 MB RAM
1 GB hard disk space (plus space for saved games)
16 MB 3D graphics accelerator
DirectX 7 compatible sound card with EAX and DirectSound 3D support

When Richard Garriott released Ultima I in 1980, the series quickly developed a minor following and put Lord British (his alter-ego) on the map as a developer. It wasn’t until 1985 that the series really took off though, when Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released. It was then that the Avatar was introduced to gamers everywhere (the hero was a mere “stranger” before), and the game was ported to several consoles.

In 1995, Origin began working on the 9th and final installment in the Ultima series, entitled Ultima IX: Ascension. Not only was Ascension intended to wrap-up the third trilogy (Ultima VII-IX) in the series, but it would also serve as the final installment in the greatest PC RPG series of all-time. Originally a 2D game, the project stalled whenever most of the team went to work on getting Ultima Online out of the door in 1997. Once the team returned to resume work on Ultima IX, the decision was made to take advantage of those new-fangled “3D accelerators” and turn Ultima IX into a full-blown 3D adventure. They reasoned that the Ultima series had always been at the forefront of pushing existing hardware, and that a 3D Ultima would provide the best opportunity yet to fully realize the Ultima universe. Thus work on the game was essentially begun from scratch.

In early 1999, changes were once again made the development team and EA set a deadline for the game: Christmas. This forced the team to scramble and change practically the entire plot (since there wasn’t time to implement it properly) and hastily add in the dialogue, graphics, and other game elements. I won’t bore you any longer with any more of the game’s development history, but here’s an excellent site if you’d like to read more on the sordid history of Ultima IX and the numerous inaccuracies the game ultimately shipped with. I feel that it’s important to know about the game’s development problems before one can accurately put the final product in the proper perspective.

As one can imagine, the end result wasn’t a good one. When Ultima IX: Ascension hit store shelves in late 1999, it was one of the buggiest products ever released. Floods of complaints quickly poured in about game-killing bugs, horrible programming glitches, and a myriad of other things that should’ve been killed in QA. Worse yet, the resulting plot was nothing like what Lord British himself envisioned and the game itself misrepresented the Ultima universe on a number of different levels. Origin hastily patched up the game, which ultimately made it playable but still very buggy. Finally, Origin gave up and released a final master CD to be shipped in all future retail copies of the game in early 2000. This is the version I received back in 2000, and am basing this review off of.

This time around, 8 mysterious columns have risen out of the ground near the 8 major cities of Britannia and corrupted the 8 shrines of virtue. Thus the Avatar has been called back to Britannia one final time, to find out the cause of the columns’ appearance and disrupt their influence over the people by cleansing each shrine. Along the way the Avatar encounters many other opportunities to do good, spread the virtues, and basically be the hero everyone expects him to be.

The easiest way to understand how the game plays is to think of it as “Ultima Raider”. There’s nothing wrong with this in my opinion, but most Ultima purists decried the game at its release due to the change in style. Gameplay takes place in a full 3D environment, with the camera placed behind the Avatar. This is a running, jumping, and slashing Avatar that may not jive with how most people view the series. Combat is fairly simplified, with weapons and spells all used in real-time and requiring more mouse dexterity than in most other RPGs (except perhaps The Elder Scrolls series). The choice of weapons are what you’d expect in a game like this, and include bows, swords, axes, blunt weapons, and other stereotypical medieval weapons.

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