Ultima Online has gotten a new life from EA's purchase of Mythic Entertainment. Now reporting up to an MMO company instead of the mega-publisher, the game is undergoing some big changes. In this preview, from an event held last week at EA Mythic's Fairfax, VA office, we learn about the free addition of Kingdom Reborn (a complete client overhaul) and the upcoming Stygian Abyss expansion pack.
From EA Mythic Event in Fairfax, VA
Article by Dana Massey
The year 1997 was a big year for video games. Age of Empires, X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter, Carmageddon, Final Fantasy VII and Quake II all joined Ultima Online as major games released that year. To put this fully in perspective - four days after UO hit stores - the Nintendo 64 celebrated its first anniversary on the North American market. It's hard to believe then that in 2007, EA Mythic's press event in Fairfax, VA began with a presentation on the future of Ultima Online.
Producer Aaron Cohen and Lead Designer Nick Corea were on hand to tell us about their plans to give this epic title another ten years of life. Since the UO team began reporting to EA Mythic, they have been given more resources than it had in years to achieve this goal.
"This is a serious investment in UO," Cohen told the group of 40 journalists from around the world.
The first step in their plan is Kingdom Reborn, a long-overdue graphics overhaul the team hopes to deliver this spring. Kingdom Reborn is not an expansion, but rather an update they will provide completely for free. This summer, they'll follow with Stygian Abyss, an expansion that takes full advantage of the bells and whistles Kingdom Reborn enables for them.
Kingdom Reborn is a tile-by-tile update of Ultima Online's graphics. They're moving to fully take advantage of 3D graphic cards, but without changing the dynamic people love. UO is a top down game and they see no reason to change that. By moving to 3D, they can do all sorts of effects, break up the monotony of the textures and provide players with a more visually appealing game space. It also enables neat features like a zoom in and out, better looking monsters and more visually identifiable player characters.
"Everything you're seeing today is basically saying thanks to our community," Cohen proclaimed.
Kingdom Reborn also comes with an overhaul of the game's user interface. They're applying "modern design principals" to help today's gamers discover the world of UO. In 1997, there were no industry standards, because there really wasn't a mass-market MMO genre. Things that are second nature to every game today like a hotbar, hadn't been invented yet. With Kingdom Reborn, all the lessons of the last decade are being put into the game so that players who love MMOs can go back and easily get their teeth into the world that kick started an entire genre.
Traditionalists shouldn't worry too much though, Nick Corea promises that Kingdom Reborn will include some form of a "classic UI" that more closely resembles the game's original. He did note though that they had not yet begun work on it, so he cannot say what exactly it will include or how exact it will be.
The third focus of Kingdom Reborn is a redefined newbie experience. Corea noted that the game has features even some hardcore fans for duration of the game don't know exist. Did anyone know that players can collect tropical fish and keep them in a tank? How about crossbreeding plants to create new kinds? These were just two features that snuck in under the radar over the years and most people are unaware of. With Kingdom Reborn, will ensure that everyone from the guy who played beta, to the guy whose first MMO was World of Warcraft can unlock the full depth of Ultima's game-play.
One way they're doing this is what they call "bright paths". This concept is pretty simple. They're going to have characters, quests and areas that simply tell people about the different things they can do. Rather than walking up to the blacksmith - if you can find him - handing him 300 gold and being given 30 skill points and a hammer, they're going to make sure he tells you exactly how to go out and be a blacksmith.
Partly, they'll do this through a newbie area where new players begin and old players can travel if they're looking to redefine their characters.
The long-needed 3D upgrade will be accompanied by a 14-day free trial when it launches this spring and won't actually be a required upgrade. They've taken great care to ensure that the two clients can play together. The hardcore do not need to change clients at all. At the event, we saw a rough-around the edges pre-alpha mode. It did look much better than the original without losing the classic feel, but make no mistake, this game won't melt a video card anytime soon.
"We don't think you can buy a computer right now that cannot play this game," EA Mythic's Steve Perkins chimed in.
The Stygian Abyss
Since Kingdom Reborn is a tile-by-tile update of the classic UO world, the team is severely limited in showing off the full extent of what they can do. With the Stygian Abyss, the gloves come off and unfortunately that means players holding onto the legacy client (as they're calling the current game now) cannot travel to the new lands this expansion introduces.
With this expansion, gargoyles join elves and humans as the third playable race in Ultima Online. It will be a paid expansion that introduces new lands, the "largest dungeon" UO has even seen, a new race and a wealth of other new content.
The gargoyles were described as a noble and stoic race who excel at shaping stones. Thanks to the new engine, the team has much more flexibility with the size and layout of buildings and with the gargoyle cities, they hope to prove it.
Unlike Kingdom Reborn, the Stygian Abyss was much too early for us to see and was clearly still in the design phase. Nonetheless, with a larger team of experienced game developers and increased financial support that goes along with it, the UO team has a chance to turn keep their game relevant in the coming years.
While it was nice to see EA putting some serious effort into Ultima Online, not everything on display made my jaw drop. The graphics were better, but they're still dated. They're also likely going to retain the frustrating click and hold movement system. Unlike most isometric (top-down) games, in UO players generally hold their right-mouse button down in the direction they want to run. This is one step back from point-and-click. The game's base architecture and 1997 pathfinding make it frustrating to go through small objects like portals, an experience that was no easier in the new client.
I also worry that in their attempt to attract new players, some of their design decisions - such as the new UI - will alienate their still impressively large player-base. The concept of a classic UI goes a long way to reassure me and if they pull that off faithfully, I cannot see anyone complaining about improved, but thematically similar graphics.
Ultimately, a Positive Step
The team has their hearts in the right place. This game still won't grab those that require AAA graphics, but it may alleviate the pain enough to make trips down memory lane more enjoyable. At the very least players can now exploit modern resolutions.
The game-play will not change and wisely so. This is not a "new player experience" by any stretch. They promoted this as for their current players and with a game of this age, that's a smart way to do it. If someone left UO for game-play reasons, then Kingdom Reborn won't change your mind. For example, their PvP rules will not be touched.
Artistically, the most impressive thing I heard was an offhanded comment from Aaron Cohen. During a side-by-side demo of the two clients, he pointed to the updated look of the Earth Elemental. As someone who played years ago, the idea of radical artistic change had me worried, but Cohen blew those fears out of the water. He noted that while it looked much different, they actually designed it based on the original design documents and added elements that they simply could not pull off in 1997. Cohen, Corea and company may not have been on the original development team, but they know the history and are perfectly suited to updating, without redefining this classic game.
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