It's always the maze that gets me. Though its appeal has waned somewhat after each subsequent visit, I still hold fond memories of meandering through a seemingly endless tangle of forest and shrubbery - darting past an ettin, a gargoyle, and perhaps less thrillingly, a mongbat - and finding myself at the entrance of a giant hedge labyrinth. Supposedly constructed by the wizard Relvinian with a view to getting daemons to do his laundry, it's a calming, floral little place whose only real perils are the odd troll-under-the-bridge and the nimbus of hellspawn living at its core. It's not tied to any particular quest I know of; it's just sitting there, waiting to be discovered.
That's the Ultima Online I remember: so different to the modern MMO model that it's almost a distinct genre. Where your City of Lord of the Warcrafts like to lay their landscapes out in a linear, tiered fashion - there's room at the top-level dungeons they're telling you still, but first you must learn how to smile as you kill fire beetles - UO presented its virtual Britannia just as it had appeared in offline Ultima games: open, detailed, and deeply interactive. It was a tribute to Raph Koster's masterful game design that the utterly mundane - fishing, tailoring, carpentry - became not only addictive, but a viable in-game career- or power-path. You were just as likely to see a grandmaster woodchopper's waterfront castle as you were a more common-or-garden dragonslayer's.
The little discoveries, the player-built and player-governed towns, even the highway muggings - all served to create a game that felt more World than Warcraft. Of course, as so much of UO's appeal was player- rather than content-driven, and as UO's population has more than halved since its 250,000 peak in 2003, it stands to reason that the experience has changed somewhat. Indeed, when I logged on for the first time in years, I was half-expecting a wasteland. But while the server I chose wasn't exactly Times Square at midday, I was never too far from a fellow adventurer.
The immediately apparent changes come instead from EA's new Ultima Online client. The Kingdom Reborn client, released in 2007, is an effective compromise between the stalwart 1997 2D version of UO, and the unloved 2001 3D one - spells and effects are rendered with all the beauty a modern graphics card can afford, whilst the environments and characters are highly-detailed sprites. The effect is eerily similar to a higher-fantasy vision of Diablo II, but that's hardly a criticism. With the smooth scrolling and zoom feature the new engine affords, it's pretty enough to stand up against many of its contemporaries, and has a nice quality-to-performance ratio that, theoretically, is highly appealing to the WOW-playing mainstream.
I say theoretically, because Kingdom Reborn seems to have had little effect on UO's steadily shrinking userbase. And despite the obvious player consensus that Kingdom Reborn looks nicer than its older counterpart (the 3D client has been discontinued), there's been some negative commentary regarding its functionality and reliability. The group of players with whom I ran through UO's newbie dungeon, Despise, had all tried KR but quickly abandoned it, citing crashes, lock-ups, and general degraded performance.
More interesting are the subtle ways KR changes the experience of being a new player. There's the somewhat anaemic New Player Tutorial, which has led to such epic feats as Alec Meer's The Worst Ninja series. There's the beginner town of New Haven, which was released more-or-less concurrently with KR, and, there's a new interface with a much more sensible and customisable map system.
As Meer has commented, none of these exactly flatten the learning curve, but compared to days-gone-by UO it's tantamount to spoon-feeding. So much so, in fact, that I can't help but feel wistful, in a masochistic kind of way, for the days when being ganked and looted meant a long-but-noble climb back up the ladder - for the solo player who always forgot to store stuff in the bank, anyway. Newly naked but for the tatty ghost-robe covering my my modesty, I would steal crops and chop every tree in sight to earn cash, turning Richard Garriott's idyllic little slice of Anglophilia into a barren Tokyopolis.
This rags-to-riches mindset isn't necessary now that UO's wearing kid gloves, though: I can just find the nearest moongate, teleport back to New Haven, and be greeted by twelve eager NPCs, each wanting to give me 500 gold just so I can hold their hands on the way to the shops. I suppose that's a good thing, and I suppose I probably hate myself. But there's definitely something disarmingly friendly about UO now, and it's only emphasised by the smaller userbase.
In addition to the cash-fat NPCs in New Haven, you'll find hundreds of useful - sometimes even rare and expensive - items literally carpeting the ground outside the bank. You'll also see multicoloured recall (teleport) runes lying around. Disappointment struck when I realised every single one led to a player vendor desperate for my business - whose wares, unfortunately, were all out of my price range. They ended up coming in useful, though, because many of the vendors were near moongates and/or dungeons.
Now that the peril of long-distance travel has been nigh-on obliterated by the runes, though, a new danger has emerged: more vendors. Making my way to Despise to find my wayward comrades, I was solicited by a charming, garishly-attired fellow we'll call Jobriath.
"i see youre new," he said. "Yes," I responded. "come with me, i want to show you something," he typed.
Now, in the UO golden age - before all the expansions, before the world was split into the hugely popular carebear consensual-PVP-only Trammel, and the abandoned wilderness of Felucca - this would have been the point where I'd naively have followed him to a secluded patch of forest where he and his black-hearted pals would rip me to shreds, take all my equipment, and then carve up my body for food. Eager for some reportage, I followed him, wondering what fiendishly clever means he'd devised to kill me without needing my approval. We came to a house. His house, I discovered, by checking the sign. I was pounding the screenshot key with every heartbeat.
"what do you think?" he asked. "i had a vendor here," he continued, "and a library, but it was hard for folks to get to."
His friend, riding a giant ostrich, appeared. Finally, I thought. Go time.
"so i think i'll put the library here on the top floor," Jobriath added, "and the vendor on the bottom. we sell runebooks and armor. real cheap."
I took the weird speech breaks to signify he was privately communicating with his accomplice; that they were coordinating the plan so that I, examining his precious top floor, would find myself teleported to the most dangerous part of Despise. Or something.
His friend finally spoke. "yeah its good," he said, "cuz you can jump off the ledge. easy access." "yeah," Jobriath concurred.
I could see this wasn't going as planned, so I decided to recall out of there. Recall is great, because it's instantaneous and saves you from all the awkward formalities like, "Goodbye" and, "I don't really care about your library."
"Sanctum Viatas," the spell said. "Sanctum Viatas," it repeated. "hey where you going man," Jobriath inquired. I couldn't help but see him crying.
"Sanctum Viatas," the spell intoned again, and I was finally, mercifully whisked off to a different continent - Malas, introduced in the Age of Shadows expansion, when UO was still hot stuff. Upon arriving, though, I was assaulted by the very same thing I'd seen outside Despise, only in technicolour. Houses, ranches, and castles filled every patch of free land, and player-controlled NPC vendors were lined up on every doorstep, clad in bright blues, purples, yellows, and reds, with signs like, CHEAP LRC ARMOR HERE!!!!!! and LIFE LEECH WEAPONS BARN BUY NOW!!!!!! floating above their heads.
I'm sure if I got involved in UO's famously intricate and volatile economy this stuff would be a lot more meaningful, but I don't have Julian Dibbell's patience or book contract, and besides, beyond being a real atmosphere-killer, it actually impedes travel. What were once handy shortcuts have been completely blocked out by houses owned by players. I'd like to say I'd ported into Britannian Vegas, but to do so would be a disservice to the countless other contenders found nearly anywhere where there's dry land. Talk about urban blight.
The overall effect is dispiriting - not so much because the core joys of UO have been destroyed, but because they've been supplanted in many players' minds by the more tangibly rewarding economy. It feels lonely, then, to be a new player, still chuffed about killing his first gargoyle.
This isn't the end of the story, though. Much to EA's consternation, a completely separate UO community has been evolving since the game's launch in 1997. Intrepid coders have reverse-engineered the first modern MMO, and have not only built free servers out of it, but completely reworked versions of the original game. The legality of the practice is dubious at best, but EA has yet to shut down a single free server (or "freeshard"), so the community has grown unfettered.
There have reportedly even been times when the populations of individual freeshards have competed with - perhaps even exceeded - EA's subscriber servers. When Raph Koster visited China for the first time after leaving Origin, he was amazed to discover how well-known he was there; apparently, hundreds of thousands of Chinese gamers had been playing freeshards under EA's nose.
Just like UO proper, the freeshards community has ebbed over the years, but it lives on. There are shards dedicated to preserving UO at a certain point in its life-cycle - UODivinity, one of the most popular freeshards, turns the clock back to 1998 - whilst others attempt to provide the most up-to-date, EA-esque service possible (UODemise, for instance). Others still retool the experience with custom graphics and environments (Endor, say).
Whichever tickles your fancy, the end result is that EA is in the very interesting position of having to compete with something that offers, cosmetically at least, the very same service, but at no cost to players. So how does the global entertainment conglomerate stack up? I think it's fair to say, despite certain freeshard operators' proclamations, that EA still holds the lion's share of (English-speaking) subscribers - at least, this was my experience. In addition, there's a certain transience inherent to the free service, and not only because your account tends to be purged after several months of inactivity. Freeshards' reliability and stability can certainly be called into question, and, naturally, if you're an economy player, there's very little on offer for you here.
On the other hand, as the Britannia-copies belonging to each shard tend to have spent less time running (and have smaller populations) than EA's servers, the vendor plague is far less apparent. The server-side tweaks may potentially be more appealing to you than what's on offer if you pay to play, and the climb up the social-power ladder is obviously going to be much less daunting. Ultimately, however, you're entering the world of murky legalese by so much as creating an account there, so be it on your conscience.
Beyond this, if you're a UO convert, it seems only just to commend (and reward) EA for continuing to support a service of gradually diminishing returns, especially when so many other MMOs tend to face the axe after a slow launch year. The team behind the extremely popular RunUO shard emulator seem to concur, having decided not to attempt to reverse-engineer Kingdom Reborn. Ryan Adams, RunUO project announcer, announced that "My personal feeling .... is that this attempt to revitalize an already 10-year-old game will fail... but we should definitely give them the chance to prove us wrong. If they pull it off, good for them, and congratulations."
Adams seems to have been proven right over the past year, but EA has one more (perhaps final) ace up its sleeve: the highly anticipated Stygian Abyss expansion, which, in addition to allowing subscribers to play as gargoyles, will also return them to the utterly immense dungeon first explored in Ultima Underworld II. If your memories of Looking Glass are rosy, this should be an exciting prospect.
As for me? Well, after apologising to Jobriath for my brusqueness, I intend to resume my quixotic mission to vanquish the pesky daemons in Relvinian's maze. Hell, after all, hath no fury like a newbie scorned.