It seems crazy, but Ultima Online was originally released ten years ago. Can the MMO really be so old? Can an MMO so old really still be around today? Well, it appears yes. While the developers were extremely cagey when we asked how many players are still on the servers, it’s certainly enough for EA to still take it seriously.
And that’s because it’s still good, and it’s still popular. Like fridges, they used to make them to last in the old days. Not like these new-fangled MMOs with the seals that break after only a few years. Despite the disappearance of creator Richard Garriot, and the accompanying prolonged absence of his oft-maligned, sometimes murdered character, Lord British, the community still thrives.
But no, this isn’t another expansion pack. This is something quite new. The game is receiving a complete graphical overhaul, changing nothing of the core game, but prettying it up for the spangly eyes of today’s modern face.
Thoughts should immediately flitter through your mind of a 3D world, perhaps shader 9.9 lighting effects, and system specs to make your wallet bleed. But don’t go that far. This is a rather more sensible approach, taking into account the thoughts and oh-so sensitive feelings of the current players, while hoping to smarten things up enough to reel in a few noobs. So most significantly, it’s still an isometric, somewhat 2D game.
However, it’s a rather clever cheat. With their new home in EA’s recently acquired Mythic, bits of the freshly developed Warhammer engine are secretly stored under the hood, with three dimensions disguising themselves as two. This means that while it has the traditional approach of UO, it’s also capable of generating the sort of pretty spell effects and smooth edged baddies you’d expect in a modern release.
At our sneaky peek, we were shown a demo in which two people played together, one on the old system, one with the new, and the difference was very obvious. On one screen we saw a wall of orange lumps, on the other a blazing wall of flickering, smoking fire. On one we saw a wobbly cardboard monster, on the other... well, it’s not Unreal 3, but a much nicer looking, more intricate, and more distinct creature, with shaded details and shinier shiny bits. And these new looks go to the interface too. Conscious that the current gen MMO interface is far better than UO’s original, something much more comfortable is being implemented, losing the bulky boxes and replacing them with screen-edge-fitting menus and the all-important hot keys to accompany the much improved resolutions.
The trick is the tile-for-tile replacement, so people on either build can play together and have exactly the same experience, all but aesthetically. Eventually the older system will stop being supported, but we’re told that’s at least a year away.
So what else can we tell you about it? Any other small, but important details? Ah, oh yes! It’s a free upgrade to any subscribers. And if that’s still not cheap enough, when it’s out this Spring, there’s going to be a fortnight’s free play to all-comers. And with a new expansion pack called Stygian Abyss coming this summer, that only works with the new engine, EA’s hope is that the game will be rejuvenated by both the new look, and a larger player base. Will it be enough to catch the flitting attention spans of the WoW generation? It seems doubtful. But could it attract back lots of previous players and a smattering of the new? We think it very much could.