So farewell then, Ultima. The title of developer Mythic and publisher EA's new entry in the series, an iOS-exclusive, free-to-play MMORPG-lite, is Ultima Forever. These words you can visualise chiselled on a gravestone. Make no mistake; this game has the surface of a vibrant fantasy, but it is a grasping and shallow product.
The free-to-play business model is entirely to blame for this, because Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar (to give its full title) is a game built around several principles that flow from it. Critics of free-to-play often focus on the money side of things, but really the specific amounts matter little. Ultima Forever rips you off with its keys, for sure, but it is their impact on how the game actually plays that ruins it.
This is a game built for idiots. The critic Ian Bogost once mocked up something called Cow Clicker to illustrate the banal absurdity of most freemium mechanics, and Ultima Forever is Cow Clicker with a beard. Everything is straightforward to the point of absurdity. Combat comes down to just tapping on enemies constantly. It really does. There are special moves, and you can move around to score backstabs or avoid attacks, but 99% of the time this is soul-crushing, mechanical drudgery. Go into a dungeon, tap furiously for 10 minutes, leave.
The point is not that in-app purchases make this grind easier and faster by giving you better kit and therefore fewer hits to kill enemies. The point is that this is not a fun combat system, whether you're paying or otherwise - it doesn't need precision, or strategy, or thought. It's mindless. Combine this with constant lag, as well as an average frame-rate of 15fps (which can and will drop lower) and the incredibly regular crashes, and you wonder whether this game should have been released at all.
This is a game built for idiots... Ultima Forever is Cow Clicker with a beard
But it has, and so I must soldier on. Past the mission structure designed to leave you just a level or two short of accessing the next area, through the towns stuffed with endlessly recycling fetch quests, and milling with all the other Avatars, going nowhere. Ultima Forever has other players running around its world and cities, but its matchmaking and chat system are respectively annoying and nested away - to the extent that it's hard to recruit one companion for a dungeon, never mind three. There's no real incentive to group up, despite the fact that this is a multiplayer experience, and so you find the vast majority of other players either don't or won't.
And then there are the dungeons. A huge influence on Ultima Forever is Diablo 3, both in the randomised locations and the kinetic feel Blizzard manages to create with its combat. Ultima Forever apes both, but its combat never gets close, while the dungeons that are randomised have the same problem as Diablo's: you wonder why they bothered. Randomised level elements are only an interesting mechanic if you have parts that assemble in different ways with different outcomes - otherwise you're just slapping down corridors and rooms in a different configuration. This is Ultima Forever.
In the dungeons, and also in every town, are chests. Here's where things really go south. Ultima Forever's currency is keys. Bronze keys you get constantly, and 18 of these can be smooshed into six silver keys. Gold keys are the rarity. These get you the best loot from chests, open inventory slots, allow you to use a second ability at once, and pretty much everything else of any consequence. Did you get that? Basic things like a second spell slot are locked behind paywalls. And not only that - you have to pay to unlock these things separately for each character. Your key balance is shared across your account, but not what you buy. Another sneaky touch is that Ultima Forever sells silver key bundles starting at 69p, but the minimum purchase price for gold keys is Ł6.99.
It's not going too far to say that Ultima Forever's design goes to some evil places
It's not going too far to say that Ultima Forever's design goes to some evil places. Over time (and regularly) your equipment will degrade. This has to be fixed with silver keys in considerable quantities, so is a constant bleed on your mid-tier currency for nothing other than playing the game. If you make the mistake I did, of clicking 'repair all' at the start of a dungeon to save time, you'll find that it uses Gold Keys for the privilege of saving five taps. Such sleight-of-hand is the rule.
How did Ultima come to this? Let's step back for a second. Richard Garriott's venerable role-playing series has always been built around the eight Virtues: honour, humility, honesty, compassion, valour, sacrifice, spirituality, and justice. The point is that Ultima's hero, the Avatar, is the ultimate expression of these traits in worlds corrupted by fascism, or racism, or the simple inverse of the Virtues. It's not a surface layer: this stuff is at the heart of the universe Garriott designed. It is why Ultima is what we call a 'role-playing game'.
Ultima Forever has all of the virtues in the form of XP bars. There are shrines you can visit for buffs in each. The odd townsperson has a multiple-choice moral quandary, and of course the dialogue and locations mention the Virtues all the time. The surface of the game, in other words, is steeped in the Virtues. But they feel totally irrelevant to what you're doing. You only really know this is an Ultima game because of a few references and because it says it is, which is succinctly captured in the game's introduction. After the Virtues are explained, your character responds: "Virtues level me up. Got it."
Someone whose opinion I respect told me that this is a game made with love. If love is surface-deep reference, a painted mask to hide behind, then that is true. Ultima's character has been corrupted and trammelled into a grotesque parody of itself in Ultima Forever. This game is a desecration.
There is an oft-deplored tendency among critics, hated by developers, of reviewing what one thinks should exist rather than assessing what's there. So I'll hold my hands up. EA and Mythic; I am truly sorry. But then, I thought I was playing a game called Ultima.