For a man who has just specced out a multi-million dollar castle for his next home, Ultima Ascension's designer Richard Garriot must be feeling a bit sore from the press backlash. For some reason Europe received what was described as a "patched" version, but that just makes me shudder to think what the original was like...
The trip back into Britannia in the latest episode of the long-running Ultima series is a sumptuously detailed and very involving one. The game is expansive and engaging, with hundreds of NPCs to interact with a balanced mix of action, puzzle-solving and adventuring.
The problem is that only a very small quantity of players will be able to enjoy it, since even the most advanced computers take a severe performance hit from the game.
Here's an example; my home system is a PIII-450, 256Mb RAM and a 32Mb GeForce DDR - nothing to smirk at, and yet I was bewildered to get a mere 10 frames per second, or even lower at times. The game is just not enjoyable.
Those of you who own a decent 3dfx Voodoo card are in luck, as the game performs much better on that platform. My own Voodoo3 2000 card (a much less impressive card than the GeForce DDR under normal circumstances) squeezed a more impressive 15-20 frames per second out of the game, though I shouldn't be forced to change my machine around in order to play this tripe...
Actually Playing It
I shall try not to mention the abysmal framerate again, instead I'll focus on the rest of the aspects of Ultima Ascension that annoy me vehemently, while trying to iterate how much of a love-hate relationship I have with this game.
As the Avatar, you begin the game in your house on Earth, viewing the proceedings from a third-person perspective. Having located your journal, backpack and other items, you manoeuvre the Avatar around the back of his house, admiring the splendiferous texturing along the way. The sound effects (although stuttery on my ageing SoundBlaster card) were very well sampled and the overall effect was extravagant yet simplistic.
Walking into a nearby cave gave me my first taste of battle, with a few oversized rats which were dispatched with alarming ease, rather like the bunny rabbits that litter the fair plains of Asheron's Call. Apart from the inherent problems with control due to the bugs and such, Ascension's interface is impressively simple to learn.
Entering the portal to Britannia was preceded by an interesting conversation with a Gypsy, who posed seven questions to determine Avatar's role in Britannia. Entering the portal was where the game truly began in earnest...
Welcome To Britannia, Here's Your Bug Spray
The framerate was a big crux here - the sprawling land of Britannia made the game utterly unplayable, so I lowered the draw distance and about every other setting I could find in an effort to increase it.
It started to look visually unappealing, and the improvement in frame rate was negligible. I haven't had an opportunity to try it out on my friend's Pentium III 800 machine, but I am reliably informed it's no better on a machine of that spec, even with a high-end Voodoo3 3500.
Conversing with the NPCs was rather irksome as well, largely due to the missed frames as the camera panned from character to character. It's not just underperformance either; the game is actually rife with software flaws and bugs. You can be dumped back to Windows simply for attempting to load a game (a flaw I was assured wouldn't present itself in the European revision of the game), and I was often rendered defenceless by an arrow supply that magically diminished whenever it felt like it.
The clipping is totally bizarre as well. Creatures and enemies needn't hide behind trees or anything, they can simply hide in them! Or within the walls. Hell, they can just magically appear from nowhere; if the game wants to stack the odds in favour of your opponents, it may as well do so with impunity.
Creatures repeatedly beat the living daylights out of you before you can get a shot off, and even when you do, you run the risk of an arrow simply passing through them. Never place your backpack on the ground either, unless it's in the middle of a clearing, otherwise it may just vanish through a wall, completely out of your reach.
For all my disgust at the incomplete state Ascension is in though, it is a fantastic RPG. The interface, hotkeys and system of play is very impressive and intuitive, and despite the fact that you can't see them properly most of the time, the special effects are charming.
In fact as an RPG, assessed for its story, characters and game world, Ascension is unequalled. Even my beloved Final Fantasty VIII is on an altogether much lower plain. Yet the game is so severely crippled and hindered at every turn by bugs and programming errors, that it is impossible to recommend its purchase to anyone. We shouldn't abide this sort of complacency and general disregard for the paying public.
Amusingly, the game is not content with just being buggy and impossible to play though, it also suffers from several design flaws. Like your inability to view which items Avatar is equipped with, and the way that you are only informed of how much health you are being deducted when fighting enemies.
If you own a well-specced machine with a 3dfx-based chipset at its heart, you may well enjoy Ascension, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's just got a frame rate problem - the game is full to the brim with bugs and glitches, and no amount of hardware improvement can eliminate them.
At the end of the day, I abhor Ascension and what it's become, and by buying it you are allowing unprofessional developers to make a profit on the gullibility of the gaming public. I doubt you want to be a part of that...