Ultima IX: Ascension review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Role-Playing

Ultima 9 game image

By the early 1990s the Ultima series had risen to the pinnacle of the PC role-playing genre. Ultima VII: The Black Gate and its successor The Serpent Isle were astonishingly ambitious, masterfully executed games.

By comparison 1994’s Ultima VIII: Pagan was somewhat of a letdown. As a consequence fans of the series were hoping that Origin would really get its act together for the next installment.

When I interviewed Richard Garriott back in 1994 he had this to say about Ultima IX:
To my mind there really were some issues with Ultima VIII that I do want to address in Ultima IX. For example when you point to where you want to jump in Ultima IX, he jumps to exactly that location. You will have a set of attributes, like strength and dexterity that dictate how far and how accurately he (the Avatar) can jump. That gets it out of the ‘arcadey-ness’ that was probably an accurate criticism of Ultima VIII and puts it back into what it was really meant to be: a role-playing game.

What I am about to tell you is literally days old. In Ultima IX it’s the end of the Guardian, not only that but it’s also the end of this whole Avatar business we’ve been going on about, so Ultima IX is actually the conclusion of Ultimas I through to IX. Ultima X will be a completely fresh start and probably won’t even be called Ultima X.

In many ways Ultima IX tears down the Avatar philosophy. After going through the gate at the end of Ultima VIII you are in fact back in Britannia, obviously things have changed significantly while you were away and you eventually discover that you and the Guardian are cosmically related. Don’t forget that this is the end of Ultima as we know it, so something very profound happens at the end of Ultima IX…

Stuck in development hell…

So began a tortuous 5 year cycle which saw the game’s storyline, game-engine and development team in a constant state of flux.

During that time the game-engine of Ultima IX: Ascension moved from the traditional Ultima isometric viewing perspective to a sort of ‘Tomb Raider-like’ third-person viewpoint.

It seemed fairly obvious to perhaps all but those working at Origin, that the developmental integrity of Ultima IX was being compromised by cynical marketing types trying to cash in on the fleeting popularity of various game genres.

Throughout this period a worrying question emerged: was Ultima IX going to be action, arcade, adventure or a traditional RPG?

Garriott steps back up to the plate (and promptly falls over…)

By 1998 EA’s resolve to allocate the necessary resources to the development team of Ultima IX was rapidly diminishing. Rumour has it that they wanted to axe the project and have Origin focus exclusively on Ultima Online.

Just when Ultima IX’s future was looking very bleak indeed Richard Garriott seized control of the game’s development and attempted to steer it back on course.

The game finally came out late in 1999.

The end result…

In Ultima IX: Ascension players once again assumed the role of the Avatar before making their way to the fantasy world of Britannia.

In the time that had elapsed since the last Ultima game, 8 mysterious columns had sprung up about Britannia. These columns emanated a negative energy which was having a disastrous effect on the surrounding countryside.

After meeting with a very old and decrepit Lord British, you (the Avatar) were once again assigned the task of saving Britannia from destruction.

The new graphics engine may have been fancy, but it was also very flawed…

Powered by a brand new graphics engine Ultima IX was viewed from a third-person 3D perspective. Like almost every other facet of the game the quality of the visuals was inconsistent to say the least: at their best – awe-inspiring, at their worst – mediocre.

Amble through the countryside of Britannia at sunset and you’d marvel at the sheer beauty of this magical land. But take a stroll into Lord British’s castle and you’d be amazed at how the designers could render such a lifeless and dull 3D representation of one of the series’ most important landmarks…

However without a doubt the worst feature of this lavish new 3D graphics engine was the horrible toll it took on even the most powerful (1999-era) PC. Put simply Ultima IX crawled along like a tree-slug on Valium!

Even if you turned all the detail levels to minimum, chose the smaller 8-bit textures and moved the viewpoint closer to the Avatar the game still ran at an appallingly slow rate.

Apart from the ‘speed’ factor the game also exhibited numerous clipping problems with many creatures mysteriously becoming stuck in things like a rock or door.

To top it all off Ultima IX was written specifically for 3dfx cards and ran even slower through Direct3D! So if you didn’t own at least a couple of Voodoo 2s or a Voodoo 3 card you could forget about it.

Deep and compelling Ultima style gameplay? Er no…

Like other Ultima titles, gameplay in Ultima IX consisted of exploring and interacting with your surroundings, embarking on quests (and mini-quests), conversing with NPCs (non-player characters) and engaging in voluminous amounts of combat. Unfortunately almost all of these elements were fatally flawed in some way.

For starters quests were very linear and unimaginative, usually consisting of go to area X, find object Y and so on… Furthermore, in the initial release, Ultima IX’s quest system appeared to be broken and it was possible to accidentally do something out of sequence causing all sorts of problems.

Then there was the voice-acting – it was uniformly terrible! This wouldn’t have been such a huge problem if the conversation system wasn’t broken as well. Unfortunately whenever you talked to an NPC, you had to listen to loads of inane dialogue before reaching a topic of interest or importance. God help you if you forgot something and had to revisit the NPC – in these instances the game often seemed to ignore the fact that you’d spoken to them before, forcing you to start from scratch again!

Combat was a similarly frustrating experience. Firstly just about all of the creatures in Ultima IX seemed to stand around waiting for you to enter a set radius before they would even acknowledge your existence. This meant that it was possible to stand back and take out opponents using a ranged attack, with absolutely no reaction from them whatsoever. And when you did actually engage in close range combat, the whole exercise consisted of nothing more than clicking the mouse button repeatedly.

A huge opportunity lost…

This situation was extremely unfortunate because underneath the flawed exterior lay the potential for a truly great game. In many ways I consider Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion to be the benchmark for what Ultima IX could have been. This is ironic when you consider that the Ultima Underworld series was one of the biggest influences on the Elder Scrolls’ design team to begin with. Talk about the pupil becoming the master…

When I originally played Ultima IX back in 1999 my feeling was that the game really needed at least another six months to a year of rigorous testing and polish before it should have been released.

With the benefit of hindsight it becomes increasingly clear that Origin’s star began to wane almost as soon as it was sold to EA back in 1993. Ultima IX was just the final nail in the coffin.

If you want to play an Origin Systems game created during the height of this iconic studio’s powers then I’d highly recommend Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle.

Review Summary
Score: 40%
Info: Ultima IX was a PC gaming tragedy of epic proportions. After 5 years in development hell this bug-ridden, barely completed monstrosity was half-heartedly wheeled out by EA and passed off as a commercial release. When I finally played the game at the end of 1999 I was pulled in two directions – on the one hand I caught glimpses of the game’s true potential and on the other I could only see the creative death throes of the once great PC game developer “Origin Systems” – a studio that had been utterly emasculated by its corporate masters.
The Good: Cutting edge third-person perspective 3D visuals. Beautiful day to night transitions.
The Bad: The initial release was incredibly buggy. The graphics engine ran like a slide-show on even high-spec PCs (I’m talking 1999-era PCs here). Appalling voice-acting. Clunky dialogue-tree system. Over-simplistic, poorly implemented combat system. Disjointed storyline was a huge slap in the face for all longtime Ultima fans. An insulting and contemptuous end to one of PC gaming’s most revered RPG series.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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