Review by Scarlet Herring

Reviewed: 04/19/02 | Updated: 04/19/02

A letdown to longstanding fans of Ultima

''Ultima IX: Ascension'' undeniably looks gorgeous. Even three years after its initial release, few games can match the visual beauty of this game. It's all here, and it's alive: stunningly crafted landscapes, lush valleys, windy snow-covered mountaintops, tropical beaches, dense forests and dark dungeons. The world is diverse but well-structured, and not so much crafted as a challenge for the player to overcome, but as an impressive place to be visited. And that's precisely what always made the Ultima games stand out: they place the player in a living world to be experienced and explored. Unfortunately, this is where the positive comparison with the other Ultima games ends.

In Ascension the player incorporates ''The Avatar'', the protagonist of these games since part IV. As in most of the previous parts, Ascension plays in the land of Britannia, ruled over by Lord British. In Ultima IV, Lord British summoned the Avatar to prove himself a shining example of the eight virtues that guide the everyday life in Britannia. Ultima IV differed from traditional CRPGs by focussing on morals and ethical problems, and not on ''good'' beating up ''evil''. This continued in later Ultima games, and even if you don't agree with the choice of Ultima's virtues, you can appreciate how the games seriously consider the problems around the implementation of them. Ultima V considers what happens when the virtues are no longer considered to be good morals, but become the law (with dire consequences). Ultima VI places a new set of virtues besides the Britannian virtues. Ultima VII is about collectivism, a system that supposedly encompasses the Britannian virtues. Ultima VIII places the Avatar in a world where adhering to the virtues will no longer work for him.

Ultima IV to VIII each made the player think about ethics. Ultima IX, however, does not. The Britannian virtues play a central role in the game, but in a very simplistic way. In Ascension, Britannia gets slowly destroyed by eight columns, that corrupt the eight virtues. So what happens is something like this: The Avatar arrives in Britain, the city of the virtue Compassion. He finds that the people are not so compassionate. He descends in a nearby dungeon that leads to the base of a column, collects a sigil which is the corrupted rune of the virtue of Compassion, gets out again, makes the shrine of Compassion cleanse the sigil, et voila, Britain is compassionate again. Hurray for the Avatar. Whether Britain is the city of Compassion or the city of Streetsweeping is relatively unimportant.

Still, the fact that the story is shallower than the stories of earlier Ultima's needn't harm the fun of the game. But Ultima IX has more problems. The biggest is probably the Avatar himself. To put it bluntly, in Ultima IX the Avatar is a pratt. An obnoxious, leery, self-centered buffoon. Playing him is often a painful experience. To give an example, when the Avatar talks to a citizen of Britain about sending the sick away to Paws, you are forced to make him say, in a self righteous, accusing voice: ''But Britain is the City of Compassion!'' You can NOT say things like ''I think you wouldn't have done that before the arrival of the columns'' or ''Aren't you concerned about splitting up a family because the sick mother gets sent away?'' In other words, the Avatar is, in the eyes of the people who built this game, a person who unquestioningly follows a moral code, expects others to follow that code to, but does not have the capability of discussing it with people. Coupled to that the fact that his voice-acting is awful and you can understand that the player regularly feels uncomfortable playing the role of this unlikable character.

Then we get to the other characters in the game. The Avatar travels through Britannia on his own, but several NPCs play an important role. The most important is probably Raven, the pirate girl who takes the Avatar around Britannia on her ship, and who at one point totally out of the blue is the Avatar's lover. Now that was an unnecessary happenstance. I positively felt dirty after this scene (you know what scene when you play the game). Women who try to enjoy Ascension will probably stop playing after experiencing Raven's seduction. Raven, the babe with the ship, is as flat a character as a 36DD cartoon girl can be. And I, the Avatar, am supposed to be interested in her? Now when did that happen?

But there is more. Ultima games have always been about exploration. You were put in a world, with a goal to reach at the end, but how to go about it was entirely your business. If you want to travel around and see the sights, go ahead. If you want to descend into a dungeon, you can try. If you find you tackled a task too hard for you at your current level, no problems, just get out and return at a later time. Ascension, on the other hand, is linear. Terribly linear. You get placed into a small part of the world, and you have to play that part, whether you like it or not. After you finish your task, you get moved to another small part of the world the designers have selected for you. The eight cities (and thus the dungeons) have to be tackled in a particular order. Only once you get a choice between two cities. It is as if the creators were afraid to let the player loose in the world before three-quarters of the game had been played. It is as if the creators don't know what people are used to in Ultima games.

That last statement gets strengthened by the fact that Ascension disregards many of the occurrences from previous Ultima games. Iolo, Shamino and Gwenno are happily running around in Britannia, when the last time we saw them they were stuck on Serpent Isle. Dupre no longer seems to be entangled with the Chaos Serpent. Blackthorn, the misguided champion of virtues from Ultima V, who later on seems to have reverted to the path of the good, is in Ascension a mean villain who possesses powerful magic. The moongates work very differently in Ascension as in previous games. And the Skull of Mondain, permanently destroyed in Ultima IV, is on display in the British museum!

And there is still more. The enemy AI is terrible. The voice-acting is awful (wait till you here the French git - you'll either laugh or cry, but you won't be able to keep a neutral face). The game contains numerous game-breaking bugs, even in the final release. And the music behind the credits that close up the final game in this epic series spanning 20 years, is a dead insult to every person with a bit of taste.

To sum it up: Ascension looks great, but is a great letdown in gameplay. Newbies to the Ultima series may enjoy the game slightly more than Ultima veterans, who will feel that this is no way to end the brilliant series they have grown to love. But it is the end. Better forget it quickly.

Rating: 4

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