As a lifelong fan of the Ultima series, and I mean life long, way back to the early 80’s, I was as excited as I was skeptical when I heard Electronic Arts was going to make a new free to play cross platform version of Ultima 4 called Ultima Forever, Quest for the Avatar. After nearly two years since it was announce, EA and its developer Mythic Entertainment are currently conducting a soft launch in certain markets to test out Ultima Forever’s mechanics with real players.
Obviously much will change before the final version is released this July, as Mythic tweaks things like weapon damage, quests and in game purchasing. So please consider this a preview and not a review of some of the features we can expect in Ultima Forever when it officially launches. For the purposes of this video I will assume you have some basic knowledge of the Lore of Ultima and the relationship history between Origin Systems and Electronic Arts.
Mythic Entertainment is charged with the incredibly difficult task of being true to a franchise that is over 30 years old with legions of fans, while at the same time setting out to bring modern gaming mechanics that today’s players expect in a game that can be played on mobile devices, all the while bringing those original fans and new players together in harmony, not an easy task.
Ultima Forever is set 21 years after the events of Ultima IV Quest of the Avatar. The eight virtues that were so pinnacle in that game to heal Britannia are now being attacked by the Black Weep, a plague that corrupts them and infects those its contacts. You and others have been summoned by Lady British to find its source and stop it. In a clever nod to older Ultimas you’re told that people who are infected turn and many often come back to life without their heads, which possibly explains one of Ultima’s most bizarre monsters, the Headless.
As in most of the Ultima series the Gypsy character is back, this time taking on more of a supportive role. She still presents you with a several moral dilemma questions to choose your path at the beginning but is also the omnipresent voice during the game, which begs the question, is she more than she really seems to be.
At this time your class selection is limited to just the Fighter or Mage archetypes, with more promised at the release, it’s not know if there will be eight classes to match the eight virtues as in other Ultimas but I’d assume it’s a safe bet. The landscape of Britannia is all there with all the major cities and towns we remember along with many new points of interest like towers, caves many other potential entry points to dungeons.
There is a brief tutorial that introduces you to the basics and kickstarts the plot. Combat is as simple as clicking an enemy but depending on your position to your enemy you can increase your damage and possibly doing critical damage. Plus as you progress you’ll get a special attack that has a cool down meter attached to it.
Lets talk about the visuals of the game. Its a top down isometric view more reminiscent of Ultima 6 than Ultima 4. I’m really impressed with the 2D landscapes and town interiors. Everything has nice a watercolor painted look to it, it’s really beautiful to take in. Though I haven’t noticed any lapping waves or rustling trees as an overlay on the 2D art. It’s not a huge deal but even Ultima 4 had wave tiles. To Mythic’s credit I did see some realistic rain in the opening intro title screen.
The portrait art is also very appealing and keeps in with the style of the overall game. Characters, NPCs and monster sprites look really good, though the fighters top heavy proportions took me a little while to get used to.
Music has always been a big part of Ultima and it still is. I was happy to hear familiar melodies set to a full orchestral score. Though I confess I have all the original Ultima synthesized music on my iphone.
Ultima Forever is a freeium game setup with in game purchases. Mythic has stated that you can play the game without ever spending a cent but if you want you can purchase nearly anything except virtue points which is their new take on the old experience point system that other games use. They’ve also got rid of the old gold coin system and uses a variety of keys, bronze, silver and gold. Keys are used to open chests and depending on which key you use, your chances of finding uncommon, rare or epic items rises. Bronze keys can be found in dungeons as loot or you can craft them. Combining 15 bronze keys yields 5 silver keys and golds keys can be purchased with real money or awarded in certain situations. Keys are also used to buy in game items and repair damaged weapons and armor. And you will be doing that a lot. Your equipment deteriorates over time and must be repaired, the good news is it doesn’t required you to visit a blacksmith shop, simply spend your keys for a easy fix. In fact Mythic has used the soft launch to gauge costs and have recently reduced repair costs significantly due to user feedback.
Of course the eight Virtues are at the the heart of Ultima. Throughout the game moral dilemmas are presented to you that don’t have any real right answer, but your choices will direct your character’s virtue path. For instance leaning towards honest deeds will increase your reputation in the town of Moonglow, Justice earns reputation in the town of Yew and the higher your reputation the better you will be received in those towns, unlocking new areas and new quests. All virtuous deeds are tallied and are translated as a purple bar beneath your health, when the bar fills completely your character advances a level. It’s a clever new take on the old experience point system.
If you’re like me you like playing solo but Ultima Forever is a multi-player game where parties of up to four friends can band together. Another creative solution to the problem of players with vastly different levels forming a party is addressed by temporarily lowering certain stats on high level characters, the game counts this as a sacrifice for their deed. Clever reward systems are peppered all throughout the game.
It’s important to keep in mind this is a reimagining of the classic Ultima 4, not a sequel to the original timeline. Sort of like a Hollywood reboot as in the recent Batman and Superman films. Mythic does try to keep old school fans happy by pointing to certain people, places and things from the original and you can’t help but smile when stumble on them. Though it never detracts from the plot to annoy new first time Ultima players.
Though there are hundreds of dungeons to conquer, people to help and quests to complete it’s laid out in little accomplishable chunks. You could pick up and play a quick 15 minutes and actually complete something instead of a continuous chain of quests that does on and on. Ultima Forever is meant to be quick and light, perfect for mobile gaming.
The more I experience this game the more I find I like it, though my old Ultima prejudices are really hard to fight back. The fact that the original Ultima 4 used so much of the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks that the technology of the time couldn’t do, gave us an incredibly invested feeling in the game. Ultima Forever is a modern game, with portability, touch screen, mouse driven, social media connected, multi-player game, it’s not 1985’s Ultima 4. If you want vast super immersive gameplay with full economies and sociopolitical relationships to dive into they’re on the horizon but what EA and Mythic have done here is create a enjoyable and respectful reimagining of a beloved classic. I’m looking forward to the July 2013 full launch to Journey Onward again to Britannia.