Choose My Adventure: And now, Ultima Online, sooner or later
So, yes, I did actually play some Ultima Online. Or I tried to play some Ultima Online, at least. I’m not sure that most of what I did was actually something that I would call “playing,” although it involved me being in the game and ostensibly interacting with it. And it’s times like this that I particularly dislike my job, because this puts me in something less than a comfortable position.
I don’t know how many of you reading this right now are fans of UO, and as I established in my first column, I don’t really feel as if I’m equipped to critique the game as a whole because this is where everything started. This is the original of the species. It’s like that gag in Dr. McNinja wherein Ben Franklin is mentioning that inventing things during his original lifespan was easy because all you had to do was pay the slightest bit of attention.
But that was then and this is now. And honestly, as I have discussed, I have to evaluate this game based on how someone totally new will feel going into this game. Not the UO fan, but someone who has never played this game before. It’s free-to-play now! Will that free player be enticed by this classic of gaming?
The fact that I prefaced this entire bit by saying that I tried to play some UO should probably give you an idea of my reaction.
I started off by downloading the Enhanced client, firing it up, patching in, all of that fun stuff. Then, I created my character, which is somehow the one character creator I have seen in all of history that is more anemic than World of Warcraft’s. Yes, it has an excuse of when it was made, but as I keep pointing out this is now. Someone new coming into the game eager to try it out will not be comparing it to other games of the time but to other contemporary free-to-play titles.
From there, I spent several minutes trying to figure out how to actually be a Paladin. That was the class I selected, and the game helpfully starts by telling you nothing. Well, it vomits a lot of windows at you with no clear way to close any of them, that’s something. Seriously, double-clicking on NPCs – the only way I saw to start a quest – immediately opens up their character sheet, which has no handy little X to close it. I tried right-clicking the NPCs with quest markers, and yet none of them offer a context option of “take this quest.” [Ed. note: Double-click quest givers for quests and right-click to close paperdolls.]
Sandbox title, yeah, quests aren’t the focus here, but a tutorial – or a link to a manual – would do wonders here. I finally found that you can right-click to close a window, which still makes accepting quests a more arduous process than it needs to be but at least means that I can close the window.
So. Talk to the nearest questgiver, and… she wants me to increase my focus. Also, the game informed me that I could drag abilities to my hotbar. Sure, all right, all of this makes sense. Where are my abilities? Let’s check over under Actions, and… no. No, this is definitely not it, because I don’t think my Paladin abilities cover “choose next target” or “order cannon fire.” There is “attack current target” but that seems… kind of basic?
I’m glad I still put that on my bar, though, since I’ve found no other useful UI key to start attacking something. The lack of any obvious keybinding options is a problem here.
Sparing you some tedious searching, I still can’t find my paladin abilities. I decide that I can figure that out in a minute, walk out of town, look for something I can target and attack. This proves harder than I though, but I find a cougar. And since I’m a “young” player it doesn’t aggro me, so I can just walk up to it and start smacking it…
And yes, I am dying now. All right. A cougar may not have been the best practice target. I start hoofing it out of there and make a point that I need to figure out how to actually Paladin first. Back to the place where I started, and there… yes! There’s another NPC, easily missed back there, who doesn’t offer a quest but promises to send you to where you need to go! That’s great.
All right. Paladin order hall. That’s… attached to the Warrior hall, fine. And that is… to the northeast. Which, from a player perspective, is actually due east due to the isometric perspective, but still! Progress! I stagger around for a bit to find the Paladin order hall, manage to find it, and Sir Somebody-or-Other explains to me that to learn what it means to be a Paladin I have to raise my Chivalry skill.
Right. See, I knew that, I was looking for how to do that. Augh. All right. Rifling through my backpack, yes, there’s a Book of Chivalry. It contains spells, great. Move some useful ones to my bar, and now I need to tithe gold to use them. Sir Dudeface the Dude informed me that I can do that at the shrine right here, and I can see I have a thousand gold pieces in my bag.
This is way more complex than it needs to be, but fine. There’s also no shrine here, there’s a shrine downstairs, but let’s not quibble. (Or let’s quibble a little bit because the game has been about as transparent as a brick wall, but it’s really the smallest quibble.) Click on the ankh, click on “Tithe,” there are little arrows to tithe, great. Let me just click those and…
Wait, why isn’t it doing anything? I have gold right there. Why are you saying I have no gold?
I’m going to spare you what amounts to ten minutes of fruitless searching to jump ahead to the point where it turns out that the gold pieces in my bag didn’t count. They were, like… imposter gold, or something. No, I have to go to the bank, hand them my gold, and then they hand it back to me in usable currency form. Obviously.
I am sure that somewhere along the way this was a necessary, useful, important change to the way the game worked. I literally do not care. If I were playing this for fun, I would have thrown the whole thing out the window a while ago, and finding out that I had to go visit the bank to turn the gold in my bag to spendable gold would have been the point when I seriously considered just not playing video games any longer.
To extend my earlier point as well, at this point, I had been playing for an awful lot of time before getting to the point where I go out of town and do something. None of this so far has been actually enjoying the game; it’s been all fussing with an endlessly obnoxious interface and systems that make little to no sense.
But, fine, all right. Convert my filthy stored gold into real gold, go back to the ankh, and now I can tithe. And now I can actually cast my Paladin abilities! So I cast my first ability, to consecrate my weapon, and…
Wait, was that it? Did… did it fade already? That spell just cost me 10 tithe points, which is 10 gold, did it fade in three seconds? There’s no buff visible any longer and I have no idea. It says that its duration is based on my karma, but I can’t see any duration anywhere. Ditto my other assault spell, Divine Fury.
So I have no idea if these spells basically last for one hit in the heat of combat or if I’m just missing another part of the UI. At this point, both are equally plausible. [Ed. note: It’s the former.]
Back out to the woods, then, find something smaller than a cougar… there, some sort of bat, super. All right, it dies far easier than that cougar, it’s dead, I’m alive. Hooray! After all that fussing around, I actually killed something without dying! I move on to a bogling, and… yep, now I am actually dead.
So health does not naturally regenerate, it seems. And my healing spell heals for… one point. Sometimes. A couple of times I think it healed for nothing. And again, I find myself screwed over somewhat by the UI; the game helpfully tosses my idiot noob ghost back to the healers who can revive me, but I have to leave and come back for the healers to actually offer to do so.
I then have to re-equip everything by tediously dragging and dropping it from my backpack, but at this point that’s not even in the top five list of annoying UI features, so I don’t even care any more.
No poll this week, folks, as I’m not sure where to begin asking for advice beyond a flat “what.” But, of course, advice and input is appreciated via comments or by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, it’s back on the horse, one way or the other. The game is undeniably a classic, but it is not selling that new player experience for the free-to-play conversion, I tell you what.