Requires an additional virtue of patience
The Ultima series is kind of like that girl you had a crush on back in high school: pretty awesome back in the day, but not the same after letting herself go in more recent years. Mythic and EA are trying to turn back the clock with Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, a free-to-play RPG that freshens things up for mobile gamers but ultimately (no pun intended) doesn’t quite live up to the fan favorite game that inspired it, Ultima IV.
Right from the start, it’s clear that the developers have a healthy respect for what players found so compelling about the Ultima universe. Instead of a straightforward character creation system, the game asks four questions and uses your responses as a personality test to come up with a suggested class. Alas, there are only two choices, warrior or mage, but the quiz does serve as a clever introduction to the eight Virtues.
For those who don’t recall or never played the classics (and shame on you for that), those would be Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality and Humility. All of your decisions have the potential to increase your standing in one of the Virtues, which serve a cool dual purpose. Proficiency in any Virtue helps your character level up, and showing your devotion to specific ones can increase your standing with different cities in Britannia. That’s important, because only by having the maximum standing with each city can you prove yourself worthy of becoming the Avatar.
Following the Virtues is often obvious, but there are some surprises. In an early dungeon, I found an amulet in a smashed sarcophagus and tried returning it to the family whose name was inscribed on it. One problem: the young man I gave it to chastised me for robbing the grave of his ancestor. No Virtues for me!
There are plenty of opportunities to show how virtuous you are, because Ultima Forever has a ton of content. Multiple quests can be undertaken at any given time, and the NPCs who give them tend to be clustered close together. Dungeons can be tackled in groups of up to four players in the most MMO-like aspect of the game – complete with an automatic group assembler – and there are Virtue boosts for playing with others. Yet the dungeons can also be soloed fairly easily, especially if you stick to the high end of the recommended level range and are properly geared up.
That gear comes in chests, which can be unlocked by keys. Mythic has come up with a fairly elegant way to handle the microtransaction model by making the gold keys the premium currency while silver and bronze keys can be found as drops. You have the option of using any kind of key to open any chest, with the resulting loot increasing in rarity with better keys. The downside is that Epic level items can only be had with gold keys, making the best gear something you have to pay to find.
Unlike most of the old Ultima games, this one involves real time combat – only it’s not very exciting. Characters have one basic attack and one special ability to start (additional specials can be unlocked later. You tap to attack, use the specials when their cooldown timers are finished, and that’s about it. Positioning matters too, but the controls aren’t precise enough to really make it matter most of the time. For an action RPG, the dull repetitiveness of combat is a bummer, and the lack of class variation makes it even more of a drag in groups.
The battles take place in a classic top-down view set against some striking hand-painted scenery. At least it’s pretty when it isn’t obscuring where you can actually walk, and it’s not always clear when things are blocking your way in dungeons. I had some problems with freezing and stuttering graphics too, and while I initially chalked it up to my underpowered iPad 2, it appears people are having similar issues on newer devices.
The sound, on the other hand, is always impressive in a way that you won’t find in many other mobile games. Both the score and the ambient background noises are really noticeable, in a good way. A message pops up during the loading screen that advises the use of headphones for the best experience, and that’s no joke.
If all of this makes Ultima Forever sound like a mixed bag, that’s because it is. While the Mythic team deserves a pat on the back for the effort it made to restore the Ultima brand to relevancy, the end result is something that still leaves you wanting, at least a little bit. We’re not talking about a head-scratching disappointment like Ultima IX, but it doesn’t soar to the heights of Ultima IV either. Maybe it will get there with updates, but that’s going to take a ninth Virtue: Patience.