Sunday, 11 December 2005

Archive: Looking back at... Ultima Online

First released: 1997

Category: MMORPG

Publisher: Origin ( )

It's often easy to forget the founding father titles of many, now well established, categories of computer game. Ultima Online was the very first true MMORPG and arguably set the frameworks for the future in this complex, often groundbreaking, area of programming knowledge and technology. It became the biggest networked roleplaying game in the world and by 2000 had been entered into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest "parallel" World. In it's peak over 2,500 players would log in during a busy part of the day on one of the countless International servers. Players would roleplay characters ranging from anything from a "Gandalf" Mage to a Blacksmith to an Innkeeper.

The game's World was the sum of many previous Origin Ultima titles that go way back to the mid 80s. Britannia consisted of dozens of separate towns, caves, dungeons, oceans, and inhospitable woodlands. It truly was a realised reality. The lands were covered with quests to complete and monsters to slay but the core of it became the PvP (player-versus-player) combat. The Guild element became one of the main reasons to build up your character to the coveted GM (Grand Master) title. However UO wasn't all about the combat, or even the char building. It was the fact you could roleplay to such extremes in it as to buy a house, become a well known trader, sell signature items, and even get married with another like-minded character!

So, why the nostalgia? I first played this game in around early 1999, which was probably around the peak period of this games popularity. I played it religiously for years right up until around the time it was taken over by EA back in 2003. Somehow it lost the magic once Origin, who ultimately went under, had given up the driving seat.

UO was the kind of game that had a special quality to it. To those that weren't around at the time, or were simply unaware of the community, it may seem odd reflecting on this title with such fetishistic detail. The fact is it was a feeling that had to felt to be understood. The visuals were hardly impressive, the game was merely a 2D ariel view, nor was the sound. But both the visuals of little figures moving around and the noises of thuddish knocks and other countless random sound effects had an awe to it that kept you locked in the tiny 2D realm. Even to this day I have never felt as immersed in an RPG, on or offline, as I did in UO.

There was an element of customisation in this game that enabled you to perfect your player. The endless catalogue of clothing, armour, accessories, and gadgets allowed you to design all sorts of unique and wacky looks. Fashions even developed as players copied each others "l33t" looks and realised that unwritten conventions were beginning to apply to how you were to dress as an "established" player. Of course the noobs tended to just run around naked, holding spell books and spamming bizarre messages out to all around them.

There was a neat and simple way of communication in this game. Unlike all these new, 3D, MMORPGs where we have a mass of "chat channels" and talk-bar based messaging amongst the players UO incorporated the messages you typed into the world in a much more integral way. What you typed (what you said) would appear above the head of your little cute character model. You could even customise the text colour. This completely basic aspect somehow added a personal feel to messages you typed. The alienation of the "talk bar" was not a factor. I suspect to most hardcore RPG players this is all pretty irrelevant. They play for the stats, PvP, char building. However for us roleplayers who marveled at the actual interaction in this world UO just felt so right.

One of the key ingredients to UO was the fact that it felt uncharted. To begin it was a land to be explored. You could discover some novel trick or even an innocent exploit (such as "see-sawing" your stats once capped to gain faster) and feel like a king. Of course this was hardly the point to the game, finding bugs, but somehow it was all just part of the game to discuss such naughty secrets. In reality none of them really did that much to aid you if you were a player aiming for max stats, and more often than not the people spreading the rumours of hidden tricks were as guilty to being gullible as you were for believing them! It was all just part of the UO experience.

With the more modern MMORPGs there is a polished feel. I am not suggesting this is a bad thing, it's a must! The point I am making is just that UO was around in that time when games were still relatively primitive mediums of technology and where titles were cutting edge it was okay for them to cut that edge via a bumpy ride.

What separated UO from any other in it's field was the way you could portray a specific type of character. As has already been stated clothing etc played a big part in this but there were also yet more simple features that added to the ability. One of these and perhaps the most unique was the way you could type your characters very own profile on a scroll that any other player could access by inspecting your "paper doll" - see image to left. Many players simply used this as a means to advertise items for sale but even this had a neat, heart warming, feel about it. Other players used the scroll to promote websites, political movements, and their music tastes. Some of us even typed a quick bio of our beloved char!

Guilds grew in numbers and players became well known local identities. In the early years Origin even used to employ people to professionally roleplay certain key characters in the UO Universe. Lord British, the king of the lands, could often be seen walking around newly founded player-run castles surrounded by armour clad guards. As well as this there were also in-game helpers who wore unique coloured robes and could often be seen walking around towns ready to help you with any game (and sometimes non-game!) query. I remember fondly first experiencing the help of a GM (Game Master) who helped me overcome a strange bug. I also digged the first time a game seer (a volunteer player helper) watched me kill my first zombie whilst healing from afar.

It was always going to be a feeling that would ultimately fade. The fix became weaker the more you played until you lost the need to play. UOs limits became more and more apparent as the progression of computer games took more and more momentum. Once EA took over in 2003 due to Origin's financial problems it felt like UO had died. GMs were less "happy to help", seers were no more, and the sweet little non-polished aspects were soon given a shiny gloss.

You may notice I have talked about UO through this in the past tense. It's because of this fact. To me, and vast amounts of former original players, the glory days of this legendary title came and went. It had a good streak of limelight and great amount of love but the world evolved. Nowadays UO is only half as inhabited as it once was, with once busy player hot spots now dormant rest stops for "AFKers". The monthly charges seemed less and less worth the cost of admission as newer, more breathtaking, rivals entered the fray. But even with this thought in mind many, including myself, still hold that this is the best MMORPG of all time. To the Everquest school of gamers this claim would hold little ground, the fact is it's a taste thing and a gaming preference. UO was for the extroverts... the others for the introverts maybe? Whatever way you call it UO was the alternative game, the hidden hit, and still remains to this very day the Grandfather of the online RPG world.

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Archive Review: The Matrix: Path of Neo

(Xbox, PC review)

Playing games with your mind

History repeats itself. We hear it all the time from well paid academics. This fundamental truth certainly applies with computer games. A few years ago a game called Enter the Matrix came out. Many of us were eager to play it, loving the Matrix Universe, only to discover the game was, in a nutshell, shite. I tried hard to give it a chance but ultimately concluded it was a very poor title and one I really "cba" with.

Now we have a new game and one that has taken at least three years to complete. It has had more money hurled towards it, more expertise aimed at polishing it, and more marketing hoping to seal it as a Christmas 2005 top seller across the world.

History repeats itself. I fell for the glossy box and fancy screenshots. I fell for the snappy tag lines promising "over 600 martial arts moves." I basically had faith in Atari and in the fact that this title should have been, in effect, the game Enter the Matrix had promised to be.

It isn't. It's a trainwreck. It's the biggest waste of £29.99 ($50) since I was convinced the letters I kept receiving from Switzerland were genuine and it was worth me sending £30 deposit across Europe in order to gain access to the £1,000,000 I had won in a fictitious yet seemingly plausible "Euro Lottery." I could tell, perhaps within the first 20 mins of playtime, that this was a completely bugged, linear, unpolished, ugly, and uninspired piece of gaming bile.

We have a menu screen that looks like it should be from 1997 on a Sony Playstation. It is literally a lame excuse for an initial interface. We have an options menu that "does not let you" change "any" options. It pretends to let you, hoping perhaps you will fall for it. I don't know much about programming but yet I feel an "interaction" with software implies an ability to "customise" that said software?

Let me discuss the PC version of this product for a second. The default control scheme is just wrong. It feels wrong because it is wrong. Don't be fooled... you are right! However the options menu won't let you change the controls! Well actually you can re-map them... only for it to revert back to default every time you restart the game! Even Enter the Matrix covered this "gaming standard."

Where am I going with this review? Well, I don't know. I hate this game so much I was tempted to send my copy back to Atari with a list of bugs, issues, and things that offended me enclosed in the box. I guess this would have solved nothing. The receptionist at the Atari Ivory Towers would probably not even be aware of the fact that on the 13th floor a team of renegade employees were actually publishing computer games.

Another issue with the "options menu" is that you may find you can't change resolution, playing in 800by600 like you were still in the old days. I could go on, and on, about how screwed up much of the options menu really is here. Basically there are not half as menu options as there should be. The official forum tells us how to "solve" their mistakes. We simply go into the core root folders of the game in Program Files/ and uncheck "Read Only" in the properties of a config file. Not acceptable... telling the customer how to fix a f*ck up like this!

I want to stress I have been referring to the PC version here, and can only imagine this was primarily a console game ported to PC to make more paper. This is particularly apparent when in-game messages tell you to "press x" to continue. Well I did press x, on my keyboard, but nothing happened? But now let's talk about the game! Finally I hear you yell. It starts with a level straight out of the generic template of gameplay principles. You sneak around the office from The Matrix as Neo trying to dodge agents. Frankly, I wanted to get caught so it could proceed to the fights.

You realise, on all formats, that this is an ugly title. The graphics are a real weakness. With the inevitable PC patch the improvements here are minimal. It supports more cards and, once you fiddle in root directories, enables you to up the effects and resolution to levels that are much better than the default, but hardly impressive. There are many particle effects here but they seem less impressive than previous games, namely Max Payne 2. The sound is really average. The guns sound way too quiet without the punch you would expect or bass heavy thud you crave for. The music is not from the movies (wow no surprise) and instead we get very generic techno that is designed to come in with the action but often fails and means that where you are eager for fast paced beats you often get zilch.

If you can get beyond the controls (even on consoles), the ugly visuals, pathetic menu screens, and dull first stage you are into the meat of the game. The martial arts system is actually very neat. It is way better than Enter the Matrix. It's complex, multi-faceted, and takes a good few hours to truly get on top of. Suddenly I found something I loved here. The initial levels are a training system that jacks you into scenarios simply designed to be fun to play in. You get the Enter the Dragon underground base to fight countless black belt guards to train your Kung-Fu. You have winter gardens surrounded by low walls to perfect your Samurai sword fighting, and mafia infested backstreets to discover visceral gunplay.

My favourite part of this was the sword and weapon fighting. It is so much fun. The animation is fluid and has a life like feel to it. Many of the moves Neo pulls off are straight from Kill Bill, which in turn means they come from all your classic martial arts flicks.

The problem is I loved all this to begin but ultimately realised that this aspect I liked is only a small part of the game - one or two levels. Most of the later levels consist of scenes straight from the movies and they play pretty weakly. For example the "infamous" burly brawl mission plays so badly I considered it a punishment to complete. The martial arts system is great but fails to implement itself into the game - you just end up using the guns... but not lots of guns. (Neo take note.)

The gun fights here are really dull. The death animations of the countless guard/cop/swat/soldier complex minions are annoyingly uncinematic. The targeting system is much better than Enter the Matrix but the reticule is overly large and prominent. If a targeting reticule is ever to be described as thespian then this is that reticule. This gives it an arcade quality. It tries to be Splinter Cell and fails.

The bottom line here is that Path of Neo was meant to be an improvement over Enter the Matrix. I am going to be controversial and say it's actually even "worse" than that former offense to the gaming community. Yeah the martial arts is deeper, but the control system soon screws that aspect up. Yeah you can be Neo but so what? At the end of the day he looks like Ghost from ETM anyway, the MIB look is all you as gamer care about. This game is a wash of badly edited, confusing movie clips that cannot be skipped, bugged and linear gameplay, and an overall interface that gives knew meaning to the phrase "bodge job". I just wish the "stick fighting" element had been put into use in a superior game.


+ Good Martial arts system

+ Can be fun

- Bugged, Linear

- Reminds you of ETM!

5.0 / 10

There's a glitch in the Matrix

by The Critical Alien
© 2005