Ultima Forever is one of the weirdest brand experiments I've seen pop up on iOS so far. Ultima is, of course, one of the oldest and best-loved RPG series in video games, with over a dozen different variations and versions. And EA has decided to bring the Ultima series to iOS with Ultima Forever, which is sort of a remake or reimagining of Ultima IV, one of the most popular versions of Ultima.
"Remake or reimagining" is still sort of a simplification of exactly what this game is, and even after having seen and played it at GDC last week, it's still kind of tough to put down exactly how this game is related to Ultima IV and the rest of the series. There are some quests and storylines from the old game, and the graphics are related. But some of the quests are set years in the future, as if it's a sequel to the old title. And some of the gameplay ideas are taken directly from the old game (it's a fantasy action RPG that has to do with you as a character questing up to try and become the Avatar while honing your various values like Honesty and Honor), but others are very new: There are some freemium elements to this title, and it's an MMO, so you'll see other players questing around you as you play, and you'll be able to team up with friends while taking down dungeons.
In other words, Ultima Forever is a weird one. It is fun -- the game offers up a lot of really interesting content, and while the combat is tight and fun, there's also some interesting questlines to follow, and stories to discover around the world that should appeal to both old and new Ultima players. There's a nice amount of complexity in the leveling as well, with new gear to discover and equip and plenty of reputations and attributes to grind out and grow more powerful in.
At the same time, however, EA has integrated some freemium elements into the game, which can get annoying very quickly. As you play through the dungeon, you earn keys, which can then be used at various points to open chests and give you a random chance at some loot. The lowest quality keys can be easy to find, and they will award you some (relatively cheap) loot. But higher quality keys are rarer, and some will need to be purchased with real money, and then used to unlock ability slots or better gear.
Even in the few minutes I had to play through the game at GDC, dealing with the keys was an annoying pain, and it's frustrating that EA here isn't willing to just let players play with the game directly, instead inserting this currency mechanic at every turn. It's still too early to pass judgment on the finished title, but the keys seem like a bad mark on an otherwise very impressive game. Older Ultima players, especially, might be really disappointed to see their old memories tarnished with constant, cheap attempts to sell in-app currency.
Perhaps that's too harsh, though -- the game's not done yet, and it's going to go through a thorough beta period before it finally arrives worldwide later on this summer. Hopefully, EA will tune it right, so that those who fondly remember Ultima can enjoy this celebration of it without being constantly pestered with freemium nonsense.