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The Game Archaeologist and the Ultima Prize: My journey


The Game Archaeologist is your spunky Tuesday column devoted to exploring the MMORPGs of yesterday.

Enough is enough! No more looking back at history, talking to the players who have been there, or even chatting up the creator of the game -- it was time for the Game Archaeologist to man up and play Ultima Online himself. And so it was with trembling fingers and steely eyes that I downloaded the trial client and entered the game for the very first time.

I will be honest and admit to a degree of nervousness. It's one thing to talk about a great MMO legend; it's another entirely to experience it first-hand. I didn't really know what to expect -- would it be so hardcore that I'd die before I finished? Would it be so ancient, so creaky that I wouldn't be able to figure it out without a degree in assembly code? Would it... be fun?

Fortunately, I was not alone in this journey, as Tipa from West Karana graciously agreed to accompany me for an evening full of Ultimas and Onlines. Oh, the spellchecker simply did not like that one. Tough noogies. Ultima Online has a nice 14-day unlimited trial that doesn't even require a credit card to access, so after a few minutes of patching (UO is tiny compared to many modern MMOs), we were in. And completely, utterly lost.

The character creator certainly won't be challenging titles like Champions Online and EverQuest II for depth and options, that's for sure. In UO, you pick one of a staggering two races (human or elf), one of a handful of classes (I went with samurai, because hey, why not?), and fiddled a bit with your facial looks that almost didn't matter at all, since they only show up on your character portrait. Oddly enough, you can choose heads from other races, like orc and undead, no matter what your racial pick. So Syp, the one-eyed pirate samurai, was born. I did not anticipate a long lifespan.

Oh hey! I'm dead! After a brief tutorial on the isle of New Haven (during which the game forces me to die -- I kid you not), dying or decomposing was my natural state. It's not that UO is necessarily more brutal than other titles, but because I am a rash type and not afraid to confront cougars that, for some reason, were stalking the docks in town. There are kids near those docks (theoretically)! I had to be a hero! Of course, that meant a quick death, after which the cougar apparently absconded with all of my clothes. Naughty cougar.

Tipa and I had some difficulty meeting up, as Ultima Online does not have such advanced features as "tells" and "/who searches." At least, none that I could find. I asked in general chat how you sent private messages to friends, and the response was -- I am not making this up -- that most players use ICQ to chat while the game is running. ICQ? What, is this 1997? Oh, wait...

We were more modern; we used Twitter. This became a theme with Ultima Online, that every task in game seemed to be a little too complicated or obtuse. Unintuitive. It's certainly more streamlined for today's audience than it was ten years ago, but it's still like going from a modern car with power everything and automatic everything to a 60's hot rod with a manual clutch, no power steering, and a distinct lack of air conditioning.

After some finagling, we met up on the docks, formed a party (fortunately, UO does support those) and enjoyed the luxury of party chat. What now? We both had tried a small handful of quests on our own, which were signified not by exclamation marks above NPC heads, but by the NPC itself shouting at you as you passed by. "Oi! Do my quest! For I cannot find a store two doors down by my lonesome, and I need you to guide me!" Ugh. Escorts. Why'd it have to be escorts? The bane of every good archaeologist, I tells ya.

In any case, after being less-than-thrilled with the few quests we tried, we decided to treat UO the way it wanted to be treated -- as a sandbox experience. So with no greater purpose in mind, we set out to explore the island and carve our way into history. Unfortunately, the newbie island was populated by what appeared to be the cutest, fluffiest petting zoo ever -- bunnies, birds, goats, sheep, pigs, even llamas roamed the pastoral landscape, chewing contentedly on grass and thinking, "Boy, I love life! What bliss this is!"

They had to die. It's the circle of MMO life.

Happily, after a while we graduated from pet slaughter to attacking dancing bears (they look like they were dancing, at least, as they attacked by standing on their hind legs) and skeletons.

A note on the graphics. I was fully prepared to find UO a hideous, deformed abomination from the PlayStation era, but it wasn't that bad. Of course, this is all post-Kingdom Reborn and the graphics upgrade, but UO pleasantly reminded me of some of my favorite old school RPGs -- Fallout, Baldur's Gate, even Diablo. I told Tipa that while I may be underwhelmed today, if I was playing this back in 1997, UO would've blown my mind. Perhaps it's good for my pocketbook that I didn't discover it back then.

For our grand finale, we knew that there was only one task that needed to be done: we had to slay a dragon. After all, it was on the box itself. And right after we said that, lo and behold, a dragon came prancing through the town.

This dragon seemed tethered to a player, who perhaps tamed it (or did the dragon tame him?). Nevertheless, it was a dragon, and it needed to die. We tried to attack, but the game sadly would not let us. Following that, we resorted to the most heroic option of begging the guy to let us kill his pet dragon.

"Pleaseeeeee!" we pleaded. "We'll kill it nice and quick-like!"

The player in question might not have had the greatest grasp of the English language, but after sifting through the fragments of words that floated above his head, we realized he was puzzled. "Why u want kil dragon?" he asked.

"Because it's an abomination unto God and nature," we responded. "Plus, its head would make a nice trophy for our wall. Please?"

Unfortunately, the gentlemen absconded with our prize, and we were left destitute on the streets. Staggering out into the countryside, eyes brimming with disappointed tears, I lurched at the first skeleton I saw and let him finish me off. A fitting end to a failure (myself, not the game).

In the end, what struck me most was that I hadn't just popped into a hot tub time machine back to 1997 -- Ultima Online is chugging along, in the here and now, and some players prefer it over the newer, shinier toys out there. There must be a good reason for that, whether it be nostalgia, time investment, or experiences that can only be found in this particular title. Maybe it's not glaringly obvious to me, but that doesn't mean it's not there. And even though it was only one evening where I had an imagination-fueled romp through a tiny slice of the world, at least I am now able to say "I was there back when" to my grandchildren.

I'm sure they'll be impressed.

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