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MMObility: Ultima Forever is tons of fun, even with repairs


EA's new toy, Ultima Forever, is a fun mobile game that is loosely related to the first great MMO I ever played, Ultima Online. It's set in the same universe, 21 years after the events of Ultima IV, and it made me happy to see many of the same names and places that I remember from my yearly field trips back into the original, but the game still plays and feels differently from the classic. You'll have fun with the mobile version anyway, hacking and slashing your way through classic dungeon after dungeon.

But is the effort worth it? Is EA just asking for veteran players to come along and torpedo this latest effort in the Ultima series? How will potentially curmudgeony old-school players adapt to a title that forces them to play on a tablet (or later, a browser)? Because after playing Ultima Forever for a while now, I can safely say that this is not a game made only for veterans.

Ultima Forever screenshot
Now, don't get me wrong; I've had many issues during my time with Ultima Forever that stem from cringe-worthy moments like silly jokes in the middle of what could be a more "serious" title. The Ultima IP has always appeared to me to be the stuff of serious gamers' dreams. It's an old-school RPG, and Ultima Online practically invented graphical MMORPGs and continues to be enjoyed by thousands of gamers today. It's still a great title that often refreshes gamers like yours truly who sometimes need to a take a break by revisiting the past.

Ultima Forever screenshot
So if Ultima is such a "serious" IP, then why did I find myself giggling with joy as I played Ultima Forever? It's simple, really, and it's the same reason that mobile is slowly gaining more market power than any previous delivery system: It's fun to carry a world around in your hands. The fact that I can load a game like Ultima Forever and within minutes enjoy hanging out with hundreds of other players while conquering monsters is the kind of thing that makes me excited for gaming. Ultima Forever is a hack-and-slash title akin to any of the Legends series by Spacetime Studios, but it also has the decades-long background and tighter gameplay to make it feel like a more in-depth experience. Sure, the Legends titles have quests and are a lot of fun, but they feel a bit more rushed and chaotic. Ultima Forever wants players to enjoy quick sessions just as the Legends titles do, but it adds in quests, storylines, and characters that are much more connected and linear.

The artwork in-game is gloriously hand-drawn (well, with the aid of a computer of course) and feels refreshingly primitive. The lanterns glow softly, the stonework is detailed, and the character animations are fluid and responsive. The game feels like a modern take on an older style, a good thing for both old and young players. There are areas for exploration, nooks and crannies and corners sometimes resulting in an exploration achievement. NPCs share bits of lore with the player, and again the familiar settings bring on a new nostalgia, the kind that is delivered only on 10-inch screens.

Ultima Forever screenshot
The sound effects, voice acting, and music are very solid, as well. On top of that there are some nice sound options that really seem to make a difference on my older iPad 2. You can choose from preset sound options that make listening on headphones, for example, a better experience. It's nice to see a mobile game that recognizes the limitations and tinny sound that often come along with the mobile experience. Congratulations to the sound designers on the game; they achieved something unexpected.

Gameplay consists mostly of grabbing a quest and running to an area of the world to fight monsters, gather loot and experience, and complete tasks. Players can transport immediately to the areas needed for questing by utilizing a moongate or by paying a few keys (more on keys in a minute) or by running across a world map in real time instead. Ultima Forever is not about realistic travel or immersive horseback touring. No, this is a game for adventure and looting, but it doesn't feel as rushed as many other games that attempt the same. The combat is pretty simple. You click on the ground to move, click on a target to attack it, and press ability shortcuts to fire off larger attacks. It feels basic but in an old-school arcade way. I'm sure that in later levels the combat becomes more intense, and the combat in a group is a heck of a lot more noisy, but overall it's kept to the point. I played a massive melee character and he did just that: meleed the crap out of enemies.

"I am often overwhelmed with loot in other hack-and-slashers, resulting in a game that feels more like a backpack organization simulator rather than an RPG adventure."

Loot drops and treasure bits are not overwhelming, something my backpack was thankful for. I am often overwhelmed with loot in other hack-and-slashers, resulting in a game that feels more like a backpack organization simulator rather than an RPG adventure. Ultima Forever hands out the loot, sure, but it's almost always some good stuff or bit of quest items. The dungeons are timed (and I mean literally represented by a time estimate that tells you how long they might take), and by the time you're done and need to go back to town, your backpack will have plenty of items to sell, just not too many.

Overall, Ultima Forever is a great experience for mobile. I do have a few complaints or wishes for the game, however.

First, I'd like to see an Android and browser version. The added functionality would mean more players for those of us on iOS devices. (Both are confirmed on the way; we just don't know when.) Second, I can already tell that the gameplay might become a bit static and grindy, although the lore and quest text keeps it fresh. It'd be nice to see a bit more variety. Third, the control scheme works fine, but there should be a d-pad or other control options for those of us who prefer it. Touching the ground to move not only becomes tiring but can also literally get in the way of your view of the screen as you reach up to touch somewhere. Last, developers need to stop making push notifications turned on by default. They're annoying. I turned mine off in Ultima Forever and had to turn them off again every single session. It seems as though the bug is worked out now, however.

It's also important to note that there is a potentially nasty repair element in the game that will offer the choice of grinding or spending a little real cash. While I know that a lot of the controversy comes from the fact that this is EA, and hating on EA is as common (and annoying) as bringing up the NGE, I explored the mechanic in depth to measure whether the anger was warranted.

Ultima Forever screenshot
Essentially, your equipment breaks as you run through adventures and dungeons. That equipment needs to be repaired with silver keys. There are bronze keys (basic ones used for travel and other things), silver keys (for repair and buying even better loot than the stuff you get with bronze), and gold keys (the best of all and used for unlocks and serious stuff). Gold keys can be used for repairs as well.

Ultima Forever screenshot
I went into some dungeons with maybe a dozen or so bronze keys, and thanks to standard killing and looting, came out sometimes with 80 or 130 or more. I then took those keys and turned them into silver keys for repairs. The key is to avoid spending those bronze keys at every chance while in a dungeon. Hold on to them, spend them wisely, and you can be a cheapskate like I was. I also gained keys through daily logins and when I leveled.

Ultima Forever screenshot
Does this mean that in much higher levels the game literally forces a player to spend cash? Maybe. Honestly I wouldn't be hurt by that. The truth is that EA provides hours, hours, and more hours of absolutely free gaming for us to enjoy, and in a casual game like Ultima Forever, we can play smartly for literally nothing. Well, if we play mostly casually, I think... which the game is designed for. We should throw in a few bucks when we are getting so much fun for free.

What do you think? Did you find that you have to spend money in order to progress in Ultima Forever? Let me know in the comments! Either way, I really enjoyed this game, even though it's no Ultima Online 2!

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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