My Review of Ultima: Ascension.
I was excited. It was on sale. It comes with cool tarot
cards for each of the virtues. The box screenshots look
nice. It promised to resolve the plot issues building up for
years. I'd read some bad reviews but I had still enjoyed
Pagan despite its flaws.
It sucked beyond time, beyond space, beyond all
possible belief. I've been playing the series since
The False Prophet, and after the dizzying heights of
Sepent Isle I've watched this series go downhill.
Pagan was less than stellar, but Ascension takes every
Origin-ism, hits bottom, and breaks through to a new bottom
we knew nothing about. I couldn't continue playing, I was so
unhappy with it.
This game has a very deep "Phantom Menace" feel to it:
high expectations, long gestation period, redesigns/rewrites
up until the last minute, bad acting, nonsensical plot
revisions (midichlorians), and most sadly, high visual
quality without real aesthetic beauty and without any real
depth beyond the computer graphics.
I will mostly skip the games countless
technical problems, since many other reviews document them
better than I can. I noticed only that the game was dog slow
and that the Avatar has an unfortunate tendency to lose
important items without warning.
Lack of world interaction. We went from the "if
you can pick it up, you can use it"
style of gameplay to a beautiful but soulless 3-d space
the bare essential functionality has been programmed in. You
can open doors and pull the levers that get you to
the quest items but that's about it. Pagan
had only minimal world interaction outside of its
overcomplicated multiple magic systems, but at least you
could pick up
and rearrange everything. Ultima 9 goes so far as to prevent
you from picking up many objects, as the game keeps track of
just which objects are useless screen art and which are
important. It's a helpful feature given the game's size (and
the problematic inventory interface) but it also serves as a
reminder that most of what you see onscreen is mere
What went wrong? The key to Ultima was not just the
story, but the realistic world. This is not in graphical
terms---the realism is in the behavior of objects and things
like day and night and weather. Reading all the interviews
with Richard Garriott in the out-of-print "Official Book of
Ultima", which contains a lengthy in-depth study of the
ideas and technology and people behind The False
Prophet gives you the impression that having an object
be "useless screen art", as in U8 and U9, is anathema to
Ultima. One example he gave was of a pole being turned into
a ladder by the player, perhaps as an alternative solution
to a climbing puzzle.
Garriott contrasted a Sierra-type game, where the pole
was most likely just pixels, to Ultima 6 where it would be a
real entity with weight and various other properties. That
having a flexible game engine allows the player to solve
things his own way and carve a unique path through the world
is explicitly acknowledged all over this book, but this
insight seems to have been lost.
This may not be Origin's fault. I think it's a general
pitfall with 3-d games: even the roleplaying ones tend to
have very simple maps with only quest locations being
interactive, and not very many objects to find. There are
good exceptions, like System Shock 1/2 (many items) and
Ultima Underworld but Ascension does not make it into this
Like every other Origin game I am aware of, the voice
acting is ghastly except for the main villain
(Guardian, Shodan, that Kilrathi) and
the main character. The Guardian is still the same actor,
although after The Black Gate they keep
adding more and more computerized distortion to his voice,
pitching it down (and making it cliche in the process.) I
have no idea why; Bill Johnson's great menacing baritone did
not need it.
I think the Avatar is the guy who played the overdramatic
Stranger in "Nocturne", but since he never says anything of
interest you can shut him off. They even have a special
button for shutting off just the Avatar. I wonder how the
actor feels about this.
An even larger problem is that Ultima-style adventuring
does not mix well with full-voice. In ultima games you need
to explore many towns and talk to large numbers of people,
everyone with their own back story and something to
contribute. You can read much faster than these actors talk.
They have two choices making a game like this: simply let
everything take forever and have players shut off the
voices, or have less dialogue and fewer characters. Origin
chose the second, and it ends up feeling like Final Fantasy
VII (and that's NOT good.)
Lack of Originality.
- The Black Gate: something is wrong with the Ether
that disables magic; the people are turning away from the
virtues (for the Fellowship); seems to be connected to a
sphere, cube, and tetrahedron made from Blackrock appearing
in the dungeons. One or more Bitannian cities/landmarks has
- Labyrinth of Worlds: Something is wrong with
Castle British that seems to be connected with the
appearance of large geometric shapes made from Blackrock,
once again down in the dungeons.
- Serpent Isle: Something is wrong with the Ether
that disables magic spells.
- Ascension: something is wrong with the Ether that
disables magic; the people have turned away from the virtues
(for their opposites); this seems to be connected to
enormous geometric blackrock shapes that have their roots
in---guess where!---the dungeons. One or more Britannian
cities/landmarks have been destroyed.
It's the same with the puzzles. Pull levers, manuever Lara
Croft--- um, I mean "the Avatar", onto pressure plates to
open the next part of the dungeon, etc etc.
Plot Problems. I hate to sound like a Trekkie, but
there are deep consistency issues with Ascension,
particularly in its relationship with Pagan. This is
actually one of the most disappointing things about the
game: it simply chucks out a great deal of what was being
set up since U7TBG, with little explanation.
U7 ends with the Avatar unable to return home and the
Guardian still taunting him; SI then begins with the
Avatar's team pursuing Batlin. SI ends with the Guardian
snatching up the Avatar in the Void; Pagan then begins with
the Guardians gargantuan red hand depositing Avatar in the
ocean. Pagan's ending movie was ambiguous---the Avatar,
having been transformed into a demigod, solemnly walks
through white towers, snow, and into a desolate
Guardian-world with a giant face-shaped mountain. My point
is that the cliffhanger from one
game was always somehow resolved in the next game's opener.
- Ascension doesn't do this. There is no movie, and you
begin at home on Earth! No explanation on how you got there
or why it was possible (events in U7 seemed to have
precluded it.) There is no explanation at all of what the
mysterious ending movie in Pagan showed, or why you don't
begin the game there instead of on Earth. They don't even
just say "oh that film was a dream, you really went home."
- Does it make any sense for Iolo to be working for
Blackthorn? Could they have at least explained it?
- What about all the hints of apocalypse in Britannia that
you get in SI and Pagan? The dream sequence where you see
Castle British in flames and L.B. wondering why you don't
return? The castle seems fine in U9, except that now it's in
a different place and there are only four or five rooms.
Everything since you left Britannia gives the impression
that the Guardian entered it and has dominated it. But when
you start U9 we merely have a more intense version of the
circumstances that begin U7: blackrock objects causing a
subversion of the Virtues. I mean, didn't the Guardian have
200 years in between this visit and your last to mess
everything up? That is at least enough time to come up with
something new to unleash upon Britannia, not just more
Blackrock objects that mess with people's minds.
- The Avatar becomes a demigod at the end of Pagan. In U9
you can be defeated by a rat if you don't have the
Avatar positioned right to strike it. This probably explains
why they start the Avatar on Earth, since he would lose his
powers there. In other words, they had to avoid starting the
Avatar with any power in U9, and rather than really fixing
it they just zap him to earth even though it contradicts the
- Why does Britannia now have parts of Pagan's magic
system? There weren't any pentagrams or necromancy (see the
magic book that comes with the game) before!
- Where does this tapestry idea come from? I could be
wrong, but I don't remember ever seeing this in the Museum
of Britannia in any previous game.
- Characters don't speak in the normal Britannian dialect
anymore. "Thee, thy" etc. Instead most of them adopt
There are a lot of other issues, even in the fully patched
version I have. The inventory system is worthless, and makes
you lose items. It's not really based on weight like in U7,
there's a certain number of "slots" and when you exhaust
them you can't pick up more stuff. (I heard at one
relatively late point that there was no inventory, so maybe
this was a tacked-on afterthought?)
There's no paper doll either so equipping armor can be
problematic. This is made even worse by the erratic behavior
of the mouse cursor and the slowness of the whole engine.
Combat sucks, anything larger than a rat you basically have
to run from. Killing one of the thief/brigand characters
takes forever, and you can't realistically fight two at
once. You can usually avoid them because the AI is stupid.
Finding things according to directions can be
difficult---they usually are not very specific, and the
dialogue often differs subtly from the real map.
In short, the finest CRPG/adventure series in history
ends with a colossal
dud. Every Ultima pushed the boundaries of game engines to
do new and unique things, and provide cool activities for
the player. All but this one. Since Garriott used to see the
engine as driving the development of the play mechanics and
story, it seems that the driving philosophy behind Ultima
died quite a while before the series did.