Redelving: Ultima X Odyssey, An Odyssey Never Taken

You find yourself suddenly in 2003. You stand at the end of an age of innocence, knowing full well that MMORPGs are about to change forever. On the horizon looms the Next Big Thing: the World of Warcraft. Your foresight becomes cloudy and your knowledge of future events fade as 2003 overcomes you.

Where am I? You wonder to yourself. Only a moment ago, you were doing an instance for a daily while you and your buddies were chatting in Vent. Not that you really know what any of that means anymore.

Strange urges overtake you. You realize your Dark Age of Camelot account is still active and still draining a monthly subscription out of your account. That is until you get your hands on Trials of Atlantis later in the year, of course.

You find yourself remembering more clearly than ever the feeling and emotions and lore and gameplay of games like Ultima Online and Everquest. You thumb through magazines that still arrive in your mailbox or still read GameSpot. You hope for more information on their impending sequels. As if a reward for your virtuous dedication, you descend into fandom and absorb the latest on the new Ultima game: Ultima X Odyssey.

I was reading a Massively article yesterday about free MMO soundtracks. At the very end of it (almost as an afterthought) there was a link to some music from Ultima X Odyssey, a game that my head has long forgotten but my heart still longs for. I haven’t been able to tear my ears away.

Like the game that never was, the music is a sweeping glance at yet another world of epic fantasy.

It saddens me to think that Ultima Online has been so wasted by its corporate handlers. Instead of a single sequel of any quality, we’ve had two cancelled ones with great potential. Instead of a hope for a continued legacy of one of the most important games of all time and certainly one of the top three most important MMORPGs of all time, we have a messy relic of the mid-90’s that has no influence or real importance left. In a world where Warcraft has reigned supreme for so long, Mythic’s star has all but died out, and Everquest’s chance for redemption rests on a second sequel, Ultima Online has been forgotten.

There were no guarantees that Ultima X Odyssey would have saved the series from fading into obscurity. It most likely would have been a loose equivalent to Everquest 2: a sequel, only spiritually, which has continued the brand but at the expense of the brand’s significance. It is difficult to remain positive given the knowledge we have now of the meteoric a rise World of Warcraft took when it emerged, took over the entire MMO genre, and then moved MMORPGS far closer to the mainstream of gaming. Much of my hype for UXO at the time would have come from my intense, intense love for Ultima Online, but I think it had some significantly interesting ideas and approaches as well.

One of my favorite things about older games is their stories. Not for their deep literary narrative, reliance on solid character development, or even good world building. Instead, I love them for their ability to cohesively explain an entire game world with something as simple as “Scientists on Mars have opened a portal to Hell. Close it.” Ultima Online had a story in that respect. An evil sorcerer bound the entire world to a very powerful gem, and in a scuffle with Ultima series’s protagonist, the gem shattered and created an infinite amount of versions of the real world, each with its own people and history and future i.e. MMORPG servers where each is a perfect copy of the other. It is a cute plot device that I still endearingly respect by referring to servers as ‘shards’.

Ultima X Odyssey continued this tradition, though with a more serious intent of tying the MMO to the main series of Ultima RPGs. At the end of IX, the series’s hero and villain were combined into one being (I didn’t get very far, but it was apparently the only way to ‘save the day’). Continuing from that, Ultima X Odyssey exists in a world created in the mind of this clashing union of two opposites. With a simple wave of the pen, UXO’s creators had crafted a simple solution to build an entirely new world where good was failing and in desperate need of thousands of heroes to flood in and help.

More of note however are some of the gameplay ideas and approaches UXO would have taken. Based in the then current Unreal Engine, the game was to be much more action-oriented and far quicker than titles like Dark Age of Camelot or Everquest. Given that almost every new MMORPG, from the ones released recently to the ones coming up, have been striving to find the sweet spot between action and classic MMO gameplay, it is fun to remember that we were still looking for ‘that game’ even back in 2003 before World of Warcraft really took MMORPG gameplay to a new, far more refined level.

My favorite aspect of UXO that I thought sounded really great was the Virtue system. Players would strive to master each of the eight virtues by performing open-ended quests. Quests would have choice components that reflected a specific virtue. As you followed that path and mastered a Virtue, you’d be rewarded with a more powerful character. And for those players who were truly dedicated, you could master all of the virtues and achieve Avatar (the Ultima series’s lead character) status, though it was intended to take a long time.

Even with a story-focused game like The Old Republic, the amount of choice in how the player can conclude the mind-boggling amount of quests present in most MMORPGs is significantly limited. I think that more choices could be a great way to at least loosen up the shopping list quest approach, and at least get players talking about how following one virtue over another for a particularly quest resulted in far different outcomes. It also would be nice to see MMORPGs focus less on long and tiresome leveling systems, and instead provide more systems of concurrent advancement that don’t stratify the playerbase quite as significantly.

It’s always a shame to see games cancelled and lost forever. People pour their hearts and dreams and love into building entirely new worlds, only for them to go unexplored until they are removed from old hard drives. Or fans like myself dream of the day we will get to play a sequel to one of favorite games of all time. Often, we build ourselves up to unreachable levels of excitement, but that doesn’t mean that the end result is not worth the effort. I fully believe that UXO would have been a game worth playing and an experience worth having. The closest we will ever get though is by listening to the music that would have guided our exploration.

Here at my top three songs from the UXO soundtrack:

Further Reading:

This post was originally posted on my now defunct blog, The Delver, in January of 2013.

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