Ultima Online: Age of Shadows

In the last six years, Ultima Online has undergone five expansions, dozens of emergency server shut-downs, and literally hundreds of major patches. In that time the game has changed its initial concept and play mechanics so much that most original players have quit several times over, simply because they didn't like what the game had become. Initially, UO was a revolutionary game offering a new type of play - the first MMORPG. It offered a world where nearly anything you wanted to do was possible, from traveling the countryside as a gallant knight, to being a masterful seamstress who's never picked up a blade in her life. Many players chose to live a criminal life, killing other murderers and peaceful players alike. These players were quickly dubbed "PK"s and were barred from entering respectable towns. Then, while the game was still fresh on this original idea, Origin decided players wanted more content. Thus, the MMORPG expansion pack was born. Ultima Online: The Second Age was released to great applause, bringing more of the same game to hungry players. This would be the best (some would argue the only) quality expansion for Ultima Online. Expansions since this have destroyed the initial game, tearing it (literally) into "parallel" dimensions, adding nonsense monsters, and changing crafting to be much less opportunist.

This progression down the spiral is continued in the latest expansion, Age of Shadows. AOS does things a good MMO expansion should - new classes, new land, new enemies, and new features. The problem arises when these elements are pulled from a game of a different genre. The Paladin and Necromancer character builds, while interesting, are completely foreign to the Ultima world. Rather than add things that would fit in the Ultima universe(s), they greatly modified the world to suit the addition of these elements. The Paladin and Necromancer builds have cool features such as a group healing spell and the ability to raise fallen enemies, respectively. These abilities don't fit in a world with no holy or dark elements, no greater undead, and no deities to pledge to. Origin's solution? Throw all of that in the expansion as well, changing the entire build of the game.

There was once a time in the Ultima universe when health and damage were simple. Every player had 100 life, and all damage affected this 100 life in the same manner. AOS has changed this to include five types of damage: physical, fire, frost, electrical, and poison. These elements changed gameplay to the point of being unrecognizable. PKs can no longer kill in a two-hit combo, many players focusing on a single weapon are unsafe in areas where that weapon is of less use, and enemies now hit with an elemental attack instead of their usual smack-down.

The new land added to the world of Brittania is called Malas, and includes a Necromancer city and a Paladin city. This sounds good, but these cities are actually quite boring and such stereotypical fantasy towns they're humorous. Malas also brings 1500 new housing plots, which are much needed. However, the plots will probably be grabbed up by land spectators within a few days. Malas is inhabited by many new monsters and unlike a previous expansion this time the monsters are biomechanical beasts better fitting to a Sci-Fi movie.

Age of Shadows also brings with it a custom housing tool. This tool allows players to design and construct their home as personal as they wish to. The tool is simple enough to build a house in 10 minutes and complex enough that if one were inclined they could spend weeks designing their manor. The problem with the new housing arises for all the other players who must load each custom home's hundreds of textures whenever they walk by.

Make no mistake - Ultima Online is still a massive game. It still boasts over 250,000 subscribers, and still logs over 1,000 players on most "shards" (servers) at any given time. The world of Brittania is constantly expanding, and the dungeons and enemies are still fierce killers. However, the game is built on six years of outdated rule systems and antique bug fixes that have been swept under the digital rug. The game has since become so complicated most new players will find little to enjoy because they can't understand the game. Many veterans of the game will be angered with the massive changes, but zealous fanatics will still hold their 70 and 80 hour game weeks.

The Score:

+ Necromancers and Paladins add even more play depth
+ Custom housing is easy to use
+ New dungeon and land expand the world further
- New weapon and armor system completely change game mechanics
- Graphics still a few years behind
- Unstable servers; nearly constant lag
- Extremely buggy, with terrible customer support

Bottom Line:

Age of Shadows is an expansion that does things any good expansion should: add new play options, expand players' rewards, and increase the traversable area. The problem is that the changes are too big and too radical for the kind of game Ultima Online is. New players will find six years worth of rules and contradictions jumbled together into one of the most complex games ever, while veteran players will find the changes cause serious issues with existing characters. For die-hard fans it's a must, but new players should definitely play one of the free trials available before delving into these shadows.

Reviewed by Greg Atkinson

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