Over the last decade, the legendary Ultima series has only yielded two new titles, both free-to-play endeavors: Lord of Ultima and the upcoming Quest for the Avatar. Unlike 2010's browser-based Lord of Ultima MMORTS, Quest for the Avatar is a story-driven action RPG for tablets and PCs. At least with the latest game, we're off to a more familiar start.
Gameplay in Quest for the Avatar is straightforward enough: Your top-down view of the world offers different points of interaction depending on where you are. In towns and other social locations, you're helping people in need resolve various Quandaries (capital Q), with your dialogue selections feeding into boosts to your virtue ratings.
The action-RPG component kicks in when you step out of the overworld and into one of many instanced locations. Combat unfolds automatically as you select your targets with a tap (or click). There's also a special attack on a cooldown timer that deals out heavy area of effect damage. Flanking attacks and backstabs add some strategy to how you maneuver, but overall the combat is rather low-impact. Instanced scenarios are further fleshed out with the option of bringing up to three friends along for co-op play.
Combat brings its own rewards in the form of bronze, silver, and gold keys, all of which can be used to unlock an area's loot chest. The type of key used determines the quality of the loot in the chest. Bronze keys are standard drops that you can pick up from slain enemies (or buy via the in-app store). Silver keys can be purchased in-app or you can convert 10 bronze ones. Gold keys are only available as in-app purchases. Ultima Forever's in-app purchase model isn't inherently offensive for a free-to-play title, but it's certainly not a balanced approach to doling out loot.
Ultima Forever picks up 21 years after the events of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Lord British is gone, replaced by the passage of time (and, in the real world, by rights issues) with Lady British. You and your fellow heroes have been called upon to defeat a dread menace known as the Black Weep. Remember The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story? The Black Weep is like that, only it consumes the spiritual world rather than the physical one, breeding fear and wicked thoughts in whatever it touches.
The Black Weep's arrival prompts Lady British to seek out heroes. Your goal is to find the source of this malevolent force and figure out a way to stop it. The story leads you to various combat-heavy overworld locations, which you can tackle alone or in a group of up to four (co-op play was showcased in our preview). Virtue-aligned towns, which double as massively multiplayer social hubs, present you with Quandaries that, when solved, strengthen your character's connection with the Eight Virtues and feed into character progression.
Though Ultima Forever is not entirely without a familiar franchise vibe, I felt the game was somewhat generic. Paint-by-numbers Ultima, if you will. The thing that dazzled me about the original games was the feeling of openness and freedom. You weren't just exploring the world, you were writing your own story within it.
That's what's lacking in Ultima Forever. You've got your virtues, you've got tarot cards, you've got a Lady British presiding over the land. There's a story that ties to the fan-favorite Ultima 4. Yet there's still this anxiety. The world feels empty and lifeless. You're not exploring, you're picking destinations off of an overworld map.
Ultima Forever leaves me uneasy not because it's a lousy game but because it doesn't feel like Ultima. Someone in a decision-making position at EA made the odd choice of trying to sell a younger generation of gamers on this classic RPG series. It's ironic, then, that Richard Garriott – Lord British himself – has taken to Kickstarter with his very Ultima-esque return to RPGs, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues.
My Ultima Forever experience left me with a familiar cloth map in my hand and a puzzled expression on my face. It's easy enough to see what the publisher's intentions are, but I continue to question why. Ultima didn't burn out; it faded away. Mythic is making the best of a weird situation in Quest for the Avatar, but the game is hardly the beacon of hope that us longtime fans have been waiting for.
All of which now leaves us in the rare position of getting to see these two conflicting takes on Ultima put to the test. In one corner, you've got the license-holder pushing the series into something that won't necessarily resonate with fans and the franchise creator presenting an evolved take on his vision for RPGs. Quite a match-up.
Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.