I'm a role player from way back. I grew up playing D&D, and when text-based MUSH and MUDs came out, I was there. I lived on DuneMUSH for quite a while, playing 24 hours a day when I could. Graphic adventures have taken a while to catch up, but with this new release of Ultima Online, I think they're there.
I was a beta-tester for UO, and at the time I thought it had a lot of potential, but quite a few flaws. With this latest cut of code, they have truly polished this software until it shines. New users sign up quickly and easily for their characters. You can customize how smart and strong your character is, choose important skills for your character like swordfighting or animal taming. It is up to YOU if you are a hack-and-slasher or a peaceful merchant.
UO doesn't just dump you into the world. There is a great tutorial that quickly and easily walks you through the basics of life. Then you can choose to begin in Haven, a safe town where you can't get hurt and can learn how to buy items and wander the world. Only when YOU are ready do you venture out into the rich world which is available to you. Even then, there are people hanging around willing to help out.
What a world you play in! You can catch a fish and cook it over a fire. You can tame a horse and ride it through the woods. Kill a rabbit, get some meat. Grab some flour and water, and you have dough. A little cooking in the tavern's stove, and you've got meat pies to sell for money! Characters can go hunt down bad creatures and kill them, but they can also further themselves in peaceful ways, or do a combination of the two.
The game is persistant. You can buy a house that others can visit, or sail a ship with your party across the seas. You stable your llama, horse, or other creatures in the town's stables, and retrieve them the next time you come in. You can join guilds, form adventuring parties, go on quests, chat with your friends and save the innocent.
To help ease the old problems of Player Killers, UO now has two separate worlds. One, of Light, is where people in general are cooperative, work together as units, and help each other out. The second, which is Dark, is where people gang up on each other, have massive wars, and delight in seeing who can come out triumphant. Whichever style of play appeals to you, UO is there.
The system has been tweaked to truly balance gameplay. Murderers are marked in red, killed by guards on sight, and lose stats when they die. Try to loot a fallen comerade, and you're penalized. Good deeds are rewarded as well. Kill a notorious creature, and your karma increases.
I've enjoyed playing this quite a bit, and I sit and watch as my 11 year old plays. Despite the Mature rating on the game, there is hardly any gore when the creatures you kill die, and the swear filter amusingly turns "Cassandra" into "C###andra". Much of the game is taken up by peaceful exploration, of bartering your goods and interacting with the thousands of other players that are always on line. Every person my son has talked to has been amazingly kind, helpful, and friendly. This makes me truly happy, that role playing has reached the stage that you can play any time of the day or night and have such a fulfilling experience.
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