news\ Jul 12, 2012 at 10:13 am

BioWare announces new free-to-play RPG, Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar

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Ultima Online was the first video game to suck me into the world of MMORPGs so excuse my blatant bias towards EA and BioWare's newly announced free-to-play RPG Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar.

"The first great Western RPG has been lovingly restored," the game's official site proudly proclaims.

As a veteran Ultima Online player I'll be the first admit that the game I grew up loving has since turned to crap. It barely resembles the game I once knew, but given it's age and the boom of MMORPGs I've come to terms with it. The fact is, Ultima Online lost its way with the rise in popularity of MMOs. It attempted to be more like them and, in turn, forgot what Brittania is all about.

Alas, the franchise I once loved so dearly is returning, albeit in a free-to-play, cross-platform version. Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar will be released for the iPad and PC under EA's Play 4 Free label.

It's time to Kal Ort Por back to Britannia and return to the Ultima series. The site asks us to "accept the challenge from Lady British and save the land of Britannia".

It also confirms two roles of a Fighter and a Mage. Fighters are described as "one-man armies, trained to engage multiple opponents with a wide variety of attacks". Mages, on the other hand "engage in battle from afar" with magical spells. We don't know exactly how these two roles will function. Will it be similar to Ultima Online which could literally let you choose to train in a variety of weapons?

One thing we do know, thanks to Senior Creative Director Paul Barnett (via IGN), is that combat in Ultima Forever will be similar to that of Diablo.

"You're clicking around to move, you're clicking on monsters and you're selecting your abilities a la Diablo," he said. "It isn't the timer based '1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3' combat you see in MMOs."

Ultima Forever will also see the return of the 8 Virtues, a moral system that grants bonuses for performing certain actions. The "Sacrifice" virtue, for instance, is linked with helping other players. With this system, high level players can temporarily lower their levels to assist lower-level players complete a dungeon. AT the end, the higher-level player won't earn nearly as many rewards as the lower-level, but will progress in their Sacrifice virtue.

It's an interesting concept and I'm interested to see how this game plays out. I am a little bit wary of it though. I hope it being free-to-play AND on an iOS doesn't water down or simplify the experience. One of the things that made Ultima Online so great was the vast amount of content. There was much to do outside of combat; will this offer the same experience? I can't say for sure, but Barnett did say this won't be your typical Facebook game.

"When we looked at a lot of free-to-play games, a lot of them were using the very simplistic early mechanics we saw in Facebook games...just charging you money and grinding and making you very unhappy," Barnett explained. That means no "glass walls" that prevent you from playing because you don't have "energy". That's a nice start.

So how will they make money on it? Likely through optional micro-transactions that can change your appearance or help progress through the game faster. And once you reach the end-game dungeons, after "hours and hours of quests", you will start a new game of playing through all the content again on an even harder setting. According to Barnett, a Druid and Paladin class are coming later so that means future end-game content could also be in the pipeline. There is also concept art for a "Gyspy" character on the website.

"There's a fundamental shift underway in how gamers play and pay for games, and Electronic Arts is a leader in providing new business models and new ways to consume content," said Dr. Ray Muzyka, GM of BioWare. "With Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar, we're excited to give gamers the opportunity to play a high quality game with their friends anytime, anywhere, on both iPad and PC."

I like that last bit about a "high quality game". It looks like it won't be long before we get to experience it for ourselves. While a release date wasn't announced, Ultima Forever is "mostly finished" and in a "polished phase". For those looking to get an early look at it and help shape the final product with feedback, beta sign up are available on the website.

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