This is a freemium game review, in which we give our impressions immediately after booting a game up, again after three days, and finally after seven days. That's what the strange sub-headings are all about. Click on the links to jump straight to day three or day seven.
Ultima is serious business. The first game in the franchise was released all the way back in 1981, launching the career of Richard Garriott. Ultima Online was the first successful MMO, and it's been a couple of years since EA tried anything too adventurous in this much-loved universe.
Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar is a top-down 3D, multiplayer RPG in the world of Britannia, which promises an expansive and exciting quest while remaining free-to-play.
How does it handle the freemium payment model? Does it do well by its heritage? And, most importantly, would it make Lord British proud? Join me as I find out over the next seven days.First impressions
The presentation of Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar is immediately disappointing.
It's a good-looking game, with chunky characters and remarkably well-crafted landscapes, and the orchestral score and clashing blades are also strong. The engine attempting to keep these aspects together, though, is unfortunately not up to the task.
The screen stutters when you visit new areas; actions and sounds trigger just a fraction later than you expect; and the game frequently skips frames to keep up with the gameplay.
I'm playing as a tough warrior, so this hasn't been responsible for my death yet, but if I were playing a weaker mage it would undoubtedly be a nuisance.
I'm currently being run through the tutorial, and there's a lot to learn. Abilities to wield; equipment to equip and maintain; treasure chests to find; a reputation to build; virtue to uphold - there's already plenty to remember while playing Ultima Forever.
Thankfully, the basics are simple. You tap to move; strike enemies; and interact with the environment and other characters.
This streamlines the core action, though there are also choices to make as you move the story forward. Oh, yes, the story: a mysterious plague called The Weep is threatening the kingdom, corrupting everything it touches.
The writing is far from stellar, but I'm keen to see what happens next.Day 3: Decision maker
Now that the tutorial is out of the way I've started to see a freemium element creeping into Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar's gameplay, but so far it hasn't affected my enjoyment of the game.
You gather up keys to open chests, and these come in three types: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. You can exchange a large quantity of Bronze keys for a Silver one, and should you open a chest with these rarer Silver ones, for the loot inside is likely to be much better.
There are Gold keys, too, but as far as I can tell you can't craft these yourself - you have to find or purchase them.
I'm happy with what I'm given, though, and at the moment I'm focusing on wandering about building up my reputation with the citizens of Britannia by assisting them with quests and unlocking yet more quests.
The social integration is excellent. The ability to use Facebook to track my progress is a great feature, and seeing other players running about the world on their own adventures imbues the gameworld with a lot of life.
As to the severity of the choices you make, I've found that a decision I made to pick up an amulet earlier in the game has put me out of favour with the Cromwells that run the Mages Guild. Whether this will lock off certain content is yet to be seen. I sort of hope the game follows through.Day 7: Forever alone
There's been a wave of freemium games that put gameplay before monetisation. Real Racing 3 was the first major mobile release to do this well, but Ultima Forever: Quest for the Avatar is the first long-established franchise to successfully go free-to-play.
The caveat to this is that the performance on my iPhone 4S is still very poor indeed. In the last couple of days the game has crashed to the Home screen, and during gameplay other players occasionally pop in and out of view due to extreme lag. This needs to be fixed.
I've also found the community to be less than welcoming. It's not a mean-spirited bunch, but the game can be played as a single-player experience and it seems that most choose to do exactly that, making multiplayer sessions a rarity.
However, I've been progressing through the quests and hit no paywalls other than the aforementioned keys for better loot. They make progression a little easier, but it's nothing you can't overcome by getting out there and grinding.
Whether you're happy to do that or not probably depends on whether you've played many RPGs before, as grind is pretty much an ingredient of the genre. You'll need to improve your character's level regardless, as you can only take on some quests once you've hit a certain level.
Perhaps the best thing Ultima Forever brings to the table is its world. The plot is by-the-numbers, but the number of conversations you can have with NPCs, the choices you'll make that affect the landscape around you, and the nods to Ultima games of the past all add up to a game that's more than just a money-making machine.
This is a big Ultima adventure, and it just so happens to be free. The technical shortcomings drag the score down, but Ultima fans and anyone who enjoys a good role-playing game should struggle through these issues to see what's on offer.How are you getting on with the game? You can tell us and the rest of the PG community about your experiences by leaving a comment in the box below.