Nearly thirty years after its release, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is remembered as a unique, amazing game. Now, thanks to Bioware, it's a game that an entire new generation of gamers will be able to enjoy. What set the game apart from other titles, both than and now, is that your character, the titular would-be Avatar, is not tasked with killing an ancient enemy, halting disaster, or thwarting the plans of an evil ruler/God/Kardashian. Instead, you're tasked with becoming...
The cloth map that shipped the original game
A really good person.
The new version
(It's much cooler than it sounds).
To become the Avatar, you must first meditate on and seek understanding of the Eight Virtues, find the Bell, Book, and Candle, understand Truth, Love, and Courage, and finally descend into the Stygian Abyss to read the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. Character creation was handled through your conversation with an ancient Gypsy, found in a lonely cart beside the road. Your solutions to her ethical questions defined your chosen class; a tactic that many games have used since.
The game's manuals and spellbook were beautifully bound (I still have my History of Britannia
and The Book of Mystic Wisdom
-- you had to translate the runes on the front of the latter to understand the title. The game shipped with a beautiful cloth map and an ankh. Garriot has stated that the game was a concious attempt to build a more ethical, just and complex structure that made players think about their actions far beyond "Level up, kill the bad guy."
In Ultima IV, maintaining your Avatar status (necessary to complete the game) took work. If your character (you eventually had eight companions) ran from battle while leaving the rest of them behind, you lost progress towards Valor. Fail to give to the blind, sick, or lame? Thou has lost an Eighth! Steal? Same thing. Ultima's world was huge, and the townspeople in it felt as though they had real lives. You could ask anyone you met three basic questions -- "Name," "Job," and "Health" -- but depending on what they answered, there might be follow-up dialogs. There were ghosts, children, and a talking horse named Smith. It was a game that felt vast, despite mostly taking place in a 2D plane.
And now, it's coming back as a Play4Free title. According to Bioware creative director Paul Barnett, the new version will not be an MMO, despite taking place online, and will be financed via purchases of supplementary items rather than core equipment. It sounds as though it may include a small-group multiplayer component, which could work quite well in an updated version of the game. Ultima IV handed you a party of eight to control, and while actions were very basic (melee, cast a spell, or move) the system could adapt well to more complex playstyles and multiple people working together.
Barnett says that this effort won't replicate the original game, but intends to stay true to the core concept and material while updating game play and mechanics. If it goes well, it could be the first step in a complete franchise reboot.
Once upon a time, Origin -- the company that owned Ultima -- used the slogan "We create worlds." Ultima was the biggest reason that slogan held true, and we very much hope that the remake keeps the grand scale and epic feel of the original intact.