Keen alerted me to a private version/server of Ultima Online, and due to extreme boredom I grabbed the client and messed around a bit. I have no intention of fully returning to UO, because to really get to the good stuff of UO I would have to invest more time than I want to, but even just spending a few hours with the game, it amazes me how far the genre has fallen. UO’s original version still, to this day, does so many things BETTER than many modern MMOs.
For this post I want to just focus on combat.
Combat in UO is very simple, especially melee. You move next to a mob, double-click to start swinging, and that’s it. Once the mob is low it tries to run away slowly, and you just follow it and keep whacking. Compared to the 60 abilities on a hotbar that some games have, it’s night and day. And yet I find combat in UO more satisfying than any themepark, including the most recent GW2 (invuln-roll faceroll, yay…).
First, the pace allows you to actually watch and enjoy what is happening, rather than watching your hotbar spin cooldowns. Now sure, UO is not exactly a looker, so what you are left watching is 2-3 animation frames of an attack and crude blood splatters, but yea, still better than a hotbar. And in UO, watching your surroundings is very important for many reasons.
And while 1-on-1 combat is simplistic, in all but the easiest examples, drawing agro correctly and getting a mob into the right spot is more than half the battle, and for that using the environment is critical. UO-does-it-better example two; the environments and their impact on combat.
In many/most themeparks, where you are fighting only matters in terms of the color pallet or other non-gameplay visuals. A ‘dungeon’ fight is the same as a fight in the forest or a cave, save for pre-scripting “hide behind the obvious pillar” gimmicks of a boss. In UO a tight corridor fight is 100% different than out in the open. A location with many mobs is very different than one with only a few, and again not in the pre-scripted “this is an obvious bring CC situation”.
The value of a farming spot has just as much to do with its actual location (the layout, proximity to other points of interest, player traffic) as it does with the mobs or the quality of the loot. How different would themepark raiding be if the decision of ‘where’ was based on ANYTHING other than “we need the purple shiny from X”? It’s just one factor of many that change a game from an on-rails journey to living in a virtual world, but these are the lessons that today’s MMO devs have almost all but forgotten, or don’t have the ability to recreate successfully.
Magic and ranged combat add some complexity to combat in UO, but even then it’s still nothing like hotbar spamming. Magic becomes a resource management game that is deeper than “spam until empty, wait a second, spam more”, while also adding in the cost of reagents. Just because you could take a mob down quickly with multiple flamestrikes does not mean you do it; if you spend almost as much gold on reagents to kill something, that’s not exactly efficient farming.
Group farming has its own layer of complexity that I won’t cover here, save to say it’s not as simple as “more dps, faster kills, go go go”.
And of course all of these factors are in a mix that includes open world PvP. So being able to beat a mob but just barely is dangerous. Farming for a long time has added risks. Farming a popular or highly-efficient spot is not “the best choice” based solely on gold/hr like it is in PvE games.
But even with PvP removed from the equation, the simplistic combat in UO trumps more modern systems in the most important area for an MMO; replayability. The ‘burnout’ rate is much lower, because the point is not to simply master (Google) a skill rotation, or cap-out and get BiS gear, or ‘finish’ some personal story.
No, getting better at combat in UO is simply a tool; one that allows you to reach your next goal (a house, a PvP rep, control of an area) faster or more efficiently. And as you get better, the tiny details become clearer, and mastering those is truly an art, one that requires some serious buy-in.
Assuming, of course, you decide to focus on combat. In UO, and any good sandbox, that is but one path to success. And way back in 1997, UO got that path right.
Looking at it in the context of 2013 and the current state of the MMO genre and its combat, UO got it scary-right.