Ultima Online is, in many ways, the great grandfather of the modern MMORPG. Sure, looking at it now it looks as old as time and certainly is well past its prime, but don't write it off. If you were lucky (and old) enough to play Ultima Online during its golden years, you likely understand what an enchanting and absorbing game it was. They just don't make them like that anymore, folks.
Before people began to obsess over min/maxing their character, and earning the all important bragging rights that come with successfully maxing it, the MMORPG community was a simpler, more charming place. Ultima Online was a game designed for a generation that grew up playing role-playing games and had internalized them in a way that is often lost on modern players. It was a whole community of people playing their various roles, from heroes to villains, and it was awesome. But Ultima Online didn't just inspire people to role play, it also baked the support for it right into the core game. Your character was truly unique, and there was a sense of mystery to the world because it existed in a time before wikis meticulously detailed every aspect of the world. Ultima Online also decentralized the playbase in a way few MMORPGs ever manage. Not everyone needed to be the big hero, some were just blacksmiths, others humble traders. It was a game that allowed you to truly adopt a virtual life—not just live out your favorite power fantasy.
But those days are gone. Ultima Online is little more than a shell of its former self. It might still be worth playing, if you can stomach how poorly it has aged, but just in case you can't, here is a list of games that might scratch that Ultima itch.
Shroud of the Avatar
What list wouldn't be complete without first mentioning the new project of the famous Lord British? If you're completely unfamiliar (and I won't blame you), Lord British is the character of Richard Garriott, the father of the Ultima series of role-playing games. Though he left Ultima Online years ago to pursue other activities, like visiting space, he jumped on the Kickstarter bandwagon a few years back to help fund the new generation of Ultima, known as Shroud of the Avatar. Though he can no longer use the Ultima Online name, Shroud of the Avatar is, in some ways, a continuation of Lord British's seminal RPG series.
Now, Shroud of the Avatar is still in early alpha, which means jumping in to play at this point should only be reserved for dedicated fans of Ultima games. Even then, I might suggest just waiting. Though Shroud of the Avatar is promising, it is also very rough. Combat is a joke, many of the in-game systems haven't been implemented, and the presentation and visuals are nothing short of awful.
But. Shroud of the Avatar persists through all of these troubles to deliver something that could be amazing. For one, Shroud of the Avatar isn't actually an MMORPG in the traditional sense. Sure, you can play online with a bunch of strangers, but the game also has a single-player or friends-only mode that you can choose to use. Another big feature is housing which allows people to plop down their homesteads just about anywhere in the world. Homes can be an expensive proposition, and some of them can cost upwards of $500 of real money if you choose to, so its worth noting.
Shroud of the Avatar might be worth keeping an eye on. I can't really recommend jumping in at this stage to play it, but as development continues, hopefully this spiritual successor comes close to reclaiming the glory of Ultima Online.
But Steven, you say, stop suggesting half-built MMORPGs! I want something that evokes Ultima Online right now. Well, okay, but I think you're going to get in a tiffy at my answer. Simply put, if you want a game that allows you to tap into the role-playing, be-anyone-do-anything nature of Ultima Online, EVE Online is your best bet. Hands down.
Now the reason I'm positive this answer isn't going to satisfy a whole lot of people is due to the fact that, unlike Ultima Online, EVE is too cool for wizards and shields and ditches all those lame ideas for space ships. But here's the thing, underneath the stark aesthetic difference, EVE Online is really the only fully-fledged, fully-built sandbox MMORPG that can offer an Ultima-like experience without screwing you over in other ways.
Comprehending EVE Online is a huge challenge—a problem where the blame lies solely on CCP Games, the developer. Getting into EVE and understanding how to go from sniffling newbie to imposing pirate is a journey that breaks the will of many players. But you can do it. The problem is that EVE Online is, from the ground up, a social experience. As much as you want to spend time playing the game, and you should, you also need to be doing everything you can to immerse yourself in the culture surrounding EVE. It's dangerous to go alone, so make some friends.
But once you've done that, EVE becomes something else entirely. And yes, if you're wondering, EVE is a very flexible experience. You can be a trader, miner, industrialist, pirate, soldier, and loads more. There is a ton to see and explore in EVE, but you just have to understand that it is a very dense game to get into.
Remember how I said EVE was the only MMORPG you could play right now that offered the sandbox experience of Ultima Online without screwing you over in other ways? I was subtly talking about ArcheAge, everyone's favorite MMORPG that managed to go from incredible to awful in the span of a few weeks.
Now, ArcheAge is certainly not as terrible as people like to make it seem, but you need to know that the game is very much a pay-to-win experience. Sure, you can try and tackle the insurmountable grind for the best gear without dropping any money, but you'll need to understand how frustrating it'll be to watch other players climb that same hill with the magic of cash.
But, if you're willing to approach ArcheAge in a manner that doesn't involve comparing yourself to other players constantly or thinking that you'll ever stand a fair chance against the ones who have invested thousands of dollars into building their characters, you can still have a great time.
ArcheAge is a hybrid between the more open-ended nature of EVE and the more restrictive nature of World of Warcraft. You'll spend a good half of the game working through the typical level grind, but once you hit max level, ArcheAge opens up into a big, beautiful open world PVP experience. You can sail ships, run trade routes, and fight in epic battles with hundreds of players.
It might be unforgivably pay-to-win, but the fact that ArcheAge is still worth checking out despite that is only a testament to how much fun the game can be.
One of the better, underappreciated aspects of Ultima Online was that the game existed before a time when wikis and guides taught us that everything in a game should be found in resources located outside of the game itself. If you don't know how to do something, just look it up! But Ultima Online was different, it was a game where you had to talk to people in order to learn, and when you saw someone with an awesome piece of armor, you could only speculate as to where they found it.
Project: Gorgon is that concept brought back to life. Though this game is in early alpha, it is also one of the most playable in-development MMORPGs you can play right now. In fact, it's almost alarming how much of the base game is enjoyable despite how early on it is.
The big emphasis of Project: Gorgon is discovery. From the tutorial dungeon (which I revisted countless times because I kept missing secrets) it is made abundantly clear that Gorgon doesn't hold your hand. You are meant to read and think for yourself. Characters have no quest markers, the map doesn't show you where anything is, and even the quests themselves can be open ended and ambiguous. But all of that has infused this game with a sense of joy and enchantment unlike anything I'd seen in recent months. There is such a wide breadth of skills to learn, so many characters to meet and talk to, and so many secrets to find that Project: Gorgon feels like an unending treasure trove of fun. You should probably just go see for yourself.
Perhaps saving the best for last (or, in this case the most promising), Shards Online is a hybrid sandbox MMORPG with a serious pedigree in terms of who is creating the game. Successfully Kickstarted just last year, Shards Online is a game being developed by those who had a hand in some of the most respected MMORPGs ever, including, as you might have guessed, Ultima Online.
But Shards Online isn't just another sandbox MMORPG, the creators are billing it as an open platform for players to essentially build their own online experience. Each player takes charge of their own shard, a unique world that they are free to shape and mould as they see fit. Though it's still early in development, the implications and ambitions for what you can achieve are immense. Players are basically free to craft their own miniature adventure within the greater hub of the world.
These shards can then be linked to hubs from where players are free to travel between them, exploring and working together to give life to an emergent experience that is totally dictated by the whims of those playing. It's certainly an ambitious idea, but at this stage we'll just have to wait and see. If you're feeling generous, you can buy your way into the pre-alpha development, otherwise you'll just have to keep an eye on this one as it develops over the coming years.
Ultima Online might be past its glory days, but the foundation it was built on still has plenty of room to explore and grow. Oddly enough, most of the games that seem to be forwarding that idea are independent crowd-funded projects, which comes with the obvious caveat that most of these games are still in development and many are anything but playable. That said, there is a silver lining here as these games tend to be more adventurous and less concerned about quarterly financials as the big-budget MMORPG blockbusters.
So while finding that Ultima Online experience for the modern age comes with its own set of woes, hopefully these games give you even just a tiny taste of that old magic. Of course, if you have your own suggestions, please let us know in the comments!