A Windows/DirectX game, it was the first real MMORPG, was released on September 30, 1997, and was both published and developed by Origin Systems. It is still around today, with Origin claiming over 225,000 active players, spending an average of 10-20 hours a week playing the game.
Although its 2D isometric viewpoint looks almost primitive compared to todays flashy 3D MMORPGs, it has been gradually improved by expansions, and the Third Dawn expansion (see below) changes the game's graphics to modern 3D rendering.
Rather than there being a single virtual world which all players participate in, there are 26, each of them being run on a seperate server (known as a 'shard'). As well as these official shards, many people now run unofficial shards based on player-created servers such as UOX.
Although a purchase of the game comes with a month's free trial, after that players must pay a $10/month subscription fee, in addition to the cost of buying the game and any expansions.
UO is set in the world of Britannia. Shortly after the events in Ultima I, the mad mage Mondain has been defeated, and the Gem of Immortality (which contained the essence of Britannia itself) slipped from his hand and has been shattered into thousands of pieces - these pieces being, of course, shards, thereby giving a reason for the multiple-server/shard model described above.
The background story deviates from the post-Ultima I games somewhat, in that while some of the events of later Ultima games have occurred in the UO world, others have not.
Creating a Character
One of the most innovative parts of the game, UO has no set character classes - instead, characters have three primary statistics and three primary skills, all of which are user-customisable.
Players can either select a template, which sets up the statistics and skills as appropriate for a 'traditional' RPG class (ie, the Warrior template would setup fighting skills and a high strength), or they can select the three skills from a large range and customise each statistic individually.
The strength statistic influences hit points, the dexterity statistic influences stamina and the intelligence statistic influences mana level.
Gameplay, although sort-of centered around combat, is very much freestyle - for the first time, players were participating in what was more a proper virtual world than a game. You can become a baker, a carpenter, go out and battle monsters, be a healer on indeed be anyone you want to be (within the restrictive boundaries of the game, unfortunately).
Indeed, a lot of emphasis is placed on social interaction, especially with the addition of a party system in the Renaissance expansion.
One fascinating part of the gameplay is the ability for players to craft objects using their skills and then sell them, along with other items they've obtained, to vendors (which are player-run themselves), which then can sell them off to others, resulting in a thriving virtual economy. However, the shops etc aren't a part of this economy, they restock themselves and hence are not a part of this economy much at all.
There were various issues at the launch of the game, in particular a lack of things to do (monsters were rare due to the respawning rates etc being far too low), many bugs in the game, many exploitable cheats and often major problems with lag and connections just simply being dropped.
This led to an initial extremely negative reaction from some of the press, and in fact a lot of magazines and websites went back a few months later and did another, more positive review of the game, as by then the serious issues had been resolved.
It also had a very steep learning curve before the introduction of Haven in Renaissance, often taking new players hours to just understand the basics of play. Haven has since improved dramatically, now providing an easier user introduction/tutorial than EverQuest or most of the other current MMORPGs.
Nowadays, almost all the issues have been resolved, and it is a well-balanced, fun and worthwhile game to buy and play.
Death and Playerkilling
When you die in UO, you can elect to either resurrect immediately, but with only one health point and without holding your possessions (and will usually just be killed again by whatever did it in the first place), or you can turn into a ghost, at which point you can go looking for a shrine or healer. The disadvantage of the second option is that, while your ghost is off looking, other players can loot the dead body.
Although many people find playerkilling enjoyable, others find it annoys them immensely. This was a big problem in UO until the release of Renaissance (with the non-PK lands), especially with the ability to loot bodies. Other players cannot loot players in the non-PK zones of UO.
The Second Age
Released: October 1, 1998.
The first expansion pack, the main addition was a new area of land called the "Lost Lands", a savage and untamed area accessible via teleporters from the main world. This new area had many new creatures.
There were also major improvements/changes to the UI, and a global chat service was added to the game.
Released: April 3, 2000.
The initial retail boxes available on release day did not, in fact, contain this expansion at all, but included The Second Age, along with a promise of an extra months subscription. This is because they were behind schedule, and in fact all users of The Second Age were to be able to download a free copy of this expansion anyway.
The main change in this release was that the world was doubled in size, this was done by just mirroring the existing world. The existing world area was called "Felucca" and was changed to be more evil and creepy looking. The new area was called "Trammel", and was made to be a non-PK zone.
Other improvements included an enhanced enemy AI, new monsters and items, new skills, a party system, new housing areas and a new tutorial to ease new users into the game (involving the town of Haven).
Released: March 7, 2001.
The biggest change in this expansion was the move to a 3D client, with 3D models (including motion-captured animation), terrain (according to some people, the terrain is still 2D, I am looking into this) and particles (the spell effects, all pretty and multicoloured).
Although for the most part users of this expansion participate in the same lands as users of the 2D client, a special Third Dawn only land was added, called "Ilshenar", which was 10% larger than the "Lost Lands". After the release of the Lord Blackthorn's Revenge expansion, this land became available to the users of the 2D client, too.
Of course, the GUI and the client were almost completely rewritten. Other changes basically just involved the addition of new weapons, armors and monsters.
Lord Blackthorn’s Revenge
Released: February 2002.
This expansion adds a "dark new world based on new characters from Todd McFarlane", improved AI, a new virtue system, several new items, improved in-game help and improved and easier character creation.
Information gleaned from many websites, my own limited experiences and talking to friends.