The Ultima series died at 7.0
It's virtue lied in a combination of a HUMONGOUS open-ended, non-linear world with SO DAMN MANY non-generic niches, It was probbably the most replayable game in the world. I played 6 and 7 maybe 3 times each, and I just kept discovering more and more stuff I didn't find the previous times.
Then things started to go down. 7 Part II was nicer than 7 graphicswise, was as complex and full of niches as 7, but it was LINEAR. So much for a huge world you could explore at your leisure. You were now guided by the nose through the game.
Then came 8. Oh, the pain, the PAIN. Not only was it linear, it was DUMBED DOWN into oblivion. The game-world was no longer one large map.. rather, it was a series of "screens" you go from one to the other. 90% of the niches in the game unrelated to the plot were gone. Much of the gameplay was replaced by jumping puzzles that looked like a birdseye 2D tombraider-wannabe. And here, they put the good old Ultima atmosphere (with the mandolin music that followed when you were in the forest on the way to cove) to rest with 3 0.44 magnum shots to the forehead. Let's skip 8.
Enter 9. Gariott is no longer around. Still, 9 was a good try. Really, it was. The goal was in the right direction, and they were actually going for it. First, they put in the heaviest block, a 3D engine. Second, they got the atmosphere back, and they made an almost-successful attempt at bringing back the humongous world that was U7. But they fell short. There were no niches with side-quests and goodies to discover. There was no replayability. It was still linear. And there was no future - EA pulled the plug.
Then came UO, and EA decided they did not want me to be their client no more. They shut down all of Origin except for UO.
The genre was not completely lost though.
Two titles by other companies prevailed in my consiousness:
Elder Scrolls3: Morrowind made a shot at a humongous world. They did manage to get that right. But they went astray. There was no Garriot. No Lord British. There was no atmosphere. It was just an endless [beautiful] world of immensely over-recycled content, unbalanced gameplay, flat-as-a-plank characters and utterly boring [and endless] fed-ex quests that required spending too much of the game time on travel. The company who made it just wasn't Origin, it lacked a guide. And the game was a flop.
The one light that did indeed shine bright in the genre was Gothic. I truly salute the guys who made it. While it posed a slightly different atmosphere than Ultima, It was immersingly wonderful. The world was huge. The story thick, unpredictable, brutal at times. Real-world trust-noone and fend-for-yourself style. Main storyline put aside, the game world was accessible in an unlinear fassion.
And in a streak of genious, they took all the effort put into making the first game world, added a similar amount of effort to create a second, and had a world twice as big for Gothic II. Kudos guys.
Ultima genre aside, we come to the lancers. The wing-commander/privateer teams were stashed (and bought by M$), making Starlancer and Freelancer, games made by great devs, having the ability to soar, and trampled to garbage by executives with the intellect of a retarded coccaroach. Freelancer could have been a "Privateer 3", and could have borne the title proudly. It had it all. Graphics, missions, weapons, secret niches.
All but a decision to force down the plot on you at square one, drive you faster than you'd like towards its end, forcing you to finish it, then having you stuck in a beautiful humongous and largely-unexplored galaxy, with NO quests or goals of any kind save for random encounters and randimized generic missions to "go discover it" and make money you no longer need. Woohoo.
I'd love to meet the moron who made that call.
Or the one saying you can't take more than one mission at a time. DAMN. What was THAT good for?
I take solace in the fact that the team is still together, and maybe the executive who made those calls will be run over by a semi-trailer, and the next game will have these "minor gameplay" problems fixed.
Lancer games were scarce lately, though with Freespace and Freelancer, they seem to have a healthy, albeit slow, pulse.
OSI's final death throe is like the last breath of a person with cancer.
I acknowledge Origin for the wealth they brought to gaming, Times of Lore, The Ultimas and Ultima Underworlds, Strike Commander, Wing Commanders and Privateers. Your contribution was huge and groundbreaking. It was on the day the worlds you created were killed off, one by one, that your spirit died. The Origin that existed since was a living corpse, and today it finds its last rest.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.