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Ultima Online, which premiered years before anyone had ever heard of a cable modem, has long since passed the age when even successful games are put to pasture. Which is not to say it hasn't been a trendsetter: UO invented PvP, PvE, guild wars, leetspeak, bank slots, ganking, corpse camping, crafting, griefing, monthlies, and the euphemism "time warps" for major server crashes. UO has also been the only US-centric MMO to sport an isometric bird’s-eye third-person perspective, which is in many ways tactically advantageous if not quite as visceral. Finally, it has two awesome ingredients that none of its rivals can boast: blood and harps.
But although it may not command the same fan base as it did in 2002, those who still play are loyalists in every sense of the word. And to reward them, EA is injecting the game with its most significant financial investment since launch, including a free downloadable graphics overhaul surnamed Kingdom Reborn. The differences between the two formats when seen side by side are quite striking; it's like looking at a newspaper comic-strip alongside Claymation. "We want the world to look much more organic, the geology to seem more water-carved," explains EA’s Aaron Cohen.
The game's clunkiest element since inception, its user interface, is also getting some much-needed streamlining (in short: less double-clicking), along with more elegant inventory organization (slots rather than an unorganized mess in your bag) and an improved skill training system. "We're adding a risk-reward element," says Cohen. "Take lumberjacking: You could go to places where you can train up ten times faster because the trees are better, but the place is correspondingly more dangerous and you might have to defend yourself."
To give the new graphics their first test run, EA will also be rolling out the game’s ninth (and not free) expansion Stygian Abyss, featuring gargoyles as a new playable race, the second non-human species to make their debut (after elves in 2005). Though gargoyles visibly have wings, Cohen is surprisingly cagey as to whether they’ll be capable of flight.