So it's May 2012, almost 15 years after the release of Ultima Online. The official game's been through so many changes, it's barely recognizable to veterans. While the EA servers are still running, their population has dwindled and they're all running the most recent version of the game, which most veterans find to be, frankly, unacceptable. So where can you find the best emulated version of the game you missed?
As of this writing, I know of only 3 significant shards (or sets thereof) with large populations:
UOGamers - http://uogamers.com - UOG is a set of shards based on different eras. Their flagship shard is "Hybrid," which is mostly based on a UO:Renaissance (2000 - 2002) era, but includes some features from other eras (thus the name). It's one of the most populated shards I've ever played. Other than the Lost Lands (T2A area with no housing), there are no additional landmasses. The ruleset is that of Felucca everywhere. There are a great variety of viable templates due to the inclusion of some Publish 14-16 features - precasting, alchemy bonus to explosion potions, champion spawns - but no powerscrolls. UOG also features a T2A (1998-2000) shard, Divinity. Divinity has a smaller but loyal population and is loosely based on T2A. There's a significant amount of customization; too much for some. The third UOG shard is Demise, based on the AOS period (2003-present). I haven't played it personally, but my understanding is that it's similar to the current production model. All three shards are produced by the creators of RunUO, the most robust server emulator to date, so the administrators are quite talented and the shards are very stable. Players of all shards who want to skip the grind can donate to help keep their favorite shard going and be rewarded with finished characters and/or moderate amounts of gold.
Second Age - http://uosecondage.com - Probably the most accurate T2A emulation ever. The staff are second to none and do not play to avoid favoritism. All changes to the game are based on period piece research rather than differing memories to ensure historicity. The community is thriving and very helpful to new players. The game itself is harsh, as T2A was, including even stat loss for PK's. For players from the 90's looking to relive the experience, look no further - this is the closest you're going to get. The landmass is Felucca only in order to boost population density. The staff welcomes donations but there are no donation items other than a title on the forums. Skill gain is moderate and the economy appears to be intact so getting established is also pretty accurate to what it took years ago.
In Por Ylem (IPY) - http://inporylem.com - IPY has been around for years now, and has had its ups and downs. It's attracted a huge following, especially when it first launched, including lots of famous players and guilds. An issue with account security and corrupt staff early in its history marred its reputation and led to a wipe. This was followed by a rebirth with hard skill gain in a T2A environment. I haven't played this shard since the wipe, which I want to say was around 2004-5, so I can't say much about it. I may check it out in the future and provide some more details. For now, all I can say is that it's still out there and going strong, so it's worth noting.
All of the above shards can be accessed with Razor, available at http://runuo.com. Razor is a UO assistant similar to UOA and a very useful tool to have.
If you know of any other noteworthy shards, by all means reply with a description. Please don't just say "Shard X is the best!" - tell us why! If it's based on a given time in UO's history, please note that, as well as the ruleset (Trammel v. Felucca), level of customization, etc. I'm trying to keep this thread as a comprehensive list of what's out there worth playing, without too much bias.
Currently playing: Rocksmith, Castlevania SOTN, Metroid (NES)
Kery, could you recommend one to me that would not require massive technical knowledge to set up (I am pretty clueless) and, ideally, isn't TOO heavily focused on PvP nuttage? I don't mind if it's pre-Trammel, as long as it's not something like a "you will be attacked 80% of the time you leave town" type situation, which I didn't find enjoyable in any Fel area after the split.
"Koga no Goshi, I agree with everything you've said, and I've read all of it. You're everything that a TES fan should be." --- Itachi62
Those are all I know off the top of my head. There are a number of "top100" or "top50" sites where free shards are voted for, and there are a lot of Trammel shards out there. I personally don't enjoy anything with a Trammel ruleset so I'm not up to speed on them. Every shard I've listed does have PvP and PKing, but in various amounts. But I can rank them for you based on how intense I've found the PvP:
1. IPY. It's geared toward hardcore PvPers. As I understand it, they're no longer really a T2A shard; they've added a lot of the later PvP changes to make PvP worthwhile with lots of diverse templates. They really focus on PvP, so it sounds like it's not a good shard for you.
2. UOGamers. There are a lot of players on this shard. It's relatively safe if you know how to avoid bad situations. There are really only a handful of hotspots that PK's frequent, and if you take care in thsoe few spots you'll be fine. But there's no Trammel.
3. UO Second Age. PKing is possible, but there are very severe penalties for it. Most PK's won't bother with you unless you have something on you to make it worth taking the count. Towns appear to be totally safe, as reds are killed on sight. Most PvP is consensual, with order vs. chaos being the main outlet.
Honestly, your best bet is probably the EA production servers, unless you're not willing to pay. Setup couldn't be easier since the software is already designed to point you there, you just install like you always did and make an account on the official website (link provided in the install).
If you choose to join one of the above free shards, all you need is Razor. You install the UO client and you install and run Razor. You may have to get the .NET framework from Windows Update if you're using an older version of Windows. Then to connect, you just enter the login server address into Razor, and Razor does the rest. They're usually just login.shardname.com (e.g. login.uogamers.com, login.uosecondage.com). You get Razor from runuo.com, and there's a big community there that can give you better guidance and technical help should you hit any problems. Many of the members there are developers who design new shards all the time.
Currently playing: Rocksmith, Castlevania SOTN, Metroid (NES)