Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 3, 2011
GOG.COM announced that they will be carrying a bunch of older games from EA. They are leading out with three games – well, actually four – from Origin and Bullfrog. Ultima Underworld 1 & 2 are leading out in a single package as the first – but hopefully not the last – of the Ultima titles to hit their store. They are also selling Wing Commander Privateer and Dungeon Keeper, and will be releasing Origin’s Crusader: No Remorse, Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri by the end of the month.
Ultima Underworld – the first one – was definitely one of those formative experiences for me as a CRPG fan and, later, developer. The second one didn’t inspire me quite as much, though it was also a lot of fun.
I thought I’d start out by sharing some links about this game:
If you haven’t played the game before, would I recommend it today? I’d give it a qualified yes. The graphics were groundbreaking at the time, but they used a lot of tricks to make it work that don’t stand up well today. Remember that this game was released with more “full featured” 3D long before Doom… it was released around the same time as Wolfenstein 3D. So they can take some getting used to. And the interface…! At one point, I was experimenting with borrowing the control system for Frayed Knights. Then I went back and played and remembered how weird it was. I got used to it back in the day – even found it fairly natural – but I think it’s tougher going back to it now that WASD-style controls are deeply ingrained in my muscle memory. And the stories – while serviceable – aren’t exactly going to knock anybody out with their depth.
I’ve only replayed this game in short segments (often months apart) since the 1990s, so I don’t remember a lot of the details in the game. I do remember having to back up to a much older save game because I encountered a bug that would cause some of your inventory to disappear. That bug was patched later, but it wouldn’t make your inventory come back. I also remember giving up on the game for a few weeks in frustration over the anti-magic level.
But besides the technological innovation (which doesn’t age well), Ultima Underworld (and the sequel) did a lot of things very, very right. The ability to trade with most non-hostile NPCs, for one thing, was really cool (duplicated somewhat in the first Fallout games, but not so much elsewhere). The more open-ended “simulation” approach to the adventure was really refreshing and enjoyable. There were a few puzzles that demanded (or at least suggested) specific solutions, but much of the game allowed you to organically problem-solve. Maybe that capability seems exaggerated through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia that I look through, but that is how I remember it. This was long before anybody coined the term “sandbox game,” and I don’t feel it was too literally that kind of game. But if you are a fan of the Thief games, that open-ended approach to missions originated in the Ultima Underworld series.
In many ways, I prefer Ultima Underworld‘s approach over the common sandbox approach which feels like you are just encountering the random dungeon inhabitant of the week. (Huh? What makes you think I’m talking about The Elder Scrolls?) As I recall, the world, treasure, creatures, and everything are fixed (and therefore, to me, feel more meaningful) – every game begins with exactly the same. But every game also plays out differently according to your approach (and, sometimes, just random events in the game).
The designers also captured the claustrophobic feeling in both games. Both games had you trapped in an underground prison – in the second game’s case, the castle had been surrounded by an impenetrable blackrock shell, and the only escape was to similarly confined worlds also controlled by the Guardian. In the first game, you encountered cultures that had adapted to living in a massive prison. In the second, you saw glimpses of the psychological toll of the imprisonment on the inhabitants of the castle over time.
The map system was also really ahead of its time. First off, the game featured not only an automap, which was uncommon at the time, and especially impressive considering the dungeon walls weren’t limited to the four cardinal directions AND weren’t entirely flat. But the game allowed you to write notes directly on the map. There was also usually some space at the margins to write more extensive notes as well. I loved this feature a lot, and was surprised when later, more technologically advanced big-budget titles didn’t allow the same kind of feature.
Another thing that impressed me about Ultima Underworld is how the game offered a lot of gameplay for a fairly small “world.” While the levels were fairly large and sprawling, there were only eight of them in the first title. That would be the kiss of death for modern, mainstream games (or at least it was until recently — they seem to have shrunk a bit in the last six years). But it made up for the lack of quantity with quality and depth. I’d never blow through a level in a single hour, as we seem to expect to these days. There was some annoying puzzles that required revisiting previous levels, but mainly the time was devoted to carefully exploring the level and problem-solving. The second game, as I recall, included more (but often smaller) levels, but still packed a lot of exploration and gameplay into a relatively small area.
The rune-based magic system of the game, where you “build” your spells with runes – is likewise kinda cool and interesting, though I think more so in theory than in practice. Fortunately, they were neither the first or last games to experiment with this approach.
But in the end, much of the “coolness” of the title that won me over was just the little moments. Knocking a skeleton over a cliff and watching him fall to pieces when he hit the ground below. Whether it was the impact or my blow that killed him, I don’t know nor really care. Or the time that imp, trying to smash it’s way through a locked door, freaked me out with its relentless pounding on the door. Or the nyctophobe who would trade anything for more light sources in a world encased in pitch darkness. Or haggling with goblin fishermen in the sewers below Britannia Manor. Or just playing a game where just scrounging food to survive was a challenge.
Ultima Underworld remains in my personal list of favorite RPGs probably as much for nostalgic and historical reasons as for it’s actual delivered experience, but that’s not to say it isn’t a great game. It still is, albeit kinda clunky in the modern world (as are most games that are nearly twenty years old). If you are an RPG fan capable of overlooking primitive 3D and the ungentle learning curve for the unique control scheme, both games are worth your time today.
And I think modern indie game developers could still glean a lot of great ideas from ’em. Hint, hint…
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