Ultima Online

Ultima Online. The grandfather of all MMOs. We are now to the point in my Ultima series playthrough where I’m going to take a moment to discuss this iconic title. While technically not the first MMORPG, Ultima Online is the one responsible for bringing online gaming to the attention of the masses. It was originally released in 1997, and as a testament to its legendary status, the game is still online and playable nearly twenty-two years later.

UO was my first MMO experience. I remember reading articles about the game in the months leading up to its release. I was no stranger to the Ultima series, and the prospect of playing online with others was certainly enticing. But, I had sworn to stay away from it since it operated under a pay-to-play model. At the time, this was something that I objected to. I felt that if I was to shell out $50 or more for a game, why should I have to continue to pay in order to enjoy it. Of course, that train of thought was very backwards. In later years I came to understand that MMO subscription fees are not based in greed. But, they help fund maintenance for the game as well as provide development cost for new content. Needless to say, despite my initial reluctance, I finally succumbed to my curiosity and purchased a copy of Ultima Online. I spent about a month with the game before deciding it wasn’t for me and moving on to something else. This did not happen because I found fault with the game itself. But, at the time, I don’t think I was in the correct mindset for an online game. The whole concept was relatively new to me and I think I didn’t have the patience required to properly enjoy a game of this type. After revisiting the game again, many years later, I wish I had given the vanilla release more of a chance. There’s no doubt that I missed out on something big by turning my back on this title so early on.

The original release of Ultima Online was very similar in aesthetic to Ultima VII and VIII. The game is played from a birds-eye-view in a sandbox-like environment. Players are able to interact with objects, NPCs, and of course, other players. Many UI elements from some of the later Ultima titles were somewhat present as well (ie: the paperdoll inventory scheme and dragging and dropping objects into your inventory).

Screenshot from the early days of Ultima Online.

When Ultima Online was initially released, the game had a very open and lawless feel to it. In many ways, this was a very exciting aspect to the game. But it also had its drawbacks. For example, I remember player killing being an issue for many new players, myself included. Eventually, Origin Software addressed this gripe with the second expansion to the game; Ultima Online: Renaissance. This add-on created two separate worlds for players to enjoy. One that was strictly PVE while the other kept the PVP ruleset that the game had at launch.

Over the years, Ultima Online continued to expand. New versions of the game were released. With them came new classes to play and new areas to explore. Occasionally, these expansions even resulted in new game clients. Some of these, like the Third Dawn (or 3D) client, have long been retired. Today, players can choose to enjoy the game using either the UO Classic Client or the UO Enhanced Client. It’s important to remember that regardless of which client you select, the game itself is the same – but the way it is presented to the player is slightly different. For example, the Enhanced Client has slightly better visuals and some pretty impressive quality of life tweaks. But, it doesn’t maintain the retro feel that many gamers yearn for when playing Ultima Online. Generally speaking, most veteran players tend to prefer the Classic Client, while many of the game’s newer players, tend to prefer the Enhanced Client. It’s truly a personal preference and you can switch back and forth at will.

The Classic Client on a modern system

From a lore perspective, Ultima Online takes place in an alternate version of Britannia. One that is separate from the rest of the series. But, the world of Ultima Online will still be familiar to longtime fans of the franchise. The game features many locations and characters from other Ultima titles. In fact, in the early days of the game, it was not unheard of to see Richard Garriott actually playing as his Lord British character.

Eventually, Garriott parted ways with Origin/EA and his influence on Ultima Online went with him. As the years went by, certain elements were introduced to the game that distanced it from Garriott’s original vision. Today, very little of Ultima Online resembles those earliest days that veteran gamers are likely to remember. But, that doesn’t mean its not worth a look. Even in today’s world where MMOs are a dime a dozen, there’s something very appealing about UO. As tarnished as it may have become over the years, it’s still a unique gem that shines bright enough to attract adoration and attention.

So, what makes UO so different from almost every other MMO on the market? Well, to start with; the design. Most MMOs are presented in either a third-person/chase-camera style, or a classic first-person perspective. Ultima Online differs in that it features an isometric overhead view. Also, the game maintains a very “sandbox” aspect to it. Players can venture out into the world and cut down trees, build structures, and to a minor extent, manipulate the world around them. Items in the game do not just exist in player’s inventories, but rather can be placed in the world itself where they can be seen and handled by other players. Even now, twenty years later, Ultima Online is a living, breathing virtual world.

The Enhanced Client on a modern system

As the years have passed, the development of the game has changed hands a number of times. Today, the game is owned by Broadsword Online – a division of Mythic Entertainment. Under their supervision, Ultima Online has opened a free-to-play model called Endless Journey. Now, curious players can enter the world of Britannia for free and see what all the fuss is about.

The legacy of this game is undeniable. Without Ultima Online, MMOs as we know them today would not exist. But, it is a title that has not aged very well. To say it is archaic is a bit of an understatement. I suppose that older gamers like myself would have an easier time getting their feet wet with a game like this. But, I admit that it is difficult to recommend UO to a new player. That being said, if you are curious, dive in. The world of Ultima Online is still vibrant and active. If you’re not satisfied with the contents of the free-to-play version, there’s a number of unofficial servers on the internet that host the game as well. In fact, a large number of these replicate the game as it was in the late 1990’s. So no matter what type of UO experience you desire, there’s something out there for everyone.

If you’re curious to learn more about the impact this game had on both the industry and its players, I recommend the following book, Braving Britannia: Tale of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online.

Review: Ultima VIII – Pagan

My Ultima series playthrough is nearing its end! This time, I’m going to review what is probably the strangest entry in the franchise, Ultima VIII – Pagan. What makes this game so different than all of the other entries in the series so far? Well, for the first time we have an Ultima title that doesn’t really feel like a traditional RPG. Instead, Ultima VIII ends up being more of an overhead action game with some light RPG-esque elements. This makes for a vastly different game than what fans were used to.

So far, each Ultima game has consistently built off of its predecessor. That is not the case at all with Ultima VIII. When trying to understand why this game is radically different, it is often accepted that Lord British had very little input into the construction of this particular game. His lack of supervision certainly shows in the final product.

For some odd reason that I don’t remember, I actually possessed a copy of this game back in the nineties, before the release of the Ultima Collection. (I think it came bundled with a CD-ROM drive that I purchased.) I remember spending quite a bit of time tinkering with my system so that I could get this game to work correctly. In the end, I did manage to get it up and running. But I never got more than an hour or two into the game before I got distracted by something else. When the Ultima Collection hit the shelves, I had moved from DOS to Windows and I never could get the game to a functional state again. So, this review marks my first time really playing through this title from start to finish.

In this game, the story picks up right where we left off in Ultima VII – Part Two. The Avatar has been snatched up by The Guardian and banished to the mysterious world of Pagan, The Guardian’s home world. It is up to The Avatar to figure out how to escape this world and return to Britannia so that he can confront The Guardian once and for all.

On a technological level, this game was nothing short of cutting edge when it was released. The world of Pagan is beautifully presented. Like every entry in the Ultima series, this chapter features a massive graphical upgrade. In fact, it is probably one of the best looking PC games pre-1995. Ultima VIII included a full MIDI soundtrack for PCs equipped with sound cards and there was even an optional speech-pack was sold alongside the game that enabled spoken dialogue for several of the game’s key scenes and characters – something that was unheard of at the time.

Despite being a very advanced game in terms of technology. Ultima VIII suffers from some pretty awful design decisions. First of all, in a radical departure from the series’ roots, combat in the game is action-based. The Avatar does battle by striking, blocking or kicking. To make matters worse, the whole affair is extremely clunky.  To add insult to injury, a large portion of the gameplay relies on platforming. Many of the game’s dungeons and the overworld environment require The Avatar to leap over running water or hop from stone to stone. The terrible thing about this is that the playcontrol in this game is horrendous. Jumping is sluggish and often unresponsive. This, combined with a UI that is completely mouse-driven, makes for quite a terrible experience.

Needless to say, the playcontrol for this game is pretty bad. But if that were my only complaint, I think I could overlook it. Sadly, it is not. Like Ultima VII – Part Two, this game also suffers from being largely unfinished. The storyline is disjointed and contains gaping plot holes. Several parts of the game elude to certain events and locations that simply do not exist. The game even includes a special doorway meant to lead into an whole new area that was to be included in later expansion. But, despite being fully completed, the expansion (The Lost Vale) never saw the light of day. What a poor experience.

So, yes. I have some pretty serious problems with this game as a whole. But on the other side of the coin, Ultima VIII also has some good points. First, the game is very atmospheric. The world of Pagan is extremely well presented and proved to be awe-inspiring enough to keep me playing. Also, playing a weakened version of The Avatar brings back a real sense of danger to a series where the main hero was beginning to feel slightly overpowered. In this game, a majority of the enemies are much stronger than the player so choosing to either do combat with them or run away is very important part of the gameplay.

The nitty gritty ends up being a very mixed bag. Yes, Ultima VIII feels broken and unfinished. But, at the time of its release, it was also groundbreaking enough that it could easily captivate its audience. Even today, I found myself drawn into it despite its flaws. Regardless, this game is likely to be a tough sell to anyone but the most devoted fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima VIII is one of the harder entries in the series. Many enemies are very challenging. This is especially true in earlier parts of the game. But combat aside, the game’s jumping puzzles are likely to provide plenty of frustration and headaches – not so much due to the challenge they were intended to provide, but more so because of the game’s horrid playcontrol.

Story: Despite suffering from some pretty big loose ends, the overall storyline for this game is very well done. Taking The Avatar out of Britannia and thrusting him into a new and unfamiliar world (where he is forced to break his own rules to survive), really brings some excitement to the series.

Originality: If anyone was worried that the Ultima series was starting to get a bit repetitive, this game will almost certainly change their minds. Ultima VIII looks and works NOTHING like any other game in the franchise. Whether you consider that to be good or bad, you can’t argue that Ultima VIII isn’t a fresh offering in the series.

Soundtrack: This game features a full MIDI score as well as an optional voice patch. Both of these are very well done. The music isn’t particularly memorable per se, but it does a great job at setting up the game’s atmosphere.

Fun: This is a game that can be pretty tough to get into. It has received more than its share of harsh criticism over the years – much it warranted. But I also got quite a bit of enjoyment out of it. Without a doubt, it is certainly an acquired taste.

Graphics: There was nothing quite like Ultima VIII at the time it was released. The graphics were the cream of the crop. Even today, in a world where 3D acceleration rules, Ultima VIII still manages to look pretty darn good.

Playcontrol: This is the game’s biggest weak point. Everything from the UI to the game’s actual control scheme is nothing short of a hot mess. The entire game is controlled via point-and-click, something that is traditionally hard to mess up. But somehow Origin managed to really botch this one. Combat is sluggish and cumbersome – and don’t get me started on the jumping. To make matters worse, the game also suffers from a slight input lag as a result of the DOS Box emulation on modern systems.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VIII is currently available in its “Gold” package (the base game bundled with the speech pack) on GOG for a mere $5.99. Even with a number of glaring flaws, I feel the game is well worth a price this low.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima VIII certainly suffers from its share of issues. But, it’s by no means one of the worst games I’ve played. In fact, there’s really quite a bit to like about it if you’re willing to set aside any expectations and just enjoy it for what it is. But fair warning; If you are looking for another Ultima VII, you will be let down

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima VII The Complete Collection

     

My Ultima series playthrough continues with a review of Ultima VII: The Complete Collection. This bundle consists of the following titles: Ultima VII: The Black Gate (and it’s expansion The Forge of Virtue) and its direct sequel Ultima VII: Part Two – Serpent Isle (and yes, its expansion; The Silver Seed).  That’s a whole lot of gaming! In fact, it took me nearly a month to complete these two titles (and that was with me clocking in every single hour of free time at my disposal). There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s begin with a plot summary.

Ultima VII – The Black Gate: Like most of the games in the series, the player assumes the role of The Avatar. The game begins several years after the events of Ultima VI. One day, The Avatar is minding his own business on Earth, playing a game on his personal computer when he receives a message from a mysterious being who identifies himself as “The Guardian”. The Guardian declares that he is the new ruler of Britannia and taunts The Avatar into returning. Just then, a portal to Britannia appears in its usual spot behind The Avatar’s house. Upon arriving in Britannia, The Avatar learns that nearly two hundred years (in Britannia time) have passed since his last visit. All is not well. Recently, there’s been a number of ghastly murders. Magic has become hard to control and a new shady organization known as The Brotherhood has been slowly gaining control of various parts of the kingdom’s political structure. The majority of the game itself revolves around The Avatar’s investigation into the mysterious murders and his plot to learn the secrets behind this new organization.

The Forge of Virtue: This add-on is really nothing more than one massive quest that integrates itself into the main game. Over the years it’s become inseparable from the main scenario.

Ultima VII: Part Two – Serpent Isle: Despite what the title suggests, this entry is not merely a second chapter to Ultima VII, but actually a completely separate game. The storyline for this title actually pulls from some pretty deep Ultima lore. In this game, The Avatar is tasked with chasing The Guardian’s second-in-command to an area known as Serpent Isle. (Fun Fact: For those that have played some of the earlier games in the series, you may actually recognize Serpent Isle as the part of “Sosaria” once known as “The Land of Danger and Despair”.) It is here that The Avatar must seek out his adversary.

The Silver Seed: Like the Forge of Virtue, this is an add-on that incorporates a new story-arc to the main game. Sadly, due to time constraints a number of plot points were left incomplete and this add-on ended up feeling a bit rushed. These days, it is included in nearly every distribution of Ultima VII: Serpent Isle.

I want to start off this review by stating that I owned these games back in the 90’s as part of the Ultima Collection. However, unlike the earlier entries in the series, these games required a special DOS-based memory manager. Getting this configured under the old Windows 9X environment was quite a task. In fact, I never managed to get it to work without affecting my Windows installation. As a result, I never got see what these games were all about until now. Luckily, GOG has masterfully pre-configured DOSBox to handle the unusual requirements for Ultima VII. Thanks to them, I was actually able to play through these games for the very first time.

Let me start off by saying that quite a bit has changed since Ultima VI. As always, each new entry in the Ultima series serves as a showcase for the latest in technology at the time of its release. This game is no exception. The graphics are leaps and bounds above what was seen in Ultima VI. The same is true for the game’s soundtrack and user interface. While Ultima VI featured mouse support, Ultima VII was obviously designed with mouse users in mind. Every element of the game’s interface is designed for point-and-click. But the developers didn’t rest on their laurels once Ultima VII was completed. Ultima VII: Part Two boasts a few nice UI tweaks over what is seen in the original Ultima VII. It seems that Garriott and his crew never tire of improving their games – which is a very good thing. Of all the Ultima titles in the series so far, Ultima VII is the easiest and most intuitive to play.

Some of the biggest refinements in the game come from just how interactive the environment is. For example, players can grab and move blocks or interact with objects like switches and doors. Players are able to click on chests and drawers to open them. From there, a pop-up window will appear displaying the contents of the container. Players can click on items they want, then drag them to their inventory. Instead of text-based lists, players can now see their inventory visually and manage it accordingly. All of this was pretty impressive at the time. But where this game REALLY broke new ground has to do with the game-world itself. This time, Britannia is a living, breathing world. NPCs have a schedule. They get up at dawn, go to work, go out to eat, and then retire to bed at night. Sometimes, looking for a particular NPC involves knowing a bit about them and where they are likely to be at a certain time of day. Some elements of this were introduced in Ultima VI, but it really takes on a life of its own here.

As if that isn’t revolutionary enough, Ultima VII is also one of the very first sandbox style RPGs. Once you’ve worked your way through the opening scenes and taken a moment to get your feet wet, the whole game-world is wide open for you to explore and progress through at your leisure. Again, this open-world aspect was originally introduced in Ultima VI, but when combined with the new interactive environment – it introduced the world to a whole new level of immersion. Games like Skyrim simply would not exist if it wasn’t for Ultima VII.

As far as these two games go, Ultima VII (and it’s expansion) is simply amazing. Everything about the game, from the gameplay itself to the storyline, is near perfection. Seriously, if you’re a fan of CRPGs, you owe it to yourself to play this classic.  Ultima VII: Part Two, on the other hand, is a pretty big mess. At first, Part Two starts off quite well. The storyline is unique and engaging (especially for fans of Ultima’s lore), but it all goes downhill from there. This is made even worse when you get into the content included in The Silver Seed expansion. In fact, I daresay it is the expansion itself that really makes a muddled up mess of the entire game.

I think what frustrated me the most with this title was the fact that there are so many loose ends left once the game is completed. It’s obvious that a ton of content was cut from this game in order to make its release date. Often times, in cases like these, the fan community will scrounge up enough resources to release an unofficial patch to restore much of the lost content. Sadly, so much was left incomplete that a fan-sourced patch is impossible in this situation. Regardless, Ultima VII: Part Two is still worth a look if you’re a serious fan of the series.

When viewed as a complete collection, Ultima VII gets way more right than it gets wrong. In fact, I think it’s actually one of my favorites in the series so far. I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to finally sit down and give this game the attention it deserved.

Difficulty: Medium –  For me, Ultima VII is a pretty balanced game in terms of difficulty. If you’re not adverse to being patient and taking notes, there’s really nothing in the game that is exceedingly difficult. For me, the biggest challenge came from aspects like inventory management and food supply. Some of the puzzles are tricky at times, but I never came across anything that just seemed completely unfair. Taking the time to dive into the expansions make completing the main scenarios that much easier.

Story: One of the strongest aspects of the game. The main storylines are masterfully done. If you’re a fan of Ultima lore, you’re likely to get a lot out of these scenarios. Ultima VII features one of the best CRPG storylines of all time. My only real complaint lies with Ultima VII: Part Two/The Silver Seed, many story elements are introduced and then completely abandoned. It’s very obvious that the certain parts of the game were never completed and these loose ends were left behind.

Originality: Ultima VII basically invented the sandbox RPG experience. It is impossible to understate the importance of this title to the genre. Even today, with games like Elder Scrolls, Ultima VII still manages to impress.

Soundtrack: This entry in the series features the biggest soundtrack so far. There’s a number of really good musical pieces in this game, but there’s also quite a few forgettable tracks. To me, it’s decent, but nothing really special.

Fun: Ultima VII is one of the all-time greatest CRPGs. If you enjoy open-world/sandbox RPGS, you’ll have a field day with this title. For me, this game ranks right up there with Ultima IV and V. Once I started playing, I was completely enthralled.

Graphics: Ultima VII featured cutting-edge graphics for its time. Of course, the game shows its age today. The only complaint I have lies with the on-screen text. All of the game’s text appears without any sort of bubble or shaded frame to separate it from whatever is behind it. Most of the time this isn’t really an issue. But occasionally, the dialogue can be hard to read – especially on today’s larger screens.

Playcontrol: This game is almost entirely point-and-click. The control scheme is a bit dated by today’s standards and does take a little while to get used to. But it is very intuitive and worlds well for the most part. On the downside, the default emulation of DOSBox does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. A little patience is required at first, but eventually it’s fairly easy to master.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Gore, fantasy violence.

Value:  Both of these games and their expansions are available on GOG as Ultima VII – The Complete Collection. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. This is a ridiculously low price for all of the content included in these games.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – When looked at as a whole, Ultima VII is nothing short of a masterpiece. The second game in the collection does suffer considerably in certain areas, but everything else more than makes up for it. This game is representative of the classic CRPG experience. I recommend it to any serious RPG fan who isn’t afraid to display a little patience.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

 

 

Nerd Fuel: Barnie’s – Barnie’s Cafe Blend

The quest for the perfect coffee continues. It seems like one of the biggest problems I have with finding new coffees to try is variety. So, for this Nerd Fuel entry, I decided to take my coffee shopping out of town. Instead of my local Wal-Mart, I hopped one town over to the nearest Publix grocery store. I’m happy to report that the trip was well worth it. There was much a better selection than I expected. In fact, I had a bit of trouble deciding what to go with. But in the end, I chose; Barnie’s Cafe Blend.

Barnie’s coffee is not new to me. In fact, there was a Barnie’s Coffee and Tea in the local mall where I grew up. But it has been many years since I’ve enjoyed their products. I remember being fond of their house coffee, so I figured this was the perfect product to start with.

Being a house blend, this is a coffee that’s designed to please just about everyone. It’s a medium roast that’s smooth, with a rich, yet mild flavor. It’s not as aromatic as many other K-Cups I’ve brewed, but this did not seem to be indicative of the flavor at all.

If we’re being honest, most house/signature blend coffees pretty much taste the same. They are typically blends of the same beans just in slightly different measures. Sure, there are some subtle differences, but most casual drinkers are not able to tell the difference between them. As far as flavor goes, this coffee fits the “signature blend” mold pretty well. That being said, one thing that stands out about this coffee is: quality. Many mass-produced coffees (even my favorite Donut Shop brand), often has a “B-grade” feel to it. This was not at all the case with Barnie’s Cafe Blend. The grinds tasted fresh and the roast was perfect to the point where I think even a casual observer would be able to detect the difference. I was quite impressed with what I found in this box.

This coffee comes a premium price, but if you’re a stickler it may very well be worth it. This is a new favorite of mine.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would buy again?:  Yes. A tad pricey, but a coffee of unparalleled quality.

FFXIV: Version 4.5 Update

Well, the latest FFXIV patch has been out for a few weeks now and I’ve had plenty of time to dive into all of the new content. I know I’ve recently expressed a slight dissatisfaction with the game lately. So, I’m happy to report that this patch has done quite a bit to address many of my concerns. First of all, as I predicted, SE did indeed announce the next expansion for Final Fantasy XIV. FFXIV 5.0, aka: Shadowbringers will become available this summer. As expected, this update begins to build the bridge that takes players from the events of Stormblood to this upcoming chapter in the saga.

To hold fans over, SE has packed this update with plenty of new content. So, let’s a take a closer look at this most recent update to the game.

Version 4.5 delivers the following content:

  • New main scenario and side quests
  • New dungeons
  • New raids
  • New trials
  • New job: Blue Mage
  • New Treasure Hunt content
  • Squadron/Grand Company updates
  • Housing updates
  • New minigame: Mahjong
  • Blue Mage-specific content: The Masked Carnivale
  • Various refinements, balancing changes, items, and Q.o.L tweaks
  • UPCOMING: The ability to switch servers while in-game.

Most of this update seems pretty standard; new dungeons, raids, etc. Of course, the big news here is the addition of a brand new job. Blue Mage is the first “limited job” for Final Fantasy XIV. What does that mean exactly? Well, first of all, the job is currently capped at level 50. Also, players cannot queue for regular duties when playing Blue Mage. However, Blue Mages are able to enter a new event known as The Masked Carnivale. This content is designed specifically for the Blue Mage job. Keeping these odd restrictions in mind, the class itself seems very geared towards solo players – which is not really a bad thing, in my opinion.

Sadly, due to the limited role Blue Mage seems to play, I predict that most players will likely blow through the content and then forget it even exists. Of course, SE can combat this by keeping it relevant with future updates. But with their attention turning to the upcoming Shadowbringers expansion, we’ll just have to see how this all pans out. I would hate the see something as significant as a whole playable job left to rot by the wayside.

Regardless, this patch is packed with enough improvements that it actually rekindled my interest in the game. I’ve found my excitement in FFXIV renewed to the point where I’ve played nearly every day since the update arrived. That’s certainly a step in the right direction.

I give this patch a rating of:  A

Dungeons & Dragons: Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica

Ever since Wizards of the Coast purchased D&D back in 1999, I’ve often wondered if they would ever consider merging it with their flagship trading card game Magic the Gathering. Well, it took almost twenty years, but with the release of the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, it has finally happened. That’s right, the lore-rich world of Ravnica is now an official D&D campaign setting. I will admit that while I’m glad to see 5E expand beyond the Forgotten Realms, Ravnica was not exactly what I was hoping for. – Regardless, let’s see where this book takes us.

As you might assume, this is essentially a sourcebook for anyone interested in playing a game set in the world of Ravnica. In case you are unaware, Ravnica is an enchanted city that encompasses the surface of an entire world. Prior to this, it existed only in the lore of the Magic the Gathering universe. The book provides a summary of Ravnica, it’s denizens, currency, guilds, political structure, etc. Due to the massive size for the world itself, the book focuses largely on an area called The Tenth District. This zone is more than large enough to keep players busy for years to come.

A large part of this book details the ten guilds that each strive for dominance in Ravnica. Players creating a character in this world are urged to affiliate with one of these organizations. The book does a great job at helping players choose a guild that suits their playing style and even provides some tips for role playing, etc. For DMs that decide not run a game set in the world of Ravnica itself, it’s still possible to incorporate these guilds into a homebrew campaign if they so choose.

One of the main selling points for this book is the introduction of new playable races; Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodons, Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids and Vedalken. Naturally, several of these races are either exclusive to Ravnica or unique variants of traditional creatures. But, crafty DMs are always able to draw inspiration for their own games using the information found here. This book also offers two new sub-classes that, despite being very Ravnica-specific, could also be adapted to other campaign worlds with a little effort. Aside from the information detailed above, this book also contains a trove of new magical items and monsters.

To me, the majority of the information found in this book is really only useful for DMs and players that actually intend to run a campaign set in this world. Sure, some of the monsters from the bestiary can be plucked out and used elsewhere. But everything else seems tied to campaign setting itself. With this in mind, if you’re a fan of MTG and D&D, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. There’s more than enough information in this book to get yourself started. If not, this might be one supplement worth skipping.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Products:

Starter Set

Core Books:  

Player’s Handbook   –   Dungeon Master’s Guide   –   Monster Manual

Supplements:

Volo’s Guide to Monsters    –   Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide  – Xanthar’s Guide to Everything – Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes   –   Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica

Adventures:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen   –  Rise of Tiamat    – Princes of the Apocalypse  –  Out of the Abyss   – Curse of Strahd   –   Storm King’s Thunder  –  Tales from the Yawning Portal  – Tomb of Annihilation  –  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist   –   Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Original Adventures Reincarnated:

Into the Borderlands    –    The Isle of Dread

Record Shop: Nirvana – Incesticide

As some readers to this blog may know, when I was young I was a musician. One of my goals with these “Record Shop” posts is to share the music that served as a source of inspiration for me back when I was learning how to master the guitar. A quick read through some of these entries will undoubtedly reveal Nirvana as one of my major influences. While it’s true, I idolized Kurt Cobain and his songs, one of the main reasons I found Nirvana to be so influential wasn’t because he was some “genius songwriter”. But is it because his music was especially easy to play. Even with only a few months of guitar lessons under my belt, I was able to pick up a guitar and play along with the majority of Nirvana’s songs.

One of my favorite Nirvana albums was actually also their most obscure. I’m talking about Incesticide. This album was released shortly after Nevermind and is actually a compilation of non-album tracks, b-sides, and other rarities. To me, it really showcases a very interesting side of Nirvana. The songs included on this record range from polished pop-rock songs to grimy noise  – I absolutely love this collection. So, let’s jump right into it:

1: Dive – The album starts with this grooving rock track that was originally included as a B-Side for the Sliver single. This song embodies just about everything that I really loved about Nirvana. A driving bass line, grungy guitars, and Cobain’s guttural vocals. If I had to pick a song to serve as the perfect example of Nirvana’s sound, this might just be the one.

2: Sliver – Next up is A-Side to the previous track. The Sliver single was released by Sub-Pop Records during the period between the release of Nirvana’s first album Bleach and their blockbuster hit Nevermind. “Sliver” is a pop song (something that was rare for Nirvana at the time), but it’s one that still manages to maintain that unique feel that only Nirvana could provide.

3: Stain – This is an older track from the Bleach era. It originally appeared on Blew (an EP released shortly after Bleach). As such, it has the same kind of vibe that many of Nirvana early songs provide. It is gritty and dirty sounding. If you’re a fan of Bleach, this is a track will really put a smile on your face.

4: Been a Son – This song was also originally released on the Blew EP. However, the version included on this record is a newer recording. Like “Sliver”, this another fine example of Cobain’s pop-song prowess. It’s a quirky, catchy tune. A fan favorite.

5:  Turnaround – Here we have a cover of a rather obscure Devo song. The interesting thing about this tune for me is just how faithful it is to the original in a number of ways. (Despite being played on guitars instead of synthesizers). Admittedly, one of the weaker tracks on the album, but still very well done.

6: Molly’s Lips – Another cover song – this time by one of Cobain’s favorite indie groups; The Vaselines. The original song had a very lo-fi, new wave sound to it. Nirvana’s version is much harder and driving. This is a very simple song, but one that I’ve grown to love. One of the highlights of the album.

7: Son of a Gun – Another Vaselines song. Admittedly, I had never heard of The Vaselines until I was introduced to their music through this album. Both songs are very catchy and surprisingly pop-ish. Of the two, this is my least favorite. But it’s still a pretty solid track.

8: (New Wave) Polly – Here we have an alternate version of “Polly” from the Nevermind album. This version features the full band and a much faster tempo. It’s a fun listen, but I very much prefer the original version.

9: Beeswax – This is an obscure track that was originally released on the Kill Rock Stars compilation album; a record showcasing talent from the Seattle area. This is a weird, sloppy, grungy sounding track. Cobain’s vocals are screeching and almost indecipherable at times. But it really embodies the raw energy that I found so fascinating about Nirvana. I love tracks like this.

10: Downer – This song was included as a bonus track on the CD version of Nirvana’s first album Bleach. It was included on this collection as well. To be honest, “Downer” is one my least favorite Nirvana tracks but I understand its inclusion.

11: Mexican Seafood – This is another compilation track. It’s originally from a very obscure record called Teriyaki Asthma; a collection featuring tracks produced by Jack Endino. This is one of Nirvana’s earliest recordings. Like “Beeswax”, it’s very loose and gritty – an example of my favorite type of Nirvana.

12: Hairspray Queen – This track is also one of Nirvana’s very first recordings ever, but until Incesticide, it was previously unreleased. This song is a hot mess – but I love it. The vocals are all over the place. The bass line is lazy and funky. The guitar jumps from solid rock to mindless noise – it’s beautiful chaos. This is a not a song for casual fans. But I absolutely love it. One of the beast tracks on the album for me.

13: Aero Zeppelin – Another early track that was finally seeing the light of day. The whole concept behind that song is based on the fact the main riff sounds like something off of an Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin album. It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek track. A decent tune, but one of the low points for the record.

14: Big Long Now – This is an outtake from Bleach. As such, it very much sounds like it belongs on that record. It’s a slow, atmospheric track. But one that doesn’t really shine when put against some of the other tracks on this collection.

15: Aneurysm – The original version of this song can be found on the Hormoaning EP that accompanied Nevermind. This version of the track is a bit faster and a little more polished. To me, this track along with Dive are the highlights of the album. Nirvana at their finest.

While this album is available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, it suffers from an unusual dilemma. Some of the tracks on this collection are still owned by Sub Pop records. As a result, there is no streaming license on most platforms. This means when streaming Incesticide, a number of tracks will not be available. In some cases, this doesn’t stop at streaming. A few digital music stores even exclude these tracks from purchases. With this in mind, Insecticide is still best experienced on Compact Disc.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. Being a compilation, the order of the tracks is not really that important. But I find the record to be balanced pretty well in its structure.

 

Review: Ultima VI – The False Prophet

My review of the final chapter in the second Ultima trilogy is finally here! Yes, it took a bit longer than initially expected. But I’m proud to finally share my thoughts on Ultima VI: The False Prophet. As mentioned above, this game serves as the final entry in what is often known as the “Age of Enlightenment Trilogy” (the sub-series that began with the classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.)

So far, every entry in the Ultima series has always managed to showcase some of the most cutting-edge technology of its day. The same is true for Ultima VI. But this time, we actually see the biggest advancement in the series so far. This is largely due to the fact that Ultima VI was developed specifically for the PC. All other games in the franchise were first developed for Apple and then ported to other platforms. The end result of this decision is a title that features full VGA graphics, a native MIDI soundtrack (for PCs equipped with soundcards), and even a revamped UI -Complete with mouse support! Like Ultima V, this entry also allows players to import their character from the previous scenario.

Back in the day, only the very best PC would be able to experience Ultima VI in all of its glory. At the time of Ultima VI‘s release, sound cards were not standard issue in PCs. So a vast number of players never got experience the game’s soundtrack . Thankfully, players today are able to experience the game as originally intended if acquiring a copy from GOG. As always, GOG does a great job of configuring DOS Box emulation so that the game is delivered almost flawlessly.

This game takes place several years after the events of Ultima V. Once again, players assume the role of The Avatar – a man from Earth who found his destiny in another world known as Britannia. Typically, The Avatar travels to Britannia using a magical blue-colored portal that appears not far from his home. However, one night during a mysterious storm, lighting strikes the site where the portal appears. The Avatar ventures to the scene to investigate and finds an unusual red-colored portal waiting for him. Upon emerging on the other side, The Avatar is accosted by a band of monstrous gargoyle-like creatures. Just as he about to meet his doom, he is rescued by companions from the previous Ultima games and take refuge in Castle Britannia.

The Avatar learns that the Gargoyles have only recently appeared in Britannia. In the short time since their arrival, they have captured several of the world’s Shrines of Virtue. The Avatar is tasked by Lord British to determine the reason behind the invasion and to help restore order to Britannia. Over the course of the game, they player will learn the truth behind the gargoyle’s presence and discover that not everything is as it seems.

As you can see, Ultima VI continued the series’ trend of excellent storytelling. As usual, this game takes what seems to be a black and white scenario and surprises the player with a level of insight and morality that simply just wasn’t seen in games at the time.

As I mentioned earlier, this game showcases a huge advancement in technology when compared with its predecessor. We now have a game world that is virtually seamless and maintains a constant scale. That’s right, no more zoomed-out overworld map. No more first-person dungeons. Everything is now presented in a colorfully rendered birds-eye view. But the enhancements are not just visual. There’s a number of revamps that make this Ultima much easier to play and control. For example, managing equipment has never been easier. Items possessed by characters now appear visually and can be clicked on and manipulated. This is important because for the first time in the series, we also have a new crafting option. Items can be combined and merged to create new, different items. Being able to do this via a point-and-click UI is a must. But that’s not all. Even talking to NPCs has been enhanced – there’s now an animated headshot of the character you are interacting with and keywords in the conversation are now highlighted and clickable. All of this may sound basic these days. But at the time, these were some really revolutionary advancements.

Since the game can now be controlled via mouse, the UI has evolved to accommodate this change. A panel of action buttons appears across the bottom of the screen. These allow players to execute any number of commands; such as drawing their weapon, picking up objects, inspecting objects, etc. Of course, players can still use the keyboard if they choose – and in fact will need to do so occasionally when talking to NPCs. But no longer will players have to memorize a slew of hotkeys and commands. This, in my opinion, is the best thing that could have happened to the Ultima series.

Like some of the previous games in the series, Ultima VI is largely an open world game. But this time, the level of “openness” is taken to a whole new level. Now, players can pretty much venture anywhere they see fit and experience the game at their own leisure. This is a good thing because Ultima VI is beast of a game. Being open-world makes it much easier to tackle a game of this size without it feeling like an endless grind.

All of these changes really make Ultima VI shine. Plus, it paves the way for what’s about to come down the pike with later installments.

Difficulty: Medium –  I’ve heard it said that Ultima VI is one of the harder titles in the series. Personally, I don’t find this to be the case. To me, it seemed much easier than most. For example, one of the features in the game is being able to travel around via a magical item called the Orb of the Moons. With this item, its very easy to simply travel to Lord British’s castle for healing pretty much whenever needed. Plus, the game itself just seems to be much more forgiving overall.

Story: The storyline is again one of the best parts of the game. The introduction scenes are masterpieces and it only gets better from there.

Originality: Just when the series was starting to feel a little stale, the developers stepped up and provide an entirely new experience. Everything from the UI to the overall feel of the game is new and improved.

Soundtrack: Ultima VI has a basic midi soundtrack. As such, the quality can vary depending on how your sound card handles MIDI playback. Regardless, the music is catchy and timeless.

Fun: For CRPG lovers, it doesn’t get any better than this. This game has it all: classic RPG elements, engaging gameplay, an open world – you name it. If that’s your cup of tea, Ultima VI is one heck of a ride.

Graphics: Ultima VI marks a drastic upgrade in terms of graphics. Of course, the game looks pretty rough by today’s standards. But when compared to what came before, its easy to see just how far the developers came in such a short time.

Playcontrol: For the first time in the series we now have a point-and-click UI. This makes controlling the game much more intuitive. Unfortunately, the default emulation of DOS Box does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. This isn’t terrible, but it does take a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VI is available on GOG as part of the “Ultima IV, V and VI” trilogy. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. For this price, three games of this caliber is an absolute steal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima VI is again, one of my favorite entries in the series. It was released in a time when CRPGs were reaching their golden age and it shows. Ultima VI takes everything that made the series great and blended it with a number of new ideas and design changes that really put it in a class of its own.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Dungeons & Dragons: Waterdeep – Dungeon of the Mad Mage

I’ve been a fan of D&D for nearly all of my life. And in that time I’ve dabbled a bit with every version of the game. With that in mind, I can honestly tell you that 5E has been my absolute favorite edition of the game. And Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is a prime example of why. Here, we have an adventure that takes one of D&D’s most iconic settings, The Underdark, and not only gives us an epic adventure, but provides us with a sourcebook that will be used by DMs for years to come.

This adventure is a continuation of the previously released; Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. As such, it is designed for players of 5th-20th level. I use the word “adventure” very lightly when referring to this book. Yes, there’s a set-up and story included in these pages. But to be completely honest, what we really have between the covers of this book is one completely massive mega-dungeon. That’s right, Dungeon of the Mad Mage features no less than twenty-three floors of sheer dungeon-crawling delight.

Being set in The Underdark, the game designers pulled content from nearly every prior edition of D&D and revised/repackaged it for inclusion in this product. I don’t say that to imply that this module is nothing more that recycled material – it’s certainly not. If anything, I tell you this to convey just how much care and respect Wizards of the Coast is showing to legacy players by making sure they cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. The fact that this modern version of D&D is being made by fans for fans has never been more obvious. Aside from being used in this adventure, all of the maps and content included in this book is a virtual treasure trove of reference material for DMs.

The sheer volume of content in this book cannot be understated. There’s hours and hours of material here. With that in mind, this adventure is not for rookie DMs. On second thought, it’s not for rookie players either. Everything about this product is aimed at an experienced audience. Old school players will likely find themselves smiling at a number of hidden references and Easter Eggs as they playthrough this adventure.

Considering that this adventure is very focused on dungeon crawling, it’s safe to say that it might not appeal to everyone. Many players and DMs (especially old-school players) enjoy this type of gameplay, while others do not. Personally, this is one adventure I’m really looking forward to running.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Products:

Starter Set

Core Books:  

Player’s Handbook   –   Dungeon Master’s Guide   –   Monster Manual

Supplements:

Volo’s Guide to Monsters    –   Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide  – Xanthar’s Guide to Everything – Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes   –   Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica

Adventures:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen   –  Rise of Tiamat    – Princes of the Apocalypse  –  Out of the Abyss   – Curse of Strahd   –   Storm King’s Thunder  –  Tales from the Yawning Portal  – Tomb of Annihilation  –  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist   –   Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Original Adventures Reincarnated:

Into the Borderlands    –    The Isle of Dread

 

 

Nerd Fuel – Starbucks – 2018 Holiday Blend

Merry Christmas! I just couldn’t let the Christmas season come and go without sampling some kind of seasonal coffee. Usually, there’s any number of holiday varieties available on the store shelves – gingerbread, peppermint, etc. But this year, I found the options at my local grocer to be rather slim. But at least they did have a good supply of Starbucks’ annual holiday blend. So while it’s somewhat of a shame that I wasn’t able to try a few different coffees this year, there was the old standby.

For the last three years I’ve bought a box of whatever Starbucks is offering and I’ve always been pleasantly surprised. This year is no different. In fact, I actually think the “2018” is quite an improvement over last Winter’s release. To recap for a moment, I found the 2017 Holiday Blend to be just a tad too bold (despite being labeled as a medium roast). This year, I was happy to discover a much more balanced blend.

The coffee has a very pleasant aroma during the brew – one that actually matches the flavor for a change. The taste is quite rich and complex. There is a hint of maple with what I think is a slight cinnamon aftertaste. But neither are very overpowering. It’s a masterful blend. Absolutely perfect for this time of year.

The last few months have found me getting up at three-thirty in the morning for work. To be honest, I don’t think I could have faced the bitter-cold Winter mornings without this hearty blend. Highly recommended

Score: 4 out of 4

Would buy again?:  Yes. This is one of Starbucks’ better holiday offerings since the 2016 Blonde Roast. I highly recommend this one to any “amateur aficionado” like myself.