Review: Ultima IX – Ascension

At last, we have arrived. I’m proud to present my review for the final game in the main Ultima series, Ultima IX: Ascension. This is probably the most divisive game in the entire Ultima saga. It has a reputation for being almost universally hated. Knowing this, I was very curious to see just what I was getting myself into. Yes. This playthrough is my very first experience with Ultima IX.

If you’ve been following my journey through the Ultima franchise so far, one thing should be clear. With each new chapter in the Ultima saga, the developers always attempted to showcase the latest in PC technology. This rule remains true with this entry. Originally released in 1999, Ultima IX is the first and only game in the series to feature 3D accelerated graphics. It is also the first entry in the series to run natively under Microsoft Windows.

Even though Ultima IX showcased the latest technology of its day. It suffered from a number of bugs at release. Including a few that were downright game-breaking. Of course, a number of patches were eventually released by the developers to correct the majority of these issues. But, an equally number of serious problems remained unaddressed. This left players feeling abandoned by the game’s developers. Sadly, this had become a bit of a trend with the later games in the Ultima series. To make matters worse, the game was largely unoptimized and had some very stringent system requirements. As result, even players with some of the best computers of the day struggled with performance issues. These woes were bad enough to make the game nearly unplayable. (When playing the game on modern hardware, this is largely a non-issue, of course).

Gamers who are interested in experiencing this title today still have a little work cut out for them. First of all, even though Ultima IX is a Windows title, it was designed twenty years ago for technologies that are no longer readily available. In order to play the game on modern systems, I highly recommend obtaining a copy from GOG. To start, the GOG-version of the game comes complete with the final official patch and a special Glide wrapper that allows moderns computers to handle the game’s legacy 3DFX instructions. But, the prep doesn’t end there. If you really want the best experience from this title, I recommend that you download and install most of the updates included in the “Ultima Patcher“ utility. This includes an unofficial patch that allows the game to run in Direct 3D mode (enabling players to enjoy the game at higher resolutions). This patch also contains the “Forgotten Worlds” fan-made update. This corrects a number of the game’s notorious remaining bugs and fixes several quests and loose ends. These fixes may not be 100% official, but they are widely considered by many to be largely essential.

The story of Ultima IX was supposed to begin immediately after the end of the previous game. In the finale for Ultima VIII, The Avatar passed through a portal that was to deliver him directly to Britannia. However, somewhere during the development process this ending was inexplicably retconned. Instead, Ultima IX now begins with The Avatar back in the safety of his home on Earth, where he is mysteriously beckoned back to Britannia. It also seems that The Avatar has somehow suffered from a bout of amnesia, as he has to be reacquainted with the some of the series’ most basic lore and concepts as part of the game’s tutorial.

Of course, when you consider that EA wanted this title to appeal to both new and old players alike, this “starter level” is certainly understandable. But I can’t help but feel that the company could have simply asked the player if they were new to the series or a veteran Ultima player at the start of the game. Then, given a starting experience in accordance to their answer. Now, as a result of this oversight, there is a major lore disconnect between this game and the previous entry in the series. Regardless, once you’ve made your way through the game’s introduction and actually enter the world of Britannia, the storylines once again fit back together perfectly.

Once back in Britannia, The Avatar learns that in his absence, The Guardian has began his plot to take over the world by stealing the legendary Runes of Virtue and erecting a series of tainted pillars across the land. These pillars radiate foul energies that have caused life in Britannia to deteriorate at a rapid pace. To restore balance, The Avatar must seek out the Runes of Virtue from The Guardian’s hiding places in hopes that he can discover a way destroy the pillars and defeat The Guardian once and for all.

One of the first things that fans of the Ultima series are likely to notice about this title is the radical new way the game is presented. Until now, every entry in the Ultima franchise has been played from a top-down view. For this outing, the perspective is now in 3D chase-cam style. Today, this type of presentation is not very unusual. But at the time, it was still a bit of a novelty (especially on the PC). As such, there was no universally accepted control scheme for a game laid out in this way. The result is that Ultima IX features an awkward combination of both keyboard and mouse controls. It feels like a funky amalgamation of Tomb Raider and every RPG you can imagine. Naturally, this is a completely different playcontrol experience in comparison to any other Ultima game. On top of such a big change, the default controls are not intuitive at all. Yes, like anything else, it is possible to become acclimated to them over time. But in my personal opinion, they leave a lot to be desired.

Another big gripe I have with this game has to do with the combat system. Mixed in with an overly funky control scheme are equally convoluted combat mechanics. Like in Ultima VIII, combat is again action based. It’s not quite the mess that was seen in the previous game, but it still feels out of place with the rest of the series and take a bit of getting used to.

Looking past the radical new presentation, there’s actually a few aspects of the gameplay that will feel familiar to fans of the series. Ultima IX retains a bit of sandbox style gameplay that made the later games in the series so popular. Players can interact with the world around them (move and manipulate objects, converse with NPCs, etc). But, gone is the open-world feel that made the series so famous. Yes, Britannia is still full of great places to explore. But this time, there’s a very obvious “on rails” feel the gameworld that was never present before.

So, I’ve been a bit hard on Ultima IX so far. But, one of the most important things about any RPG is the storyline. Thankfully, this is where the game shines. The story contained in this game is very worth experiencing. Not only that, but the way it is presented is very well done. Ultima IX features some of the most memorable NPCs in the series thus far, and it is through them that several of the game’s best plot points unfold.

I can’t help but feel that Ultima IX is a game that suffered considerably due to a lack of attention from the development team. During most of Ultima IX’s development time, Electronic Arts undoubtedly gave more attention and resources to Ultima Online. The end result is a game that feels more like a red-headed stepchild than the conclusion to an epic series. That being said, there’s still a lot to love about Ultima IX if you’re really willing to work for it. The sad truth is, most people weren’t.

Ultima IX received scathing reviews at the time of its release and therefore earned a stigma that sticks with it to this day. Admittedly, much of the negative press was deserved. But, there’s still an enchanting story hidden amidst all the rubble that litters this game’s legacy. They say that patience is a virtue. And while it may not be one of the eight outlined in the Ultima series, it is certainly one that will pay off for players who are willing to exercise it on this game. So if you’re a fan of the series, don’t be so quick to dismiss this final chapter in the saga just because of bad things that you’ve read online. Instead, take a moment to accept that even though the experience may be far from perfect, Ultima IX still offers an adventure worth remembering.

Difficulty: Medium –  Most of the challenge in this game has less to do with the actual content and more to do with technical hurdles. The combat in the game is laughably simplistic. But some of the dungeons and puzzles are tricky at times. Overall, the difficult level of the game feels pretty well balanced.

Story: Undoubtedly, this is the best reason to play Ultima IX. Legend has it that the original plot to Ultima IX was nothing short of a masterpiece that ended up being gutted and taped back together as a shallow mockery of itself. Perhaps that is true. But even so, what’s presented here is nothing to sneeze at. I found myself very happy with the level of storytelling found in this game. If anything, it is one of the game’s few redeeming qualities.

Originality: If fans wanted something different after Ultima VIII, they got it. Ultima IX is a whole different beast compared to any entries in the series that came before it. With that in mind, I feel like the UI was largely inspired by games like Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver. But, it somehow manages to keep its RPG roots buried deep in its core. Ultima IX is nothing if it isn’t unique.

Soundtrack: A second high point for the game. This title features a wonderfully composed score. Gone are the days of crude midi files. This game boasts a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and it is nothing sort of amazing. Ultima IX also features a considerable amount of voice acting. By today’s harsh standards, the voice acting is pretty bad and doesn’t keep well with Ultima’s “old english” lore, but it was still pretty impressive for its time.

Fun: The game’s technical issues and all-around sluggishness really do have a pretty considerable impact on enjoyment. This is true even with today’s faster computers and a number of fan-made patches that address just this issue. I can only imagine how infuriating it would have been to play this game at the time of release. Even so, if you’re willing to take a deep breath and overlook many of the frustrating aspects of Ultima IX, there’s a lot of enjoyable moments to be found.

Graphics: Today, the game looks a bit dated and blocky. But this is par for course with PC games from this age. In truth, Ultima IX boasted some pretty impressive graphics for its time. Even today, the game retains its beauty.

Playcontrol: This is my chief complaint. I really feel like the developers did not know how to design controls for a PC game with a third-person 3D layout. To be fair, many similar PC games from this age suffered from stubborn and awkward controls (Heretic II and Tomb Raider, to name a couple). But when mixed with a sandbox-type RPG, the whole thing ends up feeling like one big mess. Yes, it’s possible to customize the control by editing a few text files (and doing so can really improve the situation). But this was not a solution that was intended by the developers.  As a result, it’s not one that is taken into consideration when scoring this part of the game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  At the time it was released, there’s no way the price justified the sub-par experience that this game provided. These days, this game can be purchased for $6.00 on GOG and is frequently on sale for as low as $1.50. At these prices, it’s easy to recommend the game even with its less-than-perfect reputation.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – As I said in my review above, much of shade that’s thrown at this game is deserved. But, as with most things, there’s always a little light at the end of the tunnel. Players who are willing to grit their teeth and suffer through some of the bad aspects of this game are sure to find a pretty memorable experience. In truth, it really is a travesty that a series as influential as Ultima had to receive such a tarnished ending. I know it would never happen, but if any game deserves the second chance of a remake, it is this one.

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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Review: Ultima II – The Revenge of the Enchantress

After the success of Ultima, the development of a sequel was a no-brainer. This time, Richard Garriott took the concepts that made the original Ultima great and tried to expand them even further. The end result is a very ambitious game, but one that ended up feeling like a bit of a mess in the end. (I’ll explain what I mean in a bit).

Ultima II is a direct sequel to the original. After the death of the wizard Mondain, it is discovered that he had a secret apprentice – a young enchantress named Minax. To seek revenge for her master’s death, Minax travel back to the origin of time and sends armies of her minions to various points in history. The twist here is that she does not seek her revenge in the land of Sosaria. Instead, she decides to turn her attention towards Earth (now revealed to be origin world of both Lord British and the game’s hero). As expected, the player assumes the role of a mysterious hero who agrees to enter one of the time doors in hopes of putting an end to Minax’s reign of terror.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

For the most part, Ultima II plays very similar to the original. The majority of the game takes place in the overworld map or in various towns/villages. All of the mechanics from the original game are present. But this time, the player can also travel to various points in history. This is done using special “time doors”. When a player enters a time door, he will emerge in another place and time.  The eras available to visit are as follows: The Time of Legends (the origin of all time), Pangea (approx 300 million years ago), B.C. (approx 1400), A.D. (1990), and The Aftermath (a post apocalyptic era).

The majority of game is simply jumping between eras to find various items. The overworld map is littered with various towers and dungeons, but for the most part they play a very little role in this adventure. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you will also be able to travel to various planets in the solar system. In fact, visiting “Planet X” is crucial to completing the game.  (Important note: a bug in the DOS version of game prevents players from visiting most planets in the solar system. However, this can be corrected via a fan-made patch.)

The one really unique thing about Ultima II is just how open it is. Right from the get-go players are able to explore a vast majority of the game and interact with NPCs. These days, this concept is not particularly unusual. But in 1982, it was almost unheard of.

All of this sounds like the making for a really great and innovative game. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being based on some pretty groundbreaking concepts, Ultima II is largely a big fat dud. There’s just very little in the game that actually engages players. If anything, I think the game is actually TOO open and offers little to no guidance. Even reading the game’s manual doesn’t really point the player in the right direction to get started.

To make matters worse, despite having a plethora of content to explore, hardly any of it is required to actually complete the game. Nor does the character benefit in any real way from participating in any of it. For example, aside from collecting a single item, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for a player to enter any of the game’s dungeons. The same is true when it comes to exploring the various planets in the solar system. Only one planet has anything of interest, and the player needs only spend about a minute of time there. It’s really a shame. There’s so much potential wasted.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game just… sucks. When compared with the original Ultima, Ultima II just isn’t even on the same playing field. All of this really makes Ultima II a tough game to recommend to anyone but the most hardcore fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima II is considerably difficult to complete without the use of a walkthrough or without abusing the save/reload feature. However, as is the case with other games in the series thus far, it’s quite simple to abuse the game’s mechanics – making the game much easier than it should be.

Story: As far as storylines go, Ultima II has a pretty interesting set-up. The idea of merging the gameworld with the real world is interesting. As is the concept of traveling through various eras of time. In my opinion, the story for Ultima II is better than the game itself.

Originality: Despite taking issue with the game itself, I have to admit that when it comes to originality, Ultima II is worthy of praise. So many unique concepts are introduced here, it’s really a travesty that the game ended up being of such poor quality.

Soundtrack: Like the previous entry in the series, Ultima II is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Even the grittiest, most hardcore CRPG grognards are going to have a tough time claiming that they actually enjoy this game. The game itself is just not very entertaining. For me, I found the various mechanics and concepts introduced to very interesting. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Graphics: If you’re comparing the graphics in this game to the original Apple II version of Ultima, then Ultima II is a notch better. But when compared to the 1986 re-release of Ultima, it’s actually a step backwards.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima II is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. Despite being an iffy game, the price for this bundle is still well worth it.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima II is a game with some serious flaws. But, I have to give Garriott credit; He had a vision for the game and for the most part, he was able to achieve it. Even if the game itself is lackluster, Richard Garriott still managed to create something unique and interesting. All that aside, I must admit that Ultima II is a pretty bad game. I can only really recommend it to most dedicated of Ultima fans. Even then, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima – The First Age of Darkness

Fresh off the heels of my Akalabeth review, I’m back with a look at the first true game in the Ultima saga, Ultima – The First Age of Darkness.  This game takes many of the concepts and design elements from Akalabeth and expands on them. The result is the fruition of Richard Garriott’s original vision; a computer-based Dungeons & Dragons style role playing game.

Originally released for the Apple II in 1981, Ultima was the game that launched an entire series of RPGs that would dominate the market for nearly two decades. It was released to rave reviews and due to its popularity, was ported to a number of systems. In 1986, a remake of the game (retitled “Ultima I“) was released for the Commodore 64 and the PC. Being the only official PC version, this 1986 release is the version I played for this review. When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers. .

The storyline behind Ultima is both a continuation of Akalabeth and also somewhat of a re-imagining. This time, the game takes place in a world called Sosaria – a land under siege by the evil wizard Mondain. Despite many attempts to overthrow him, Mondain has plunged the world into an age of darkness. Protected by a powerful gem of immortality, he is completely invulnerable to any attacks against him. As a result of his rule, beasts and foul creatures roam the countryside causing common folk to go into hiding. The lords of the land stay cloistered behind the secure walls of their fortresses. Only one leader, a king by the name of Lord British, dares to defy Mondain’s rule. In Ultima, you play as a young hero willing to answer the call and discover a way to defeat the infamous Mondain.

As I mentioned above, Ultima takes the core concepts introduced in Akalabeth and turns them into a much better game. For example, there’s still an overworld map and dungeons. There’s still bounty-style quests. There’s still a supply of food to worry about. But this time, there’s also a bigger story and much more to explore and do. The game begins just outside of the town of Britain (the domain of Lord British). Here, Lord British tasks the player with seeking out a specific location in the game world. As the player explores the land, they will discover other kingdoms. The rulers of these other lands will also provide various quests for players to undertake. For example, to descend into various dungeons and slay specific monsters (something straight out of Akalabeth).

Completing these quests will either net the player increases in their ability scores or they will be rewarded with magical gems. The collection of these gems is crucial to the completion of the game. (But I’ll avoid any potential spoilers and say no more on that subject…)

The overworld map, castles, and cities featured state-of-the-art graphics for the time. The first person dungeons are reminiscent in style to those found in Akalabeth. The main difference here is that the layout of the dungeons do not randomly generate each time the game is loaded (as they do in some versions of Akalabeth). Instead, they are static throughout the entire play session. This is true even if the game is saved and reloaded later.

Like Akalabeth, it’s very easy to exploit the game by saving before attempting risky maneuvers (like stealing from shops), then simply reloading it if things don’t go your way. It’s relatively easy to cheese your way to riches in Ultima using this method. However, to really experience all the game has to offer, I highly recommend against doing this. Starting out weak and working your way up is big part of what makes this game enjoyable. Don’t be shy! Get out that graph paper and map those dungeons! It’s fun. Trust me.

For its day and age, Ultima was a groundbreaking game. Modern players experiencing it for the very first time today will likely find it to be rather antiquated and confusing. There’s certainly no hand-holding and reading the game’s manual before play is essential. Like Wizardry, Ultima is one of the grandfathers of all modern RPGs. With that in mind, it certainly deserves a look from any real fan of the genre.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima features many of the same challenges found in its predecessor. However, this time there’s hints and breadcrumbs provided by NPCs. That does make finding your way in the game a bit easier. Again, this game is really only difficult if you don’t exploit the save/re-load feature. Taking advantage of this technical loophole makes the game a cinch.

Story: The game features a fairly unique story. By having the game take place in a semi-apocalyptic world ruled by an evil wizard, Ultima manages to stand out among a genre typically filled with either “save the princess” scenarios or glorified treasure hunts. It is often difficult to create a unique narrative in the fantasy game, but Garriott was able to do so by combining his love for both sci-fi and fantasy and translating them into a digital version of a pen-and-paper style RPG.

Originality: At the time Ultima was released it was simply revolutionary. Fantasy games were not unheard of, but Ultima provided gamers with a number of new and unique experiences. It’s hard to imagine this by looking at the game today, but it was truly a cutting edge release at the time. Taking a fantasy world where everyone speaks Old English and mixing it with a space shooter? That’s pretty unique.

Soundtrack: Ultima is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Fans of retro-style RPGs are likely to be the only modern audience for a game like this. But for those of us that enjoy such things, Ultima can provide a surprising amount of entertainment.

Graphics: These days Ultima looks almost laughably basic. But for its day and time, Ultima was state-of-the-art. It’s certainly a massive leap above what was seen in Akalabeth.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. At this price, it’s worth a look even if you only have a mild curiosity about the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Ultima was without a doubt a groundbreaking game. But it isn’t perfect. Despite being designed with the intention of being a rather challenging title, it’s all too easy to exploit the game mechanics and turn the entire experience into a piece of cake. Despite this flaw, Ultima is a classic that paved the way for the RPGs of today. Older fans or even younger gamers with an open mind can still find quite a bit of adventure of they are willing to take a look.

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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Review: Night Trap (25th Anniversary Edition)

You didn’t think I’d let the month of October go by without posting a review for a horror game did you? I know I usually review something spooky and paranormal. But this year, I decided to change things up a bit and go full-on campy with Night Trap.

If you’ve never heard of Night Trap, you’re not alone. It wasn’t exactly a big seller. To start with, it was released on the Sega CD, which was an add-on product that didn’t see very big sales in the first place. Second, it was extremely rare to find on store shelves due to a nearly unprecedented level of controversy. You see, Night Trap was labeled as one of the most morally offensive games of all time. Any parent who allowed their child to be exposed to such filth should be locked up! It was called pornographic and filled with excessive violence. The negative buzz around the game actually got so bad that many retailers pulled the product and refused to sell it. So what was the big deal? Is Night Trap really as disgusting and violent as its critics claim?

The answer is no. Not at all. I’m actually a pretty conservative guy when it comes to what I allow my children to be exposed to, and I’d let either of them play this game. I mean, there’s literally no concern. So what was the big deal? Well, to start with, Night Trap is not your regular video game. Instead, it is made up of actual video footage. It is very much like an interactive movie. I suppose having an interactive game featuring REAL scantily clad women in fictional peril was just too much for some. It stirred up so much hullabaloo that  Night Trap was one of the games directly responsible for the formation of the ESRB.

The gist of the game is simple. There’s been a rash of mysterious disappearances around the house of a very prominent family. It’s been determined that the house is equipped with a slew of traps and security features. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the police have sent in an undercover officer into the home with a group of teens. They’ve also been able to hack their way into the home’s security system, thus giving the police access to all of the traps remotely. Your job is monitor a number of security cameras and use the traps to capture any intruders or suspicious characters that might pose harm to either the undercover office or the teens in the house.

As the story goes on, you learn that the home’s owners are in league with a weird band of vampires called “Augers”. You must capture as many Augers as possible and avoid letting the house become overrun. This is easier said than done, as you will have to switch between a number of live feeds on they fly in attempt to detect any suspicious activity.

The original version of Night Trap was notoriously difficult. Today the game is available in a special 25th Anniversary Edition. This package includes the game in its original form, as well as a handful of alternate UI versions. Some of these new renditions do make the game a bit easier by allowing the players to see previews of all of the camera feeds. This can help save time by not forcing the player to constantly jump from screen to screen when monitoring the house.

The game itself is actually quite a novel idea. In a time when CD ROM drives were still considered to be jaw-dropping technology, making an interactive film was inevitable. Sure, the acting is terrible and the script is even worse. But the whole concept behind the game is both original and brilliant. Playing Night Trap is akin to experiencing an interactive B-grade horror flick. I was surprised at just much fun the game actually is. If you’re a fan of cheesy horror movies and you’re looking for something different this Halloween, Night Trap might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Difficulty: Variable –  Completing this game is no simple feat. This is true even when using the modern UI. If you really want a challenge, the original layout of the game makes things even more difficult. The trick to Night Trap is repetition. The more you fail and start over, the easier it gets. You’ll learn the story and memorize certain cues. But some parts will still require near perfect execution in order to avoid failure.

Story: Despite being exceptionally cheesy, the storyline for this game is well done and entertaining. The way it is presented is also very enthralling. At any given time, there’s a handful of different scenes available to watch. To see everything, you’ll need to play the game multiple times. The more you watch, the more you’ll see how the entire plot twists together. It’s actually quite brilliant.

Originality: At the time Night Trap hit the scene, there was nothing like it. Sure, interactive films were not a new concept. I remember seeing VHS tapes in the 80’s that would have you rewind and fast-forward to achieve a similar result. But never before had anyone taken the “interactive film” concept and made it so easy to use.

Soundtrack: The game features two memorable pieces of music. The first is a little background music that is heard whenever bad guys appear on the screen. The second is a terribly-good bubblegum song performed by one of the characters. Everything about the music in this game is B-grade cheese. But that’s actually part of the charm.

Fun: While there’s not much to the gameplay, it is actually quite fun. There’s a certain satisfaction achieved when you are able to perfectly anticipate and catch a handful of sneaky Augers. I enjoyed this game much more than I expected to.

Graphics: Being a FMV-based game, there are really no “graphics” to score. The game itself is made up of real video. The source material is quite old but holds up surprisingly well in the 25th Anniversary Edition.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are quite simple. On the PC its point and click with a single keyboard button to tap. On consoles it also just as simple.  The game is very dependent on the player’s reaction time, but offers no playcontrol issues whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Campy violence.

Value:  If you’re going to play this game, your best bet is find a digital copy. The game sells for around $15 digitally and is also frequently on sale. If you’re looking for a physical copy, be ready to spend a upwards of $70-$80, as the game is already out of print.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Night Trap is a strange beast. Most people seek it out simply for the mythology that surrounds it. It’s very much a curiosity for many. But if you actually sit down with it and take the time to learn its charms, you just might find a pretty good game hiding under all the hearsay. I recommend this title to anyone who enjoys 80’s camp. It’s a riot and surprisingly pretty entertaining.

Available on: Steam, PS4, Nintendo Switch

Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam

Check Up: No Man’s Sky (1.5 NEXT Update)

The long awaited multiplayer update to No Man’s Sky is finally here. This is the one that everyone has been waiting for. To call this simply a patch is almost criminal. This update completely transforms the game from the bottom up.

In truth, I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with the first two most obvious changes; REAL multiplayer and a new (default) third-person perspective. 

That’s right, long promised by the developers – No Man’s Sky now has honest-to-goodness multiplayer. You can meet up with other players in this living, breathing galaxy – for better or for worse. You can work together or, in a move that’s certain to be controversial, even attack each other. Hello Games has made it easy to join up with either friends or random players. Of course, if you prefer to play alone, you still have the option to lock other players out of your game.

The next thing, or maybe the first thing, players are likely to notice is that No Man’s Sky is no longer a first person game. That’s right, you can now see your character from the third-person. Of course, the option still exists to play in the first person if you choose. But it seems that the developers made the bold move of actually making this new perspective the default experience. This was likely the result of now having a number of character customization options. 

While these are obviously some pretty big changes, that’s not all. Nearly every aspect of the game has been revamped in one way or another. Everything from ship designs, to crafting and gathering have been overhauled in this new version. And in a good way too. For those of us who have been playing from the beginning, we’ve seen this game grow from a barren, boring universe to a what is now a vibrant, living community. 

The storyline that was introduced in the ATLAS Update has been refined even further, to the point of being near perfection. The changes to the crafting system have made base construction more meaningful and interesting. I can’t being to explain just how much this game has evolved with the introduction of this patch.

If you are an old player who gave up on the game in its early days. Or even if you’ve been interested but were afraid to take the plunge, you owe it to yourself to give No Man’s Sky a look now. Not since Final Fantasy XIV have I seen the developers double-down on their promise and turn a game around in such a drastic way. In my opinion, No Man’s Sky is now the game that was originally promised to us years ago. 

So what now? Well, Hello Games isn’t stopping with the NEXT Update. They’ve promise to continue releasing content updates. Next on the agenda is something called the “Community Season”. We’ll have to wait and see what they have up their sleeve. In the meantime, there’s no better time to reacquainted with this game.

Review: Forsaken (Remastered)

Wow. Here’s a game I never expected to review, Forsaken. That’s right, out of nowhere, this classic title has been remastered and is now available to a whole new generation of gamers.

Forsaken was a game that I actually enjoyed in my younger days. A friend and I both owned the PC version. And together, we spent many hours blasting our way through multiplayer matches. Despite our love for it, the PC release of Forsaken never really seemed to take off with the general public. Instead, most players are familiar with the Nintendo 64 version of the game.

When I started working on my backlog reviews, Forsaken was a game that I desperately wanted to revisit. However, I found the original release to be riddled with compatibility issues that made it nearly unplayable on modern systems. For this reason, I decided to put it on the back burner. But now, with the release of the remastered version of the game, I jumped at the chance to dive back in.

Admittedly, Forsaken is really nothing more than a Descent clone. In it, you play as a futuristic treasure hunter in a hovercraft. You zoom through cramped corridors, blasting other pilots and enemies – with the goal of collecting the treasure and making it out alive.

Like Descent, you can pilot your ship in a full 360-degree range of motion (well, “six-degrees”, if you want to get technical).  The biggest difference here is that you can choose to play as a number of different characters, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, one pilot might have a faster ship, but with a weaker hull or with less maneuverability.  Each pilot also has their own personality that is expressed through a series of audible taunts.

At the beginning of the game, only a handful of pilots are available to play. More are unlocked as you encounter and defeat them throughout the game itself. Now, perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I don’t seem to remember this mechanic in the original release of the game. I seem to recall having a full roster of characters right from the start. Perhaps I’m incorrect on this. Either way, this time around I actually found unlocking the characters to be enjoyable and motivating.

As for the gameplay itself, if you are familiar with any of the Descent games, you already know exactly what to expect; fast paced, flying action. Enemies will swarm you, forcing you to glide your ship behind corners for cover, only to dart back out in attempt to squeeze off a few shots. I found that controls handle very well. In fact, I daresay the playcontrol in Forsaken is an improvement over what was found in Descent.

The remastered version of Forsaken takes all of the content from the original PC release and the exclusive levels from the N64 and puts them all in one game, making this the absolute definitive version. The N64 levels are hidden, and must be unlocked by discovering secrets tucked away within the game’s main levels.

If you’re the type of player that likes to hunt secrets, that’s not all. In fact, this version of Forsaken also rewards players with “cheat codes” if they manage to find all of the gold bars that are hidden throughout each level. These codes can then be activated from a menu, providing players with everything from invincibility to alternate textures.

The single player content is entertaining in itself, but the multiplayer mode is arguably the most popular way to enjoy the game. Back in the day, I spent an embarrassing number of hours playing this game online with friends. Naturally, I was excited to try out multiplayer on this new remaster. However, every time I entered the lobby, I found it to be empty.

It seems that the Steam and GOG releases of the game do not share multiplayer lobbies. As a result, you are restricted to playing with others who use the same platform. This seems to be the main issue finding active multiplayer sessions. There’s just not enough people interested in a twenty year-old title. To say that this is a disappointment is an understatement. Despite the potential multiplayer troubles, Forsaken is still a game worthy of attention. Especially for six-degree shooter fans.

Difficulty: Variable – This game offers a number of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to nearly impossible. The settings affect both the number of enemies, enemy AI and even item placement. I found them all to be appropriate. There’s a setting for nearly every skill level.

Story: Games like this do not really need much of a story. The set up here is basic; post-apocalyptic Earth and scavengers.  It is simple, but for a game like this, more than enough.

Originality: Forsaken certainly did not invent the six-degree FPS genre. But it did manage to improve on it. By adding a little personality and some improved graphics and sound, this game brought the genre to a new era.

Soundtrack: One of better highlights of the game. The score for the game is catchy and appropriate; featuring high-energy techno tunes. The voice acting is over-the-top and ridiculous. This remastered version of the game incorporates the “adult themed” voice pack that was previously available as an add-on to the original game. Be warned.

Fun: If you enjoy futuristic, fast-paced FPS games, you’ll feel right at home with Forsaken. Sadly, due to the fragmented state of the multiplayer, it might end up feeling a little lonely.

Graphics: The original game was frequently bundled with graphics cards as a way to show off some of the (then) state-of-the-art dynamic lighting and Direct-3D rendering. These days, the graphics are nothing special, but they still look amazing in their presentation. Forsaken is a beautiful game.

Playcontrol: I found the controls in this game to be a huge improvement over Descent. Something about the default controls here just feels right. If I had to find any criticism, it would be with the UI and weapon cycling. Sometimes the UI seems a bit gaudy and overly large. But, it works.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Adult language, innuendo, and some nudity. (Nudity enabled via cheat code)

Value:  Forsaken Remastered is available for $19.99. Despite being an excellent game, I have a tough time recommending it at this price. The amount of a content is appropriate. But when considering the iffy multiplayer, this one might seem more appealing when on sale.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Forsaken is a long forgotten gem. It is a game that actually deserved the remaster treatment. For the most part, there is little to complain about. The game looks better than ever and is playable on modern machines. However, the best part of the game, the multiplayer – is damaged by the cross-platform wars.

Available on: Steam, GOG, Xbox One

Review: Deus Ex

This is a review that has been a long time coming. In reality, I should have discussed this game quite some time ago. Deus Ex was released in 2000, before some of the other titles I’ve already featured on this site. But, as I wrap up my turn-of-the-century playthroughs, I find myself filling in some of the gaps in my backlog that I missed the first time around. This game is a fine example of that. Deus Ex is one of those PC titles that always appears on the “greatest games of all time” lists, and with good reason. This game is so good it’s ridiculous. On the surface, it appears to be just another first-person shooter, but in reality it is so much more than that. While presented in the first-person, Deus Ex also incorporates RPG and stealth elements. It manages to successfully merge these different styles in a way that’s rarely done successfully. For this reason, it cemented itself as a classic in hearts and minds of many gamers, myself included.

Before I get into the meat of the game, I want to take a moment to discuss some technical details. Deus Ex is built with a modified version of the original Unreal-Engine. This means that it is generally compatible with today’s PCs, but lacks some of the modern conveniences such as widescreen support and higher resolutions. To resolve this, players have a couple of options. (All unofficial fixes) First, for purists, there’s “Kentie’s Launcher“. This is a replacement executable that offers higher resolutions and FOV fixes without changing any of the original textures or artwork. (This is what I used for my playthrough/screenshots). The second option is “GMDX” which is actually more of a total-conversion mod than a simple fix. This mod upgrades the game’s graphics and mechanics resulting in a much more modern and polished experience, without detracting from the intended feel of the game’s developers. In all honestly, the GMDX mod is probably what I would recommend to most players who are just trying Deus Ex for the first time, as long as they don’t mind playing the game with fan-sourced textures.

The story of Deus Ex is an interesting mixture of both political intrigue and science fiction. The game takes place in a futuristic setting where society is on a downward spiral fueled by terrorist attacks, a world-wide plague, and political turmoil. As a result, most of the world is now under the control of a division of the United Nations called UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition). In Deus Ex, players control the character of JC Denton, a recent UNATCO recruit. Denton is an experimental agent who has been physically enhanced with various cybernetic implants. For his first mission, Denton is tasked with resolving a terrorist occupation at New York’s Liberty Island. It is there that he learns the true motive behind the terrorist’s activities, and it starts him down a path that will ultimately force him to decide where his loyalties lie.

The creators of Deus Ex mix some of the best late-90’s sci-fi concepts with nearly every crypto/conspiracy theory you can think of, resulting in a compelling and thrilling story. Throughout the course of the game, players will be taken from the streets of Hell’s Kitchen NYC and the Hong Kong underworld to the catacombs of Paris and beyond. At several points in the game, players will be faced with various decisions that will impact the storyline of the game itself. This adds a level of replayability that makes Deus Ex a game that players can enjoy over and over again.

Excellent story aside, the big secret to Deus Ex‘s success is in the game design itself. Despite looking like just another shooter, players can determine exactly how they want to control their character. Yes, Denton can end up blowing through his enemies like a guns blazing “Rambo”, but more often it’s better to be more subtle. Players can sneak around in shadows and try to avoid enemies entirely. Instead of obtaining keys from the bodies of slain soldiers, they can instead pick locks and hack computer terminals, allowing them to infiltrate enemy territory and continue with their mission. As you progress through the game and complete objectives, you are awarded skill points than can be spent on increasing certain abilities. For example, when it comes to combat, you can choose to master light weapons or explosives as opposed to rifles and hand guns. This system allows players to create a character that matches with the style of play they want to experience.

While the main focus of Deus Ex is the single player story, multiplayer capabilities were added to the game shortly after its release. However, these days, players who wish to experience online play will have quite a bit of work cut out for them. Initially, the multiplayer browser found in the game served as a front-end for the now defunct Gamespy service. Since Gamespy no longer exists, players will need to either enjoy multiplayer on a LAN or edit the game’s configuration files to allow for play using other third-party services (such as Master Server), but even then active matches can be hard to come by.

In the end, the Deus Ex experience is truly a work of art. It is a title that every PC gamer should have in their library. It was released at a time in the industry when the focus was shifting from single player to online experiences. In a way, its release marks the end of a era in PC gaming.

Difficulty: Variable –  Deus Ex offers several difficulty options. However, even at the easiest setting, the game can be brutal at times. Players would be wise to save their game often and try to “out-think” the problem in front them. Often times when confronted with what seems like a hopeless scenario, players can find a solution by approaching their goal from a completely different angle. This is just one of the many things that makes this game shine.

Story: You’d be hard pressed to find a better and more in-depth storyline in a PC title at the time Deus Ex was released. This game ranks right up there with Fallout and Max Payne in terms of compelling storytelling. The plot is certainly one of the best aspects of this game.

Originality: In a time when first-person shooters were a dime a dozen, Deus Ex flipped the script by adding stealth mechanics and RPG elements. Sure, stealth-based first-person games like Thief has already seen the light of day, but Deus Ex allowed players to choose what style of play was suited for them. This brought a dynamic that had never really been seen before.

Soundtrack: Filled with futuristic tunes and funky Asian-flaired hip-hop, Deus Ex features a catchy soundtrack that fits the game perfectly. The game also boasts voice acting that was above-average at the time.

Fun: At first, this game can seems a bit overwhelming. But once I managed to sink my teeth into it, I found myself having a complete blast. This is a game that I enjoyed immensely at the time it was released. Playing through it now, I found that it still managed to capture my attention just like it did back in the day.

Graphics: By today’s standards, Deus Ex will appear a bit dated. Of course, at the time it was released it was top-of-the-line. Modern players can improve the visuals using third party mods and patches.

Playcontrol: Fairly standard first person PC controls. Deus Ex uses the common WSAD keyboard layout for first-person PC games. No major issues.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Language, violence.

Value:  At the time of this writing, the Game of the Year edition of Deus Ex tends to sell for around $7.00. At this price, the game is certainly worth every penny. It is not uncommon to see the game for sale as low as $1.00 during Steam sales.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Deus Ex stands as a high watermark for classic PC gaming. It’s difficult to fully describe just how great this game is without sounding like a fanboy. But it really is that good. This is one of those rare games that reaches across multiple genres and appeals to nearly everyone. If you consider yourself to be a PC gamer, you owe it yourself to experience this game at least once.

Available on: Steam and GOG

Other Games in this Series:

Deus Ex     –    Invisible War    –    Human Revolution    –    The Fall    –    Mankind Divided