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

 

 

 

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

 

Review: Ultima V – Warriors of Destiny

Next on the list of Ultima titles is one of the most underrated entries in the series; Ultima V – The Warriors of Destiny. This is a game that often gets overshadowed by its predecessor. But in my opinion, it is worthy of just as much attention. This title takes all of the advancements that made Ultima IV such an enthralling game and continues the trend, evolving the genre even more.

In this game, the Avatar is summoned back to Britannia by several of his old companions. Some time after the events of the last game, Lord British has gone missing. In his absence, Britannia has come under the control of the nefarious Lord Blackthorn, a tyrannical ruler who has twisted and corrupted the eight virtues into rules of terror. He enforces his version of the virtues with the help of some mysterious beings called “The Shadowlords”. It is up to the Avatar to unravel the secrets behind Blackthorn’s rise to power, discover the whereabouts of Lord British, and bring Blackthorn’s rule to an end.

This entry of the series also marks the first time players can carry over their progress from a previous game. That’s right, if you’ve managed to complete Ultima IV, you can import your character into this new chapter. Doing so will grant you a bit of a boost, giving a small reward to loyal fans. (I should note that enabling this functionality can be a bit tricky with modern versions of the game due to the way DOS Box is configured by default. But it’s still manageable – more on this later).

As I mentioned above, this game takes much of what made Ultima IV great and improves on it ever so slightly. For example, there is now more interactivity with both NPCs and the environment, more commands at the players disposal (ie: search, push, jimmy, etc). Also, the game now incorporates an active clock. This means that time passes in Britannia as the game progresses. As a result, NPCs “live out their lives” according to the time of day. This adds a whole new dynamic for the the player to consider when exploring and gathering information. For example, some NPCs may only be available during certain times of the day.

The Shadowlords mentioned above also play an integral part in the game. They will appear at various times, often changing the behavior of nearby NPCs.  Learning their schedule and how to determine their whereabouts becomes important at later stages of the game.

All of these tweaks and advances help transform the world of Ultima V into a living, breathing place. This, combined with what might be the best storytelling in the series thus far, really make this game one of the more engaging entries in the franchise. I don’t say that lightly. On more than one occasion, I found myself in awe of what I was experiencing. This was true the very first time I played the game years ago, as well as with my recent playthrough for this review. Some parts of the game’s storyline were so far ahead of its time that it is literally jaw-dropping.

On the technical side of things, Ultima V also brings a graphical boost to the franchise. But oddly enough, the DOS version is still absent a proper soundtrack. Thankfully, the fan community rectified this with an unofficial patch. As mentioned in my previous Ultima reviews, the “Ultima Patcher“ restores the MIDI soundtrack found in other versions of game. It also contains optional fixes for bugs that were never corrected by the game developers. Plus, this patch was designed specifically with the GOG version of the game in mind. This means that is provides an easy solution for importing your previous Ultima IV file.

All in all, Ultima V is a great evolution in an already legendary series. But, for all its advancements, the interface still stays stubbornly rooted in what has come before.  The alphabet-soup control scheme is starting to feel even more cumbersome with the addition of so many new commands. But, in the grand scheme of things, this complaint does little to detract from just how good this game actually is.

When it comes to classic CRPGs, I hold Ultima V is just as high esteem as the legendary Ultima IV.

Difficulty: Hard –  Out of the entire series so far, I’d say Ultima V is by far the most difficult title. This is especially true in the early part of the game. Players who import their character will have a slightly easier time, but the challenge still remains. Taking notes and drawing maps is a must. Even then, the game can throw some pretty mean curveballs.

Story: Again, the storyline is where this game shines. I really like the direction Richard Garriott decided to take with this title. The concept of someone corrupting Lord British’s virtues and perverting them for their own gain is both original and exciting. Players who enjoyed the earlier titles in the series will also find some nice ties to the original trilogy (but I’ll say no more or risk spoiling it).

Originality: By this point, the Ultima series has settled into a time-tested formula. Yes, there have been advancements made to the game. But, we’re starting tread into territory that feels familiar. So far, this is not really a big complaint. But it wouldn’t take much for things to start to feel a little tired.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game includes minimal audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack into the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: For gamers who are not used to old-school CRPGs, Ultima V will likely be a tough pill to swallow. But, for those of us who absolutely love the genre, Ultima V is one of the finest examples of a game done well.

Graphics: A step up from prior entries in the series. The game looks ancient when compared with modern offerings – but in its day and time the graphics were bleeding edge.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. 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. But even with the game manual, there’s a large number of commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima V 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 V is one of my favorite entries in the series. Like its predecessor, I consider it to be a classic that belongs in the library of any serious CRPG fan. To me, this game defines the classic old-school role playing game experience.

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

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Review: Ultima IV – Quest of the Avatar

Continuing right along with my playthrough of the Ultima series, we’re brought to the fourth entry in the franchise – the heralded Quest of the Avatar. To say that this game was groundbreaking is an understatement. Just as Ultima III set the bar for CRPGs for decades to come, Ultima IV took what was now a tried and true formula and dared to push the boundary even further. For what might very well be the first time in a CRPG, the goal of the game did not revolve around defeating an evil monster or rescuing a princess. Instead, the purpose of Ultima IV is self-improvement. Simply put, to be the best person you can be.

The game is set ages after the original trilogy. After the events of Ultima III, a time of peace and enlightenment graced the world of Sosaria. Now under the gentle rule of Lord British, the world has now been renamed, Britannia. Concerned that citizens of this world might grow complacent, British created a trial of sorts. A quest to obtain the pinnacle of virtue. Whomever could manage to complete this quest would be dubbed the “Avatar” – a model citizen for all others to emulate. It is this quest that the player will undertake.

The game begins with the player answering a series of moral questions. Players are encouraged to answer these honestly, according to their own moral compass. The game then takes the answers provided by the player and assigns an appropriate starting class.

To get the most out of the game, I highly encourage that players read and answer the questions according to their own personal beliefs. Too often, people will look up guides online to try to get the starting class they want. But, Ultima IV is a game that really focuses on spiritual growth and as cheesy as it sounds, you can actually get quite a lot out of the game by following it through to completion. With this in mind, I suggest going into the game as blind as possible (especially for first-time players).

So what does all this mean? Does this imply there’s no fighting or violence in Ultima IV? No. But for the first time in the series, actions have consequences. No longer can you mindlessly steal weapons and armor from shops, or mow down weak creatures for no reason at all. You must approach the game from a standpoint of virtue. Only attack evil creatures or fight in self-defense. If an evil monster tries to flee from combat, let it run instead of stabbing it in the back, etc. By conducting yourself in a moral way, your character will continue to rise in virtue. This is the only way to complete the game.

Like Ultima III, this is a party-based RPG. But you only create a single character at the start, the rest are NPCs that are recruited along the way. As you explore the game and talk to various townspeople, you will meet the rest of your party members over time. In fact, talking to NPCs is really the key to success in this game. Without doing so, you’ll have no way of learning where to go or what to do. Taking notes is a must in Ultima IV.

The game itself is very open-ended. Players are free to explore gameworld as they see fit. One huge difference in Ultima IV compared to other entries in series is travel. Yes, you can travel on foot and sail by ship. But one of the main modes of transportation is by “moongate”. Similar to the time gates from Ultima II, these are basically portals that appear in various locations according to the phase of the moon. Moving through a moongate will warp the player to a completely different area. Learning the locations and destinations of these moongates is also crucial to the success of the game.

Another big change to the series that was introduced in this game is the magic system. In Ultima IV, spells are cast using a variety of reagents. So players must always be sure to keep enough spell components on hand if they want to be able to use magic. Spells and the reagents needed are often learned by talking to NPCs. So again, note taking is a must for this game. This is a concept that is likely foreign to many younger gamers. But for us old grognards, this was a way of life.

Despite many of these new concepts, the rest of Ultima IV will feel familiar to fans of the series. There’s still monsters to fight, weapons and armor to buy, and dungeons to explore. But where this game shines is in its radical approach to character development and storytelling. As a result it remains my favorite entry in the original series.

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.

Difficulty: Hard –  When played as intended, Ultima IV is surprisingly difficult. Players will really need to think before they act, take extensive notes, and think outside of the box. Patience is required to master a game like this. That being said, if you sit down with a walkthrough the game is ridiculously easy.

Story: The storyline is the really where this game stood above all its peers. Throwing out all of the standard tropes and cliques really gave this title a unique and engaging story to enjoy.

Originality: This game is the direct result of Richard Garriott’s willingness to buck the system and do something different. Against the advice of many in the industry, he insisted on making Ultima IV a game that focuses on spiritual growth. By doing so, he created a title that will forever stand out as one of the greatest games of all time.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game includes minimal audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack into the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: If approached with a patient mindset and the willingness to learn, Ultima IV is a very rewarding and entertaining game. Younger players who are used to the hand-holding of today’s titles will likely have a tough time wrapping their mind around a title like this. But there’s a lot to love in Ultima IV if you’re willing to open your mind to it.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima Trilogy. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced VGA graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. Patched tiles aside, the biggest change to the game’s graphics come in the form of opening and closing artwork. Even though it appears simply by today’s standards, the full color scenes that are displayed at the beginning of the game were absolutely cutting edge at the time.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. 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. But even with the game manual, there’s a large number of awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  You’d think that a game as legendary at Ultima IV might still command a premium price. But, you’d be wrong. In fact, Ultima IV is available free of charge to everyone. The easiest way to get your hands on it is through GOG, but it is also available elsewhere online at no charge. With this in mind, there’s no reason not to give this classic game a try.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima IV is the Ultima game to play. This game was revolutionary in a way that’s hard to explain today. There was simply nothing like it. This game captivated me when I was young and I daresay it actually helped make me into a better person. I recommend this game to anyone who is looking for something different and willing to take the time and patience to master it.

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

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Review: Ultima III – Exodus

My review for the third game in the Ultima trilogy is here! That’s right, today I’m going to be talking about Ultima III: Exodus. This is a game that’s important for a number of reasons (not just important to the Ultima series, but for the entire CRPG genre as a whole). Ultima III laid the groundwork for, and established a number of design concepts that still remain staples in modern RPGs today. It is arguably the grandfather of all modern role playing games.

When playing Ultima III there are a number of ports and versions to choose from. However, most players today will likely end up with the DOS version of the game. This, like all of the games in the series, is available on GOG. The original DOS release is probably one of the better looking versions of the game, but it does not include the midi soundtrack that is present on most other platforms. Thankfully, this is easily corrected via a popular fan-made patch “Ultima Patcher“. This patch offers a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

Ultima III is final title in the original Ultima Trilogy. As such, it brings an end to overall story of the two prior games in the series. In this entry, it is discovered that Mondain and Minax spawned a “child” – a mysterious entity known only as “Exodus”. Exodus has began its assault on the land of Sosaria from its lair. The player is summoned by Lord British to put an end to the terror.

Unlike the other games in the series so far, you do not control a single character. Instead, you now have a party of up to four player-characters to control. When creating new characters, there are a number of race and class options to choose from. Players can select between Human, Elf, Dwarf, Fuzzy, or Bobbit when it comes to race, and Fighter, Paladin, Wizard, Cleric, Thief, Ranger, Barbarian, Lark, Druid, Illusionist, or Alchemist for classes. Each class specializes in a certain style of play. For example, Fighters can use any weapons and armor, but have no spellcasting ability. Other classes, like Alchemist, have access to a limited list of weapons and spells. It’s up to the player to determine what combination of races and classes they find most beneficial. Of course, the key is to strive for balance when setting up your party. A good party will consist of attackers, support characters, and magic users.

Party-based RPGs were not a new concept. The Wizardry games are all based on this idea. But Ultima III was the first game to combine party-based tactics with the overhead exploration that the other entries in the Ultima series made famous. The end result was nothing short of amazing. Bringing together these two styles of role playing games marked the beginning of a new era and set the standard for years to come.

Of course, Ultima III also stays true to many of core concepts that made the series famous. Players are still able to explore the overhead world, towns and various dungeons. This time, dungeons are not randomly generated. Instead they now consist of unique, pre-designed maps. Also, in this game, dungeons actually have a larger purpose! That’s right, for the first time in the series, players will find the practice of dungeon-delving beneficial. Several of the dungeons found in Ultima III contain special items that are required to complete the game. This means that exploring them is a must, but also rather fun. (Better get that graph paper out!).

For many, myself included, Ultima III was the first game in the series that really captured their attention. Of course, the game really shows its age these days. But its impressive just how well it holds up. It’s the perfect blend of dungeon crawler and overhead CRPGs. This is the game that started it all.

Difficulty: Medium –  Ultima III is not nearly as difficult as the prior games in the series if you’re willing to a do a little grinding. They key here is stick to overworld battles in the beginning – as they scale in difficulty with your character level. Then, once you’ve toughened up a bit, you can venture into the dungeons. As long as you’re willing to grind, you can stay ahead of the difficulty  curve.

Story: As always with the Ultima series, the storyline here is fairly well done. The big twist comes with the reveal of what “Exodus” actually is. I won’t spoil it here, but it really makes puts a nice little cherry on top of an already good game.

Originality: This game takes elements from other popular CRPGs and mixes them masterfully with the existing Ultima formula. The end result is a game that quite literally became the template for nearly all other RPGs for the next decade.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game does not include audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack to the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: For me, this is the shining jewel in the original Ultima Trilogy. It just doesn’t get any better than this. I used to enjoy experimenting with different class combinations, learning the ins-and-outs of everything. If you enjoy older RPGS, this is one that should provide hours of entertainment.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima I. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. The biggest upgrade to the game’s graphics come in the form of 3D-style dungeons. This time, instead of being black and white wireframes, the dungeon walls now features colors. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it adds quite a bit of atmosphere.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. 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. But even with the game manual, the new classes and abilities make for a large number of awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima III is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. This game alone is worth the six dollars.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima III is nothing short of legendary. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, its hard not admire a game of this stature. While it doesn’t hold up quite as well today as some other titles, it still stands the test of time fairly well. If you’re interested in Ultima, but find the first two entries a little too archaic for your tastes, Ultima III might be the best starting point in the series.

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 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

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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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

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

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:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

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

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