Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

U7s

Hello, world.

The best way to start an Ultima VII blog is probably by answering a recent question--what happens when you start if you don't have a mouse? As I recall, Iolo whispers to you advising you to purchase one. It's kind of an amusing and rare fourth wall moment.

Over and above any of the other games, Ultima VII is far and away the most immersing, in my opinion. It results from a combination of factors, many of which derived from earlier games. An obvious example is the NPC scheduling, which originated in Ultima V but by VII is massively expanded upon to include very detailed NPC activities. Upon first playing the game, it is pretty amusing just to wander around town and observe people going about their business--children playing tag, cooks baking or filling pots with mysterious green sludge, bureaucrats dropping letter openers and other sundry junk at different locations around their offices. I especially like the way NPCs react to the weather, opening shutters and making comments. The size and detail of the game world also aids immersion--from the wide assortment of different kinds of trees to the random corpses in the forest with magic items and the caves with imaginary walls. You can, and I think many of us did, just spend hours wandering the terrain, playing with the interactive objects, and collecting treasure from the endless streams of enemies (especially in the Great Forest, where I tended to hide my booty in the mysterious wisp castle full of books). There are also plenty of little details that I appreciated--the way your companions leave you or even attack you if you steal too much, or the way NPCs react when you move objects while you are invisible.

Other aspects of the game were a bit less popular. At first I was sad at the lack of typed conversations, but I have to admit it improved believability since characters no longer say "I don't know anything about that" to obvious queries. The most disparaged aspect of the game was the combat, and it's understandable considering your companions' propensity for killing you with their weapons (particularly anyone with a firedoom staff--ye gads!). It's true that there was no strategy involved, but frankly I found the older strategic combat tedious, and the fact that the game freezes when you open up your inventory makes up for it at least a little bit, since it's possible to take a breather and change strategy mid-course. Probably even more disliked was your companions' incessant whining for food, which I have to say got pretty annoying. It seems like it would not have been too difficult for your party members to feed themselves with whatever is available! I guess maybe the designers didn't want them eating your special food or something, but surely there could have been a way. Interface-wise, the randomly reorganizing inventory objects proved very frustrating, especially with respect to the inevitable Gigantic Bag O' Keys That All Look Similar. I suppose saving the exact location of every item in any container might have been challenging, but at least the game could have displayed them in some coherent order.

But that's about all the grips I have. The leap between Ultima VII and Ultima VI was at least as giant as the Ultima V to Ultima VI leap, which itself was very noticible. Even today I still am fond of the graphics of Ultima VII, which seem to have just the right mix of sharpness and detail--Everything was bigger in Ultima VIII, for example, but NPC faces and such just looked like smudges. They are smudges in Ultima VII too, but since they are also smaller it seems more appropriate. I also find the Ultima VII soundtrack to be perhaps the most memorable of any of the games. Unlike Ultima VI, each location has distinctive music, and unlike Ultima VIII the tunes are very individual and it doesn't feel like a movie soundtrack, to the point that I can enjoy listening to the music (as I am right now!) outside of the context of the game. LOL, I can even play part of the Fellowship Theme on the piano. Too bad all the recordings of this stuff seem to be MIDIs (even the nice soundtrack CD).

So now let's move on to the other side of the coin--Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle. It's amazing to me that originally Serpent Isle was conceived of as its own game--That would have been a truly gargantuan effort to play through. On the other hand, I would have enjoyed being able to equip my party myself! It always struck me as absurd that you show up in Britannia with some of the companions wearing no shirt! Or at least I think Shamino isn't. This is one of a wide variety of minor but noticeable problems that crop up in the game: It'd never clear what exactly the Ice Wine replaced; the serpent teeth owned by the Mages in Moonshade seem to just magically appear; after Monitor is destroyed Harnaa talks like nothing happened; etc. I attribute these problems, most of which occur late in the game, to its rushed delivery, a problem that also resulted in many issues with Ultimas VIII and IX and lots of other games.

But let's focus on the things I like! Serpent Isle took the 'real-worldness' of the game to greater heights in a few ways. Most obvious are the gigantic and very attractive character portraits; more subtle is the fact that the portraits largely look like the figures on-screen! On a related note, only rarely is the same figure used to represent different people in the same town, even though this entailed a large number of new types of bodies. The inventory paper-dolling was also very nice, and I was a big fan of the overall design of Fawn with its crisscrossing walkways overhead and so on.

I also appreciated the fact that the world changes upon y our interaction with it, sometimes for better or for worse. Ultima VII and earlier games always bugged me a bit because it was uncommon for someone to notice that you finished anything; an extreme example is the fellow who tells you to retrieve Lord British's crown in Ultima V and doesn't notice that you've returned with it. In Serpent Isle, however, even random people notice things you've done, including new conversation wordings that arise after your become a knight to the wholesale destruction of the towns by your companions. The world is decidedly non-static.

The Guardian...In general, I'm positive. His introduction was pretty impressive, speaking to you from a computer monitor! I loved how he'd make random comments in Ultima VII, especially. He's threatening yet also foolish, so some of the oddities of his plans didn't bother me much. Ultima VII was an especially effective presentation of him, because you only slowly learn the truth over time and it presents a fun mystery. The same is true in Serpent Isle, where you arrive to chase Batlin only to discover that what's going on is vastly more significant than chasing down one guy, even if I get a bit muddled on a few of the details of how the order and chaos serpents ended up where they are and how it is that particular actions solve the problem. The storyline in Serpent Isle was brilliant, tying an already epic quest (stopping the Guardian from destroying the Universe, more or less) with extensive or minor references to very many of the previous games, producing the sense of continuity that I loved so much playing the game.

The downside of such an effort is that it's hard to follow up on; there's the sense that the next game must necessarily be as epic, but in a lot of ways Pagan is non-epic and requires very pragmatic choices.

A few words about the add-ons! I consider Forge of Virtue excellent. It was coherent, the quests were fun, and it tied itself into the story of Ultima despite not strictly relating to the plot at hand (which is good; it needs to be self-sufficient). Erethian was a lot of fun to talk to. Silver seed also had a lot of fun quests, and the notable advantage of variety. Unfortunately, being structured as a time travel adventure leads to some confusing questions (where is this place in the modern-day Serpent Isle? Did planting the silver seed actually accomplish anything?) so plot-wise I liked it a bit less. I also got the sense that it was more of a rush job--which is the sense I get from Serpent Isle overall.

To end this meaty post, I'll just toss out some of my most memorable moments in the two Ultima VII's. There's plenty of them to go around, so I'm sure to forget a few:

-The situation of the Mages, comic but sad.
-Almost every aspect of the Skara Brae quest
-That strange serpent-shaped landmass on Ambrosia
-Destroying any of the generators
-Confronting Batlin with the Cube.
-Shattering the daemon mirror on the Isle of Fire

-The Mountains of Freedom, especially the dream-like sequence where a woman is killed by her nightmare and a man is struck by lightning after you put flowers on a corpse nearby
-The test in Furnace
-Confronting Rabinrath in the dream world
-Shamino and Beatrice
-Confronting Batlin and your companions' speeches
-Speaking to the dead Heirophants

There's plenty more. These are probably why the game has so much replay value, besides the fact that you can pretty much ignore the plot and have a great deal of fun exploring and interacting.

That's enough for today. I still have a few games to go! See you next time.

2 comments:

Natreg said...

I agree with everything you said.
About planting the silver seed, I think it was more of an excuse to do something that eventually will ressurrect the people killed by the banes than anything else. It's mentioned by Karnax if you plant it after the banes are free.

I really consider Ultima VII's schedules among the more complex I have ever seen. It lacks some things that would have made it perfect, like having doors closed at certain hours and things like that, but some of the newer games should learn about this game schedule system.

Jonathan said...

A good friend of mine from high school originally played Serpent Isle without a mouse. His machine was just old enough that even when maxed on RAM didn't have enough low memory to load all the necessary system files *and* the mouse driver.

He said it only became utterly obnoxious once he had to start doing inventory management.

(Later, when he got a newer PC, we played Ultima VIII in tandem, with each of us on our machines and reporting what we found during extended phone conversations.)

To this day, I still hold Ultima VII/Serpent Isle as the best example of an interactive and open-ended world. I think Oblivion got pretty close, but there's too much of fill-in-the-blank in the game.