So it seems I'm not going to make my deadline, as planned last month, to finish U9 by today. But I am not upset; I'll try to do it this week. Still, it's good to squeeze U8 in here while it's on my mind!
As I've always said, the Ultima series kind of went out with a sputter. The way I see it, there are two issues at hand--First, the desire to take the series in a new direction and increase its appeal to a wider audience. Second, the propensity for the games being rushed and/or interrupted by other issues. To my mind, the first is worse, but the second is more depressing. We see elements of the second clearly in the second half of Serpent Isle, where everything just seems to fall apart with clear hooks for a much grander plot left in but unutilized. The random bugs and problems that occur in that game also seem to my mind symptoms.
Ultima VIII suffers a lot from this as well, from the infuriating jumping system (before the patch) and the absurd quest in which you are sent to the birthplace of Moriens, which doesn't even exist (before the patch). Most of these problems can, well, be corrected by the patch! I think Ultima VIII's bigger problem--and importantly, not one shared by Ultima IX--is the desire to go in the new direction towards a more action oriented gaming experience. You can't fix that via a patch!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. What were some of the neat ideas about Ultima VIII? Well, I liked the fact that Pagan is an island and thus the rest of its world is basically unknown. The plot is also fairly creative, with the elemental Titans each having distinct personalities and a distinct style of magic. I also enjoyed the shift of emphasis; in the earlier games, the goal is always directly attached to Britannia in some fashion, and is basically finished by the end of the game. Ultima VII was the first to have an uncertain ending, since the black gate's destruction did not also destroy the Guardian, but the immediate existential threat is gone. By contrast, Ultima VIII is mostly about getting off Pagan and at its end really nothing is resolved except for the almost incidental fact that you liberated Pagan, for better or for worse, from its elemental overlords.
So the question comes...how did the design choice mess up what could have been a good game, and how was this made even worse by the lack of testing and general sense of being rushed that pervades the last games? I can point to a few things I really didn't like about Ultima VIII...First, there was a heavy emphasis on the smoothness and realism of its graphics, which produced severe restraints on the possible variety. That's why we end up with, what, only eight or nine distinct monsters? How many did Ultima VII have, by comparison? What strikes me as even more disappointing is that I didn't think the graphics were that impressive. Everything seems dull, gray, and blurry. NPCs are particularly smudgy, and the absence of character portraits robs them of the distinctiveness that otherwise they would have had.
Ultima VIII is also short. Much of the game seems to have been torn out, including an exciting-sounding jaunt through an underwater city to find the Tear of Seas. It seems the game instead is padded with inane jumping puzzles and obstacle courses that while amusing in small doses, get old fast. The worst are probably the sinking-stone puzzles or the impossible "floating rock" puzzles associated with Stratos--they even have the old platform game standby, floating rocks that fall when you stand on them! Oy. I don't know to what degree these aspects were conceived of to begin with, but they feel like ideas that were added later merely to fill out the game which otherwise would take only a few hours to complete.
I don't feel like I have much to say otherwise. I don't like being too bitchy, and this entire post is bitchy, lol. But it's hard not to complain about Ultima VIII given what went before, even though it does seem to have some pretty intense partisans out there in favor of it. I can't even do what I will probably do in my Ultima IX discussion--talk about how the game could have been a lot better--because I think Ultima VIII's problems arose from some pretty fundamental design choices and I can't guess how a game based on its premise might have been otherwise.
On a more positive note, I'd like to stick in a comment about Runes of Virtue! I'm not sure how positive or negative my playing of those games came across, but overall I enjoyed them. They felt like a clever mix of elements from the first Zelda game and Lolo-type puzzles, plus a lot of humor tossed in. I still can't believe there was a pie factory. I also enjoyed the fact that ROV2 was so clearly an improvement on ROV1; I don't think there was anything at all that I missed from the first game. I guess that's the advantage of re-using engines! It's like the first and second Underworld games--there was nothing in UW1 that I missed in UW2, really. Sometimes I have wondered if some of the Ultima games might have been better had they been created with older engines; then again, half the excitement of a new game was seeing how Brittannia a new design.
Anyway, one downside of the way I wrote this blog is that I didn't experience some of the more innovative features of Runes of Virtue. I didn't need the save-game feature thanks the the emulator, and I wasn't really able to enjoy the game link multiplayer feature. In fact, I didn't even realize it had a save feature; evidently it saves to battery at every screen instead of having an explicit means of saving. The ROV series' team lead, Dr. Cat (whom fans might recognize for his various cameos as characters in Ultima games), posted a helpful comment to this effect to one of my blog entries: