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

Sunday, May 31, 2009

U8 / ROV

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:

http://bloggingultima.blogspot.com/2007/07/runes-of-virtue-day-4.html

15 comments:

dancingcrab said...

One day I might give Pagan some time...

I remember when I first bought it and excitedly hurried through the install on my 486 (I must have been 15 years old or so, in the late nineties). I hadn't read anything about it; I was pretty much blind to the gaming world at that point in my life - internet was controlled by my pa, and although I was allowed to use it, I didn't spend much time looking up stuff, etc, plus I couldn't afford gaming magazines. All I knew was that I loved the UWs and U7, so Pagan had to be good.

At first, I was kinda hooked. It was a strange and vaguely interesting world. But it wasn't Britannia. And there was no Iolo, Dupre or Shamino. And there were no portaits. It started to feel all too alien. So I gave up after getting lost in a cave.

A sad end turn of events, indeed. Yet when I think back to my brief U8 encounter, I wonder if there is still something to be enjoyed. It might be time to fire up DOSBox once again...

gooberslot said...

Ultima VIII was definitely my least favorite of the bunch. I honestly can't remember any redeeming features.

ZenJu said...

Actually I enjoyed U8 the first time I played it (unfortunately not to the end cause there's a bug when you apply the breath of wind on stratos, that made me think my game data was broken)
Maybe it was because I first played first U6, then U8, and then U7.
Now after having played all Ultimas since U5, I have to admit that it is way inferior to U7 but still it's a lot better than U9.

Vozedale said...

Pagan was pretty good, for a side quest, one that has no real ties to the series. It was like a filler episode on TV. And then we wait in suspenseful agony to return to the series storyline, and then came Dissension, the ending that almost would have been better if they ended the series with pagan. EA games seems to have helped trashed it, and now complains if anyone tries to recreate it. Ultima 4 through 7 worked. 1, 2, and 3 were not the greatest, but they were kind of the developmental stages of ultima. I looked at some of the attempts to recreate this or that ultima with Elder Scrolls/Never Winter Knights engines, but I believe that most people feel that ultima 7 was the best. I think a remake of 1,2,3 would be nice. Maybe make exodus seem more like a bad guy that shows his face. Ultima 3 ending was great, you enter the castle of exodus, some creature born from the past ultimas, you throw some cards down on his altars and destroy his castle. If Guardian was exodus, the story almost works better. Exodus makes the avatar turn into an ankh for destroying his castle when he didn't do anything wrong. The Avatar's fatal mistake.
Even better, recreating ultima 1,2,3,9 and maybe add a 10 using the ultima 7 engine. Or just a 9 that connects the guardian to mondain, such as facing revived Mondain, Minax, and Exodus, who are servants to the guardian. The story line could follow the guardian to his home world, or end in britainna, with the people flocking to the shrines giving you the power to banish the guardians large (yes large, not like in ascension) hand (after you demolish the rest of him) permanently from britainna. Anything is better than join with your evil twin to become an ankh.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic blog. I want to play these from all over from scratch. All website I see so far are dieing from time decay. I hope to start soon. Any links would be great. Thanks.

ZenJu said...

Hey what about a new Post for U9... ;) It's been a while.

Aaron said...

Two and a half months since your last update. Only one more game to go and then you're done! :)

dancingcrab said...

C'mon friend...

William Hardy said...

How did you get Ultima 7 to run on XP? Exult?

dancingcrab said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dancingcrab said...

Losing hope...

Aaron said...

4 and a half months since your last post. Is it safe to assume that this blog is dead?

You were one post away from total completion!

Anonymous said...

I don't mind Ultima 8, 9 was a tragedy though. 8 was more of a symbol of unfinished ideas to me; 9 just completely gave up trying.
If you piece together all the information from U7, Underworld 2, and SI - and even the U8 instructions - about Pagan and the Guardian before playing this game to the end, you could tell there was something entirely different planned for this game (and especially the finale)
I distinctly believe that any known incarnation of the U9 story (either the "Bob White" or actual released) was completely wrong. The Guardian cannot physically enter Britannia after U7 without a sponsor to make a Black Gate. (And the U9 answer to that is just as ridiculous because the person supposedly responsible was also unable to enter Britannia). Pagan was supposed to be the Guardian's attempt at crushing the Avatar's spirit by showing the hopelessness of defying him. I don't buy into this theory (due to fake U9) that it was supposed to be about making the Avatar get his/her hands dirty.
Note that the final goal of the game is to repair the Black Gate of Pagan used by the Zealans to summon the Guardian in order to "battle the Destroyer", who were obviously tricked because the Destroyer WAS the Guardian. Sounds suspiciously like the Guardian's brainwashing influence used on the Fellowship, with a different twist. Also note the three Zealan gods defeated by the Guardian/Destroyer were perfect mirrors of the three Principles of Britannia - Apathos - Truth, Amoras - Love, Odion - Courage.
Also note that the Ether was completely disrupted in Pagan and supplanted by the Guardian's own magic, which is what happened to Britannia in U7 with the mages and moongates (luckily the Avatar stopped the permanent destruction of magic in time, but it was too late for the moongates). There was even supposed to have been a Silver Seed in Pagan, a tree of Balance.
In context, Pagan was selected precisely for its similarities to Britannia (even though the game we got didn't show that at all) to really strike home with the Avatar. All the Guardian wants is to have that victory of having the Avatar give up. There's even a slight chance that Pagan IS Britannia in the future, or another part of Old Sosaria, given the presence of Arcadion and a relative of Mordra, not to mention gods of the Principles.
What makes me sad about this series is that we never will know. I won't even bother commenting on U9. Even the Bob White story wasn't so hot, give me the Guardian's homeworld story!

Anonymous said...

As much I enjoyed Ultima 9 for what it was, the Guardian's Homeworld concept was a magnigicent idea with loads of portential for greatness! They never should have scrapped it. Back in the day, I recall reading a fairly detailed article that contained an interview about Ultima 9 in which they asked Richard Garriott what Ultima 9 was to be about... and he said that it was to answer the question "What is the Guardian?" He (RG) went on to say that he wanted the Guardian to be one of a whole race of such interdimensional godlike beings, and that he wanted the Guardian to be the weakest of them. He said he envisioned the Guardian as being: "like Darth Vader, with the Emperor being right around the corner". These much more powerful beings (can you imagine any MORE powerful beings than ol' big red?) would live on their own homeworld, and the point of Pagan was for the Avatar to become a being on their level, a god, so he could fight against them on their home turf. I can imagine that the plot of that version of U9 would have entailed gaining the powers of each god you slay, until you can finally take on the "emperor" and win the game. That would have been AWESOME! Even moreso... if their home planet was actually not a planet per se but the Lands of the Dark Unknown from Ultima 1, a land which they never revisited in the later Ultima games. The twist I'd have loved to see would be having the ruler of those gods be revealed as Exodus, who is revived by the Guardian's retrieving the Dark Core from the Void while the Avatar was on Pagain... and thence having the Guardian reuniting Exodus' spirit with the Core. In a further twist, the Guardian turning out to be the evil spirit of Mondain would have rocked! They could have tied the story to Ultima IV by saying that when the Avatar destroyed the Skull of Mondain, the Guardian (Mondain's spirit) was freed from the Skull. Thus still making it be the Avatar's fault, but far more spectacularly. They could have easily explained that this is why the Guardian was present in the past, because he was Mondain and the Guardian is one of the evil wizard's guises. Mondains could have easily been retconned to be centuries old (like Lord British, only vastly older) and also having the power to traverse dimensions. Heck, he was immortal so he also could have been omnipoent as well. Freed from his body, he could be unlimitedly powerful. Godlike. His consort on his homeworld could have been made to be Minax, who is reborn in this time period though she was killed in the original time period in which the Avatar fought her. Since time reset after Ultima II after all, Minax could have reasonably been reborn as a result. That would bring back the Triad of Evil for one final battle with the fates of both Earth and Britannia (Sosaria) being in the balance. Your fights with each one could mirror the original fights with them in the classic games. Richard Garriott said he wanted one of the gods to be a woman with multiple arms like a Hindu goddess so imagine if Minax came back in that kind of form. Awesome stuff. If they wanted to bring back Blackthorn too, they could have had him be the high priest of the Triad of Evil, since he was after all tainted by their evil through the Shadowlords in Ultima V. Epic enough? Heck yes! That's how I would have designed Ultima 9, along the lines of RG's vision but with taking every past Ultima game into consideration the way I laid out in this post.

Anonymous said...

Imagine that! I'd have loved to see the Guardian's Homeworld idea taken to such a level also. I also always thought that bringing back the Triad of Evil for one last go would have tied up a lot of loose plot threads such as the Skull of Mondain, the Dark Core, and the nagging thought that as you said: if time reset, then where in this time period was Minax! Minax as the Ultima equivalent of Kali with Mondain as the Guardian being essentially Shiva would make the Exodus as Brahma epic beyond all imagination. Minax was death and love all rolled into one anyway, since she sought vengeance for love's sake, however twisted. Mondain was basically a destroyer and the Guardian was called the Destroyer of Worlds, which is like that famous Hindu saying from the Mahabaratta: "I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds!" And Exodus was patient, logical, and nearly on a godlike level anyway. It could be explained that the spirits of the Triad from those statues in Ultima 6 were actually the good parts of their souls... while the evil was still out there plotting revenge for their former defeat at the Avatar's hands. I'd have loved for Blackthorn to be something grander too. High Priest of the Triad... hmmm... they could call themselves the "Divine Triad" now instead of Triad of Evil. And Blackthorn could have been the Cyborg Blackthorn from UO, while keeping the story of him being made into one by Exodus, but thus making it part of the official Ultima saga and not just UO's mythos. Bring the Juka and Meer into it by having them be the Triad's soldiers on the homeworld and you've got me sold on the whole idea! Just imagining how all that is what could have been makes me all the more sad for what was not. Ah well, I suppose we should be grateful the series was ended at all and not just left hanging at the end of Pagan. That really would have been horrible!