I apologize for disappointing the person who was enthusiastic about hearing my thoughts on Ultima VII, because today's post is going to be devoted to Ultima Underworld! Not one, but both.
It's hard to remember now, but by far the most remarkable thing about the original Ultima Underworld was its free-flowing, smooth movement. It's hard to exaggerate how game-changing this was, pun intended, in terms of the variety of things you can do and ways of looking at the world. In the older Ultimas, where you had first person perspectives but were limited to "block by block" motion, the environment felt constrained. Even though Ultima Underworld's maps are small, the fact that you can wander freely throughout makes them seem enormous most of the time, especially considering the random secrets you find lying about. One of my favorite examples is in level three with the Lizard Men. One of the quests you must go on is to fetch the bones of Osaka--and it feels like a difficult quest to an out-of the way spot. Yet if you load up a map viewer and just look around the level, it seems horribly claustrophobic and small, and Osaka's bones seem literally within sight of the Lizardman who asked you to retrieve them! Somehow, when playing the world seems much larger and intricate. I feel that's a consequence of the challenge involved in getting anywhere, the ability to swim, the dark and opressive lighting, and the mood set through some of my favorite music in the series.
What's also exciting is the variety of ways in which you can play Ultima Underworld, due to the wide array of skills available. That also greatly adds to its replay value, because each type of play style results in a different experience. The 7th level, where magic can't be used, was certainly a breeze for me since I as usual had mostly eschewed magic! However, I expect other parts of the game would benefit for a more magic-savvy character, especially since at many points magic obviates the need for other skills such as lore and swimming. I have also never attempted to play the game as an expert in ranged weapons or fist-fighting, but it might be worth a try.
Ultima Underworld is highly divorced from the story of the rest of the series--you are captured by a Baron you've never heard of and have to save a Britannia that is unaware of your presence from a monster you never hear of again. This fact has its pros and cons; personally, I think it adds excitement because the game doesn't have to meet expectations with respect to characters and locations, and there is more surprise. Also, as any fan of almost any franchise knows, trying to retrofit the story to what we already know about the history of Britannia is entertaining all by itself. I particularly enjoy trying to determine the year of the events based on the brief clues provided by characters in the game, although sometimes these seems a bit inconsistent!
Some parts of Underworld don't fair so well in the end. I think the bartering system is overall fairly weak, and almost no characters in the game ever seem to have anything I actually want to trade for besides the occasional required quest item. I also find that, although every level of the abyss has its own personality, that fact seems to overshadow a unifying sense of place; that is, every level could practically be its own world or even a separate dungeon. I'm not sure how I feel about the combat system. It was pretty fun to run, dodge, run, dodge, but it's hard to tell if and when you're in range of your opponent, or when you are in his range. The fact that the 2-D opponents also move in a jumpy manner can also be confusing. To round off my small stack of complaints, in spite of being designed for free flowing movement, the world seems awfully box-like to me. In some places this makes sense since people tend to construct with boxes, but I enjoy the more natural seeming environments and wish there were more of them. Oh, and one more thing--I wish more of the virtue talismans actually did anything! The taper of sacrifice, the sword and the shield are quite nice...the bottle of wine and the standard of honor? Not so much.
So this brings me to about the end of my Underworld I comments! As usual I'll pick a few memorable moments, though there aren't a whole lot that stand out in Underworld I. Playing the flute for the cup of wonder is pretty interesting, as is that mad dash for the key of courage. To me, the Lizardman level is the best in the game, though it's tough to explain why. Whenever I think of Ultima Underworld, that's what comes to mind. And of course, there's re-burying Garamon, fighting off Tyball, and tossing away all your useful (and sometimes useless) tools in the abyss.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ultima Underworld II when I played through it; I remembered liking it, but I didn't quite remember how fun exploring the wide array of worlds was. Not a whole lot changed from the original Underworld, but all the changes struck me as positive. Conversations are a lot more useful, and there's a much stronger sense of having an impact on the world, from the slow decay of Lord British's castle and the murders committed therein to the fact that you can free a friendly troll in the goblin tower, and feel both amused and depressed as he slaughters all the goblins who had been harassing you. There's also a certain bizarreness to the whole experience of playing--no one seems to notice that you literally just walk out of a wall and into their home, a fact that's especially glaring in Killorn.
In terms of atmosphere, I'd call Underworld II perhaps the best in the series. Playing this game can be a very depressing experience due to the overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere virtually everywhere in the game, from the lonely wasteland of the ice caverns to the forgotten irrelevance of Killorn Keep or the emptiness of the Scintillus Acadamy. This all reaches a head in the Tomb of Praecor Loth, where you're forced to fight with the three companions of the dead king, who manage to be utterly self-centered in their unwavering loyalty. It would be extremely sad if the combat weren't so painful! The constant theme of the Guardian destroying everything ties all these worlds together, aided by a soundtrack in which the game theme is reapeated in a variety of ways throughout each realm.
Underworld II is also notable for its variety of in-jokes and game references, from the fake version of Akalabeth in which you fight stick men in the ethereal void to the random comment by Mayor Patterson that he found a key from "the days of Minax" or, on a related note, the comic references to Mondain having a nice wife by Pracecor Loth's wizard. Finally, Ultima Underworld II features one of only two references that I'm aware of to the World of Ultima series; you see yourself on Mars in a crystal ball in the Ice Caverns (the other is Spark referencing the dinosaurs of Eodon in Ultima VII). It also includes a forward reference to Dupre's death in Serpent Isle and even provides an item for that same game--assuming you do something totally unanticipated while playing by speaking to goblins you had dealt with in the beginning of the game towards the end.
In terms of memorable moments, Underworld II is pretty chock full of them--many of which I mentioned above. I also found reading the note planning a meeting to deal with the approaching Guardian by the wizards of Scintillus pretty chilling, as is the act of jumping into the Guardian's mouth in the purple section Ethereal Void.
As much as I like Underworld II, though, I can't pass it buy without one glaring, absurd problem...
Lord British, where the hell is your throne!?
I'm glad I got that off my chest. In a way Underworld II is also a bit dissappointing--I think it succeeds largely because its interface and game system was perfected to some degree in the first Underworld game, and the team building it could concentrate on the story, the atmosphere and so on. This also seems to be the case with Martian Dreams and Serpent Isle, which feel like more epic games than their predecessor using the same engine. Yet, the expectation of a whole new way of playing with each sequal drives the series. I guess there could be a happy medium somewhere.
Hope everyone's glad I finally posted! :-)