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:


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


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.