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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sigh! 9.

It's finally that time! Finally time, that is, to say some words about Ultima IX. The decade since the game's release has softened my opinion of it quite a bit. I'm going to zip through some of my biggest complaints about the game and at the same time mention the way in which my opinion has gotten softer over the years with respect to each issue. I'll start by mentioning the most-voiced complaints, ones which I can't say much to soften. First, the game is extremely buggy. I have no doubt this will unleash a torrent of comments saying "weird, I never had any problems" but I think such problem-less folk are in the minority. For me, on three different systems I've used over the years, there were frequent crashes to the desktop, especially in the Stygian Abyss and in Covetous. The game has the feel of a rush job, even though it spent something like five years in development; the multiple patches (even an unofficial patch!) help a lot, but are imperfect. I don't really care about bugginess in my overall view of the game (I try to think of what a non-crashing game would be like when I give these overviews) but I need to acknowledge that the quality was very low--Ultima VIII had serious gameplay problems, but I think there weren't so many complaints about crashing. The other main complaint is one I tend to dismiss--that it's too slow. All I can say is that it's not too slow anymore! Time heals all slowness issues, though I have to say their choice of the dead-end Glide API over DirectX definitely mirrors the old Voodoo memory management system from Ultima VII days..In short, Origin went a direction different from the rest of the world without initially realizing it, and now it's a bit of a pain to get U9 working perfectly. The Stygian abyss semi-cut scene with Lord British fighting Blackthorn and the earthquakes in the caves of Covetous are pretty much ruined by the need to repeat them over and over due to crashes, whether or not I used the Glide wrapper that was so effective with other game problems.

In any case, as far as the actualy game is concerned, there's really only a few things I don't like, but they're pretty major things! First, the world feels extremely tiny and very static. The sprawling city of Britain has shrunk, and I don't feel as if there are many landmarks surviving from the previous games. The towns seem completely off (especially Moonglow and Yew), and there's a strong since that each of them is just a set-piece, entirely disconnected from the rest of the world. They cities also seem utterly disconnected from the history of the world, especially the island of Minoc and Valoria, the city of like six people around a volcano that hadn't previously existed. The fact that most of the cities are on islands that you can't reach until certain points of the game adds to the sense of disconnectedness. The lack of some of the features we've come to expect from Ultimas such as NPC schedules and sometimes-over-dense conversation trees are also absent. In summary, Britannia of Ultima IX feels like set pieces populated by cardboard characters--almost the feeling I got wandering around the thousands of randomly-generated cities in Daggerfall (except in Daggerfall, most of the NPCs were also LOOKED like cardboard cut-outs). You could also compare the characters to those in Ultima Underworld I, most of whom were also generics.

I appreciated the efforts that went into referencing earlier games, but some of them felt like they were simply stapled on top of a game that was basically complete. Ultima IX was one of the only games to acknowledge that Ultima II took place on earth! I don't understand how the British museum managed to find Khorgin's fang, though. More absurdly, the skull of Mondain was sitting there! Paraphrasing Erethian from the Forge of Virtue, "I thought someone let that artifact slip into a volcano..." These 'skin deep' references to earlier games are good, but the big ones you would expect (cities and characters having some relationship to their past incarnations) are mostly absent.

So what do I like about the game? Well, the plot's pretty neat. It's no really as 'epic' as I might want in the final game of the series, but the whole idea of city-corrupting anti-virtue pillars popping up out of the ground is cool for several reasons. First, it ties back to earlier games and puts the shrines to good use. Second, it conveniently sets up a nonlinear dynamic, whereby you could travel around the world and fix each pillar whenever you wanted. And third, it provides a sense of graduated accomplishment, where each act you complete changes the area where you completed it. Serpent Isle was pretty good about this--when you did stuff, there were consequences. The plot as used in Ultima IX does a good job with the first idea, barely attempts the second, and tries for the third but falls short because cities of cardboard remain cities of cardboard even if the generic characters say nicer things. I've read the famous Bob White plot but I don't think the plot change is really the big problem--that plot overlaid with the game as it stands would still be problematic. The re-use of the original cut scenes for other purposes, does grate with me, though, especially the absurd summoning of Pyros to gain entry into the Stygian abyss. Ridiculous!

The visuals, on the other hand, were pretty awesome. I remember looking out over the ocean near the shrine of Compassion and thinking, "Wow." There are a few places like that in the game where you can experience a sense of Britannia in way you only might have imagined in previous games. And in spite of all the flaws and bugs, the game's pretty fun to play, with some cool puzzles and awesome, if misplaced, special effects. The real complaint I have is that it 'could have been' so much better, and I feel like the series went out with a whimper instead of a bang. The last few paragraphs seem really bitchy compared to my claim in the first sentence that my opinion has softened, but you should read all the complaints as sighs of regret rather than cries of anger.

So that's all I have in my head on Ultima IX. Sorry it took FOUR MONTHS to write this! I actually wrote part of it, shelved it for a few weeks, wrote a little more, shelved it, etc. until I reached this absurd point. However, this isn't the end because I still need to take some photos of the lovely crossbow Lord British sent me quite some time ago! Then I guess that will wrap up the blog. I have the strong desire to replay Ultima Underworlds I and maybe II as a mage (I never made much use of magic in those games!), but I'm not sure I'll blog about it when I do or not.

As a side note, I seem to have been spelling Khorgin's Fang wrong all this time because the only hits I get in Google are my own blog! But I trust everyone knows what I mean :-)

Till next time!