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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ultima VIII, Day 1

Well, it's the moment everyone hs been waiting for. Well, only a few oddballs who love this game. I for one, do not love this game, and I was going in with such low expectations that if it had electrocuted me, I would have been impressed. Actually, that's Ultima IX--Ultima VIII would impress me by merely kicking me in the shins.

In all seriousness, as I play the game (this blog is also retrospective, but on the advice from the Serpent Isle posts I will not specify how retrospective) I can get a pretty good idea what a really cool game with the same premise and world would have been like. The first thing you notice, from a modern perspective, is how absolutely desperately his game wants to be 3D, from the jumping and climbing, to the excessive frames in the character art, to the fact that the walls are so huge that it's easy to randomly lose objects behind them. But the fact that it's decidedly not 3D leads to some of its biggest drawbacks...

1) The isometric perspective where you and monsters are constantly hidden behind walls and other objects
2) The hideous character art. Faces are like smudges. Beren looks like Gumby with his weird parabolic arms. They're all like really low-res 3D models
3) The fake 3D models require huge numbers of animation frames, wasting space that could have been used for more monsters, weapons, more everything

As far as plot goes, this day was spent wandering around Tenebrae. The place is mostly empty except for generic peasants and guards, sometimes in pairs, spouting the same lines about paying taxes over and over again. Let me see if I can remember everyone inside the city walls...There's the tempest, her manservent, her bored girlservent, Orlock the bartender,his waitress, the goth buffoon with the giant axe and no clothing, the trainer, and...oh yeah, the blacksmith. That's eight. I guess it's better than the typical town in Savage Empire, but yeesh. Beyond that we've got three guys living around tenebrae, four tempests, five(?) sorcerers, and a necromancer. And an old hermit. So the whole word is pretty tiny.

I forgot Bentic, the dude who is unable to rise from his chair! He is at least colorful-looking.

Like I said, my first day was all wandering around--I found a pit that as I recall leads to a magic mace, but for the life of me I can't figure out how to climb into the hole; the Avatar merely walks around it. I also talked to Mythran, the old hermit, who gave me an item that recalls me to various locations (with the inventive name "Recall Item"). He also makes potions and has a bunch of physics-defying, endlessly rolling spiked balls in his foyer. I'll save my floating platform/sinking stone/etc. bashing for later, when it becomes extremely absurd. But suffice to say you end up feeling like you're stuck in Castlevania in this game.

None of this is to say that the game is necessarily bad, but the first impression when you play is, "Holy crap, what did they do!?" Most of the cool features that have been hallmarks of the game since Ultima V have vanished, some of the best features of the latest game (the paperdoll inventory, the awesome character portraits) have been eliminated, or in the case of the paperdoll inventory, made so non-functional that it might as well not exist.

Now I feel compelled to list some high points of the gameplay.

1) Being able to climb and jump allows for some quick navigation. In Serpent Isle, there was this ridiculous walled-in area east of Monitor with teleporters inside, and it was simply insane that you couldn't just jump over the section of wall that looked about 1 foot high. Here, you eel less absurd because you can.

2) I'm having trouble thinking of anything that isn't plot or concept related instead of an aspect of the gameplay or construction of the world itself. I know a lot of people love the music, but I find almost all of it forgettable. I enjoy breaking out tunes from Ultima VI and Ultima VII outside of the context of the games now and then, but in Ultima VIII they seem like mood music that is uninteresting outside the game context.

So this blog is a downer. I will be nicer when I actually get involved in the plot. I thought it was ironic, though, that Ultima VIII included a parody of a competitor, the description of which might apply to this game ("a pale imitation").

Man I don't look forward to playing Ultima IX. Oh, I should add that I looked up ways of improving DOSBox performance, and found that you can set the CPU core and cycles to "Auto" and the improvement is shocking. The game went from barely playable with slow movement and skipping music to almost too fast. Why, why, was this not the default!?


Anonymous said...

Arr, my beloved game! Why do you hate it??

I played that piece as my second computer RPG ever (just after Might and Magic 4+5) and loved it because of it's great plot and cool necromancing stuff. I was really afraid of these zombies!

But at that time I was 13 or so and considered Duck Tales having a great plot too... Hm, perhaps I should never touch this game again not to destroy my good childish memories.

Natreg said...

well, I didn't like this game myself at first, but in the end was good enough... the worst part is it being too short.

Anyway, technically speaking this game was awesome in it's time, just check the gravity for objects. That must be really hard to program in a 2D enviroment back then.

Also the graphics look really good even now. Check the Ultima Online graphics and then check those. This game has more life in it's graphics than an ultima that appeared after it.

Most of the interactivity the previous games had was left out probably because the characters really had lots of frames. The Avatar has over 1200 or so while in Ultima VII I don't think he had more than 15. If the CD market had been way more expanded back then they will have added the interactivity back.

Well, looking forward for your adventure in Pagan :)

Anonymous said...

Yay! This was the first Ultima game I actually played (yeah I know, a little late to the dance) and I had a weird love/hate thing with it. It was a lot of fun to explore and play with the magic, but some of the flaws are so glaring that it's hard to overlook them.

Have fun on your play through! I've waited a year or so to read about it :)

Anonymous said...

Since this is Day 1, I would like to comment that of all the Ultimas, Pagan probably had the most impressive first 5 minutes. With Black Gate as close second.

Leprechaun Sniffer, Esquire. said...

I agree with the sentiment on the first few minutes. For a cinematic, it almost felt like one.

I did notice that 8 didn't even try to shock you with dead kids. Serpent Isle didn't either, but I gave it leniency on the grounds of it being an expansion of 7.

I also recall that this game was very sandbox, although it was too much of a sandbox for me. There was little to do outside of robbing houses through climbing walls and the like. And I found it disturbing that you could get the most expensive weapon in the game just by jumping up a wall and opening an exploding chest.

I'm not familiar with it remarking on its competition, though. Any clue on which that is in particular?

Anonymous said...

In reference to you saying the characters look like low res 3D models.. thats because they are. They rendered the models in 3D Studio Max I believe, then made character frames from there. Probably was done so it could look 3D but not carry the hefty system requirements of a 3D game at the time.

The models for The Avatar and Pyros are still available on Dennis Loubet's website, I believe.

Natreg said...

zestypinto Pagan did have "dead" children. Going north of Tenebrae there is a place where all this children start attacking you.

Also Serpent isle have zombie children in the White Dragon Castle, also the baby dragon is worth mentioning.

Anonymous said...

A late remark:

DOSBox is set to cycles=max (real fast!) by default (=3000 when no application are running). So the complaint does not proceed.

Also, I consider Ultima VIII to be the best Ultima I have played (with all the flaws and holes it had when it was released). It could have been even better, had it been decently completed.

kyri said...

i am another who loved this game and cant understand why people slate it. If your read the books within the game you actually get a good insight into the guardian and his plan. For me, the music gave it such an eerie feel. Who here can honestly say they didnt feel a panic hit them when a ghost suddenly appears and starts throwing heat seeking flaming skulls at you.

Anonymous said...

Hideous character art??? Come on! If there's something that UVIII did really well, it was the graphics!

Anonymous said...

The competitor mentioned was Eye of The Beholder II. You can read about it in a book somewhere in Tenebrae (the library, I think).

Dionysus said...

Man, ur a retard. Ripping on an old game for graphics and stuff.. Ultima was classic and PAgan World was some of the best graphics back in its time..... These were the RPGs that really got the graphical RPG genre going,... IF you don't understand something. If you're a newb... don't blog about it..

Anonymous said...

"PAgan World was some of the best graphics back in its time"

This is simply not true. Even by contemporary standards, the graphics are awful. The whole game is awful, and if you knew anything about its development you would know why.

"These were the RPGs that really got the graphical RPG genre going"

Again, no. Also, U8 doesn't even really qualify as an RPG. It's action/adventure like most of the early Ultima games. The stat improvement system is an afterthought, there's no party system, and you can use any usable object from the start. There are no levels or experience points.

"If you're a newb... don't blog about it.."

Great advice. Pagan was released in 1994, and I'm guessing you were about 2 years old at the time. Meanwhile, I remember it. You're dead wrong about everything you said, and a manifest loser for (badly) trolling blogger.com of all websites. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

At commenter above:

I'm honestly surprised rashid didn't go on to defend Ultima IX while he was at it... *snickers*

Prewitt said...

What has always struck me about this awesome blog is how accurately it reflects my own Ultima experiences and feelings. I have to agree with Zachary on everything he said about U8 in this post. I started playing Ultima with U6 back in 1992 when I was in 5th grade. I devoured U7 and eventually bought U8 the day it was released. I was completely crestfallen by everything in the gameplay, graphics and plot. I only later learned it was mostly the EA influence that caused the massive changes to the series I knew and loved.

On a lighter note, I seem to remember the exploding discs being a riot, and having a great time getting the Avatar drunk and boomed out on mushrooms.

Oh, and Serpent Isle has a dead child scene with the little girl from Monitor that Batlin kidnaps.

Quadko said...

On the plus side, the UIII engine also brought us the Crusader:NR action series, so bravo for that. UIII was when the lesson that "you don't cut development short" really stuck - depth of game comes from devoting enough time to plot. It is just not worth rushing things.

Anonymous said...

"This is simply not true. Even by contemporary standards, the graphics are awful."

That's the single dumbest comment I've read on this blog. Either you're trolling, or your bias is painfully obvious. This game had literally the most impressive animations the genre had seen up to that point, and some of the best graphics of its year. Your blind hate doesn't change that fact.