Ultima II is the story of a interplanetary thief, prison-breaker, and unrepentant mass murderer who slaughters villagers, fools, and police officers in a quest to help a money-grubbing tyrant rid a world that isn't even his own of a harmless young woman who lives millions of years before he was born.
Ultima II makes me wish I had spent more time on Telengard. I thought the first Ultima was a quaint little lark whose air cars and tie fighters and jestercide were, if occasionally silly, still part of its charm. Ultima II, on the other hand, is a senseless travesty of a game that improves nothing on its predecessor and in fact makes things a great deal worse. How is this only two steps away from the awesome Ultima IV? (Please, please don't tell me that Ultima IV isn't as awesome as I remember.)
Let's start with the basic premise. Mondain has been defeated, the game manual tells us, but he left behind an apprentice: Minax, a powerful enchantress whose vengeance brought, in 2111, a (presumably nuclear) apocalypse across the face of the Earth. Through time doors, fortunately, the inhabitants of that grisly future were able to escape back . . .
Wait. What? Earth? Yep. The game takes place mostly on Earth in five different time periods, each accessible to each other through a series of "time gates." The time zones are "Panagea," or two million years before the present, when all the Earth's continents were fused; the medieval ages, the year 1990, the post-apocalyptic year 2112, and the "Age of Legends," or the beginning of time, where Minax has her castle. The entire world is the game map. After you create your character, you are dumped unceremoniously into a washed-out and barren landscape with no goals and a limited quantity of food. I started exploring, and in far less time that makes any sense, I had hiked from Tierra del Fuego to the tip of Italy, crossing the Bering Land Bridge on the way. Right.
Look, I know it's early in the development of CRPGs. The existence of "experience points" that do absolutely nothing for you doesn't bother me. The limited character development doesn't bother me. The existence of only six spells doesn't bother me. But could the story at least make some modicum of sense? Could the manual not talk up Lord British as a benevolent sovereign and then introduce me to a man who requires that I give him money for hit points? Could the game not involve shuttle missions to Jupiter, which the game manual helpfully indicates is covered with "water and grass"?!
Creating a character in Ultima II is a process of building your attributes from a pool of points and then choosing your race, class, and name. The sex, race, and class choices affect your starting attributes and nothing else.
The gameplay is similar to Ultima I. Dungeons and towers are first-person, but outdoors and town areas are top-down. You control your character with keyboard commands--every letter of the alphabet seems to do something, from (A)ttack to (Z)tats. Many of the commands only work in certain circumstances, like (H)yper, (L)aunch, and (N)egate time.
The game manual spends a lot of time describing each monster in lurid detail, but when the monsters attack you in the game world, the game doesn't even bother to tell you what they are. Combat consists of pounding (A)ttack repeatedly until they die. A little disappointing after the complexity of Wizardry.
Unlike Ultima I, in this game you can talk to all of the characters, and each gives you a couple of words of dialog. Most of them have nothing particularly interesting to say. All the clerics say, "Believe!" and fighters say, "Ugh. Me tough!" The merchants say, "Will you buy my apples?" while the guards say, "Pay your taxes!" Wizards are most annoying: "Hex-e-poo-hex-on-you!" When the game diverts from these stock responses, it's usually to introduce some kind of in-joke.
I know many readers are looking forward to post after post on Ultima II, so I hate to disappoint you, but I went ahead and won it in a single day. This is a day in which I also played four hours of Telengard, wrote 12 pages for a report due at work next week, and read three chapters in a book about inferential statistics. Ultima II is not a demanding game, except perhaps on your tolerance for its idiocies.
Winning the game requires the following:
1. Visiting towns in four of the five eras and speaking to everyone so that you get the few hints that you need from the few people who don't spout nonsense.
2. Acquiring a stock of items: brass buttons and skull keys to fly planes, blue tassels to commandeer ships, trilithiums to engage the hyperspace drives on rockets, and so on. Thieves carry these items, and so you have to kill a lot of thieves.
3. Building up massive amounts of gold so you can buy enough hit points to survive the final encounter, increase your statistics, and buy the weapons and armor you need. This by far is the longest part of the game. Fairly early, you can commandeer a frigate in each time period and you spend most of the game sailing around in your frigate and firing cannon volleys at hapless monsters that literally line up to be gunned down. You are in no danger of death during this process. If the game had consisted solely of the player typing the letter "F" 7,500 times in a Notepad file, it wouldn't be any more boring.
4. Bribing the desk clerk at the Hotel California in New San Antonio (and yes, the desk clerk even "welcomes" you) in 1990 to raise your agility, strength, and other statistics so that, among other things, you can wield the Minax-slaying weapon and wear the space armor.
5. Bribing Lord British to get your max hit point total.
6. Slaying a couple of benighted guards to acquire their keys--the only items you can't get from thieves--so you can break into the prison in New San Antonio and bribe a prisoner to give you the Quicksword "Enilno," which you need to kill Minax. "Enilno" is, of course, "online" backwards. But what I want to know is what did "online" even mean in 1982?
7. Buying some "power armor" which lets you survive in space.
8. Journeying to Moscow in 2112--complete with "Da Red Skwere" and "Da KGB"--to steal first a bi-plane, which requires murdering the owner of the airfield. You then fly the bi-plane to another part of the same town to steal a rocketship to journey to Planet X, upon which there is a castle in which a guy named Father Antos gives you his blessing, allowing you to return to Earth to meet Brother Antos and get from him a ring that protects you from the magic barriers in Minax's castle. I really, really don't blame you if you stopped reading somewhere in there.
9. Going to Minax's castle in the Time of Legends, avoiding her guards, and killing her with the Quicksword. This involves finding her throne room, enduring her magic missile blasts, and hitting her once, at which point she disappears and reappears in another room at the other end of the castle. You then have to journey there and hit her again, only to have her disappear again and return to the first room. Repeat six or seven times.
If all that didn't sound stupid enough, here are some other points:
- Spells only work in dungeons, and since there's absolutely no reason to go in the dungeons (you don't get hit points for it like you do in Ultima I), there's no reason to be a wizard or priest.
- As with Ultima I, you start the game starving and have to keep buying food. Unlike Ultima I, though, you don't amass gold quickly enough to keep up with your food use. So you basically have to steal it. Fortunately, there's a fish & chips place in what I guess is Namibia where you can steal food all day long and run away as soon as the guards come after you, then re-enter the town and repeat.
- A druid in one town says, "Anol nathrac uth das bessod dien doch dientes." If you're going to pay homage to Excalibur, at least get it right: "An-al nathrach, urth vas bethud, doch-hiel dienve."
- You can travel to each of the nine planets in our solar system (Pluto was still considered a planet in 1982), land your space shuttle, walk around, and encounter orcs and thieves and pirate ships. In fact, most of the planets re-use the same maps as Earth, including its towns and changes you've made to the physical world, such as acquiring frigates and bi-planes. The one and only difference is you can't save on them.
- One of the planets--Uranus or Neptune--has a castle consisting only of jesters who surround you and force you to kill them to escape.
- The game is full of really, really dumb inside jokes and pop-culture references.
The thing that made Ultima I the most fun is how you encountered people and places that reoccur in later Ultimas: Montor, Paws, Shamino, the White Dragon's Castle. None of that for Ultima II. As far as I can tell (and I admit I didn't keep a careful log), the only recurring characters are Lord British, Iolo, and Gwenno. The latter two are encased in a grassy area in...I don't know. One of the towns. Remembering how I killed Gwenno for her key in Ultima I and having by now fully internalized my role as a serial killer, I landed a bi-plane in the grassy area and hacked them both to death.
Even if you're an Ultima fan--hell, especially if you're an Ultima fan--I encourage you not to play this game. I've played many games with boring gameplay and many games with idiotic plots. It is a rare to find one that combines both.
Here are the end game screen shots so I can prove I really won. I wasn't inspired enough to screen record it.