My first impressions of Ultima III: Exodus are that it redeems Ultima II. It feels like a real game instead of Richard Garriott screwing around. It (at least so far) keeps the game grounded in more standard fantasy conventions without involving light swords and rocketships. Combat is more tactical and interesting (if longer), equipment and items are more varied, the magic system is more sophisticated, dungeons have a reason to exist, and the overall gameplay, to me, is a lot more satisfying. This is the first game from Origin Systems, Richard Garriott's company; his first two games were published by established game producers.
Ultima III was released in 1983 for the Apple II, the Atari, and the Commodore 64. I'm playing a DOS port from two years later. In fairness, I should mention that I also downloaded and installed a graphics and sound upgrade package designed by some cool programmers over a decade ago. Compare the screen shot above to the original below, and you'll see why.
Ultima III begins an era of games in which it really pays to read the manually carefully first. The manual and its accoutrements are one of the things that Garriott and Origin really excelled at. Each game in the original series came with a hand-drawn cloth map (I read somewhere that it took Garriott a long time to find a publisher for Ultima II because he insisted that they produce the cloth map with every game) and an ornately-decorated, magniloquently-written game manual. Consider the opening paragraphs of the manual:
Welcome back, oh illustrious adventurers! Long has been thy sojourn in this strange realm, though 'tis a fitting respite for great heroes. Glorious are the names of those adventurers who slew the mighty Wizard Mondain and his evil consort Minax. Lord British's minstrels still sing thy praises for the epic battles waged in the overthrowing of those two crimson necromancers. The chronicles of Ultima I and Ultima II bear witness to thine effects on behalf of the good subjects of the realm of Sosaria.
"The time of thy rest is now o'er. Thou wouldst not be here if thou hadst not heard the distant braying of the war horns, or felt in thy blood the cry of kinsmen in dire peril. Thou art Called, and from such a Calling none of the People may turn aside. It is thy duty and thy destiny.
Aside from the fact that Ultima II has nothing to do with Sosaria, it's beautiful prose. Sometimes, they go a bit campy with their metaphors. Nothing beats: "With the fall of Mondain and Minax, peace had flowed like molten honey around all of Sosaria." Yes, there's nothing like the molten honey of peace.
The basic setup is that a new evil, called Exodus, the "child" (either metaphorically or actually) of Mondain and Minax has appeared on an island of lava in the middle of the ocean. None know whether Exodus is "man, monster, or daemon." The only way we know its name is that the word "EXODUS" was found written in blood on the deck of a ship from which all crew had vanished, "as if plucked by some evil force." Also, a "shattered man found wandering the groves" outside Lord British's castle had this to say: "from the depths of Hell, he comes for vengeance." I tell you, I just eat this stuff up. In a modern game, this would all be handled with a cut scene, but I almost find the manual more fun.
Nothing compares to the spell manuals, though. Ultima III follows Wizardry's (and, for that matter, Dungeons & Dragons's) example of dividing spells into priest spells and wizard spells (or holy magic and arcane magic, if you prefer). In-game, you cast a spell by specifying the character and the spell letter. There are 16 spells on each side, each with a letter from A to P. Cleric A is turn undead while wizard C is light. But, God, how the spell book describes them!
To cast a light spell--or "Lorum," as the book has it--you don't just type (c)ast and "c": you chant "sum obla uricum obrey" while casting into the air a small portion of lorum dust, collected from "a spider's bath, which has been warmed by strong sun for many hours." This is art, people. I almost feel bad that I created a little text file as a reference. There are a couple wizard spells so thickly described that I still have no idea what they actually do.
Ultima III is the first game in the series to allow multiple party members, and the classes and races have been expanded to include some that will not only never occur in any other Ultima game but as far as I can tell never occur in any game. For instance, one race is a "fuzzy"--literally little furry creatures--that I suppose could become the emps of Ultima VII but are never a player race again. In addition to fighters, thieves, wizards, and clerics, classes include paladins, barbarians, larks (basically a synonym for bard), illusionists, druids, alchemists, and rangers. Each has a different combination of combat and magic skills, so you have to choose carefully.
Gameplay is in some ways very similar to the previous Ultimas, with a top-down perspective and with actions tied to single keyboard letters. There is more depth to the game world, though, including an early type of "fog of war": you can't see around corners or through dense wooded areas or across mountains. There's also a mysterious (o)ther action command that allows you to do special things you have to discover along the way.
Combat is what makes this Ultima stand out from the others. During the main part of the game, your party of four is represented by a single icon, but when you enter combat, you become four distinct party members, each of which performs an action in turn, including fighting or casting. There are both ranged and melee weapons, plus a wide variety of offensive and defensive spells (although limited spell points), so battle is far more tactical than in many other games of the era. One annoying thing is that monsters can attack diagonally but you cannot. Different icons represent different character types so it's easy to figure out who's turn it is. I'm pretty sure this style of combat remains all the way through Ultima V.
As with previous Ultimas, dungeons are first-person, although a little more interesting in color and items. But the series continues its obsession with food, and keeping from starving is just as difficult as it was in Ultima II--more so, in some cases, because in the dungeons you keep running in to gremlins which steal it.
Hit points are dependent upon leveling, not upon bribing the nearest sovereign. You increase in levels by visiting Lord British, who as usual provides no helpful information. I note that Iolo, Gwino, and--making an appearance for the first time--Chuckles are all found in Lord British's castle, and it doesn't look like I'm going to have to kill them this time.
|You're not going to demand a tribute from me?|