|Ultima IV's unusual and fascinating quest is introduced. (This is the original DOS version screen shot. Most of my others have been from the Xu4 upgrade.)|
Again, I'm basing my final ranking on the 100-point GIMLET scale that I introduced in this posting.
1. Game world. This is one of Ultima IV's strongest points. Gameplay takes place in a fairly large world scattered with cities, towns, keeps, castles, and dungeons. The world has a rich and compelling back story, interesting characters, history, and lore. You understand immediately how the Quest of the Avatar fits into the overall context of the world. The only place it fails is in the "your decisions and actions measurably affect the game world" point. As in almost all CRPGs of the era, the world does not really respond to what you do. For instance, when you achieve Avatarhood, nobody acknowledges it. Characters continue to tell you about items that you demonstrably have. This one drawback is outweighed by the rich, interesting world. Final score: 8.
2. Character creation and development. Ultima IV features a unique method of character creation, in which you determine your class by answering a series of questions about virtues. Unfortunately, nothing else about character creation and development in Ultima IV really shines. You progress through eight levels by killing monsters and solving quests, but the only thing that really happens when you increase levels is that you get more hit points. (With the Avatar, you also get the option to add one new companion for each level.) Leveling up is somewhat anticlimactic, and there's almost nothing customizable about your character except for the class. Final score: 4.
3. NPC interaction. Again, Ultima IV is utterly unique in its method of NPC interaction, in which you type in keywords. The game is full of NPCs, and you absolutely have to talk to them--practically all of them--to advance in the game and uncover the mysteries of the land. NPC interaction is also necessary to the role-playing aspects of the game, as only by answering truthfully can you advance in honesty, and only by answering humbly can you advance in humility. Sometimes the NPCs have very little to say, and there are only a few dialog "choices," and you can't really establish relationships with any of them, but NPC interaction is still one of the game's strongest points. Final score: 7.
4. Encounters and foes. There are quite a few monsters in the game, each with different strengths and powers, each fully described in the game manual's wonderful prose. Your encounters with them offer opportunities for role-playing--for instance, you have to let fleeing enemies escape to uphold honor, and you have to avoid attacking non-evil creatures to advance in justice. There are both scripted encounters in dungeon rooms and random encounters everywhere else. Respawning is constant. Nonetheless, battles do quickly become repetitive and tiresome. Final score: 6.
5. Magic and combat. The game has an unusual magic system involving the need to purchase and mix reagents before casting spells. Like monsters, reagents and spells are thickly and entertainingly described in the game manuals. But, in general, Ultima IV is very weak in this area. Much is made about the need to discover nightshade and mandrake in the game world, but you barely need them. I don't think I cast more than half a dozen spells that required either. Combat gets boring quickly, especially once your characters have ranged weapons. Most of the time, it's far too easy. I didn't cast a single offensive spell during my gameplay, and the 99 healing spells I mixed before entering the Abyss went entirely unused. There are some tactics involved in successfully navigating dungeon rooms, but the overall lack of danger (only one of my characters died in the game, and only once) means that you have little incentive to carefully plan battles. On the plus side, it's neat how you have to discover the reagents for certain spells by talking to NPCs. Final score: 3.
6. Equipment. Minimal. You have eight types of armor and eight types of weapons, and you figure out which is best by their cost. The items are not described at all. You cannot find weapons, armor, or any other items in the game world itself; you just buy them from shops. The sextant, magic gems, and keys are interesting but not enough to make up for the weaknesses. Final score: 2.
7. Economy. On the plus side, you never reach a point where you don't need money. Weapons, armor, reagents, food, gems, torches, and keys are expensive. On the negative side, the economy is a little unbalanced: you get too little gold for killing creatures and too much sitting around in dungeons. It's neat how the game works gold into the virtue development system, though: you have to avoid cheating the blind herb seller and looting treasuries in town. Final score: 6.
8. Quests. The main quest of Ultima IV is something really never seen before or since in any CRPG, and no one that plays the game ever forgets it. It is, to my mind, the only CRPG quest that's directly applicable to the real world, and it's possible that completing the main quest of Ultima IV makes you a better person. There is, unfortunately, only one way to complete it, and there are no side-quests in the game. Final score: 8.
9. Graphics, sound, inputs. I played a more recent upgrade, but even in the original the graphics aren't horrible, except perhaps in the dungeons where the multi-colored walls look a bit silly. Monsters are well-distinguished by their animated icons. I played most of the game with the sound off because there are no separate controls for regular sound and music. The music is memorable but gets on your nerves. Sound effects consist mostly of boops and (like all games of this era) have no realism. The controls, though, are easy to learn, intuitive, and responsive. Final score: 4.
10. Gameplay. Gameplay in Ultima IV is completely alinear until the end. You can wander in any direction and explore the towns and dungeons in any order. Since the game map constitutes a complete world, there is very little sense of constraint at any point. There is, however, essentially no replayability to Ultima IV; even playing different classes offers up the exact same experience. The overall pacing is good--the only reason it took me two months to finish is because I was traveling (in real life) almost nonstop during the period. Ultimately, however, it's a little too easy. Final score: 5.
Total score: 53. This correctly gives the game the highest ranking of games I've played so far, although I'm surprised how close it is to Ultima III which I liked but didn't love. Frankly, I think I ranked Ultima III a little too high (rather than ranking Ultima IV too low). Ultima IV's story quest are unparalleled even today, but judging strictly in gameplay terms, it isn't a "great" CRPG, so this score feels about right.
On to Wizard's Crown!