Ultima IV offers a roleplaying experience like no other CRPG, set in a world as rich in detail as anything in the modern CRPG era. Although the gameplay has advanced only a little since Ultima III, the story, game world, and quest are a huge leap forward.
Remembering back to the mid-1980s, it feels like I played Ultima IV for years, first on my friends' Commodore 64s and then on mine, before I won. I have no idea what took so long. When I replayed it in 1994, I was surprised and disappointed at how quickly the game progressed, and how many of the gameplay features I thought I remembered were actually from Ultima V. I played it a third time in 2000 and won it in, I think, a single long day. I hope that 10 years later I've forgotten some of the details and I can approach the game fresh. Blogging should slow down the progress.
Searching for a fresh experience, I decided to play the "recreated" version of the game offered at http://xu4.sourceforge.net. Everything about the game is the same except the graphics and sound are much better, and there are beautifully designed screens at certain points, such as when you meditate and achieve part of your avatarhood.
I'm going to try something different with this game and blog it in the order of gameplay, elucidating new features as I come across them, rather than summarizing them at once in long blog posts.
The game begins with a character creation method absolutely unique for its time, and rivaled today only in Morrowind and Oblivion, both of which are paying homage to Ultima IV. After you give yourself a name (mindful of Lord British having obtained his name from his homeland, I chose "Americus") and sex, the game draws you into Britannia slowly. You begin at your own home, in the real world, on a walk in the countryside.
You fall asleep under a tree when suddenly a moongate appears in a circle of stones (moongates were introduced in the Ultima series in Ultima II). Before it disappears, someone tosses through a package containing an ankh cross, a cloth map, a copy of The History of Britannia as told by Kyle the Younger, and the game's spell book. These items, of course, were contained within the original Ultima IV game box. The game insists that you read the book of history.
The map and the History introduce a rich and detailed game world that will remain essentially the same through Ultima VII Part 1. What happened to game manuals like this? After recapping the light stories of Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III, it describes the new land that arose from the "rubble of Sosaria," which Lord British named Britannia. In the new era of peace, Lord British was able to concentrate on improving the quality of life, erecting institutions to learning, meditation, and martial prowess.
Eight major cities developed "into cultural centers for one of the eight major professions." Moonglow focuses on mages, Britain on bards, and so on. On of the towns is Skara Brae, apparently an homage to The Bard's Tale but ultimately drawn from the name of a neolithic ruin in Scotland. The professions, or character classes, include two new ones: shepherds and tinkers.
Equipment, character classes, monsters, and terrain are described in florid and exciting detail. Oh, we must have some examples:
- "DAGGER: Ten inches of beautifully worked steel make the standard Britannian dagger. The traditional basket hilt looks very functional. A favorite weapon of novices."
- "FOREST: The going is slow through dense woods, with they speed cut fully in half. The oak so dearly loved by the Druids predominates here, along with healthy growth of Ash and Beech. There is quite a lack of visibility in the forest regions."
- "HEADLESS: Another evil being best suited to terror and destruction, the Headless is indeed a creature of nightmares. Many a travler has fled in abject horror at the sign of these headless torsos bearing down upon them."
Only at the end of the manual do we get a hint of the quest to follow. In an afterword penned by Lord British himself, he says that "we seek the person who can become a shining example of our nation and guide us from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Light. We have sent this message out to the farthest reaches of the known universe; indeed, we have even spoken across the void of time. Is there one who can complete the Quest of the Avatar?"
Here we have the key to what makes Ultima IV unique. The game is not about fighting some "big bad" like Mondain, Minax, and Exodus; it's about achieving moral enlightenment. There is nothing else like this in CRPGs.