Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ultima V: Violence

This is an example of a pointless battle. I don't need to get "through" this room; there's no treasure to find; the enemies--sea serpents--don't drop any treasure, and they do a lot of damage. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any penalty for fleeing in this game.

Combat has never been a particular strength of the Ultima series, which I find surprising. In a series that has innovated in so may other ways, it has always lagged behind its contemporaries. The first two games featured the simplest type of combat of any CRPG: hitting (a)ttack and specifying a direction. This was forgivable in Akalabeth and maybe the first Ultima, but by Ultima II, Wizardry had come out and was showing the world what real tactical CRPG combat could be.

Ultima III--reportedly influenced by Wizardry--improved considerably, with multiple characters and a combination of melee attacks, ranged attacks, and spells. But it was still a bit repetitive and annoying, allowing no attacks on the diagonal and featuring the same bland terrains. Ultima IV fixed the latter issue--terrain actually became part of the combat tactics--but not much else. Many are the players who lined up their characters and then began mashing (a)ttack/up arrow--with many of the characters attacking empty space--until all enemies were dead. It was easier than meticulously moving everyone around the game map.

Ultima V's numerous innovations make combat a lot more tolerable, nuanced, and tactical. Among them:

  • Rather than specifying a direction, you target enemies. Enemies not slain in the previous round remain targeted the next round.
  • You can specify an active character who will be the only one to act each round until you hit "0" and unselect him or her. This not only makes it easier to maneuver through dungeon rooms, it allows you to let one character clean up easy combats.
  • There is a much greater variety of weapons and armor, including spiked shields and helms (which dual as weapons) and some 25-30 different types of melee and missile weapons. The game seems to order them in your inventory based on the amount of damage they do (or, in the case of armor, the amount of protection it offers). You also have rings and amulets to wear, and various potions and scrolls to use.
  • Each character can have multiple attacks depending on his or her equipment. A character with a long sword, a spiked helm, and a main gauche in his left hand (or some other weapon, or a spiked shield) gets three attacks. This is annoying, though, when the primary weapon is a ranged weapon and there are no targets in melee range. You have to attack once and then ESC the other two.
  • Strength affects the weight of the weapons and armor you can equip. I don't think much else affects it; mages seem happy in metal armor, wielding swords.
  • Missile weapons have varying ranges. Slings can only attack up to four squares, while magic axes seem to be limitless. Most missile weapons--magic axes are an exception--are dangerous to use if an enemy is right next to you. The foe can "interfere" with the attack and you lose the round.
  • Morning stars can attack across two spaces, which is handy. It's a little silly, though, that I can use them to reach to the other sides of doors and walls.

Morning stars attack across two spaces. Somehow, Julia is threading that weapon between Invictus and Iolo.

  • Some weapons, like daggers and spears, function as melee weapons if you attack a creature next to you and ranged weapons if you attack one more than a space away. In the latter case, you lose the weapon.
  • In addition to simply "missing," attacks can go astray and hit non-targeted enemies as well as your own party members! Just a little while ago, my lead character managed to embed his magic axe in Jaana's back while he was aiming at a daemon. This required yet another trip to the surface to pay for resurrection.
  • You can change weapons in combat, although it costs a round.

Some things haven't changed from Ultima IV, or have only changed a little:

  • When you hit enemies, their health progresses from "barely wounded" to "critical" before they die. However, some attacks only graze enemies, which I assume does no damage.
  • Enemies in "critical" status flee from the battlefield. Unlike the previous game, though, you don't suffer any loss of karma for killing them while they're fleeing.
  • You can escape combat by moving your characters off the battlefield. Again, unlike Ultima IV, you don't seem to suffer any karma loss for doing so.
  • The character who actually makes the kill gets the experience, no matter how many other characters contributed to the enemy's demise. Thus, I frequently scan to see which character has the lowest experience and make that character the "active" one towards the end of battle, or when I have enemies trapped behind objects and I'm in no danger from them. For instance, if I'm attacked by sharks or enter a dungeon room with enemies behind a locked door (through which I can still attack them), I'll equip the lowest-experienced character with the magic axe and he can pick them off.

Since Dupre can attack through the door (even though it makes no sense) and the spider can't, and he needs the experience, I make him the active character and let him pick off the enemies.

Combat takes place in four types of scenarios: outdoors, water, dungeon, and camp. I mentioned that I don't really like water combat, although it's becoming more tolerable now that I have a supply of magic axes. Still, you never get any treasure from it, and you can't flee from it if things get rough. You have to be careful in dungeon combat. I'll cover dungeons, including their secret rooms and triggers, in a later posting, but for now, I'll say it's vital to watch for the "victory!" message after all the visible creatures have been killed. If you don't get it, it's a sign of a) another brigade of enemies hiding in a secret area; or b) a mimic.

I find that I get attacked in camp about once ever four times I hole up, which is why it's important to set a watch. Attacking creatures don't necessarily wake you up--apparently my characters are so tired, they can sleep through multiple physical injuries--which I found out the hard way when I was nearly wiped out by a horde of rats gnawing on my sleeping party members. Beyond that, though, camp battles aren't so bad, as the network of defenses we apparently take time to erect every time we camp makes it easy to defend against most enemies.

Attacked by slimes in camp.

Terrain plays a fairly large role in combat. When all my characters had melee weapons, I favored dungeon hallways and open plains for maximum maneuverability. Now that I have more missile weapons, I prefer mountains and tight dungeon rooms, where my enemies have to funnel themselves towards me while I pick them off.

Mountainous terrain helps with battles against melee creatures.

Of course, enemies often have missile attacks, too. Dragons are the worst--I lost two characters in the Dungeon Deceit a little while ago and had to get them resurrected, and it only took three or four combat rounds. Sea serpents also pack a wallop, and pythons are annoying because their attacks cause poison. I do like the variety of enemies in the game, too. They come in several categories:

  • Humans: Guards, NPCs, and pirates. Only the latter category is a "legitimate" human to fight; the rest risk damage to karma. The game is notably different from previous Ultimas in that you don't find roving bands of human monsters, like thieves and evil mages, to fight.
  • Goons: Gremlins, orcs, trolls, headless, ettins. They have only physical attacks, attack in mobs, and usually leave treasure chests. Gremlins can steal your food if up close.
  • Animals: bats, rats, spiders, pythons, insect swarms. A lot of these have multiple attacks per round and move quite quickly, although they rarely do serious damage. Rats, spiders, and pythons cause poison, though, which is always annoying to treat.
  • Sea Animals: Sharks, sea horses, squids, and sea serpents. Except for sharks, they're all annoying with their missile attacks.
  • Undead: Ghosts and skeletons. You don't need magic weapons to hit them in this game, but they take some serious damage. Ghosts phase in and out of visibility, and skeletons require a real pounding to defeat. Fortunately, the AN XEN CORP spell sends them fleeing.
  • Magic Creatures: Gazers, reapers, wisps, daemons, dragons. They generally have tough magic-based missile attacks and cast different spells each round. Wisps and daemons can possess party members. Fighting them has gotten a lot easier since I learned how to use Lord British's crown (more in the magic posting later this week), but they still pack a punch. Gazers, for some reason, dissolve into insect swarms when you kill them.
  • Slimes: they're in their own class. I've heard some commenters say they find slimes annoying, but I love them. If you do less than a fatal blow, they divide into two slimes. But they hardly do any damage, so I like to equip a low-experience character with "fists" and send him wading into a collection of slimes. It's an experience bonanza.
  • Mimics also deserve their own category. They imitate treasure chests and start blasting you with high-damage attacks the moment you approach. Fortunately, once you know to watch for them, they're not too hard. The range on their attacks is less than a sling, so you just need to stand outside their range and hurl axes or stones until they're dead--at which point they usually drop a "real" chest with a lot of treasure.

That "chest" in the lower right is actually a mimic. Jaana is about to magic-missile him through the window.

The result of all the different types of creatures is that you need a real strategy for each combat. Tactics that work against one enemy do not work against another. This is the purpose of having different types of enemies to begin with--something that a lot of games (e.g., Times of Lore, Questron II) seem to forget.

Some enemies, like orcs and trolls, usually leave treasure chests behind, which you have to disarm to get at the treasure. Others, like rats and spiders, occasionally leave chests (which makes no sense) but more often leave little splats that you can search and sometimes find gold or food (but more often, you find "nothing," "guts," or "worms"). Other enemies, like bats and slimes, leave neither treasure nor corpses.

How did the corpse get "worms" already. I just killed him!

Disarming trapped chests is a little annoying. You have to "(l)ook" at it first to discern whether it has a trap, and you can't be sure of the result. Sometimes it says it has one when it doesn't; sometimes vice versa. I usually look five or seven times and go with the most common response. If the chest doesn't have a trap and you try to (j)immy the lock, you break a key, which is kind of stupid. Traps include poison (of course), acid, and bombs. But the chests are so full of goodies that they're usually worth it.

Five chests, some gems, and some food. It's moments like these that I live for.

I tried to find a "representative" battle that I could record and illustrate some of the combat features, but nothing really came together, so I recorded a brief video of two battles with trolls. I kept recording in the aftermath to illustrate a few other gameplay elements I haven't covered yet.

At 00:05, I start passing time on a bridge until the trolls accost me and demand a ransom, which I refuse to pay, starting battle at 00:16. My three rear characters are armed with magic axes. Invictus, in the front, just has a silver sword, and Iolo and Gwenno both wield morning stars. The three lead characters have to advance before attacking, but the three rear characters can just start pounding away.

At 00:25, you see that the trolls have missle attacks of their own, and they do reasonable damage. At 00:33, Invictus finally gets next to a troll and can attack, and Iolo, armed with a morning star, can attack at 00:43, even though he's one step away (he misses). At 00:47, Julia hurls her magic axe at the troll but misses and hits Invictus instead, but nonetheless we finish the battle quite easily at 00:57 and Invictus (my character with the highest dexterity) begins mopping up the treasure. Since three checks reveal a trap on the chest, he uses a key to jimmy it and collect the loot. I like it when I get gems; they're expensive.

Nothing much different happens in the second battle, but I decide to summon a daemon just for the heck of it, so you can see what it does (01:35). The daemon's attack is devastating to the troll (02:08). Notice how at 02:20, the game tells me that there is a trap on the chest, even though there isn't. Since other checks say "no trap," I take my chances and open it rather than breaking a key.

At 02:49, we hole up and camp to heal our wounds, and Gwenno--my appointed watch--plays a little tune to put us to sleep. We get no attacks nor any visits from Lord British. You can see the next morning how the visible area expands when dawn breaks (03:13), but disappears as I move into a dark forest. I enter the town of Yew (03:34) with the idea of selling the equipment I just looted, but the Shadowlord of Cowardice is in town. I enter anyway and share some brief words with the evil Judge Dryden (03:51), and buy some reagents (04:15). But because of the Shadowlord of Cowardice's presence, the weapon dealer doesn't want anything to do with me (04:40). Avoiding the guards--who will demand a bribe--I take a look at the Shadowlord (05:18) and lead him into the cemetery, which I proceed to grave-rob for no particular reason, although this doesn't affect my karma (05:48; it was 99 before).

In plot news, I dumped Sentri and collected Jaana. I wish I knew where I had missed Mariah. spent most of the day exploring dungeons--generally retreating the moment I encountered daemons or dragons at lower levels--building up experience, and trying to earn gold for magic axes and reagents.

In the next couple of postings--I'm not sure of the order yet--I'll talk about dungeons and magic. To wrap up on combat, I would say that all the improvements in Ultima V still don't quite make it "enjoyable" in the way that, say, Pool of Radiance was. I think the key weakness is the inability to move diagonally. This means that when you're attacked in tight dungeon corridors, it takes forever to position the characters to fight. I suspect that I'll actually enjoy combat a lot more when all my characters have magic axes and can just stand in one place to kill the enemies.


  1. This game could really have used mouse support. Being able to target enemies with the mouse would have made the fights much quicker and more enjoyable. A Quick Combat option would not have been amiss either.
    Even though it's a huge improvement from U4, combat is still not very fun. But good encounter design and having random encounters only at night means that the game is still fun despite the combat system.

  2. I agree on both your points, especially quick combat.

    What ever happened with your own playthrough of this game? Are you ahead of me?

  3. Mariah is recuperating from wounds inflicted by a Shadowlord at the Healer in the Lycaeum.

    Sometimes when searching corpses, you'll find "plague!" and get poisoned.

  4. When I played this game for the first time as a kid, my dad and I played it together (in parallel). We used to go "reaper hunting" in the dungeons because they dropped good loot.

    Your comment on U4 is funny; "Form the line!" was our battle cry for that game. Line up, spam magic axes in the up-direction, and wait.

  5. I already finished U5 two weeks ago. It went quicker then I had anticipated. Having already played U4 definitely helped, not to mention the lack of random encounters.

    After U5 I played Star Command and currently I'm playing Demon's Winter. And then it's only Starglider 2 (not a CRPG, but I want to try it), BattleTech - The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Might&Magic 2 left before I'm finished with the 1988 games.

  6. If you like slimes for the experience bonanza you'll love the gargoyles at the top of Blackthorne's castle (think castle decoration gargoyles, not the gargoyle race from U6). They split like slimes, but give WAY more experience.

  7. "It's moments like these that I live for."

    That picture and caption says it all. Finding all these hidden rooms, passages, and free treasure is what hooked me on Final Fantasy 4 (I played a PSP-emulated Gameboy Advance port) and more recently on Final Fantasy 3 (a Nintendulator-emulated rom of its 1990 Japan-only incarnation). It's like with every little fireplace I could walk through, a secret switch to push opening a passage, and treasure hand-outs everywhere, there is no doubt this is the epitome of "feel-good" rpg level design.

    You should make one of your next "I haven't been able to play lately" Special Topic posts on interesting level design and those treasure room (in KOTOR's case, the armories/ Sith Tombs) sweet spots.



  8. rmdesign, I blew past the gargoyles on Blackthorn's tower, but I encountered some in one of the dungeons, and they seriously kicked my butt. Still, I'm hurting for experience right now, and if they offer that much, I'll go back and check them out.

  9. This is so funny. I came across this blog because I'm currently playing through Ultima V again, I just picked up my first ship and got into battle on the high seas; killed the monsters and then...didn't know how to get out of combat (up until now I've just walked my characters off the screen and assumed that was the only way to 'leave'). Then I watched your video and noticed all your characters disappeared simultaneously at the end of the battle with the word 'escape' so alt tabbed back, hit escape...and I'm free =D

    Good blog btw.

  10. I agree about U5's combat weaknesses on all points, though I appreciate the oversights that swing things in my favor. IMHO Ultima VI was the series' peak combat-wise for players like me: we didn't have to control all of our party members if we didn't want to, but combat was still turn-based.

    Try having Iolo or another bard search for traps & disarm them -- dexterity has a significant impact on their success, and bards *are* what thieves changed into in IV. Once the trap is recognized, we can also use the 2nd circle spell An Sanct to disarm them.

  11. It took me a moment to realize that those were supposed to be roast poultry in the eighth screencap and not golden Viking helmets.

  12. Now I won't be able to un-see that.

  13. If I'm not mistaken, you don't actually lose a non-magical thrown weapon--if you score a hit. Once you miss, then you lose it. (Of course, one generally has quite a number of such weapons to draw upon.)

  14. More notes:

    The occasional mage encountered with a band of skeletons counts as a human it's okay to fight. They drop magic treasure, too! (Oh, and don't forget the dungeon room full of... never mind, I don't want to spoil it!)

    There's a creature missing from your monster menagerie: sand traps. It's very possible you haven't encountered them, as they only appear in the desert and certain dungeon rooms. They are quite tough and difficult to spot, but they drop great treasure.

  15. Some weapons, like daggers and spears, function as melee weapons if you attack a creature next to you and ranged weapons if you attack one more than a space away. In the latter case, you lose the weapon.

    Daggers worked like that in Ultima 3.

  16. Ah, another one mistaking the chicken for a helmet? And here I thought I was uniquely insane :D

  17. I recommend Digeus Registry Cleaner and Windsty Tune Up Suite as they are the best know on the market. They find and fix most of errors in the system than any other. I run them every time when my computer starts crashing or working slow. They also help to prevent and fix Blue Screen of Death problem.

  18. "pythons are annoying because their attacks cause poison"

    Why do so many games insist on having all snakes be poisonous? One of the defining features of a python is the fact that it is not poisonous.

    1. I completely didn't think about that. Rats are poisonous, too, even though in real life they just carry disease.

  19. The dagger already was a dual (melee/ranged) weapon in Ultima III. I kept throwing them away when I started playing...

    --Gen. Error

  20. Combat is in the game is probably the one reason I never finished the game in the old days. There comes a time where it is too frequent and tedious and I just give up. Even though all my characters are 7th level they still miss A LOT ! I've seen 2-3 consecutive misses in combat from each member of the whole party. Thats so frustrating when fighting daemons or dragons.

    However, I think part of the problem is not getting my characters stats up. I noticed a bug of sorts. If you have enough XP to level up then get killed and resurrected by anyone but Lord British you will level up without a stats boost.


  21. "Gazers, for some reason, dissolve into insect swarms when you kill them."

    Because they are bee-holders.


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