Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ultima VI: Combat, Equipment, and Magic

Strolling through a dungeon, picking up gold nuggets, encountering a reaper.

After the last post, I pressed forward and won Ultima VI in about six more hours. I haven't composed my final thoughts or rated it yet, but I feel reasonably confident that if Ultima VI doesn't end up as my top-rated game, it will at least land very close to Ultima V (which currently holds the top spot). I like combat a bit less, and I wish that more stuff fit into the interface window, but in terms of almost everything else, VI is the best in the series so far.

We needn't rush to conclude, though. In this post, I want to spend some time talking about the game's approach to several key elements of RPGs, because I'm not sure that this kind of detail has fully come through in my other postings.

Dungeons

Seven of the eight original Ultima IV dungeons are here: Deceit, Despise, Destard, Wrong, Covetous, Shame, and Hythloth. Unlike the previous games, these aren't the only dungeons: we also have the ant mound, Hawkins's treasure dungeon, a place near Shame called "Heroes' Hole," the Moonglow catacombs, Sutek's catacombs, and the caves that connect the Britannian sewers to Buccaneer's Den. I might have missed a few others.

Entering the dungeon Despise, just for fun.
 
Like almost everything else in the series, the game has trouble keeping its dungeon canon straight. The Stygian Abyss is gone, even though it reappears for Ultima Underworld. The dungeon beneath Lord British's castle no longer connects to Hythloth. Wrong and Covetous are presented not as separate dungeons (as in both previous games) but two entrances to the same dungeon. Deceit was a man-made dungeon in Ultima V and a cave in this game. The dungeons only have four levels instead of eight. Perhaps this is explained by the collapse of the Gargoyle world having sheared off half of them. It's disconcerting to think that while exploring Level 4 of a dungeon, you're really only a few inches of dirt away from the Void.

Even more notable, many of the dungeons are optional. Technically, I suppose, they're all optional (save a single room in Hythloth) if you use the Orb to move around and don't care to go through the rigmarole of the pirate treasure quest. But even if you do all of the steps on the main quest, you'll never have a reason to visit Deceit, Despise, or "Heroes' Hole" except for grinding and treasure. Deceit is particularly mystifying because it has virtually no enemies or treasure, just a bunch of bear traps and caltrops. I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would go in it.

The Wrong/Covetous dungeon is the only one with clearly manmade walls, and just as in Ultima V, it's presented as a sort-of "jail," probably for those convicted at the court in Yew, although many of the cells hold monsters, so you have to wonder what those trials looked like.

Checking out a lever puzzle in Wrong.
 
The rest of the dungeons have a uniform "reddish-brown cave" appearance, although that doesn't mean that there aren't some interesting features and geography. In general, I'm happy with the transition between Ultima IV and V's approaches to dungeon (first-person corridors with iconographic, third-person "rooms") and these. Some of the rooms in the previous games were interesting, but they always seemed disjointed and artificial. The dungeons of Ultima VI feel slightly more realistic and natural. As you walk along, you encounter exploding lava vents, swamps, spider webs, stalagmites, underground rivers and lakes, and other neat features.

Gingerly walking towards a ladder surrounded by volcanic vents. Any of them could create an explosion at any time.

Treasure doesn't exist in conveniently-placed chests but in sensible places like waste heaps, scavengers' dens, and the bodies of dead adventurers who preceded you. You also find contextual "natural" treasures like gold nuggets, spider silk, and nightshade mushrooms.

With a few exceptions, enemies are sensibly placed. You might have some cyclopes and trolls hanging around a fire pit in a large cavern near the entrance. Snakes and rats scurry through the corridors. You get green slimes near swamps, spiders in caves surrounded by webs, and the occasional fire drake or dragon in rooms of lava. They aren't always coordinated, and in fact they will occasionally attack each other.

Small geysers spurt from glistening rocks near stalagmites. A sea serpent patrols an underground river.

Monsters in dungeons respawn, but you have to walk reasonably far away for that to happen, and they might respawn in slightly different numbers and types when you return. I seem to recall that in Ultima VII, they would respawn almost instantly when you left a screen, which made it nearly impossible to ever "clear" areas. That's not an issue here. There's just enough respawning to facilitate grinding, but not enough to drive you crazy. Items, I should add, don't respawn.
 
(I'm actually a bit mystified about how the game treats dropped and placed items. In general, things seem to be permanent. The Royal Mint never re-stocked its chests--or even replaced its door--after my burglary, and some stuff I dumped in Lord British's throne room early in the game was still there at the end. On the other hand, I left some gold nuggets in my room in the castle that disappeared almost immediately.)
 
The dungeons also deliver fun "scenes," such as a manmade structure that clearly once housed miners but is now occupied by their animated skeletons, or the body of an adventurer in a dead-end corridor, his pick-axe still close at hand. This is not the kind of thing that any other RPG was doing at the time.

This adventurer was sleeping on his raft when a giant spider covered him in a web. His corpse yielded 36 arrows, a bow, a gem, 3 torches, 35 gold coins, a mug, a loaf of bread, and a powder keg.
 
Creatures

One of the more interesting additions to this game: a hydra.
 
The game has added only a few entries to its gallery of creatures since the previous title, including drakes, hydras, giant ants, giant scorpions, alligators, acid slugs, and silver serpents. The bestiary lists a total of 42 creatures, but 7 are just helpless animals, and one is the non-hostile wisp, so that leaves 34 that you'll ever have to fight. I never encountered a lot of them, including corpsers, mimics, and rotworms.

A group of deer gamboling about Britannia. I could kill them for their meat, but the game doesn't really require food, so that seems kind of mean.
 
Orcs are notably absent, and come to think of it, I'm not sure we see them in Ultima VII, either. Has the entire race been wiped out? Ettins are also gone. The "beast-like humanoid" role is limited to trolls, headless, and cyclopes.

I like slimes. They're an experience point bonanza because they frequently divide when you hit them, and you get experience points for each one you kill. Arming your characters with fists and sending them wading through slimes will keep them occupied for almost an hour and rack up a thousand XP. I also like how the individual slimes "pool" together in this game. It's very well-done graphically.

Gideon grinds his experience points, hoping to achieve Level 8 (6400) before the game is over.

I named reapers to my "most annoying RPG enemies" list for Ultima IV for their habit of putting the entire party to sleep every round. In this game, they don't have that ability, but they can summon hordes of insects, which might be an even more annoying feature. Insects hardly do any damage, but they get about 20 attacks per round and they're damn near impossible to hit. A swarm of them produces a very long, unrewarding combat. Reapers can also move in this game.

This is what happens if they cast before you can kill them.
 
In a notable departure from IV and V, you hardly ever find enemies on the surface. I've encountered a few trolls here and there, a rat or two in the forest, a hydra on one of the islands, and the occasional sea serpent that I can just ignore, but you could easily walk from Minoc to Trinsic without fighting a single battle. It does make sense in a narrative sense that an evolving society would have eliminated most of the surface threats.

Combats with other humans are also quite rare, which makes it startling when they occasionally occur. You might run into a random fighter or two, accompanied by a mage, deep in the bowels of the Earth. You'll instinctively try to (T)alk with them, but they'll just start attacking for no reason.

A couple of ill-fated "swashbucklers" appear in a mountain pass.

Combat

For all its quality and innovations in gameplay, the Ultima series has never done a great job with combat. There have never been quite enough tactics, special attacks, or difficulty to create great CRPG battles. The series started weak in this area, with just a lot of button-mashing in Akalabeth, Ultima, and Ultima II. Ultima III introduced a tactical combat screen that greatly improved on what came before, and its development clearly culminated in Ultima V. This game takes a step backwards, and it all goes downhill in Ultima VII.

Starting in this game, combat occurs on the regular screen, just in a separate "combat mode"--and if you only want the Avatar to fight, you don't even need to enter that. In combat mode, you can choose to directly control your other party members ("command") or let them fight on their own. Neither is entirely satisfying. Manual control of every PC is tedious (and you can't set an "active character" while in combat mode), while computer control suffers from absolutely abysmal AI. The game theoretically lets you select six different "stances" for your characters--front, rear, flank, berserk, retreat, and assault--but I don't notice a whit of difference between what my characters actually do and what position I select, with the sole exception of "retreat."

The party faces acid slugs. Note that I have Dupre's action set to "Assault."

Half the time, no matter what I select, my characters just don't engage. Either their primitive pathfinding abilities can't figure out how to reach an enemy or they're just lazy, but my characters often just dither around in the background while my Avatar slugs it out with enemies. Even worse, they won't do anything when I specifically equip them with missile weapons. Thus, "command" is the only way to go when I want to make sure that everyone fights.

The bad combat AI for your party members is balanced by the relative simplicity of combat. Except for dragons and daemons, I don't find enemies challenging at all, and I could have made it just fine with only my Avatar with perhaps the exception of the dungeon Destard and all its dragon battles. (And it strikes me that intelligent use of invisibility rings and potions might have made that dungeon a snap: run in, grab the eggs, gate out.) The experience may be different for someone who creates a new character--my imported Avatar had near-max stats from the outset--but overall, the ease of combat means that many of the other elements of the game--economy, equipment, magic--are diminished in importance.

Many of the details of combat are unchanged from the previous two entries. It's still turn-based, though some actions take more turns than others. Health still progresses from "barely wounded" to "critical" before the enemy dies. Enemies flee when they hit "critical." Attacks can still go astray and wound party members. You can dual-wield weapons, and spiked helms and shields serve both offense and defense, so a character outfitted with a long sword, a main gauche, a spiked helm, and a spiked shield gets four attacks per round. Terrain still plays a big role--a narrow corridor can be a godsend or a hindrance depending on the specific enemy and what you want your party members to do.

My party does okay against a group of alligators.
 
Enemies still drop a variety of loot when they die--meat for animals and weapons, armor, and treasure for humans. The equipment drops make more sense than in some of the previous games; you no longer find treasure chests on bats or rats, for instance.

Equipment

Ultima VI features one of the most complex inventories of any game to date. The paperdoll inventory supports armor, weapons, shields, helms, amulets, rings, and boots. Your two hands can grip a single weapon, two weapons, a sword and shield, a weapon and a spellbook, torches, oil flasks, and wands. There are dozens of other special items activated with the (U)se command, including food, potions, lockpicks, sextants, musical instruments, and tools like shovels and pick-axes. Add to this a score of quest items, and your inventories are bursting at the seams fairly quickly. Fortunately, you also have bags, chests, and backpacks to help you organize everything. I keep the runes in one bag, the moonstones in another, and all my reagents in a third.

There are a variety of items that you can only effectively (U)se when they're on the ground, but the game lets you heft and tote them for the right occasion. I love that you can carry a skiff around on your back. The balloon (which you'll learn about soon) works the same way. Powder kegs are a fun addition to the game, useful for both blowing open doors and the occasional combat scenario.

The world is also full of things that you can pick up for no reason, like kitchen utensils, mugs, wine bottles, laboratory equipment, and clothes. More than a decade before The Elder Scrolls games started seeding its worlds with random calipers and embalming tools, it's fun to see a bunch of random items strewn about just to make the world feel more like a real place.

Encumbrance is limited by strength, but with enough party members, I haven't had any major problems. I try to organize by category. Dupre handles the gold nuggets and other stuff we're going to sell. Shamino is the torch-bearer and the rest of his inventory space goes to porting the skiff on his back. Iolo keeps the potions, Jaana the rings and other magic items. Sentri packs the food, and Seggallion hauls nothing but powder kegs. I never found an inventory use for Beh-Lem.

For the first time, you can (L)ook at weapons and armor to see how much damage they do and how much protection they provide. The best armor pieces are the magic helms, magic armor, and magic shields that you occasionally find or can buy at Trinsic. Yes, there are ways to clone magic armor and ways to buy it for everyone by exploiting the wisps, but I've been trying to play without those exploits and acquire it slowly (again, the relative ease of combat makes it not a big deal anyway). So far, I have four sets. I thought "magic boots" existed in this game, but I never found any, and in any event I wouldn't trade my swamp boots for anything.

Shamino's inventory consists of a skiff and its deed, a bunch of torches, and a backpack full of keys. He's wearing a magic helm, magic armor, a spiked collar, swamp boots, and a protection ring. He carries a sword and a torch.

I've been surprised at how few weapon upgrades I've found. My Avatar ended the game still wielding the same sword that he started with--I've yet to find a better one-handed melee weapon. As far as I can tell, there are no magic swords or magic axes in this game. There are magic bows, but they still consume arrows and I'm always running out. 

The best weapons seem to be wands of fire and lightning, which you find rather plentifully and last a long time. I tend to give these to the characters with the lowest experience totals so they can build them up faster. (Experience goes to the character who strikes the killing blow.) My strategy would work better if the characters would actually use the wands more consistently in combat.

Iolo fires his wand at a giant scorpion.

Economy

You rarely have to buy things in Ultima VI, and even when you can--like the magic armor in Trinsic--I find it so much more fun to find good items in dungeons that I rarely take advantage of it. Most of my money has gone towards spells and reagents. Spells are expensive enough, especially at high levels, that you're unlikely to end the game with all of them.

Unlike the previous two Ultima games, I rarely find myself "saving up" for anything here. Except at the very beginning, I haven't bothered to sell excess equipment at stores.

I decline to break the economy.
 
As commenters have spoiled, if you bring a copy of The Lost Book of Mantras to the wisps, you can get a reward consisting of as many gold nuggets your party members can carry. Unless you're way overloaded when you get them, you can generally go and sell these for a few thousand gold pieces at the Royal Mint.  However, that's only one option, and the wisps consider it the baser one. The buyers of the book--someone from the Rklbwm dimension--also offer to trade information instead. To avoid breaking the game, I went with the information:

If a substance with a partially reflective surface is positioned so that its third index of refraction matches the wavelength coefficient of the output of a polarized light source, and the resulting beam is focused on an ionized crystal suspended in a unipolar magnetic field, matter can be converted into useful electromagnetic radiation at an efficiency rate of 96 to 98 percent, depending on the desired output frequency.

I'm curious if this paragraph actually makes any sense whatsoever. I don't have the science background to interpret it.

Magic

Like the previous games, spells exist as combinations of syllables ("IN ZU GRAV" for "Sleep"; "VAS POR FLAM" for "Explosion") and require a combination of reagents to cast. Unlike the previous games, you don't ever have to use the syllables or mix the reagents; they just get deducted from your inventory when you cast. You also have to buy spells ahead of time from one of four sellers. They exist in eight circles, and your level has to be equal to the circle you're trying to cast. When you cast, you lose a number spell points equal to that circle. Spell points regenerate slowly in between castings.

Checking out my regent stash before I buy more from Horance.
 
Spells and reagents are expensive enough that it really only makes sense to invest in magic for the Avatar. His spell points are double his intelligence, maxing out at 60. The few other characters who can use magic only get spell points equal to half their intelligence, meaning they max out at 15. I suppose it might be useful to have at least one other party member with "Dispel Magic," in case the Avatar gets slept or charmed, but I've managed to limp along without it.

In IV and V, I complained a bit that spells were mostly unnecessary, save "Cure Poison" (which oddly doesn't exist here; "Dispel Magic" handles that) and "Heal." This game takes a turn by making some spells absolutely necessary. You simply can't get through the game without "Unlock Magic," "Dispel Field," and "Telekinesis," at least, because so many of the essential dungeons are unpassable otherwise.

Gideon chooses from among various sixth-level spells.
I find myself using these and a lot of other "utility" spells quite often. These include "Create Food," "Detect Trap," "Untrap," "Dispel Magic," "Pickpocket," "Heal," and "Great Heal." A few utility spells have analogues in items of equipment--there's no need to cast "Light" as long as you have torches, "Peer" as long as you have gems, or "Locate" as long as you have a sextant.

I use offensive spells very rarely, mostly (again) because the combats are pretty easy without them and I'd rather not waste the reagents. "Paralysis" turned out to be very helpful against dragons, as did "Kill" when I got it late in the game. I might fire an occasional "Lightning" or "Fireball" spell at a fleeing enemy when my other party members don't seem to be in any hurry to use their missile weapons, and "Explosion" works well to clear out groups of low-level monsters (it basically replicates powder kegs).

Taking out a couple of reapers and an insect with "Mass Kill." 'Cause why not.

"Reveal" is a key spell that makes invisible enemies visible. It's the only way to get your party members to target an invisible enemy.

Gideon reveals a ghost.
 
There are a number of clever spells that, like most of the offensive spells, would be more useful if combats were harder and you needed more tactics to prevail. You can buy magic staves from Nicodemus and use the "Enchant" spell to imbue them with a number of charges of some other spell, like "Great Heal" or "Kill," give your characters unprecedented power in combat. "Summon" allows you to bring your own daemons into the battle, and "Energy Field" will create walls that help you reshape the combat landscape. There are spells of enormous power at the seventh and eight levels--"Energy Wind," "Wing Strike," "Mass Kill," "Mass Charm"--which would be awesome except that by the time you reach that level (if you ever do), you really have no major combats left to fight, and the spells are barely necessary even if you do.

There are a host of spells in the game that are simply mystifying--of no use except to screw around (though perhaps my readers can see uses for them that I can't). "Douse" extinguishes flames and "Ignite" takes care of a "lifeless torch, fireplace, or brazier." Why? "Infravision" detects warm-blooded beings in the dark, but if you're using that instead of "Light," I don't know why. "Trap" allows you to put a trap on a chest or door, but I can't really think of many cases in which an enemy chases you through a closed door. "Vanish" allows you to make small objects disappear and "Reappear" brings them back again. I can't think of a single use for either except to compete against Chuckles as Lord British's entertainer.

Ta-da!

Oh, there's tons more: "Magic Lock" magically locks chests and doors. Yes, I know about the exploit using this spell, but I don't think that was the spell's intention. On the other hand, it really has no other valid use. "Animate" causes inanimate objects to "come to life and wander about, though not under the caster's control." Again, why? (Yes, there's another exploit that allows you to then "Clone" these objects, then "kill" them, and now you have two of them. Again, that doesn't really seem to be the original intent.)

Gideon animates, then clones, magic armor.

"Clone" itself is a bit silly. It makes a copy of any character or NPC, but they just stand around and do nothing. They won't talk; they won't join the party. They seem to have the powers of the original character, but not the items, so it's not like you can clone your Avatar and then kill him for duplicate equipment or gold.


"Replicate" should theoretically do what the "Animate"/"Clone"/kill combination does, but it only works on "simple objects," which means literally nothing that you would find useful, including armor, reagents, torches, arrows, and lockpicks. 

Gideon replicates a bottle of mead. I'm not saying the spell wouldn't have real-life uses.

"Seance" is a mystery. It's supposed to let you speak to the dead, but it hasn't worked once any time I've tried it. I had this idea that it was useful in case you accidentally killed a key NPC, but it never works when I cast it on NPC bodies. It didn't work on Quenton's ghost, either. "Gate Travel" is a waste of time when you have the Orb of Moons. "X-Ray" saves you from, I don't know, having to open a door.

But the grandfather of all unnecessary, mystifying spells has to be the eighth-level "Eclipse," which expends 8 spell points and mandrake, sulfurous ash, nightshade, garlic, and blood moss to temporarily blot the sun and plunge the world into darkness--a condition that does absolutely nothing for you except require you to stumble around in the dark. Britannians don't even comment on it.

"I am Gideon of Earth! Behold my awesome power! Uh...Shamino, light a torch, would you?"

Finally, I should note the existence of a first-level spell called "Help," which requires no reagents. It sends you crying like a baby to Lord British's throne room and immediately restores all hit points. Not only would casting this spell be the most pathetic thing ever, but it's completely redundant since a) your Orb of Moons takes you to Lord British's throne room in only one extra step, and b) if things go so badly for you in combat that you die, you find yourself resurrected in the throne room anyway.

"You're so lame you cast 'Help' in Ultima VI" ought to be an insult among CRPG players.

Next up: how I won the game!

86 comments:

  1. It really sounds like a good game, like the herald of a new CRPG era. Interaction with the environment, detailed NPCs, things added to the game just make it more realistic... I get the impression that the biggest weaknesses of the game are related to its part of the Ultima series, i.e. inconsistencies with the canon, if there exists one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, and that's a "weakness" that has varying effects on different people. I doubt anyone truly DISLIKES the game for its story inconsistencies, but they do momentarily annoy me now and then, mostly because it feels like the developers didn't really care or try.

      Delete
  2. I was given the 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Guide in the early nineties. As a wee lad, I was absolutely delighted with the (relatively) massive collection of spells, a lot of them utilitarian and not related to combat. I remember thinking how much flexibility these spells gave a GM for constructing a 'combat-lite' campaign while still retaining an engaging story and interesting encounters.

    Just to show how naive I was, all non-combat spells were removed in the latest version of AD&D and the game now plays like a pen-and-paper version of a generic MMORPG.

    Being able to turn day into night might have no useful application in Ultima VI, but it's a nice touch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It would be fun to have a game like Portal but with a selection of spells, so you'd have to cast the right combination to navigate through a room or solve a task. We've seen some SEQUENCES of this in a few games, but I've never seen it make up the core spellcasting mechanic.

      Delete
    2. @Raifield: I haven't really followed the development of D&D Next, but I hope they're reintroducing utility spells again. If there isn't anything like that in the coming edition they might as well not have bothered, in my opinion.

      Delete
    3. My criticism was intended for D&D 4th Edition, I wasn't aware of D&D Next. Wikipedia does not have a lot to say about it, but I will say that the 4th Edition is when WotC answered the age-old question: Are heroes born or made? I always felt they were made and therefore the wide range of utilitarian spells and skills for the PCs made a lot of sense and I thought they would provide flexibility, but both the spells and skills have been removed from the game's ruleset, so I guess I was wrong somehow.

      WotC basically decreed in the 4th Edition that heroes are born and are a breed apart from 'commoners'. Abilities such as the 'healing surges' and rituals, plus the rule stating ALL damage is healed after a six-hour rest really makes the PC's more like superheroes and it was at that point I stopped following D&D.

      Delete
    4. Utility spells weren't removed, they were turned into rituals. Please, save your grognardism for EN World.

      Delete
    5. They were however made useless. They cost money and need skill checks, so it is easier to just punch things or rely on skills.

      Also they take time, so if you are on a time limit you are boned.

      Delete
  3. The part about the AI I found most annoying was not that your friends wouldn't fight. It was that they would run screaming off in some random direction to fight monster you didn't even know were there, and wouldn't have had to fight except for friends attacking them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you sure you're not thinking about VII with that? I didn't quite see that problem here. Characters sometimes attack enemies off-screen, but they're almost always enemies you'd have to deal with anyway. And they don't scream.

      Delete
  4. I have never played Ultima, but it's interesting to see that Amberstar ...borrowed... really lots of features from U6, like the light radius at day and night, the partly off/def helmets and shields and surely a few more i now forgot. It is by no means a clone, but I'm quite sure the designer of Amberstar played U6 before. :D Also I'm sure you will love Amberstar!

    ReplyDelete
  5. That sciency stuff sounds like how a laser works

    ReplyDelete
  6. I can interpret the EM radiation line, but it doesn't make much sense...I'll take it a piece at a time:

    "If a substance with a partially reflective surface..."

    Nearly all substances are partially reflective. No substance is perfectly transmissive (at all wavelengths), and no substance is perfectly absorptive (at all wavelengths), and conservation of energy means nearly all substances must have some reflection.

    "...is positioned so that its third index of refraction matches the wavelength coefficient of the output of a polarized light source..."

    I don't understand _third_ index of refraction, but index of refraction is related to the permittivity of a material. To be precise, it is the square root of the ratio of the permittivity of a material to the permittivity of free space (assuming the material is non-magnetic, which most materials are, at least at optical frequencies where the index of refraction is most commonly used). _Wavelength coefficient_ makes no sense, though. Wavelength is obtained mathematically by decomposition of an arbitrary light source into a Fourier series (sum of sines and cosines). It's not a coefficient, it's an actual property of light. Polarization refers to the direction of the electric field. Maxwell's equations (which govern all electromagnetic interactions, not just light but including light) indicate that, for isotropic materials, the electric field is perpendicular to the direction of propagation...but we have 3 spatial dimensions in our world, so there is a 2-D plane perpendicular to the direction of propagation. The polarization specifies the direction in the 2-D plane the electric field is oriented (which also specifies the magnetic field's direction).

    "...and the resulting beam is focused on an ionized crystal suspended in a unipolar magnetic field..."

    Many crystals are *not* isotropic, and can result in birefringence, where one polarization (or in other words one direction of the electric field) is slowed down more than another. Crystals can be uniaxial or biaxial (which I think is what was meant, not unipolar magnetic field...there is no magnetic charge! Or, actually more precisely, the ratio of magnetic to electric field strength is constant. This comes from Maxwell's equations).

    "...matter can be converted into useful electromagnetic radiation at an efficiency rate of 96 to 98 percent, depending on the desired output frequency."

    E = m * c^2 is the famous Einstein equation for conversion of matter to energy...but here I begin to get really confused. I understand the words, but they make no sense strung together. I thought we already had light incident on the crystal in a magnetic field? So what is being converted -- the crystal itself? Or is the frequency of the light shifting to another frequency? The only matter in the description thus far is the crystal...

    Setting that aside, many crystals (which are birefringent) can be used to alter the outputted frequency of light through frequency doubling, frequency halving, or other nonlinear interactions. Magnetic field strengths can be used to fine-tune these processes, as well as crystal orientation. However, the conversion rate is nowhere near 96%-98%! I guess maybe that's why you needed magnetic monopoles? *grin*

    So, there's a technical explanation of what many of the terms mean, coming from a current physics PhD student...but it still doesn't make a lot of sense when strung together. The only explanation I can come up with is it was someone dabbling into a technical field outside their specialty to make the game sound spiffier :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, one explanation of "third index of refraction" just dawned on me... If a crystal is biaxial, then the index of refraction in each spatial direction is different. They are usually arranged from smallest to largest. So by "third index of refraction", it could mean the orientation of the crystal that has the largest index of refraction. (That said, the verbiage is before talk about the crystal...index of refraction is not a property of light as the write-up implies, it is a property of the medium through which the light is propagating.)

      Delete
    2. Wow. Thanks for trying to puzzle through it! It sounds like technobabble, then, but suggesting a technology that converts matter into usable energy, like the "Mr. Fusion" device in Back to the Future. If it worked, it would certainly be worth the price!

      Delete
    3. I tried to work through it myself, and figured it was suggesting perhaps some sort of teleportation device, honestly. Glad I saw someone else went through the effort of explaining before I bothered (working on a PhD in astrophysics myself). I do agree it just seems like technobabble, but some descriptions of physical properties get rather odd as you go back through the decades. Maybe it made a bit more sense to an armchair physicist (such as the writer) back then.

      Delete
    4. It's okay if you guys don't understand. It just means you're human as you'd have to be a Wisp to figure this out.

      Delete
    5. I'm glad you lot did that for me; I'm working on a Masters in chemistry, and I think I got most of that, but there are a couple of things I would have missed.

      Delete
    6. To be fair, the info isn't from the wisps, it's from some other race, probably in another universe. The wisps are acting as info brokers.

      Delete
    7. If you paste the text of the passage into Google, you get this page followed by pages containing the text of some patents for lasers. A description of a laser seems likely.

      In the game, you should take the gold. In real life, a patent on some kind of useful or efficient laser might be more valuable. Gold would currently be about $2 million for 100 pounds, which is a quantity you might be able to carry for a short distance (hopefully far enough to hide it from muggers). The patent might be worth that or more, but then again, it might not be salable. Your only options would be to sell it to a company that makes lasers or sell it to a company that offers licenses to companies who make or use lasers that violate your particular patent (and threatens to sue if they don't buy a license). Or it would be to go after companies yourself, but that seems like a pain in the ass. So you'll want the gold.

      Since the text seems kind of generic in its description, it is probably a description of a system well-known "to persons trained in the art," and is thus unpatentable. Again, another reason to take the gold.

      Last, but not least, I'm pretty sure that in order to patent something you need to describe how you came up with the invention. You can't say that aliens gave it to you. So, again, in reality as in the game, you should go with the gold.

      Oh, by the way, if you also have 7 friends who can each carry about 50 stone (700 pounds) of gold and who will drop it without complaint if you tell them to get lost... do I have to say it? Take the gold.

      7 friends times 700 pounds times about $2million per 100 pounds... almost $100 million...

      Delete
    8. The key words in the passage may light up laser patents, but the entirety of the passage (i.e., if you put quotes around it) only comes back to Ultima.

      Taking the gold is obviously the best option if you want your gameplay to be easy, but there's already so much gold in the game that this amounts to a game-breaking exploit rather than a good role-playing decision.

      In a real-life scenario, though, I agree with your logic. $100 million in the hand is worth $1 billion in potential patents. Of course, not that getting $100 million in untraceable gold of a mysterious origin wouldn't bring its own problems...

      Delete
  7. I remember being totally aghast when I saw reapers moving in this game. I was like "but... but... they're... but they're not supposed to... they can't... what????" Also one of the few creatures that I thought took a step backward in graphics. That and gazers, which look like flying watermelons. But I forgot about the swarms of insects. I first played this on a 386DX machine at 16 MHz, which was pretty good for it's day back around 1990-91, but this game slowed to a crawl when it came to the insect swarms, when it's calculating 10 moves x 20 insects for every one of your moves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even at 3000 cycles in DOSBox, it bogs down a bit when too many creatures are on the screen. I can imagine it must have been torturous on era equipment.

      Delete
  8. How many games are we from Ultima 7?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 35 more 1990 games, 50 1991 games, plus all of the "old" games I play in between. Even subtracting for "NPs" or "Rejecteds" (both of which I'm likely to be a lot more liberal about in the coming year), we're probably looking at 100. Don't hold your breath.

      Delete
    2. Looking forward to another of my top-10 CRPGs ever: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990) by Interplay

      Delete
    3. Ack, it's WAY too linear for my liking, that game.

      Delete
  9. I'm not sure what happened to another comment I wrote but: how is U5's "90% advance, 10% fight" combat any better than U6's?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I found U5's combat to become tiresome about the time my whole party was equipped with magic axes. And then it became really tiresome after the second or third horde of mongbats in the underworld. After I while I just started running away because I was sick of dealing with them.

      Although the combat AI in U6 is poor, at least it is not so repetitious. I think the main problem with taking control of each party member is that the point of view keeps shifting with each turn, so it's easy to lose your bearings. The only AI mode that was marginally useful was "assault" but even then the Avatar gets most of the kills (and thus the XP).

      Delete
    2. IMO, it would be amazing if we could combine Ultima's storytelling with Might and Magic's combat system. MM has a lot of depth to it on both equipment and spellcasting, but the combat always seemed polished. The stories got a bit repetitive though over time...although the implementations were innovative, the overarching story was still similar. If there were some way to merge the two, that would be amazing!

      Delete
    3. I don't think even U5 ever reached the point that it was "great," but I liked that it seemed to offer a more tactical approach, and spellcasting seemed to matter a lot more.


      I do tend to separate the mechanics of combat from how often you have to engage in combat. That U5 ultimately got a little repetitive doesn't say anything about the combat engine itself. Any combat engine gets tedious if it's used too often. I agree that's a valid complaint about U5.

      They're close. I still think U5 is marginally better, but depending on your preferences, it could go either way.

      Delete
    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    5. I understand what you're saying, but the problem wasn't just being repetitive. It was either you steamroll the fights with the magic axe, or you lose most of the time walking to your opponents to kill them with a single strike.

      There's a handful of CRPGs with a better combat than U6: Faery Tale Adventures 2, Betrayal at Krondor, Darklands, Baldur's Gate. And all these games have the merit of having a good combat system that never gets repetitive nor tedious.

      Delete
  10. While a lot of the game play improved in VI, I really think the story and "world" of V was a more interesting. Lord British missing, Blackthorn's guards shaking you down, shadowlords invading towns, the resistance all added to a really interesting world. To me, the story of Ultima VI never seemed to move much beyond "gargoyle trouble" and didn't capture me in the same way.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't disagree. I think they're close enough that it's tough to call, but I could see preferring U5.

      Delete
    2. I can get behind the story being less interesting in U6. But the world? No way. To me, the difference between U5 and U6 in world building and presentation is like the difference between a two-dimensional painting using four colors and a three-dimensional fully colored simulation. It's not even a contest IMO, mainly because much of U6's world seems to exist on its own - it's not there because it's necessary for "the" story, but because it is part of its own story.

      Delete
    3. Precisely what Paul said :) It was not the story nor the plot (which are still quite good), it was the entire living world.

      But then, I find U5 to be one of the weakest of the series anyway, so it's always hard for me to compare both.

      Delete
    4. @Paul, Ultima V conveyed the same sense of a living world to me with large bits of the game world that were not necessary for the main quest. You only really need to go through 3 dungeons to beat the game. The shrine quests are entirely optional. A host of NPCs contribute nothing vital to your quest other than flavor.

      In my opinion, V trumps VI in world building too. Maps are constructed in logical ways. There are no (for example) city cemeteries which can only be accessed through a secret door in the back of a pub. I recall one Thieves' Guild location that can only be accessed through a fireplace, but that actually kind of makes sense.

      In any case, I've learned from this blog that the Ultima series has devotees at every iteration (perhaps not II). I've always felt that it was self-evident that Ultima V was better than VI. I was actually a little surprised to find so much love for VI here.

      Delete
    5. What I've learned from this blog is that EVERY game has its devotees. I'm in the middle of Tunnels of Doom right now, trying to reconcile all of the superlatives I've read online with the actual gameplay experience and wondering if these commenters ever played another game. "Best game created for the TI-99 in 1982" does not equal "best gave EVER," people.

      Delete
  11. I'm a bit mystified by your prediction that Ultima VI will either be your top rated game so far, or close to it. You haven't had much positive to say about the game's character creation system, party mechanics, lore/story, combat, equipment, economy, main quest, side quests, interface, or magic system. The game is certainly not bad, but the only places where I can see your commentary clearly favoring VI over V (for example) is probably in NPC interaction and Graphics/Sound.

    Maybe I'm misreading your tone, or maybe the virtues of VI are so transparent that going on at length about them in a post would make for tedious reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, if you haven't picked up my tone, I guess it's my fault for bad writing, not your fault from "misreading." I thought my last few postings have conveyed how much I'm "playing around" with the game and enjoying the little scenarios and vignettes. This isn't something I do with games I don't like.

      But I also think you're selectively reading the text itself. My first posting, after admittedly grousing for a while on the story retcons, absolutely glows about the game's interface and gameplay mechanics. I specifically say it's "one of the best interfaces ever designed for a CRPG." I specifically praised the mechanics of the map quest, even though it was ultimately unnecessary.

      This is a great game. Sorry if that hasn't been coming through.

      Delete
    2. You're right, of course; whenever you make a witty comment about Lord British reading bedtime stories to a talking mouse while the world burns or about long time companions being the only people in Britannia who don't know who the avatar is, the part of me that has been angry at Richard Garriott since 1990 jumps up and down and screams "VINDICATION AT LAST!"

      So... selective reading is probably right.

      I really don't know why this game bugs me so much. I *know* it's a good game, I just have this irrational, visceral reaction to it.

      Delete
    3. Obviously, there's no right or wrong in things like this.

      Delete
  12. I agree with the above person that all the "useless" spells just just add flavor to the game world. It tries to show that this is a world that people live in, rather than just an artificial construct for a videogame. Same thing as the runic lettering, the spell language, the "Compendium" manual, the trinkets, and all the small touches that they put in the game. None of those spells or other things help you beat the game or min/max your character, but they add to the enjoyment and to you role-playing the Avatar and saving Britannia.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In other words, they are role playing tools and not true game mechanics. It is also fun to screw around with them for fun. U6 is one of the earliest of what we now call "sandbox" games.

      Delete
    2. I had a lot of fun messing with the various spells. The value of "clone" is amplified when used in combination with "confuse". I.e. summon some daemons to LB's throne room, clone Nystul and Geoffrey, cast "confuse" and watch chaos ensue. Similar fun if you cast "confuse" in a dungeon with multiple dragons & daemons on hand. Best to be invisible but that doesn't stop the dragons' chain lightning from hitting you. Didn't realize at the time that this was a "sandbox" game but in retrospect that is a good designation.

      Previously I recall "Starflight" being described as one of the first sandbox games. It's a few years earlier, and a sandbox in different sense. I am not enough a student of the genre to know whether such open-ended games were common at the time, or if Starflight was one of the first. And did that (one of my other all-time favorites) influence the game designers of the Ultima series?

      Delete
    3. Maybe not the first, but definitely the first important sandbox game was Elite I'd say. Maybe there was an influence of that game on Starflight? (Although I'd say no.)

      Delete
    4. Good call on Elite... spent hours playing that on my C64 back in the day but never made it past "deadly". I would say it may have influenced Starflight in the sense of scraping cash together to slowly upgrade your ship. Starflight 2 then has the whole trading component which could be influenced by Elite. But the 'sandbox' game from our friends at Origin that is the most obvious spiritual successor of Elite is Privateer.

      Delete
    5. I was too impatient for the docking procedure to play Elite for long...You may be right about Starflight 2. They made the conscious decision to specifically enhance the trade part of the game. That could indeed be the impact of Elite.

      Delete
    6. I agree that SOME of the spells add flavor to the game world, and I don't deny that I had fun taking some of those screenshots. But a lot of the "useless" spells just raise problems. The Avatar is powerful enough to suck a moon out of orbit and put it in front of the sun? What about the ethical issues associated with creating a mute copy of someone? And "Seance" doesn't add flavor--it just doesn't work.

      I'm all for flavor, but part of me wonders if there wasn't originally supposed to be a purpose to some of those spells--like maybe "Eclipse" was supposed to make everyone go to bed--that just never got programmed into the game.

      Delete
    7. Or another possible explanation is that the game designers wanted to have 8 levels of 8 spells each and couldn't think of 64 useful and cool spells so they had to throw in a bunch of "filler" spells.

      Delete
    8. If I recall correctly, "Infravision" lights up all monsters, even if they're out of your torch's radius or behind walls. I could be wrong, though.

      Delete
    9. My Dad played elite as a sandbox: He missed a plot point, and kept going, got to Elite and yet left the plot behind somewhere in the 1st galaxy (of 7).

      Delete
    10. When I played I didn't even realize Elite had a plot. I just had fun trading and hunting pirates. Did that for hours on end.

      Delete
    11. Zenic: I've wanted a non-flight sim Elite type game for years. Too bad all the ones I've found so far are either not very good RPGs or one really bad FPS with time limits.

      Delete
    12. Excited for the upcoming sequel then?

      Delete
    13. Mixed feelings. I mean, he has made two sequals since then, both of which have propblems. Also apprently there is a reason the two creators split up: http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/faq.htm#A13

      Also, Bell did half the work and he isn't involved: http://www.iancgbell.clara.net/elite/faq.htm#A3

      Delete
    14. That's unfortunate. Over half the links on that site are dead.

      Delete
  13. I never played Ultima myself (well, I have tried, but I was already spoiled by later CRPGs like Fallout then and just couldn't handle its interface and non-tree dialogues), but now I see how much those games influenced some of my favourite indie CRPGs. It's very unfortunate that we're literally light years away from 1995, when Exile, which later become Avernum (which I actually played and loved) came out, borrowing all it could from the older game. And even farther from 2007, when Eschalon, the most recent Ultima-influenced game was my most awaited game of the year. It even had exploding barrels in it!

    Of course, when you will reach Exile, you'll feel transported back to 1990, or further, in terms of graphics, but that's indie games for you...

    ReplyDelete
  14. Maybe I am profoundly biased because U6 was the first CRPG I ever played, but it still seems to me that no game since (U7 aside of course) has reached the same depth of dialogues, possibilities to interact with the environment, openness and attention to detail in the gameworld. Or is this just pure nostalgia?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not nostalgia, you are correct. U7 takes it one step further (baking bread, etc). IMHO U7p2 takes it another step further in terms of unexpected plot in exchange for a more limited world exploration.

      Other than that, indeed U6 is still a benchmark. I normally say it's "flawless", as it's the only CRPG I know that doesn't have any single thing wrong with it.

      Delete
    2. I agree that few games have reached the amount of depth reached by the Ultima series. While U6 wasn't the first RPG I played, it was the one that really got me into the genre. I had played the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests and I think some Gold Box games as well but U6 was the game that really opened my eyes up and got me into the RPG genre.

      Delete
    3. And after U7, you get pieces of shit like U8 that makes you wonder why on Earth did you chose to play that sorry excuse of a game instead of Super Mario.

      Delete
  15. "Ultima VI features one of the most complex inventories of any game to date. The paperdoll inventory supports armor, weapons, shields, helms, amulets, rings, and boots. Your two hands can grip a single weapon, two weapons, a sword and shield, a weapon and a spellbook, torches, oil flasks, and wands. There are dozens of other special items activated with the (U)se command, including food, potions, lockpicks, sextants, musical instruments, and tools like shovels and pick-axes. Add to this a score of quest items, and your inventories are bursting at the seams fairly quickly. Fortunately, you also have bags, chests, and backpacks to help you organize everything."

    ...So, basically Dungeon Master's inventory? :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know you're kidding, but come on. U6 outperforms DM in just about every way, starting with the ability to actually look at a weapon and figure out how much damage it does. DM also didn't have half the utility items.

      Delete
    2. I wasn't joking actually. U6's inventory system is almost identical to DM's - down to how "Look" command on most items tells nothing except the item's weight.

      Delete
  16. Seems like a really fun game, interesting to see what your rating is. My impression is that the story seems to be inferior, but in most other aspects it is an improved game.

    I was curious: does it seem as if the loot is random or are there set items in the world? Such as, perhaps, an epic sword that requires extra effort to get? I always appreciate it when a game does that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The good loot is fixed. The only thing that's random is the equipment drops on slain enemies. Unfortunately, there are no "artifact" weapons in the game unless you count the occasional glass sword.

      Delete
  17. Can you clone Chuckles or Lord British and kill them repeatedly?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can clone Lord British and have them fight eternally.

      Delete
  18. I might be wrong but I believe that Underworld I is set between U5 and U6, which is why the Abyss is gone in U6.

    (Of course, even if I'm right, the Abyss reappears with no further explanation in U9, but U9 was a mess anyways...)

    Lucius

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps you're right. I thought it was between 6 and 7, but it would make more sense if it was between 5 and 6. But it still doesn't make MUCH sense, and there's no place that you can put the game that it isn't awkwardly wedged into Ultima canon. Doesn't stop it being a great game, of course.

      Delete
    2. Underworld 1 has always been considered to be between 6 and 7. I haven't played it since back when it was brand new, so I don't know if there's anything in the actual game that requires it to be set then (like how Savage Empire and Martian Dreams must be set then due to the Orb of Moons being part of the plot), or if it's simply because the game came out after 6 but before 7.

      Delete
    3. Whenever it's supposed to take place, it feels to me like a game that was originally developed for its own unique setting, then uncomfortably shoehorned into the Ultima setting. I'll be surprised if that doesn't turn out to be the case.

      Delete
  19. The lack of orcs in the game is because Richard Garriott decided to remove any direct Tolkien references from Ultima 6 onwards. Trolls and Cyclops have historical mythological precedents, while orcs are purely from Tolkien's mind.

    On a side note, as a TI-99/4a owner and player of Tunnels of Doom, I can quite agree that it's not the "best ever"... it was just the only CRPG we had. I'm looking forward to reading your review of it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you speculating about Garriott's motives there, or did you actually read that somewhere?

      I didn't realize that ToD was the ONLY RPG for the TI-99, but I just did a search, and I can't find any others. I guess I won't be putting this new emulator knowledge to use again.

      Delete
    2. I guess that could be a motive, but in The Hobbit, Tolkien make sit clear "orc" is synonymous with "goblin", and "goblin" predates Tolkien. Seems like a simple renaming would serve both purposes if that were the case.

      Delete
  20. It's in Shay Addam's Book of Ultima, which actually has a multi-chapter section on the development of Ultima 6. You should find a copy, it's a very good read.

    There's one other TI CRPG on the list, Legends. It's a scaled-down clone of Phantasie, though, so I won't blame you if you decide to give it a miss.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I looked at it. It was more than $75 for a copy in good condition, and since I'm leaving the era it covers (it was published in 1990), I didn't think it was a good investment. Maybe I'll splurge.

      Thanks for the info about Legends. It's not in the standard databases. Looks like there was even a sequel

      Delete
    2. It looks like both Amazon and eBay have a huge number of the 1st Edition up for sale... I see it as low as $25 on eBay. The 2nd Edition looks rare, though... glad I own it! It adds some material about Ultima VII and the spin-off Ultima's, mostly walk-throughs.

      There was a sequel to Legends, which is pretty similar to Phantasie II. I own, played, and won both games on my classic TI in the day. I even scanned all the manuals into PDF's and put them up on a TI database awhile back. Given the total lack of CRPG's on the machine it was better than nothing, but I'm a bit embarrassed now by them because they're pretty weak scaled-down clones.

      Delete
  21. Damn. I tossed my copy a few years ago.

    ReplyDelete
  22. So, based on my reading of this Ultima 6 LP:

    Combat is too easy, frustrating and thankfully rarer than previous titles.
    You start with the best sword in the game
    There's little to buy, except spells, and most of those are useless.
    One major quest line is all but pointless to complete and another sends you back to the guy who started you on it.

    I think you should do a post about your perfect 'UI'. What levels of user-friendliness hit your sweet spot? There are so many different possible approaches to note taking, mapping, conversations, inventories, sustenance/hydration, spell casting and quest tracking, but modern games seem to take the same approach: minimise the amount of work for the player.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And yet, paradoxically, I had a great time with the game. It must have just been the interface and non-linearity.

      Delete
  23. Maybe it's the Dungeon of Deceit because it tricks you into thinking "there must be something of value in here, why else would there be so many traps?"

    ReplyDelete
  24. Regarding the part about too little human wanderers, have you actually visited the Crossroads at the outskirts of Skara Brae, Chet?

    There's usually a bloodfest going on there. Poor start-up adventurers could get pretty decent gear from looting their corpses.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think I waded into that between Skara Brae and Michael's house.

      Delete

I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) THIS ALSO INCLUDES USER NAMES THAT LINK TO ADVERTISING.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters.

3. Please don't comment anonymously. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. Choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank.

Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

NOTE: Spam has gotten so bad lately that I've had to turn on comment moderation for posts older than 10 days. I apologize if it takes a little while for your comment to appear.