Thursday, August 13, 2020

Ultima VII: The Black Gate: Summary and Rating

The stark black box was an unusual choice at the time. I like to think they were influenced by the Batman posters and VHS covers from a few years prior.
         
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
United States
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS; 1994 for SNES
Date Started: 20 March 2020
Date Ended: 30 July 2020
Total Hours: 74
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 51
Ranking at Time of Posting: 353/379 (93%)

Summary:
 
The Avatar returns to Britannia in this seventh entry. He's been gone 200 years by the Britannian calendar, and while some things are the same (Lord British still rules; most of the old companions are still around), the world has advanced in technology to roughly Victorian-era levels. Lord British's rule has become apathetic: the Britannian Tax Council oppresses the populace; the caste system is stronger than ever; something is disrupting the use of magic and driving magic-users insane; and a philosophical/religious organization with sinister undertones is converting the people away from the traditional virtues of the Avatar. The Avatar is thrust into this mess in the context of a serial murder investigation that takes him from one crime scene to another.
       
Ultima VII is a seminal entry in not only the Ultima series but games in general. It pioneered the open-world, sandbox environment, and it popularized the idea of the "unobtrusive interface," in which the entire screen is the game window, and interfaces for character sheets, inventory, and other game elements pop up as needed, pausing the action behind them. The game otherwise features most of the elements that people like about Ultima, including an engaging plot that moves the player across the map, finding clues in documents and NPC conversations in towns, castles, and dungeons. However, it falters in elements specific to RPGs, including character development and combat, and a somewhat inflexible narrative makes it difficult to fully appreciate the open-world design.
      
*****
    
As a writer, I like to do the talking myself, but occasionally another writer says something so perfectly that I can't possibly improve upon it. This is the case with a portion of Jimmy Maher's excellent article on Ultima VII, published in February 2019. Maher argues that "classic games" that everyone remembers fondly come in basically two types. The first is those that do everything right, like Ultima Underworld. As for the second: 
             
The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.
        
Nowhere else has the word "ineffable" been so aptly used. Maher goes on to mention a multitude of game design choices that should have sent Ultima VII directly to the bargain bin: the infuriating inventory management system, the absolute chaos that accompanies combat, the tendency of characters to get hit with friendly fire, and the need to hand-feed the characters. He (correctly) notes that any joy in character development or inventory acquisition is mostly offset by the fact that combat is so easy (or perhaps more to the point, random) that none of it feels particularly rewarding. To Maher's list, I would add a linear quest line that doesn't anticipate the slightest deviation even though it's nominally an open-world game, and the utter uselessness of magic, such that I never cast a single offensive spell except in experimentation. But if not for the perceived need to purchase spells, the economy would have literally no purpose.
          
I thought this was a missed opportunity.
      
So let's try to figure out why people remember the game so fondly. To start, for all the bugs its open-world nature causes, it's still an open-world game, and this was still rare in the era. The openness of the world introduces some problems, but my guess is that most players didn't really treat it like a truly open-world game anyway. Instead, they probably followed the quest in its intended order, yet still sensed the freedom of the open world around the fringes. They might stop at one city on the way to another or investigate a random island and in either case feel the delicious sense of plotting their own course without actually doing anything terribly deviant. I think I felt the same way, the first two times I played.
    
Second, it's a sandbox, and it's always a joy to play in a sandbox. There are intriguing buildings and caves and shipwrecks and other features scattered across the map, satisfying everyone's desire for serendipity. The engine supports a depth of interaction with the environment not seen even today, with players invited to read books, paint, bake bread, forge swords, open and close shutters, turn lights on and off, and cast a variety of spells that affect nothing except the physical environment. We saw it with my playing with the runes and cleaning up Lock Lake. In Nakar's famous LP of the game, he spends most of a session donating used quest objects to the museum. But even here, I think the game plays better in theory than reality. None of the interactions you have with the environment help you solve puzzles, develop your character, or gain a tactical advantage in combat.
        
Batlin is more invulnerable than Lord British.
      
Perhaps most important--and there's no place in the GIMLET to reflect this--Ultima VII moves along at a steady clip. Although there are a few annoyances (primarily the inventory system and the food system), you rarely hit a moment that's slow or boring. No matter what the conveyance, the party hustles across the map, taking no more than a few minutes to get from one city to another. No dungeon takes more than half an hour or so. Even the towns aren't as full of game-delaying NPCs as they once were. Most of them have less than a dozen people to talk with, with fewer words to say, and the "clickable keyword" approach means that you can get through the dialogue relatively fast. Combats are resolved in seconds.
     
The interface is also something of a work of brilliance. I've developed a reputation for being a mouse-hater, but I'm not. I like the mouse when it's used for purposes that befit the mouse, such as dragging items from one place to another. I hate when it's used for clicking on control buttons that could more easily be activated with the keyboard. Ultima VII strikes a near-perfect balance. There are still keyboard shortcuts for most actions, but the mouse works best when you need to actually move the cursor around the screen.

Last, we have the quality and depth of the story and writing, which Maher credits rightfully to Raymond Benson. I would have to name Ultima VI as the first game in which the various NPCs really come alive with such detail that it's worth getting into long discussions about their actions and motivations. I'm on the fence as to whether Ultima VII truly improves upon this--I suspect they'll both get the same scores for "NPC Interaction"--but it does put these characters in the context of a much more interesting plot. In Ultimas I-III, the villains were too one-dimensional to truly despise, and Ultimas IV-VI didn't really have any villains. But the Fellowship . . . wow. I honestly hate them. After typing that, I stared off into space for about five minutes, trying to think of any other video game faction that I've honestly hated, and I could only come up with the Thalmor, the Murfree Brood, and those guards in Assassin's Creed games who suddenly shoot you with unerring accuracy while you're in the middle of sword combat with one of their compatriots.
             
I enjoyed having companions who occasionally spoke up, but it was rare they didn't say anything completely obvious.
        
But it's at this point that the game's approach to storytelling falls apart for me. Because I hate the Fellowship so much, it's all the more frustrating that you never really defeat them. Sure, you get to kill their top leaders and stop their Big Evil Plan, but that doesn't do anything to address the societal rot that let the Fellowship take hold in the first place. Throughout the entire game, I think there's one NPC who you can convince not to join the Fellowship. You otherwise have no opportunity to expose their bull, to demonstrate the shallowness of their doctrine, to hold up a mirror to its weak-willed members and force them to truly face their demons, not hide them by spouting the same words about the "Triad of Inner Strength" or whatever. This would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce a hero's quest along the lines of The Quest of the Avatar; to do what I tried to do in my "surplaying": discredit the Fellowship, restore the virtues, re-invigorate the old religion. On a deeper level, you don't get to address the fact that Lord British is failing as a ruler, letting the Fellowship take hold in the first place and ignoring their most obvious machinations, such as the takeover of Buccaneer's Den and the corruption of the Britannian Tax Council.

Even if you don't agree with me about the plot problems, you have to agree that there are essentially no "good guys" in this game. Who are you fighting for? Lord British couldn't come off worse if he had been written by someone who hated him. Your companions are a bunch of helpless clowns, mewling for food, saying stupid things throughout the game, screwing up in combat. In an era where 99% of games featured NPCs and party members of no depth, Dupre somehow manages the remarkable achievement of having so much personality that it's tiresome. I mean, we get it: the man likes his drink. Do we have to have a five-minute side conversation every time we enter a pub?
     
As always, we must recognize that a game has to rise to a certain level of depth before we can even think to leverage such criticism, and that rise is generally a good thing. Ultima VII will get a high score in the "game world" category. But I suspect the GIMLET in general is going to be one of extremes, with most RPG mechanics getting low scores and a couple of qualitative aspects getting high scores. Let's check it out.

1. Game World. Starting with a deliciously devious manual, Ultima VII introduces a backstory and game world of depth and quality that we've never seen before. Later games would go bigger, as befits their scope, but few would go better. The type of threat is one that goes beyond the typical "big bad" of most games. Britannia is full of lore, including both ancient lore and recent (past 200 years) lore that even an experienced Avatar must learn. The only black mark I'd give in this category is that only rarely are your actions recognized in other parts of the world. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. I didn't appreciate how few options there are in character creation, nor how little difference character development seems to play. With only three attributes, eight levels, and no skills, Ultima VII lags not only well behind its contemporaries but also previous games in the series. There really aren't even any classes, and only the Avatar can cast spells. Score: 3.
           
Without the companions, any leveling would be near-meaningless after Forge of Virtue.
         
3. NPC Interaction. The Ultima series continues to lead the way here, although the system is still keyword-focused and doesn't really offer "dialogue options" the way we think of them today. Choosing whether to introduce yourself by your name or as "the Avatar" is almost all you get for role-playing options, and I was a bit annoyed that the game so stubbornly made you ask about NAME and JOB even when it made no sense in context. It was one thing when those were abstract keywords typed into a text interface, but when you're clicking on JOB while talking to children, wisps, and furry forest creatures, the Avatar just seems like a moron. Score: 7.

4. Encounters and Foes. You face a small number of enemy types, and while some give you pause, the game really isn't set up to offer different tactics against different foes. There's nothing terribly original about the enemies, although the manual does give them a thorough run-down. Non-combat encounters and puzzles are quite rare. The game's approach to respawning (i.e., the moment you leave the screen) is a crime against nature. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. A real travesty, particularly with magic. The combat system, including the inability to control your characters, makes in-combat magic not only unnecessary but also unwise. A lot of spells don't do what they're supposed to do (particularly "Detect Trap"  and "Destroy Trap") and a lot more simply don't do anything useful ("Fireworks," "Ignite," "Thunder," "Douse," "Great Ignite," "Great Douse," "Curse," "Swarm," "Poison," "Peer," "Locate," "Conjure," "Dance," any of the "Field" spells"), and still a lot more are unnecessary because a Level 4 Avatar with a couple pieces of magic armor and a decent weapon is already almost unstoppable in combat. In the entire game, I think I only used "Light" and "Great Light," "Heal" and "Great Heal," "Cure," "Unlock Magic," and "Seance" except when screwing around. I do have to give a little credit to the sheer variety of spells, however, even if I didn't find them all useful.

I started to go through each spell at one point but didn't continue the effort. Nakar has a great rundown of the utility of each spell as part of his LP. Some of his descriptions are hilarious in their accuracy, such as "Conjure" ("Two chickens and a fox; look out, dragons!"), "Fire Field" ("Sadly, about the only thing that will walk through it is Shamino, because monster pathfinding is slightly more clever than your allies"), and "Tremor" ("Causes your parents' 386 to hardlock").

As for the rest of combat, that's been covered in detail. I started the game thinking it wasn't bad, but that was when I only had a few characters and was fighting against low-level foes who only used physical attacks. Late in the game, it's absolute chaos. There must be a lot of randomness to the game's variables, too, because even at Level 8, against some enemies like headless, there was a chance that the screen would suddenly flash red and I'd be at the Fellowship shelter in Paws. Because of a lack of any ability to control your characters and because of terrible character pathfinding, there are no "tactics" that really work. Score: 3.
        
Fun fact: You still wake up in the shelter even if you died after casting "Armageddon." Your companions are all standing around you, but lifeless.
         
6. Equipment. This category would be more meaningful if combat were harder, but yes, there are a satisfying number of different weapon and armor types, helms, shields, gauntlets, rings, collars, leggings, boots, wands, potions, and fun special objects like powder barrels. Even late in the game, it was fun to find a treasure cache with a few upgrades. I didn't like having to look to an in-game book for weapon and armor values, though, nor that almost everything is in a fixed location. Score: 5.

7. Economy. There's some cool complexity in the ways you can earn money: loot it, cash in nuggets or gold bars, cash in gems, sell silver serpent venom, win it at the casino, and mine lead ore and cast "Create Gold" on it. And I can't say there aren't things to buy, such as weapons, armor, food, potions, conveyances, spells, reagents, and healing. What I will say is that these two sides of the economy are a bit mismatched. First, there's rarely any need to buy anything since you can just find most of what you need. The only reason to make a lot of money is for the spellbook, and for me that was an extraordinary waste of time. Points for trying, I guess. Score: 4.

8. Quests. We've got a compelling main quest but no role-playing choices except the option to take what is clearly intended as the "bad" ending (you don't even get a "congratulations" screen if you take it). Still, it's worth a point. The franchise is finally starting to get the concept of "side quests" but still isn't using them as well as it could, and low or no experience (or other) rewards for solving them means you're really just doing it for role-playing reasons. Some of the side quests let you pursue an "evil" outcome, which normally I'd applaud but seems out of place in the Ultima setting. Score: 6.
             
Fifteen minutes from the end of the game, the Time Lord asks if I will accept the main quest.
         
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Graphics are very good--just about as good as possible for the era. The graphics are clear in what they depict, and quite pretty in places, and have nice touches like ocean waves washing on the shore. As for sound, I though it was a mixed bag. The voiced dialogue from the Guardian was nice, and a lot of places have sound effects where you'd expect them, such as the creak of opening doors and the crackle of fire, and where you wouldn't expect them, such as an audible "gulp" of food going down the gullet. On the other hand, there are a lot of intrusive sounds, such as constant static or constant chimes in the background, as if the characters all have tinnitus. I think these are caused by some of the magical effects on weapons that we have wielded, and they're completely unnecessary. Other sounds, like the shh made every time you open a container, add nothing but annoyance. In general, I played with the sound off or without bothering to put on my headphones.
 
My feelings about the interface are generally positive. The controls work well, and I admire what the creators were trying to do by hiding the actual UI except when needed. I think they went maybe a little too far, however. Certainly, it would have been helpful to see the health status of the party members without requiring me to scroll through the status screens. It would have been nice if items had snapped to the nearest available space when I tried to put them down instead of giving me a buzz and re-appearing in my backpack. While the keyboard is used okay, it would have been nice to be able to hotkey items like the map, the watch, and lockpicks. Keys are just a mess. (Yes, I realize that "Exult" fixes most or all of these things.) An unobtrusive UI is new to the genre, and I don't blame ORIGIN for not figuring it all out yet, but neither can I give it a perfect rating here. Score: 6.
          
I didn't like the way secret doors were handled, either.
         
10. Gameplay. Ultima VII gets half points for the four major things I look for here. It's open world, but only partly (geographically but not narratively). It's somewhat replayable (in party members, in order of exploration) but not fully. It's a bit too easy and a bit too long, but not "very" in either case. Score: 6.

That gives us a final score of . . . ooh. Okay, let's just think about this for a second. I just spent four months playing this game, cranking out more entries than almost any prior game, acting like I was having an awful lot of fun while doing so. Am I really going to suggest, with a straight face, that it not only fails to beat Ultima V and Ultima VI, but that it doesn't even beat Ultima III? That it's on the same level of quality as Treasures of the Savage Frontier? The truth is, I overrated some of the games, in some categories, during the first two years, and I should probably make some adjustments. But that only partly helps us here.

Before I reveal the score, let me ask this: Ultima VII is a great game, sure, but is it a great RPG? Does it have what you typically look for in RPG mechanics? Or do you agree (again) with the words of Jimmy Maher:
       
If you see a CRPG as a game in the most traditional sense of the word--as an intricate system of rules to learn and to manipulate to your advantage--you’ll hate, hate, hate Ultima VII for its careless mechanics. One might say that it’s at its worst when it actively tries to be a CRPG, at its best when it’s content to be a sort of Britannian walking simulator.
 
Again, I think Maher says it perfectly. Almost everything I enjoyed about the game was separate from its RPG mechanics--the same things I enjoy about, say, Red Dead Redemption. Ultima VII is the earliest game I can think of where you'll be walking through a forest, stumble upon a ruined building, and feel an inscrutable exhortation to figure out what's it's about. Or you're flying your magic carpet and happen to see a guy standing alone on an island. You can't rest until you know what his story is. That's where the game's strengths lie, not in the numbers and dice.
 
My GIMLET, regrettably for fans of this game, considers the numbers and dice, and gives it a final score of 51.  I want to thank those of you who are departing my blog at this point; it's been nice having you as readers.
        
Even if you agree with the stressing of the mouse interface, you have to agree this was a particularly weird comparison to make.
          
For those of you sticking around, it's worth noting that my GIMLET score (which I must stress is still high as these things go, just not as high as we all anticipated) is largely echoed by contemporary reviews. Scorpia's August 1992 Computer Gaming World coverage was mixed, praising the graphics and story, but cataloging a host of technical issues that I didn't experience, such as a gate that can't be passed in the final dungeon and missing bodies in Minoc. But aside from that, she had the same criticisms I did: combat sucks, spells don't work, and maybe more stuff. I don't know. Her review cuts off on Page 108 of the issue and, as far as I can tell, never resumes.

As usual, the CGW of the 1990s wasn't going to let Scorpia have the only say. The counterpoint review comes in the following issue and is written by (later) novelist Charles Ardai. I don't want to spend too much time analyzing his review, but one thing I tell my students is that after they've written their papers or essays, go back and lop off the first paragraph. Almost always, what you've just cut is superficial nonsense, basically you talking your way into writing the paper in the first place, and the second paragraph almost always starts in a stronger place. Ardai needed that advice. Here's how he begins:
          
Unlike thirteen, the number seven does not carry with it any automatic negative connotation. Things good, bad, and indifferent come in sevens: days of the week, deadly sins, and dwarves, just to name a few. No one minds being seventh at a dinner table and, should the seventh of a month fall on a Friday, no one cancels flight plans just to be on the safe side.
            
What kind of editor allows that idiotic paragraph to pass in an era where column inches cost money? The same sort of drivel appears in the last couple of paragraphs, too; he's really obsessed with the idea that people won't like the game just because it has a high number, or specifically the number VII, or whatever. I honestly don't know what the hell he's talking about. It's rare that a major commercial magazine publishes writing that is somehow worse than an extra subscription card that hangs on after you've shaken all the others out. Ardai has somehow managed to make a living as a writer, so I can only assume he read Strunk and White at some point.

Anyway, the review is mostly positive, emphasizing mostly the story and wonders of exploration, focusing not at all on anything to do with RPG mechanics, concluding that, "Origin has produced an unusual game, with innovations of plot, tone, and gameplay that, while not spectacular, are certainly worth seeing." The March 1993 issue of the magazine had a reader poll (I am again indebted to Maher for pointing this out) that ranked the game 30th among 100 contemporary releases; above it were Ultima Underworld (#3), Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (#10), Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen (#11), Eye of the Beholder II (#17), and Might and Magic III (#28). That's a worse ranking than I'm giving it, although many of the same games are above it on my list.
     
MobyGames' round-up of reviews has contemporary ratings as high as 94/100 (June 1992 PC Joker) and as low as 40/100 (July 1992 PC Review), but the problem with contemporary reviews is that they're overwhelmed with discussions of technical issues that modern players don't experience. I naturally haven't translated all of the foreign ones, but Scorpia's review is the only one I've seen that recognizes that while Ultima VII might be a great game, it's not a great RPG because it lacks sufficient attention to RPG mechanics.
    
As I prepared the GIMLET, I found myself wondering how my experience would have improved with a smaller party, or even without any other characters at all. I like the way that companions occasionally contribute to dialogue, but beyond a few interjections, they're useful mostly as pack mules. Without them, the Avatar would have to be more careful with inventory, perhaps enhancing my perception of the utility of certain pieces of equipment. Combat would certainly be more interesting and tactical, magic would become far more useful (which would bolster the economy), and my perceptions of character development might improve. The choice of when to do the Forge of Virtue, which I did early, also affects the character development issue. Then again, all games have such variances depending how the player approaches it, so I can't justify bumping the score based on what might have happened.
            
All they had to do was use this line more often. Four companions would have been plenty.
          
If the early reviews were mixed, Ultima VII's popularity seems to have increased over time. PC Gamer listed it among the "50 best games ever" in May 1997 and the tenth best game of "all time" in February 2013. Even as late as October 2017, the site was wondering whether any RPG would ever top it (Divinity: Original Sin 2 "comes close," it ruled).  Rock Paper Shotgun listed it among the "best RPGs to play on a PC" in a January 2020 article (it's number 29) after listing it among the 75 "greatest PC games of all time" in November 2017. IGN listed it as #24 on the "top 100 RPGs of all time" in an undated article. These are just a sample. And yet almost every modern article that takes time to analyze it seriously, like Maher's, finds the same faults and the same "ineffable" quality that somehow transcends those faults. This is perhaps nowhere more notable than in Nakar's entries, which begin by calling The Black Gate "the greatest PC RPG of all time" before spending 38 entries mercilessly trashing everything about it.
 
One curious thing I've noted about the Ultima series over the years is that despite its inarguable quality, it's hard to find games that seem directly inspired by it. In saying this, I am of course dismissing the dozens of shareware and freeware "Ultima clones," but their proliferation does help highlight the lack of Ultima-specific influence in commercial RPGs of the era. Only a few commercial RPGs seem to be deliberately copying an Ultima interface, and even these only stand out because of the relative scarcity of fully third-person games in the era. Hardly anyone is learning from Ultima's attention to NPCs, open game worlds, sandbox engines, or original plots.
 
My experience with 1990s games is light beyond 1992, so I can't say from direct experience whether Ultima VII is an exception. What I can say is that my research failed to find any games clearly influenced by the title. Sure, there are plenty of games with axonometric interfaces, but few that have the type of environmental interaction that Ultima VII allows, let alone its other qualities. You could potentially see some influence of the game on the Infinity Engine, but even there I suspect the lineage comes more directly from Interplay's two Lord of the Rings titles (which, I should note, beat Ultima VII to the "unobtrusive interface"). Later, we'll see plenty of open-world sandboxes in which objects have been carefully hand-placed throughout the game, but the best of these (e.g., Morrowind) have interfaces and mechanics so different from Ultima that you have to hear it directly from the developer (as we have from Bethesda's Todd Howard) to make the connection. The Ultima series, it seems to me, is widely admired but not (again, in the commercial market) widely copied, except perhaps in the modern "retro" scene. This is a nascent hypothesis, however, and one to which I invite counter-arguments.
 
What is more factually established is that The Black Gate was the last ORIGIN game. The studio would continue to exist as a division of Electronic Arts after 1992, but the EA influence is felt immediately and progressively, to the point that many fans consider the last Ultima unplayable. In that sense, Ultima VII wouldn't be bad end to the series. The Avatar, having saved Britannia time and time again, is finally allowed ("forced," the game would have it, but come on) to stay in the world that reveres him. If the series had ended here, you could imagine it as a poignant moment in which the "Avatar" was finally divorced from his player's control and allowed to retire. (If I had been in charge of development, I would have played up this aspect with the same cleverness that Richard Garriott introduced the Avatar in Ultima IV.) You can imagine him speaking comfort to the disillusioned former Fellowship members, rebuilding the shrines, perhaps even ultimately replacing the apathetic Lord British as the land's ruler. Ultima Underworld II (1993) could have maybe been seen as a coda in which we start to see some of the Avatar's new role, in the context of preventing another Guardian invasion.
        
I can imagine the Avatar assisting with this endeavor.
         
Instead, we got Ultima VII, Part Two: The Serpent Isle (1993), which for all its mechanical improvements tells a fairly idiotic story,  Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994), which at its best seems like a bad clone of Ultima VII, and Ultima IX: Ascension (1999), which I want to hold out hope for, but am not encouraged by what I have heard. Of course, by the end, attention of both developers and players had shifted to the successful Ultima Online (1997). Despite much Googling, I still don't understand how it fits with the earlier series or what role (if any) the Avatar plays within it. I'm sure readers will help fill in the gaps. What I can say is that when I first heard about the game, I regarded it with horror. My experiences in Britannia, my connection to the idea of the "Avatar," were so personal that I couldn't imagine sharing the experience with thousands of strangers, many of them probably the sorts of people who paid only 1 gold piece to the blind reagent-seller in Ultima IV. I originally had hopes for Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues (2018), but I was put off early in development by talk of more multiplayer nonsense and ended up never investigating it.
         
It is thus with some sadness that I say goodbye to the last game of the series that I know for sure I will like. This entry was a real struggle for me. I started it the day I won the game and didn't finish until nearly three weeks later (it usually only takes me 3-4 hours to write an entry), in the process writing and cutting more content than in any previous posting. How could a 51-point game, of which I've had at least 27 prior, offer so much to say, and yet none of what I say seems adequate? It's ineffable.
       

238 comments:

  1. I was re-reading Jimmy's article on U7 myself today, in anticipation of this post, and I completely agree. He NAILS it.

    Don't feel bad about your lower-than-expected GIMLET score. On an analytical scale, U7 doesn't measure up to other CRPG's.

    And honestly? Taking this journey with you has helped me see a lot of the flaws I ignored because "Cool! I can hear crickets at night!" or "Look at all this cool stuff and these buildings!" Maybe a lot of us circa-1992 were just too blown away by the full size interface and graphics.

    Incidentally, you should probably be glad you had music turned off. EVERY time monsters got near you got booming "ominous" music, and if you turned off combat mode with any monsters alive you get the "run away! run away!" music.

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  2. The Divinity series is explicitly influenced by Ultima VII (particularly the first game - and I don't mean Original Sin). That said, they didn't seem to get what was good about it, they just copied the interface.

    Agreed that VII's a lousy RPG, but I'd argue its open world towns have never been bettered. Just messing about with people and objects is still a joy.

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    1. I haven't experienced the Divinity series, so that's good to know.

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    2. If by the first game you mean Divine Divinity, that's a Hack&Slash RPG heavily inspired by Diablo. Lots of character building options, equipment upgrades, several side quests. A fun game until it degererates into a mindless clickfest. I don't see much Ultima VII in there.

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    3. I always find it weird when people compare DivDiv to Diablo. I mean yeah, its combat system is similar and so is the character system, but it's got a large open world with proper quests and dialogues and everything you'd expect from a proper RPG, while Diablo is basically a real time roguelike. Apart from the combat system, the two games have nothing in common.

      The Ultima VII comparison is made because you can interact a lot with the items in the gameworld, drag them around etc.

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    4. The Divinity Games certainly start out more as a Diablo Clone with Divine Divinity, but it probably is the most prominently Ultima 7 inspired series I can think of. Granted (in my opinion) they're very silly to the point of annoyance and not particularly strong as far as Diablo clones go with the dungeon delving. I remember liking Sacred way more than Divine Divinity as far as that odd genre of open world action RPGs go.

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    5. @JarlFrank, you're thinking of the first Diablo, while DivDiv is more directly inspired by Diablo 2, which has a more open world and more prominent story. Plus DD's character system is not similar - it's almost exactly the same, except for linear skill "trees". Not to mention how the series stubbornly insists on having Diablo-style randomly generated loot. I agree that there are U7 and Fallout influences in some of DivDiv's quest design, but it doesn't matter when 90% of the play time is spent clicking copy-pasted monsters to death.

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    6. To me the quest design is enough to set it apart from Diablolikes, which all follow the same formula of having nothing else to do other than slaying mobs. DivDiv has actual NPCs to talk to and environmental items to interact with. Cities are more than just a place to dump your loot and get on with it.

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  3. Your reaction to Ultima Online was exactly how I felt when The Elder Scrolls Online was announced. My feelings towards the game have only gotten worse when I consider how many years it has probably delayed the next single player Elder Scrolls game.

    Also "and feel an inscrutable exhortation to figure out what's it's about" are you also a Calvin and Hobbes fan?

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    1. As an Elder Scrolls superfan I have also had zero interest in ESO. However, it's a completely different studio working on it so it hasn't affected the production timeline of the main series one whit. Bethesda's detour into science fiction is the main culprit.

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    2. We all must obey the inscrutable exhortations of our souls, whether that be to look for frogs (and weird bugs), or to find out what the story is with that random house in the wilderness...

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  4. Your overall point that it's a great game, just not a great RPG is one I wholeheartedly agree with. I think if they made the combat turn based, and have much less of it but more significant, (i.e. fix respawning) then it could be a great RPG as well, all the ingredients are there for it.

    Personally I would have given a higher score in equipment, sure it's not complex, but trying to equip your whole party with magic armor is always one of the best parts for me and really rewards exploration. Well, it would reward exploration if you actually needed that armor for the combat...

    I would have also given a higher mark to the economy, I think that you are punishing the spell system twice by giving the economy such a low score, If spells were needed in a turn based combat setting then gold is always relevant.

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    1. One thing that's always bugged me about Ultima VII is that you can't sell weapons or armor. I would have rather been able to do that than find all those gems and gold bars.

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    3. Judd9

      Armor resale seems like a major problem for a lot of devs. In so many games, you either can't loot armor at all, can't sell it, or can't sell it for more than a tiny fraction of its sale-price.

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    4. To be fair if you're looting it from your slain enemies you l probably did a number on it in the process of slaying said enemy. Coupled with the cost of having to tailor it for it's next user on top of having to fix it up and I don't really see great margins on the resold armor business

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  5. I got to truly HATE the Immaculates cult and their followers in "Divinity: Original Sin".

    In the beginning I wasn't that hard on their members. Sure, they were obviously being set up as the enemy but I took pity on the orc on the beach who cried over his fallen brother on the beach (even though I had just fought off an orc invasion), I talked to their members and preachers when I met them, I got past their roadblocks without violence... Then in their Holy village I discovered the mountain of corpses of people that they had sacrificed to the blood stone. Ok... This took a sinister turn. Then I come to a village that haf been sacked by an alliance of mountain men and orcs and all the villagers have been sacrificed to the blood stone. The only villager left alive is the tavern keep who has been allowed to live to serve the orcs and mountain men beer and food. The man is almost broken with terror and relays how he had to watch as the invaders cut the throat of his little son and let his blood soak into the blood stone.

    That was effing it.

    I engineered the complete breakdown of the alliance between the orcs and the mountain men and helped the mountain men to kill everyone of the bastards. After the fight the mountain men prepared to depart for home and thanked me for the assist. "Not so fast lads.... You were also part of this." A single scroll of "Meteor Storm" took care of the whole group. That's why you shouldn't stand in a small area facing a mage. I then backtracked through the game, systematically killing every single cult member I had met anywhere in the game. Their village was a ghost town when I left it. Their roadblocks were not met with bribes and words this time, but swords and fire magic. The village chapels and their preachers that fooled people into becoming sheeps to be slaughtered were cleansed with righteous fury. And finally, at last, back at the beginning of the game the snivelling orc still sat crying over his brother. I quickly sent him on to see their goddess together and then looted the brothers grave. Not for anything useful, just out of spite. And then I finally felt at peace.

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    1. I just couldn't take Original Sin seriously enough to care about anything or anyone in it. It was profoundly silly, and not in a fun way.

      But I'm aware from reviews and so forth that I'm in the minority on that, and it wouldn't it be a terribly boring world if we all loved or hated exactly the same games? :-)

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    2. If you skipped D:OS2 because of the silliness in D:OS1, you might consider giving it shot. The tone is much more even (and less silly).

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    3. Also, that was great Robert!

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    4. Thanks, I probably will. I've played the rest of the Divinity series up to that point (although I had to abandon Beyond Divinity as "basically unplayable" and Dragon Commander because it wouldn't actually run on my system, even with the GOG build).

      They'd all been in some respects silly games, riddled with bugs, but with clear unique ideas or ambition making them worthy of interest regardless (much like Ultima VII).

      I guess I'd heard such good things about Original Sin that when it turned out to be as silly and buggy as the games that came before it, I was let down. I'd had a low bar for the previous games, that they marginally exceeded, but set a high bar for Original Sin that it didn't clear.

      On top of that, the whole Divinity series had had a level of low-key misogyny and homophobia running through it, and when I got to Original Sin and 90% of the women were still either sluts or villains and such gay characters as existed were villainous, effeminate or crazy, it just got a bit old for me...

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    5. My boyfriend loved os:2 but again I had a lot of discussions about many topics where I am the unbearable woke part...

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    6. Daniel: Thanks! It's kinda weird that one of my better memories of a game is where I go "Dirty Harry" and exterminates an entire organisation with sword in hand... But it was certainly interesting to suddenly feel so strongly about an entirely fictional entity. And cool that he game let me do all that and I could then proceed to the endgame (still killing anyone I met in a red robe) without breaking the game.

      Original Sin 1 was a bit whimsical which maybe is the reason why the magnitude of the cults crimes suddenly seemed so much worse, in one moment I was having a bit of fun in an RPG with interactive surroundings, the next I read a tale of a father who has to watch while is boy son is being sacrificed. I had just become afather myself, maybe that was why it hit so hard...

      In all OS2 is a vastly better game in all aspects, but OS1 is still an old fav. The "talk to animals" skill is hilarious.

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    7. Yeah, I'm not sure about "OS2 is a vastly better game in all aspects". I mean, they tried to make it grimdark, but you still meet a confused cat and a squirrel knight in the first few minutes.
      And then mechanically it's a mess. I mean, every Larian game is a mess mechanically, but OS2 just takes the cake for the number of things that don't make sense: armor system, initiative system, attributes being more or less useless... OS1 was far from a masterpiece, but in my book it gets a pass for trying something new with its elemental system and TB co-op play.
      If you want a better DOS than DOS, try the Voidspire series (Voidspire Tactics, Alvora Tactics, Horizon's Gate).

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    8. I like all the Divinity games, but the writing is certainly on the silly side. Not only that the setting of Rivellon is as generic as fantasy can get, it also doesn't take itself seriously in the slightest. Whenever a plot point arises that wants to be serious, it lacks effectiveness because the rest of the game is so silly.

      DOS2 tried to be more serious in tone but I dunno if their approach was effective. They kept the silliness but counter-balanced it with a lot of grimdark, so you had a werid contrast of "haha funny talking dog" and "gruesome murders and torture described in excruciating detail" which just felt weird.

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    9. GregT and Risingson Carlos

      I admit, I never picked up on the latent homophobia in D:OS, but I don't doubt it's there. How much of it, do you think, is lazy characterization as opposed to any real animosity on the part of the devs?

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    10. Daniel - I don't *think* anyone at Larian is trying to be actively homophobic, and I don't think WOTC would have given them the Baldur's Gate licence if they'd seen anything like that at their meetings in person.

      I think it's just the general cultural background noise where there are all these movies where the gay guy is the butt of the joke, or the serial killer, or the sissy, and given that the games are a bit pop-culturey to start with, they're just passing on the background noise without doing any active thinking about it. Likewise with their depiction of women.

      I mean, it's still better than the first Witcher game, with its "gotta bang them all" collectable cards, or the treatment of gay men in basically any JRPG ever.

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    11. (I think it's mostly a factor of Larian simply not having women or queer voices in their studio to tell them, oi, maybe don't do that, which is the main way that people of goodwill learn to do these things better. And if you look at all their senior positions today, it's still a sausage factory.)

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    12. DOS1 has the best combat I have ever seen in an RPG, it was able to keep me glued to it even with the general sillines (I don't remember it having any blantant PC faux-pas) and uninteresting plot/world.

      Basically the opposite of UVII, thinking about it.

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  6. Ultima 7 was my first game in the series (I think, it may have actually been Ultima 8, I'm not quite sure as it was 25 years ago!), so I never had any particular attachment to Lord British or knew his history. I never even really thought about it much and he seemed like most Kings in fantasy games, just some guy sitting in a castle staying aloof from the general populace and fraternizing with the staff. I am struggling to think of examples where Kings in fantasy games are actually useful, nothing much comes to mind!

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    1. Martin Septim does a decent job kicking ass in Oblivion, particularly if you delay taking him to Cloud Ruler Temple.

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    2. Martin Septim isn't ever actually Emperor though, is he? I mean, technically he should be, but everything he does occurs before he's ever officially or widely recognized as the Emperor or is able to actually use his political powers as such.

      Maybe that's the issue here - what we need is a game about Lord British's rise to power where he actually had to take action :)

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    3. Maybe Lord British is the player's character in Akalabeth: World of Doom ?

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    4. Lord British gives you the quest in Akalabeth, however the PC may be someone other than the Stranger/Avatar.

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    5. In Final Fantasy 5 there are multiple kings who are also highly respected heroes. I've forgotten most of the names, but one is called Galuf and for most of the game he's a member of the player's party, even though he owns a castle with an army and everything.

      Most of these guys get killed in their attempts to stop the big bad, so maybe Lord British is just being wise.

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  7. "It's not the story the game tells, it's the stories you tell about the game."

    I'm quoting myself, which is probably obnoxious, but I'm putting it in quotes because it's something I more often say about another sort of game design, specifically convention-style one-shot tabletop RPGs. The experience that players actually have at the game is secondary to the experience they have in their memory afterwards, and that memory is affected and magnified by how they describe their experience to others.

    If you tell stories about the cool thing you did in a game, it becomes a better game in your memory, and its faults fall away. If you tell stories about the problems you had, it will become a more problematic game. If you tell no stories at all, it doesn't much matter if you generally enjoyed it, because you're likely to forget that you did.

    Ultima VII's place in history is largely made up of the stories you tell about it. Back when it launched, you only needed to describe how you could actually bake bread in it, or rob the treasury, or any of the other open world stuff, to instantly make a convert.

    Today it's "surplaying" experiences like Chet's, or long plays that break the game, that cement that reputation.

    Ultima VII is a game we tell stories about, and for that, it will be a classic forever.

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    1. Total agreement. A classic forever!

      I totally get why Chet was worried about people getting angry about his GIMLET score. Fans can be harsh. I think, though, he produced his score honestly with actual gameplay which no one is going to really argue about. It's not like he failed to apply a patch or something.

      I mean, seriously, having to start the game over from scratch due to an item disappearing bug, that SHOULD be reflected in the score. And he didn't take points off for that.

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    2. "It's not the story the game tells, it's the stories you tell about the game."

      Exactly right. I played this game with my older brother and my sister, the former of whom was away in college so would only play it with us on the occasional weekend home. In the meantime my sister and I would mess around in the sandbox and inch forward in the main storyline. It was during one of those inching-forward sessions that we arrived back at Alagner's house after completing his fetch quest with the wisps...we literally grabbed each other and shrieked with shock at his fate, and my brother was bitterly disappointed to have missed out on that moment when we shared it with him on his return home. In terms of gaming experiences, the only way has been down since. What a game.

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    3. Beautifully said, and it echoes a game dev panel I attended once. It goes without saying that humans love being told a good story, that's at the heart of most of our artistic mediums, but we LOVE telling a good story. Of the RPG variants, the Roguelikes do a much better job of emergent gameplay of that sort, but arguably U7 finds a much more accessible (dare I say 'casual) equivalence somewhere in the mix of its world-building, simulations, and even its bugs. That's clearly the whole point of Nakar's LP--surplaying all the things that break the game--and perhaps why they can in all honesty call it the best RPG, because rather than in spite of all that.

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    4. Sandbox games are great for emergent gameplay. I've never babbled to a confused friend about some game's scripted event. I certainly couldn't say the same thing about sessions of Dwarf Fortress, The Sims 2 or Cataclysm DDA.

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    5. Well said. I would add, however, that it's hard to fully enjoy this type of game on your first pass. You almost need to play it once to understand what is and isn't possible in the engine. On subsequent plays, you have a greater sense of freedom in the sandbox, with no particular pressure to win. You also don't always want a game like this. At least, I don't. There are times that I want things to be a bit more scripted, particularly if I'm playing by myself.

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    6. I’d say with U7 it isn’t merely telling stories about what happens in the game, but stories about playing it, and its flaws feature heavily in some of those. You might want to watch a really skilled Tetris player play, but U7 is one of those very rare games where you can expect players to have a 5-plus minute story about inventory management that will be entertaining to hear. That’s produced out of wrestling with the interface!

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    7. There are different types of players, Chet. Some have huge expectations about what a game is and go in seeking optimal routes to completion, while others just start playing about. The notion of "pressure to win" just isn't a factor for lots of people.

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    8. (Hopefully I didn't sound too dickish in the previous post - I wasn't even trying to defend U7 specifically.)

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  8. I was about to share my most-hated enemy faction, but it really is hard to think of a video game villain that incites that level of emotional reaction. I think it's easy to hate the Fellowship because you and your companions are the only ones who realize they're evil--everybody else is 100% on-board. It's a lot easier to hate a scheming, duplicitous, omnipresent villain than an obvious in-your-face "bad guy."

    In three long-running playthroughs of Skyrim, I don't recall ever seeing the Thalmor again after the house party quest. In any case I thought the Imperials, Stormcloaks and Forsworn were all perfectly hateable, and the fact that the game forces you to run with them at various points made me rather unhappy.

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    1. Thalmor hatred is more based on the lore than their actual presence in the game--although they ARE pretty odious in the game. They actually have a bit in common with the Fellowship: during your 200-year absence from the setting, they've managed to take apart everything you spent several games accomplishing. In the case of The Elder Scrolls, that's a stable and prosperous empire.

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    2. Just wait till you get to Arcanum (the best RPG ever made in my opinion) and do the quest centered around the Ren'ar Siamese Twins and the Half Ogre Island. Then talk to some people about the government of the Unified Kingdom and how the gnomes were involved with what happened, and you'll come to hate their entire race. Nasty little buggers.

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    3. The Fellowship is a great faction to hate, and an interesting antagonist, especially once you have the cube and can uncover so many of their lies (a great, great, great idea by the designers, btw).

      Hatable factions: I also loved hating the Mechanists or at least Karras in Thief 2, some of the factions in Planescape: Torment, most of the factions in Vampire: Bloodlines, and more lately the swamp hag coven in Witcher 3.

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    4. That was one of my big issues with Bloodlines plot-wise: every single faction were such assholes that I couldn't be arsed to work for any of them. One of the things I really loved about the original Geneforge is that it allowed you to show middle finger to everyone and win the game mostly through exploration. Speaking of Geneforge, it had some pretty loathsome villains too, like Rawal or Goettsch.

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    5. I found none of the factions of Bloodlines particulary loathsome. Sure, everyone's a bit of a scumbag, and if they're not against you they are using you, but that is pretty true to the spirit of the P&P game. But it's not really a pick-your-faction-game anyway, until the end when all the options are open to you.

      Anyway, I think a likeable/relatable antagonist is much more interesting than the typical loathsome/evil one.

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    6. Regarding the Thalmor, I think it is a bit unfair to blame them entirely for unraveling the stable and prosperous empire from the earlier games. The events of Oblivion ended the Septim dynasty, which is always a bad sign for stability.

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    7. JarlFrank, fully agree about the gnomes in Arcanum. There's evil, and then there's makes-your-blood-boil-and-your-stomach-turn evil.

      Another hated enemy (but not on the same level as those gnomes) is the empire in Avernum. Credits go to Jeff Vogel's writing (he's the guy who made the Avernum games). He created a world with which you could sympathise and would want to fight for, rather than create a setting in which you can play the hero. Fighting the empire (I wanted to say the evil empire, but pop culture empires are always evil) in Avernum feels right.

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  9. This is probably my favorite post you've written. I love this game, but I agree with your assessment completely.

    One thing I'd add (that you hint at) is that this game is remarkably easy to enjoy. I first played this game when I was 12 and I remember feeling like everything I tried led to something fun. Nothing in this game feels like work that you have to put in to get to the fun parts. The game is just fun from the word "go." Yes, there are frustrations (e.g., key hunts; feeding your mewling, useless minions), but there is no grind-for-twenty-hours-to-finish-a-four-hour-story element to UVII. In contrast, one of the few non-Ultima RPGs I had in 1992 was The Bard's Tale II. So, consider the context.

    As an aside, I have to tell you that I've been looking forward to this post for a very long time. I found your blog in 2010 through a comment on _Blogging Ultima_. Back then, I was amazed to discover that so many CRPGs existed prior to and concurrent with the Ultimas. In my mind, the world of 80s RPGs was Ultima, Gold Box, Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might and Magic. Since then, I've really been interested in seeing how the Ultimas (my favorite series) would hold up against not only these other great titles, but all the others I'd never imagined existed. So, I hope you understand when I say that your finishing the last Origin Ultima feels like the passing of an era.

    Thanks for more than a decade of great writing about great (and not-so-great) games Chet!

    Now I get to look forward to the Infinity Engine games!

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    1. Agreed. There is no "entry curve" to this game at all, and very few boring points along the way.

      I remember posting that comment! I never got a response from that blog's author, but I'm glad it directed somebody my way.

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    2. I was also 12, and agree completely - it felt just as approachable and fun as the Sierra adventure games I was already comfortable with (and in fact is less punishing than those). Whereas pretty much every other RPG on the shelf at Egghead Software, no matter how many dragons or wizards were on the cover, just radiated "you won't be able to really get much joy out of this."

      If the pleasure of playing a "game" for you involves challenge yourself against the rules of a game system and finding the best possible move under constrained conditions, those other titles might be more satisfying (as the GIMLET bears out). If you're more interested in the pleasures of exploring places, interacting with things, figuring out what's going on with a mysterious storyline, etc., this game is a towering achievement.

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    3. Chet.

      I'd either forgotten or never realized that you posted that link on Blogging Ultima. Very cool.

      doctorcasino,

      A shocking number of people who love this game played it around the age of 12, typically with an older sibling who was soon to leave home. It's a story I've heard a dozen times.

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  10. I can appreciate when a game is so singular (and perhaps not conventionally great) that it seems to defy any usually accurate system for regarding quality. A checklist of vital criteria, or even a baseline of competency in several fields, that it fails to meet and yet still has the air of the exceptional about it. Examples like Deadly Premonition or Nier that were deeply, deeply flawed games and absolutely deserving of their low Metacritic scores, yet I kept thinking about them post-playthrough because of something... well, ineffable about what they tried to do and how unconventionally effective they were in pulling it off.

    I've no doubt Ultima VII is a good game, given the amount of loving attention you've given to its worldbuilding over these many entries, but I can also easily imagine that Ultima Underworld II will score much better on the GIMLET even if it proves to be less memorable overall and offer less material to turn into blogs. I guess even something as thorough as the GIMLET can overlook when a game has a special spark that can't easily be categorized or rated.

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    1. I feel the same way about the 3D Sonic games, particularly those based on Sonic Adventure (SA, SA2, Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog.) They're absolutely janky, flawed games with endless technical issues, but they're so committed to their ideas that I just find them endlessly charming.

      There's something to be said for games whose reach exceeds their grasp. Deadly Premonition definitely belongs in that category, although I haven't played Nier and know almost nothing about it.

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    2. My favorite games of all time also tend to be flawed gems. There are several aspects to them that are objectively trash, but the game as a whole just has something going for it that drags you in and doesn't let you go even after you finished it.

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  11. Hello here from a reader (since 2017), who usually reads on the train to work and got frustrated with his iPad's browser eating up comments...

    A very good and well written entry, but honestly, you do need to either go over some old entries and tune them down (very dangerous and time consuming) or need to open up the gimlet to, let's say 12 as a maximum for the categories.

    Your review is written very sensitive, and I can follow most of it, just not when I compare it to older games.

    You praise the world as the best that has yet been devised, yet it scores lower than Starflight. I don't want to go into detail, your house, your rules, I understand that and respect the effort you put into games like this, but I fear the gimlet needs to reflect comparisons to other games - why else do you do it?

    So long story short, I would really think, this one would go higher.

    Anyway, thanks for a very enjoyable ride through one of the best games of all times.

    Ach and as a PS:
    When I was younger, I actually saw VII-2 Serpent Isle as a very good improvement to all the flaws of Black Gate, and even VIII Pagan has its charm. So Ultima for me did not end before IX.

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    1. The GIMLET during the first two years is unreliable. I gave too many points to originality in "quests," whereas later I settled down to requiring choices and side quests for a score higher than around 3. I hadn't added "complexity" as a desired quality in the economy, so my only criteria was basically that you don't run out of reasons to spend money.

      As for "game world," U7 scores ONE POINT lower than Starflight, and I could defend that variance. It hardly ever makes sense to focus on a single point.

      Anyway, it's on my long list to do a revisit of some of the earlier games, perhaps in the context of a GIMLET redesign. That sounds like a winter project.

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    2. Personally, I feel like changing the GIMLET isn't a good idea. I feel like it'd mean all the games with the old version would either have to be rerated to comply with the new GIMLET, or all the older games would have rating incompatible with the new system. As is, I feel like rerating the problematic games would be the better solution

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    3. Maybe just skim through the GIMLET scores from the first few years and only examine category scores of 6 and higher. Some of them will stand the test of time even so.

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    4. I didn't imply to change the gimlet, but acknowledge, that there may be better games yet to come, and that the limit to 10 is not sufficient. Personally, I would suggest that UVII has a better "game world" than Starflight (but let's not discuss this), and so opening the Gimlet let's say up to 12 in the categories, would give some space for the good games to come.

      @ Chet: I appreciate that you take the time to answer even non-regular commenters! Probably what another commenter said further below is true: Ultima VII (and I would make the same case for VI, Savage Empire, Martian Dreams, and UU) is a very good game, but as a CRPG there are better.

      What I always liked with the ultima series, was that it concentrated less on grinding and endless combat, but instead told engaging stories in a world that tried to be internally consistent.

      Looking back, I now see, why I never liked Wizardry VI / VII so much, and from the Goldbox series was always drawn to Champions of Krynn, which iirc features the easiest combats and the most engaging story.

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    5. I don't think the "gameworld" category in particular needs an extension - for all its silliness, U7 does have one of the best realized RPG gameworlds. Very few RPGs do better - I can't actually think of any other than Arcanum and Morrowind (and possibly Daggerfall) - and those are not that much better that a 10 rating wouldn't do them justice.

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    6. I don't want to so much revise the GIMLET as clarify it. I've been working bit by bit on a "page" that gives more detail about each category. I do want to make changes to the fourth category-- "Encounters and Foes."

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  12. Too bad I didn't own a computer when Ultima VII was published. And then, much later, it was too late for me to play it. I just...could not ignore the unnerving design flaws. For me, these where far too annoying to savor playing the game. Perhaps there will be an improved remake some day...

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    1. You didn't miss much. Most computers at the time Ultima VII was published could barely run Ultima VII. The 486SX was released a year prior, but I suspect many people couldn't afford a new system.

      A "smooth" experience with Ultima VII may have required a Pentium, which would be released two years after the game.

      I should do some experimentation with PCem and see what, exactly, results in a good gameplay experience.

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    2. A little PCem fiddling reveals the following unsurprising information. All of this is based on walking around Trinsic with Iolo at the start of the game.

      A 386DX/16MHz will "run" Ultima VII, but barely. Very clunky and jerky walking around. Multiple NPCs on the screen make it worse. Combat would be impossible. Forget running Ultima VII on a 386SX regardless of clock speed.

      A 486SX/33MHz. Eh, better. Still not smooth, but someone could probably play the entire game with this and enjoy themselves.

      A 486DX2/66. Entirely smooth. No stuttering, no slowdowns. Audio doesn't impact game performance.

      So yeah, at release (1991), most computers (286/386) weren't running Ultima VII. If you were rich or lucky, you had a 486SX in 1991. Otherwise you might have waited until the "Holy Grail" of MSDOS gaming was available: the 66Mhz 486DX2.

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    3. I first played U7 right after it came out, on a 386DX with 16 MHz CPU. It wasn't super smooth, but it ran just nicely. The only thing to watch out for was the endless memory shuffling you needed to do (the boot disk the game created for you somehow didn't help with my system). I basically had to choose between running the game with music/sound OR mouse support. After Iolo's early game comment when I first booted the game up w/o mouse support, I came to realize that, as nice as the music was, it probably wasn't worth the headache of playing U7 keyboard-only.

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    4. PCem is supposed to be pretty accurate, but I doubt its perfect. I do have an actual 386SX/16 system I still play around with, but it barely runs Ultima 6. Maybe I'm hitting a performance bottleneck at the video card. #RetroProblems

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    5. This just makes Ultima 7 sound like early 90s Crysis, except that could still be run on lower graphics settings instead of having to get a top of the line computer for it to run right

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    6. I first played Ultima VII on a 386DX-33. It was playable, but definitely crawled in places. It also took a long time to save the game.

      It ran much better after I upgraded to a 486DX-33 a few months later. The real trick to getting (relatively) smooth performance on that computer was running a disk cache (SmartDrive). With the strict memory requirements of U7 and (especially) SI, this required me to use a mouse driver with a smaller memory footprint. I think I used a .COM mouse driver that used 5.3K of RAM, rather than the .EXE driver that used considerably more.

      The disk cache made movement through the world much more fluid, and also significantly sped up saving and loading.

      Ultima VIII, however, was playable but sluggish on that computer (even with SmartDrive). It really needed a 486DX-66 to run smoothly (U7 ran too fast on a DX-66).

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    7. Riiight, I also remember saving or loading the game took forever.

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    8. We had a 386SX when VII first came out. I didn't make much progress until a 486 was added a couple of years later. Ouch!

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    9. Huh. I remember it running tolerably on a 386 and very well on a 486. The big issue for me was the low memory requirement.

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  13. " How could a 51-point game, of which I've had at least 27 prior, offer so much to say, and yet none of what I say seems adequate?"

    It certainly isn't adequate to make me want to play it.
    I think U7 really is a niche CRPG. For me it lacks the two main things I like about CRPGs: character development and combat. I also like exploration, but since I already have explored the "same" world in U4-6 it's not quite the same as exploring virgin country.
    Talking to lots of NPCs piecing together clues worked well enough in U4-5 and the U6P when the rest of the game mechanics worked well, althogh I can no longer stomach U4's simplistic combat (but at least you have control) coupled with too frequent random encounters.
    The need to feed, the no-control combat and a gazillion tiny objects to juggle around would have me crazy if I tried to play U7.
    So it's really a game that only appeals to a segment of the CRPG audience, I think.
    Even back in the days I thought it sounded boring. Like for example to touted item manipulation. "Baking bread? But why? That's a thing I can do in real life if I want to. In CRPGs I want to do things I can't or won't do in real life".

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    1. Agreed. I can see why they wanted consistency... but having Brittania be the same from 4-7 was kind of boring at some point. No easy answer I guess!

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    2. I eagerly bought U7 back when it was contemporary and the game mechanics (UI) just threw me off enough I never got into it and have no desire to go back.

      I think your comment about appealing to a segment of the CRPG audience is right on. If it appeals to you, I can see why it would stick in your mind as a classic. And if it doesn't, you'll simply ignore it.

      And a game that some section of the population LOVES is way more interesting (even if others like me are not interested in) than one where everyone says 'it's alright'

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    3. I think repeating the setting was an interesting and fun approach. Each new game was capable of showing more detail in familiar places, and it was fun to revisit familiar places from game to game. Four games in a row may have been pushing things, granted.

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    4. Ambermoon arguably does a pretty good job of reusing the same gameworld without it growing stale. You'll see when you get there.

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    5. Reentering the same game world, but finding all the little changes and developments in between entries, was one of the main appeals the Ultima series held for me.

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    6. Yes, what Paul said. To the point where an important reason why lots of people don't like Serpent Isle or U8 is that they don't take place in Britannia any more.

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  14. A clearly influeced by u7 game is Dark Sun but they dont put enough work on its to be comparable in terms of assets, explorations, characters. In fact back then I had Dark Sun before u7 and didnt see them as related.

    About U7, I didnt liked combat and for me the game-world was charmless but in another way that the D&D-tolkenieske world which i also didnt liked. Maybe too civilized and the Lord British/Avatar thing seemed childish to me.

    For me its saving grace was the exploration, I always remember the moment of waling north across Yew until reaching the live-size board game as a cherished moment of my early teenage years.
    It also forced me learn english, until then I had only read mandatory school graded book adaptations.
    For this two things it will be always an important game for me.

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    1. I also learned a good bunch of Ye Goode Olde English by playing Ultima IV and V. English being a foreign language my classmates were irritated that I used my dictionary for more than just homework.
      I remember that my English teacher was very surprised when I asked him some things and then went on to describe the whole virtues & TLC philosophy - I was about 12 at that time.

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  15. Coincidence that Metallica's 'Black' album cover was 1991?

    I think this is a fair review. Ultima VII is a game I've long-admired and never felt like playing. It's a high watermark in certain ways, and I think it demonstrated more than any game prior (and most since) the way in which open exploration, vignettes, and towns full of characters really make a world feel 'alive'.

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    1. One of the graves in Yew seems to be a slightly reworded quote from "Wherever I May Roam", though it may be quoting something else that Metallica just happened to also reference (they did that a lot).

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    2. The original black album is Smell of the Glove by Spinal Tap (1984), the Metallica album is just a ripoff.

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    3. Back in Black was from 1980.

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    4. ... and "The Beatles" (White Album) is from 1968 :)

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    5. Mum gave me 'Black' for Christmas one year, and she definitely pointed that out to me, Vince :)

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  16. My general thoughts on this game are a bit conflicted, and very hard to put into words. I don't think it's a bad game at all, and that it's something anyone who wants to play classic RPGs should play sometime. At the same time, it's a game I have almost no desire to go through again, because if I want Ultima 7 gameplay I liked Serpent Isle more, and if I just wanna play an Ultima I'd rather play 4-6, Martian Dreams, or one of the Underworlds.

    On thinking about it, my opinion on Ultima 7 is decently similar to my opinion on Ocarina of Time: they're both good games, but over time they've been put on so much of a pedestal that the actual game can't live up to, and because the engine got reused for the sequel there's very little I can get from those games that I can't get better from others in the series. As is, I feel like the praise ends up hurting those games more than anything, and that I'd have enjoyed them more had my expectations had not gotten so high.

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  17. I expected Ultima 7 to not do well on that rating scale. However, I think both Serpent Isle and Ultima 8 are both better than you give them credit for - especially Serpent Isle, where I don't think the plot is idiotic at all.

    But I guess we'll see why you think it is when you get to that game ;)

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    Replies
    1. "Idiotic" might have been strong, but I don't think it fits well with the rest of the setting, history, and lore. It certainly isn't a "Part II" to the first game except in its use of the same engine. And it just never ends.

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    2. I think the local plots in Serpent Isle are great, i.e. all the issues you deal with when visiting Monitor, Fawn, the Bull, and Moonshade. It's just the overarching plot that's stupid, but you spend way less time with that.

      Ongyva cybgf gb bcra nabgure oynpx tngr pnyyrq gur jnyy bs yvtugf, naq ur guvaxf qbvat fb jvyy znxr uvz vzzbegny naq zber cbjreshy guna gur thneqvna. Abar bs gur obbxf va-tnzr fhttrfg gur tngr jvyy npghnyyl qb gung. Vaqrrq vg qbrfa'g jbex, naq ur raqf hc xvyyvat 90% bs gur cbchyngvba, naq uvzfrys. Bbcf.

      Nsgre gung, lbh unir gb qb chmmyrf gb orpbzr ningne bs gur avar iveghrf bs guvf jbeyq fb lbh pna erfgber gur onynapr frecrag, juvpu jnf gnxra qbja ol (bs nyy guvatf) Rkbqhf. Lbh qb guvf ol bcravat nabgure jnyy bs yvtugf, naq guvf yrnirf lbhe pbzcnavbaf fgenaqrq ba gur abegu cbyr, naq yrgf gur Thneqvna noqhpg lbh gb gur jbeyq bs gur arkg tnzr.

      Jrveqyl, gur birenepuvat cybg bs hygvzn rvtug vf zber-be-yrff gur fnzr, naq obgu frecrag vfyr naq H8 gnxr cynpr va n jbeyq jurer abobql xabjf gur ningne.

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    3. Serpent Isle excels in creating a fantasy world that feels fantastical and alien. Kinda like Morrowind. It definitely is unique.

      There's a vibe to SI that I truly enjoy. That atmosphere of...

      I don't know what to call it. Eerie uneasiness?

      I think playing Ultima Underworld II before SI also helps in preparing the mindset, besides being narratively right. UUII also depicts some truly alien and bizarre worlds.

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    4. From my understanding, the engine reuse is the whole reason it's a part 2. Apparently, Garriot had a mandate that all numbered Ultimas had to use new engines, so Serpent Isle reusing the 7 engine meant it couldn't be Ultima 8, despite that arguably fitting the game more

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  18. So I checked the French review in the most important French famous magazines of the era :

    - Generation 4 : 96/100 (April 1992)
    https://www.abandonware-magazines.org/affiche_mag.php?mag=27&num=430&album=oui

    They praised absolutely everything, including the traps into the dungeons (!) and the fact that combats are short and decisive rather unlike the previous Ultima "your companions fight by themselves, and you have only to position yourself and strike". They particularly appreciated storyline, amount but simplicity of dialogues (keywords) and of course the interface. They warn the player that it requires a powerful machine (386) and that you need a good level of English. The same issue also reviews Ultima Underworld. For reference, in the same magazine, they rated Legend 92%, Eternam 95% and Sim Ant 79% so they rate high :)


    Tilt (Mars 1992) : 19/20.
    http://download.abandonware.org/magazines/Tilt/tilt_numero100/TILT%20100%20%28Mars%201992%29%20Page%20141.jpg
    They gave UU 20/20 in the same magasine, Blackcrypt 19/20 (!!) and Heroquest 14/20. The article praises the graphic and the scenario, convoluted in a good way. More interestingly, it appreciates details like "enemy flee combat, leaving blood marks behind them, so they can follow their trail and finish them off".

    Joystick (December 1991 !) : 98%. Based on a preview version, so there are some interesting screenshoots (check page 204)
    https://www.abandonware-magazines.org/affiche_mag.php?mag=30&num=572&album=oui
    Another mention of this whole "if it bleeds you can follow it" but based on the murder scene at Trinsic, so the reviewer clearly played only for a little time and repeated whatever the marketing team of Origin told him. It has also lore bits that are, in my opinion, not in the game, so probably most stuff told to them by Origin.
    In the same magazine, U6 AMIGA got 96% Civilization also 96% and Bubble Bobble 94%

    I had forgotten how bloated the grades were back then.

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to review these. That's really funny about the "blood trails." It's not the first time a contemporary reviewer has latched on to a game element that no modern player would ever notice. I particularly don't understand how you can PRAISE the dungeon traps.

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  19. A lot of games manage to be greater than the sum of their indivdual parts. There are many games I've played over the years that I've enjoyed more than others that, if I had to grade them on a ten-point scale, would look a lot better on paper for whatever reason.

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  20. It's a great game and ends the legacy of Ultimas 3-7 which all followed the same basic formula: An open world scavenger hunt with increasingly more lore and world building as time went on. I guess this one is actually pretty linear but it nails the tone and feeling of the previous great Ultimas. I remember playing it after Ultima VI and felt it was more of the same but better graphics, bigger world, more details, etc. Maybe part of that was the outdated 386 I played on which was super slow and a biproduct of that was that combat was somewhat strategic and the world felt very big because it took a while to go anywhere. lol

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  21. I find it ironic how in "the battle of the 7s" you ended up coming so strongly on Wizardry side. I frankly expected otherwise.

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    1. The battle's not over yet, there's still Might and Magic 7 and Final Fantasy 7, although those won't be for a while

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    2. I don't know about FF7, but I don't think MM7 is universally considered the pinnacle of the series the series the way U7 and Wiz7 are. Besides, I was referring to a very specific dispute that was going on in the old-school RPG circles of the late 90s about which of the two was the greatest RPG of all times.

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    3. FF7 is generally considered the best, although to me those were all 7s in old series that are generally considered fairly good. They're all equally valid as old RPGs to me considering the newest of those came out when I was 1.

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    4. Yeah, sure from the distance of 2020 it doesn't seem like much of gap between 1992 and 1998. But in terms of hardware capabilities they were like different geological eras. There's actually far less difference between what contemporary PCs can do and what early 2000s PCs could do than between 1998 and 1992 hardware. Which is why there already were old-school RPG circlses in late 1990s - some people just didn't have the economical means to keep up with the hardware upgrad pace.

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    5. I would easily put MM7 above U7 and W7. I haven't played FF7, of course.

      As for the 1992 U7 vs. W7 debate, I would say that U7 is a better GAME, but W7 is a better RPG.

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    6. I think MM7 probably would be the most popular choice for the best M&M, though some people do have another preference.

      For Wizardry I guess it would be the winner, though I'm sure a substantial minority prefer 8 as I do.

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    7. Considering Chet's tastes, I am 100% sure that FF7 will earn last place in the "battle of the sevens" between Ultima, Might and Magic, and Wizardry.

      (and deservedly so)

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    8. I'm not a fan of MM series as a whole, but as far as I know, when it comes to which part is the best, most people tend to fall either on Xeen side, or on MM6 side.

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    9. Between MM6 and MM7, MM6 is clearly the more innovative of the two, but they refined the engine for MM7 and told a more interesting story.

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    10. It's pretty interesting to me that all of the 7s have a claim to being a good game/rpg. Is there a 7 that isn't worth playing? (Even other media - Deathly Hallows, Force Awakens, and 7th symphonies such as Beethoven's, Dvorak's, Bruckner's, and Shostakovich's are notable works)

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    11. I would also agree with Chet that MM7 is the better game over MM6. MM6 was ground-breaking -- strafing New Sorpigal on reset with Meteor Showers and Starbursts is still memorable to me - but MM7 was far more polished and tighter with a much better endgame. No dungeons like that $#@!$#@ Tomb of Varn.

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    12. Well, technically symphonies aren't a series - they don't have a running narrative through them ;) And I would say HP is more of an outlier, most book series run out of steam way before the 7th installment.
      As for game series, there simply aren't that many that can go on long enough. At least on PC - I don't know anything about consoles. Outside of Ultima, Wizardry and M&M, the longest RPG series I can think of is Jeff Vogel's Avernum with 6 mainline installments. Then there are Quest for Glory, TES and Geneforge series, each of which has 5 mainline titles.

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    13. I know personally I liked 6 more than 7, although a good chunk of that is because of stubborness: I decided I was going to upgrade all my characters at once, and it turns out the later half of the game really expects you to have light or dark magic, so up until I bit the bullet and upgraded a spellcaster I basically hit a brick wall.

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    14. MM7 also had Arcomage, which was spun off as a standalone game!

      Elder Scrolls are on 5 mainline RPGs now, with a 6th in development.

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    15. Yakuza 7's coming and it's very explicitly an RPG (even with turn-based combat). Japanese reviews are very positive!

      All the stated franchises took a dive after 7 though, might be the peak.

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  22. Interesting review. I think the main thing which comes out of this isn't that your scoring is wrong in any way, but rather Ultima VII is a bit of an odd duck. It's an RPG in many ways, but diverges quite a bit from typical CRPGs, being almost an adventure game. It's open world nature offers a lot of freedom, but then when that freedom isn't really used by the game's plot it feels more unsatisfying than if it wasn't open world at all.

    It's the promise of what Open World games would become even if a lot of its way of doing things wasn't then aped directly.

    I think it fails on the GIMLET rating because it isn't doing the same things as other RPGs. It's not combat-focussed but narrative-focussed, so things like combat, magic, and even the economy (which is really there to allow you to slowly improve your combat and magic power) are downplayed and under-baked. The things it does well aren't really part of the GIMLET - for instance, freedom to do what you want; speed of the story. That you were able to clean up the lake, or distribute the runes across the world is a fun part of the game. Sure there aren't any consequences for doing this, so it's all just internal role-playing like playing with action figures, but that you can do it at all is huge.

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  23. Maybe the most similar recent game to u7 is else heart.break() . Discuss :D

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    1. Ok, don't. Just wanted to make a point on how u7 was more influential in sandbox adventures than in straightforward crpgs

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    2. What's the npc interaction like in that game? Any claim to being similar U7 is a huge one. You need to have at least both the npc interaction+world interactivity. It would also be good if the writing didn't feel dumb.

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    3. I was hoping more people would chime in here, I don't know heart.break(), but the title intrigues me.

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    4. It looks like a function. What are the arguments?

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  24. Serpent Isle tells an idiotic story? What? That is slander!

    Of the two Ultima 7's it is Serpent Isle that is the stronger game: both as a game and as a storytelling medium. The design of Serpent Isle is more confident, more clever, more of what Chris Avellone speaks about when he says that game mechanincs should add to and reflect the story that the game tells.

    The designers had a better grasp what kind of game would be enjoyable with the Ultima 7 engine, both with it's features and limitations.

    It's only fatal flaw is the cut ending, similar to one other damaged genius (Knights of the Old Republic II).

    You are expected, of course, to play Serpent Isle too. If you throw accusations like this so casually, expect to back them up with 70+ blog posts.

    I think you hit the nail, when you observed that Ultima 7 has not been followed in games.

    And I think that is one of the reasons why people overhype it.

    There's a hidden genius, unlocked potential in the style of game that Ultima 7 (both parts) is. Ultima 7 should not be a sole experiement, but a forefather to a genre of it's own.

    A modern tribute in retro style could be more Ultima 7 than Ultima 7 ever was. A game where ineractivity is actually used to solve challenges. Where picking up the trash would be a legit solution to a problem.

    Like Deus Ex where player can use the simulationist interactivity to come up with solutions of his own.

    Example: A player can find a key to the door, maybe he has to steal it from someone, maybe do a quest for that; or maybe the player will just build a stair to climb to the second floor and thus bypass the door altogether. Or maybe use spells.

    A game that fixes some of the wrong choices and improves on all the right design choices.

    That is the great tragedy, that not even Origin followed on Ultima 7.

    Ultima 8 is more similar to games like Redguard, King's Quest 8, Tomb Raider than it is to U7. Which is interesting on it's own in some way, to play an isometric Tomb Raider. But not the same genius.

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    1. Oh man, KOTOR 2. What LucasArts did to that game was absolutely criminal. It's severely underrated and still one of my favorite Star Wars games of all time, but I'll always sigh and sadly wonder what could have been.

      The Restored Content mod fixes a lot, but not everything. Some of it is based on guesswork, and some of the "restored" content is still clearly unfinished--better than original work by the modders in this case, but not very fun to play. Fighting a trio of HK minibosses multiple times on each planet sucked hard.

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    2. Yeah, KOTOR 2 had so much going for it, but it just... broke halfway through. Massive disappointment.

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    3. Maybe I'll change my mind abut U7P2 when I get to it. It's been about 12 years since I last played, after all. I just remember it being extremely linear, nonsensical, and absolutely interminable.

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    4. It is certainly interminable, yes. I've played it several times, and I usually quit after Gorlab, or after defeating Batlin, because it gets SOOOO tedious after that. That helps, but it's hardly a compliment for the game.

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    5. I usually lose interest after defeating Batlin as well. I think the game stops being an RPG there and turns into an adventure game. Use item x on item y in place z. There's barely any combat in the final act. This isn't necessarily bad, but it's not very replayable.

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    6. Serpent Isle is always an adventure game.* From the beginning. That is what makes it fun. Puzzles add greatly to the Ultima 7 core game mechanics.

      I found it very rewarding to figure out the puzzles and from the gameplay side, I enjoyed the final act very much.

      It's amazing what a difference a focus on a few particular features can make.

      It does feel like a different experience, yet the core gameplay is the same.

      *Actually I'd say it's a unique hybrid, that brings some of the elements of Ultima games to their logical conclusion. The adventure elements have always been there. They are just more visible in SI.

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    7. That's an interesting perspective Joshua. In my case, I love the game (including the adventure elements) through about the time you pass through Gorlab. After that, I just lose interest. Not coincidentally, most of the leveling up, NPCs, combat, and equipment upgrades happen *before* you get to the swamp. So I think I would say that to the extent SI is a hybrid RPG/Adventure, it's only one for the first half. After that, the RPG side sort of withers.

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    8. Jimmy at Digital Antiquarian notes that Serpent Isle's final act was fatally compromised by budget cuts after EA took over Origin. It became a rushed and hastily made mess in the last segment. Bummer.

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    9. Yeah, that's why I consider U7 part 1 the last Ultima. After that, the creative vision was too influenced by people with no connection to the original games for me to consider them the same series. Alice in Chains is great, but without Layne Staley and Mike Starr, they're not the band that made Dirt.

      (Yes, I chose dirt because it came out in 1992.)

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  25. It seems what Lord British have regressed Britannia after that game's Victorian-era feel. In Ultima Underworld II intro Britain looks like a late Middle Ages town. Ultima IX is about the same, but with a somewhat generic fantasy feel and some areas looking vaguely Renaissance.

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  26. This is a nitpick, but I don't think of U7 as particularly Victorian, lacking smokestacks and the steam engine even, as it does. Somewhere between the Renaissance and the Golden Age of Pirates seems about right? Of course it's a fictional world, so there's no saying it has to match up perfectly.

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    Replies
    1. I wonder if "Victorian" was a mistake. To me, UVII is much more Elizabethan.

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    2. I changed that word several times. I couldn't think of a good replacement that wasn't very U.S.-centric. Although the setting lacks steam engines and smokestacks, they have paved streets and gas lamps, and the healer in Britain is on the cusp of Germ Theory. There are also mining engines that must run on something in the mines. I don't think the Industrial Era is inevitable for the setting--there aren't enough people--but the populace is clearly at least pre-industrial, which corresponds with the early Victorian Era. That was my justification anyway.

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    3. It's a mishmash. Sticking with England, the architecture and general vibe are more 1500s-1600s (Elizabethan or Jacobean), with some curious medieval throwbacks (especially in costume), perhaps forced on the populace by their dimensionally-displaced LARPer sovereign. The various proto-modern or Enlightenment customs (emerging science, emerging industrial technology, the establishment of a public museum) all feel more "Restoration" period (circa 1700). Some form of street paving isn't out of the question, especially since we also see that in less-developed parts of Britannia, the streets are still dirt.

      The gas lamps though are totally anachronistic - they imply a whole infrastructure which is completely absent, and a society that had gas lamps would probably be very different from Britannia in numerous other ways. It might be simplest to imagine that they're actually powered by magic.

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    4. Speaking of Victorian settings, can't wait to see what you think of another flawed but unique CRPG, Arcanum. I suspect it might be, in a way, a spiritual successor to Ultim 7.

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    5. Yes, really looking forward to when we get to Arcanum. Assuming we get to Arcanum. That's nearly a decade from where the blog's currently at... so, a couple decades from now?

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  27. I've been looking forward to your covering U7 since the early days of this blog. I grew up loving U7 as perhaps my favorite game of all time, and it has remained up there until the indie game boom of the past decade. But truth be told it has been a very long while since I revisited it, sparing some playing around with Exult. Your review has helped to give me something of a fresh perspective. Thinking back, I had very little real RPG experience when I first encountered the game. A Britannian walking simulator was really more than enough to wow me. But that feeling you get from depth of engagement with finely crafted RPG systems is certainly not part of my pleasant memories about it.

    Still, I am curious how you will find U8. I've always been favorable towards it, and only more so as the years go by. Perhaps it will be a pleasant surprise.

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  28. Ultima Online, as it was when I first played it -- shortly after the release of The Second Age -- is my favorite computer game of all time. It sounds like you didn't play UO when it was new, and that's a shame because there's no way to truly experience it now as it was then. It was a true sandbox where you had to make your own fun and write your own story, and a huge part of the magic had to do with the fact that the game had no competition. If you wanted to play an MMO, you had to play Ultima Online. You'll never get that kind of melting pot in an MMO again.

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    1. "If you wanted to play an MMO." There's the sticking point. I'm glad you had a good experience with it, though.

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    2. There are few parts of my younger life that I would like to revisit, but logging into Ultima Online for the first time in 1998 is always going to be one of them.

      I wound up playing three characters on Atlantic: a Grandmaster Chef, a ranger who swore (and never did) enter a town or use a bank, and an alchemist/beggar who only made potions from ingredients found in the wild or bought with begged coin.

      Sigh. Good times.

      There was nothing like it before and, quite frankly, nothing like it since.

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  29. I don’t mind the lower rating; the game certainly suffered from being rushed by EA. I know my fond memories are a function more of remembering the excitement of a new Ultima game coming out, and I’m pretty sure I had to convince my mom we needed a new computer yet again so that I’d be able to play this.

    One thing I would suggest, though, is that Chet needs to consider how to handle expansion packs like Forge of Virtue in the GIMLET. Especially when comparing against contemporary reviews that wouldn’t have had that aspect of the game. I can’t help but wonder if the leveling and possibly some other ratings would have changed if only the base game were considered. Of course, the original release was pretty buggy (I think on every playthrough I ran into that bug of a gate on the Isle of the Avatar not opening and I can never remember how I got it to suddenly work), which as noted did also affect the contemporary reviews.

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    1. Forge of Virtue is such a minor expansion pack that I don't think it affected the score. I didn't end up using the sword, after all (except as a joke), and although the Avatar maxed his stats, the companions still had to develop the hard way. I thought it was mostly a waste of time.

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  30. Ultimate 7 is an interesting one. I upgraded my computer to play it and loved it. One thing that probably makes it score lower is that I think they spent a lot of time to live up to their slogan. ‘We create Worlds’. As a new player at the time I enjoyed all of their little extras, even though they didn’t help with the actual RPG plot.

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  31. It’s funny to me: U4 is clearly the superior RPG, arguably had more influence on game design than 7, and had a better open world in terms of being able to explore or proceed in the order you preferred, although not as good in terms of places of side interest as 7. But two factors make 7 the obvious pick as evolutionary leap forward:
    The interface: U4 looks much like 3 and 5, while 7 looks like nothing before it.
    The way the story is constructed. The big bads in previous games are individuals with minions; 4 and 6 don’t have conventional villains, so the only point of comparison is 5’s memorable villains. But the Shadowlords die easily once you work through the plot, and Blackthorn is actually avoidable. U7 allows you to come to grips with its villains only at the very end, and what you’re fighting isn’t the Guardian but the Fellowship, a mindset that claims to follow the Way of the Avatar that as a player you will feel invested in. U4 doesn’t really depict a societal rot that you must combat by being an exemplar, but U7 does, so U7 is a narrative journey where the U4 quest is introspective.

    As a result, U7 generates stories, and that’s what makes it important.

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  32. Really the only thing I could disagree with here is your assertion that the game is too easy. I remember the Cube interior and the Isle of the Avatar dungeon as being pretty rough (as befits endgame sequences), as well as some combats throughout the game where an unprepared party could fall and fall quickly. I thought the difficulty was (without Forge of Virtue) about spot on.

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    1. That doesn't necessarily conflict with what I said. I agree that there are MOMENTS of difficulty in the game, but if I have to give it a single score, I'm considering the average, not the maximum.

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  33. When I first played this game as a kid, when it came out, I ended up keeping companions through the cities and NPC interactions, and having them stay behind whenever I went into a dungeon. I had such an awesome, memorable time playing this game, and maybe that helped. I cut my teeth on Ultima III, Final Fantasy I, and the gold box games, and in retrospect it seems weird that I didn't miss the combat and character building aspects of those games when playing U7. I think the answer could lie in an insightful analysis of RPG players from a study WOTC did while entering the RPG market: http://www.seankreynolds.com/rpgfiles/gaming/BreakdownOfRPGPlayers.html and the fact that I am solidly in the middle of the purple part of the graph. U7 felt like it enabled the storyteller and character actor focused RPG interactions more than previous CRPGs. Maybe a game could be made out of any one part of these 4 focuses, pay lip service to the others, and still be a good RPG?

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    1. That's an interesting way to think of RPG players. My GIMLET (as well as my own preferences) is probably biased towards the "tactically-focused" side, but otherwise balanced between story and combat.

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    2. I agree that an RPG should be allowed to focus on any of those four quadrants and likewise neglect any of the four quadrants.

      There definitely is a combat oriented bias going around, maybe because that's what the early CRPGs primarily focused on. It goes so far that some people argue that games like Ultima 7 and Star Control 2 (and maybe even Pirates) aren't really RPGs even though they seem to clearly evoke a certain type of tabletop RPG experience. It just happens to be one that emphasizes open world narrative building over stats and combat.

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    3. I can definately see a combat bias. There's a decent example of a different sort of bias with the more recent Paper Mario games, where they're basically adventure games with turn based combat, yet they still get called RPGs just because of the combat

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    4. Ugh, I'm so tired of this story vs. combat bullshit. It's honestly probably the single most damaging misconception in RPG history that's been stifling creativity in the genre. RPGs can have so much more than that: exploration, simulations, survival, puzzles, stealth, minigames... Older games got it - just look at Dungeon Master. It has zero story and fairly weak combat, but it's still a great RPG on the strength of its exploration and level design. Or Quest for Glory, which offers completely different gameplay styles to the three classes. Or even Morrowind, whose NPCs were infamously dubbed "walking wikipedias", but which still manages to create an immersive living world through its simulated sandbox design. But even in Skyrim we see designers endorsing the story+combat maxim and taking freedom away from the player in order to throw particular stories and combat encounters at him.

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    5. I like that observation asimpkins, I also loved Star Con 2 and Pirates. And I think they do give a similar RPG feeling to U7. TV, movies, and books were almost always far better at storytelling than games up until those experiences. Computers were and are still far more efficient and convenient for tactical and strategic gaming than tabletop games, so the tactical combat bias for a CRPG gamer makes sense.

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    6. VK this "bullshit" as you put it was labeled story vs. combat by this analysis:
      "We generated this data by asking a series of questions during the Market Research study in 1999 to create what is called a "segmentation" of the players. The questions were not designed to find these four quadrents; they correleate to all kinds of player interest and behavior. The original survey had several hundred questions, but only about two dozen have a bearing on the segmentation results. Once the study was complete, the data was plotted in several dimensions to look for clusters of responses; those clusters became the five player types. Once we know the segmentation was there, we reverse-engineered the axes, by comparing the responses of the people in each segment to find similarities."
      In other words, it is not a misconception or arbitrary. However, the article also identified "core values" that transcend the segmentation, and what you describe beyond combat and story are maybe what could be described as core experiences that cannot be ignored in a CRPG for it to be sufficiently engaging and satisfying.

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    7. I don't see a contradiction here. Market research used to create formulaic designs stifling creativity makes perfect sense to me.

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    8. There's always a danger in oversimplification, but I think VK's reaction is a bit extreme. I find the story/combat dichotomy to be a useful one, and I've commented on it before (usually in the context of a left-brained/right-brained discussion) without knowing about this specific study.

      That said, I think an game could BY DEFINITION could be an RPG with combat but no story, but not vice versa.

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    9. I used to believe in the story/combat dichotomy until I realized my own tastes don't fit into that. Yeah, I love me some combat, Gold Box and Jagged Alliance 2 and Temple of Elemental Evil are some of the most fun games ever. I also like a good story. But... I'm not too big on roguelikes or anything with randomly generated levels, even if the combat system is great. And I tune out of the story if it's told to me in linear cutscenes, I really stop caring about it whatsoever.

      My priorities are exploration, interactivity and good level/encounter design. I love ToEE and KotC and BG2, but if you make me grind through random encounters I'll probably quit. I love Planescape Torment and Disco Elysium, but I quit 90% of JRPGs I tried once I realized I can't make any choices in the dialogs.

      I want unique hand-placed content to discover and a high degree of choice and interactivity. Does liking multiple endings make me a "story player" when a non-interactive story will make me quit ASAP? Obviously not. But I can enjoy a combat-less RPG like Disco Elysium so I'm obviously not exclusively a "combat player" either.

      Then there's other elements of RPGs that aren't captured whatsoever by this dichotomy. What if I play RPGs for character development and dressup? Yes, I love decking out my characters in the best-looking gear rather than the most effective one, sue me. I also love leveling up my characters and trying different builds, which doesn't necessarily relate to combat (some builds in some games are made to avoid combat, after all). What about dicking around with the interactive elements of the game world? Is robbing the bank in Ultima VII an activity that appeals to the "combat player" or the "story player" or is there maybe another kind of player? What about abusing the alchemy system of Morrowind to get massive int so you can jump extremely high with an overpowered fortify acrobatics spell to get across the entire island in a single jump? Where does that lie on the combat-story axis?

      Exploration, character development and fooling around are core gameplay elements of many RPGs that fall outside of this simplistic combat vs story duality.

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    10. CRPG addict, it may take many many years for your blog to reach 2019, but when it does Disco Elysium will emphatically prove that last statement wrong. There's stats, character progression, skill checks and inventory that effects those checks but no combat.

      Come to think of it, it wouldn't take much tweaking to make Planescape: Torment a no combat game either.

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    11. There's actually a combat in Disco Elysium. It's so different on so many levels than how combat is typically done in CRPGs that you might easily think DE is a "no combat" game but there is a combat there.

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    12. Agree with Chet. You can have more or less narrative-driven play, but the core gameplay loop of an RPG involves the character getting better at things so that ‘harder’ tasks can be attempted. When that sense of progression feels a bit light, an rpg will tend to feel more like an action/adventure game or walking simulator.

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    13. @Wonko

      You misread the statement. Chet was saying that you can have a game which is an RPG by definition, due to its mechanics, but not a game which an RPG by definition, due to some particular ‘RPG narrative structure’.

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    14. Here's the thing: I would be fine if the dichotomy was formulated as, say "content vs. mechanics", like Tristan seems to imply. But "story vs. combat" just narrows both sides way, way too much. And the reason I'm irritated is that this narrow, oversimplified thinking has clearly caught on with RPG developers in the past decades. On the mechanics side, non-combat skills and spells become increasingly rare; non-combat mechanics become limited to dialog checks. On the content side, intricate level designs - with puzzles, secrets, multiple paths, environmental storytelling - have grown all but extinct, replaced by linear corridors and heavily scripted linear quests.

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    15. The worst kind of design is what late Bioware did. Dragon Age was still a decent game but Bioware clearly focused on the story. Then they thought they also have to satisfy the "combat players" and the way they did that was by filling the game with hundreds of copypasted combat encounters. The dungeon crawling was fun for the first hour or so, then it became pure tedium because you were fighting the exact same encounter over and over again.

      There's this mindset among some developers, especially those who like to focus on story, that you can satisfy the "combat fans" simply by spamming lots of encounters.

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    16. @VK: I took the original post as an attempt to be more expansive about what an RPG could be, not setup a narrow dogmatic dichotomy. Story/combat is just one obvious split for the sake of example, but I totally agree with all that RPGs can lean on all other aspects you mentioned. There are lots of ways to deliver an RPG experience.

      @JarlFrank: I don't think there's anything RPGish about simply providing a story, what's important is that the character has some agency in the story. Imagine a tabletop RPG campain where the GM just told you everything that your character did! A game can still be an RPG with this approach, and people can still enjoy those dictated stories, but it has to qualify as an RPG for other reasons (combat system, character development).

      @CRPGAddict: It's interesting that you are set in that take, but I really disagree that combat is necessary. That seems like such a narrow reading of what's possible with this genre. Much like saying a musical band needs a vocalist or a drummer. I might be more open to say that some sort of conflict is necessary, but I don't see why it needs to be violent in nature.

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    17. I'll expand my comment: I think either combat is necessary, or some stand-in for combat that regularly challenges the player with tactics and probabilities.

      I'm not saying that a game has to feature combat to be a good game. I'm not so sociopathic that I must kill something to enjoy myself with a game. But CRPGs are called such because they computerize the mechanics of tabletop RPGs, and I've never seen a tabletop RPG that didn't focus to some degree on combat. You'll all tell me that they exist, but the point is they didn't exist when CRPGs took their name.

      A game that uses CRPG-like attributes to simulate success in other types of challenges is something that we really haven't seen by 1992. Such a game probably deserves its own designation so that it doesn't get lost in a sea of RPGs, which are mostly about combat.

      My mind could be changed on the issue, but for now my second element of what makes a CRPG is "combats based at least partly on attribute-derived probabilities," which presupposes that they have combats at all.

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    18. "A game that uses CRPG-like attributes to simulate success in other types of challenges is something that we really haven't seen by 1992" - well, actually, we have, just alongside combat, not instead of it. For example, skillchecked puzzles in Quest for Glory, survival elements in Realms of Arkania, or trap disarming and lockpicking minigames in later Wizardries.

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    19. But the interested thing is, I have long thought that I wanted a non-combat RPG. Last year, three of them came out. One (Disco Elysium) I hated outright, another (The Council) I thoroughly enjoyed, but found not very replayable and this somewhat wasted as RPG, and as for the third (Titan Outpost), I've dipped into it and decided I should wait for the bugs to be ironed out and QoL features patched in to give it a proper try. But what the experience made me realize is that I don't want a combat-free RPG per se, but an RPG with mechanics in place that allow avoiding combat. I guess the lesson here is that you need some danger to keep things exciting, otherwise it wouldn't quite work.

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  34. I think this review is very fair. The game does some things poorly and some things really well. The people that love it are the ones that just focus on the good stuff. If you won't or can't (like the GIMLET) then it suffers.

    It's one of my favorites because I found it easy to overlook stuff like the low tactics combat and go all in on walking off the beaten path and finding something neat. There's tons of stuff hidden in this world, more than could be found and covered here. I remember finding a key at some sacrificial scene northeast of Vesper that ended up opening a chest in Serpent's Hold.

    It's a rewarding world to explore and internalize. There are other classic RPGs I like, but I don't remember their worlds nearly as vividly.

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  35. For laughs look up YouTube footage of the Super Nintendo's port of Ultima VII. They...did their best. This and King's Quest V on the NES are true WTF moments of gaming.

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  36. I played this game at release and swore to anyone that would listen that it was the best rpg ever made. Then I went back and played through the series again a few years back. If anything, I think you're being kind to it. I actually had to play a significant portion of it twice as even with the GOG version I encountered the missing bodies in Minoc bug. U7 not only is an awful story full of mashed up fairy tale characters and a first grader's understanding of ethics, it laid bare the weaknesses of the entire series. There will be people that will be mad, but there are always people for whom everything was better in the past. They truly believe music, tv, movies, games, whatever their passion, was somehow better in the past. I wouldn't worry about losing tire spinners like that because their minds will never move past a certain point in their lives for a variety of psychological reasons. You played this game for a long time and gave it a good think and you came up with a score that you think is fair. And for the record I agree that U5 and U6 were better and I'm having far more fun replaying the AD&D Gold Box series than I did replaying the Ultima series and somewhere in time, 12 year old me is in disbelief that I now pretty much dislike what was for over 30 years my favorite series of games. They make better memories than gaming experiences sadly.

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  37. I feel like a large part of the legacy of Ultima 7 lived on in MMOs via Ultima Online. Most early MMOs had a very open world vibe with lots of chances to do silly role playing with other people. Some of that comes from the MUD scene, but I feel like UO brought a special bit of openness from it's Ultima lineage. MMOs are different now, much more "theme park"-y and have lost the feel they had back in those days, a feeling I think came from trying to capture the spirit of Ultima 7.

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  38. I still think it's implied throughout the entire series that the avatar is supposed to be you. But for technical and artistic reasons they had to start filling in the gaps: you have a house in U5 and 6, you have that unicorn poster in U6, by U9 you're a blonde white dude, etc.

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  39. Speaking as an enormous U7 fan, this is a really fair summation of the game, and one I am very likely to revisit the next time I play. For that matter, I really enjoyed what you did with this entire U7 series, showing us the game in all of its weird, wonderful, broken glory. Well done.

    When you first started this series I said I'd been looking forward to your take on U7 since I started reading the blog. I'm very satisfied with what I got.

    A few other things:

    - I mean, as bad as the combat is, and for as much time as I spent making it manageable, it remains the only game I can think of where you can carry around a cannon on your flying carpet and randomly blast pirates, so there's that.

    - Too, I'm not wholly surprised U7 didn't rank super high. Origin always seemed to do its own thing, and forget the conventions, be they RPG or otherwise. I always admired them for that.

    - Hearing you talk trash about Serpent Isle has me very curious to see what you say when you get to that game. I found it to be superior to Black Gate in every way - technically better, more quality of life improvements, more focused story.

    - Similarly, I like U8 a lot more than most people, even though the EA rot had set in pretty badly at that point. Once they removed a lot of the platforming idiocy, my opinion went way up. Again, really looking forward to your take.

    - Another data point to look forward to in U9: to this day, U9 remains the only game where they had to literally send me new install CDs in the mail because it was unplayable at launch (which, in hindsight may have been for the best). Say what you will about loot boxes and pay to win, my now old enough to drink hatred of EA dates from right about here. I've never seen such a thorough evisceration of a series. I'm looking forward to you getting here just because I need the world to understand my pain.

    - For me as a CRPG player, it got pretty dark for the rest of the 90s after Serpent Isle. Even Daggerfall couldn't live up to Ultima. It wasn't until Baldur's Gate that I saw a truly worthy successor to what Origin did here.

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    1. Playing Ultima 8 years after release with all the patches and a walkthrough that explains the super egregrious dropped plot threads is probably night and day compared to playing the original release blind.

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    2. I appreciate the widespread agreement with my "Black Gate" assessment. I was expecting otherwise. I'll still hold out some hope for U8 and U9, and MAYBE my opinion of U7P2 will be redeemed once I get to it again. My recollection is probably heavily influenced by the second half, which I had to force myself to finish as if I was physically gagging on it.

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    3. James Neal:

      Can't lie, that original release was pretty rough. It's definitely a game that, like KOTOR2, gets even better once you dig into the production behind the scenes and what could have beens, though I did enjoy it well enough at the time. I have fond memories of defending its virtue to fellow Ultima fans on MUDs in the mid 90s.

      Addict:

      A lot of what I personally appreciate about your commentary is that it rarely feels arbitrary to me. You generally have good reasons for any criticism, enough background knowledge to know what you're talking about, and you explain your point in detail. Nor do you turn matters of taste into a holy war. That's all pretty respectable.

      Like I said, I'm genuinely fascinated to see your take on Serpent Isle when you get there. The second half in particular is some of my favorite stuff, so it should be interesting.

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    4. Addict, I rate the game more highly than you, but I can't disagree with your review because you're painstakingly clear on what you're valuing and how you're comparing these games. You have different priorities than I do but you always provide excellent support for your opinions on how well or poorly games fulfill those priorities for you.

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  40. As an Ultima VII superfan, it's all good. I realize, to some extent, the numbers are "for fun" but also the game really did go its own way.

    I recently watched a streamer (Macaw) play where his goal was not just to beat them game but *build a house from scratch*. I can't think of anything that came after which quite matches that.

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  41. I feel like it shouldn't matter as much that it doesn't rank extremely high on the GIMLET. Perhaps you could have given the game a few points like how you sometimes take a few away, if that's something you're so inclined to do. In the same sense others have mentioned, its strengths are not necessarily the strengths you rate highly on the GIMLET. Should you beat yourself up about that? No. Just as surely as UFO: Enemy Unknown or Master of Magic (or Lords of Magic or Space Rangers, etc.) will not rank highly due to having their primary strengths not be the ones you specifically look out for.

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  42. This review and series of posts seems very fair to me. I consider Ultima VI one of the best games I've played, but I wasn't really able to get through Ultima VII as a whole. I remember I got pretty far the first time I tried, but I just couldn't stay with it. For rating CRPGs, I think the GIMLET has it right in terms of Ultima rankings - although V vs VI is a tough call, and I am not sure I buy the idea that III ranks higher than VII.

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    1. I don't buy that idea, either. I ranked U3 too high in game world, encounters, economy, quests, and graphics and sound. I developed the GIMLET after I played it, so I was rating retroactively, and the scale hadn't settled into its current form anyway. If I re-rated it now, it would probably come out closer to a 43 than a 53. But I would need to re-read my entries and do a little research to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything.

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  43. Well, 153 comments within a day of posting says something about our collective (mostly) fond recollections about this game. I'll add my reminisces and thoughts to the tally.

    I first played U7 when I was 12 on a PC that could barely run it and while I wished we had a better computer, I was still blown away by this game. There is a saying that goes something like “the joy of life is having something to look forward to”, well I always looked forward to getting home from school so I could piddle around in U7 a little. I wasn't able to complete it back then but just remember having so much fun exploring, finding all the little Easter eggs that maybe didn't have anything to do with the plot, but gave so much character to the world (the knights of Serpent’s Hold were modeled after the crew of the NCC-1701D? How cool is that?). 28 years later I still remember taking over a pirate outpost as my own, building up a war stash of gunpowder, treasure, food, weapons, potions and the like just for fun. I did go back as a young adult and complete it using Exult and felt it held up well over the years.

    Thoughts about a few things discussed over the course of your adventures.

    Combat: It's crazy, chaotic and not very engaging... BUT it is kinda realistic in a sense that in a real medieval battle you could give your subordinates general orders but the only person you actually control of is yourself and once the melee breaks out it WOULD be chaotic. Not saying it makes for a fun experience, but Origin was always blazing new trails and I admire what they were trying to do, even if in execution it didn't turn out great. I think with another month to flesh this out they could have improved it, but at some point perfect becomes the enemy of good enough and you have to get the game out the door.

    Main Plot and Storyline: I think the main story is great, especially relative to its contemporaries. Though they could have been a little more subtle with the Fellowship, I feel a first time player might still get to have the experience of a slower realization that these are the bad guys as the evidence trickles in. I also like how not all members are evil per se and every member at least seems to have a logic and reason why they joined.

    The every NPC has a dialogue and back story so the entire society is only 100 sum odd people question: I personally loved this and this was Origin again blazing new territory. In this case it turned out better than the combat IMO.

    Lord British: I admire that Richard Garriott was willing to make his character a more human, fallible and even in some regards poor leader. Real world leaders are human and even the great ones have their human fallacies. I also appreciate that they were able to depict a society that was still marching along, but under the surface (as in the real world) there were underlying tensions and issues that didn’t break the dam, but did cause some strain on it. Haven’t played Skyrim which you mention has some of this, but I can’t think of another game that manages (or even attempts) to pull this off.

    Which is the best of the series debate: I have to go with V followed by VII. Sadly, I could never and still can’t get past the UI in VI. I can support the argument that U5 is the best CRPG to date in our timeline so far.

    Finally, thanks for this blog and the time and care you obviously devoted to chronicling this classic. I'm glad to see your readership, while they may feel your rating ended up on the low side, respects how you came to the rating. I count myself among those.

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    1. I appreciate the feedback. On the Lord British issue, I doubt Richard Garriott had anything to do with the the way Lord British was depicted in this game. In interviews, he has expressed dismay over some of the more controversial aspects that other developers sneaked in, and I suspect he didn't do much more than give a cursory review of the main dialogue.

      The backstory in this game is just about perfect. The only reason that it didn't score a perfect 10 is that I look for some adaptability in the game world for a perfect score. As the player does things in one place, its effects should be felt (or at least mentioned) in another.

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  44. Good job on reviewing the game. It´s not a perfect title and frankly we can well guess everyone would score it a little differently on various merits and deficits.

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  45. While these entries have been as fun and entertaining as your Darklands play through the final results of its score show a definite problem with systems that equate scores with quality...or value
    The fact of the matter is that a 51 score for a Top 10 Rpg of all time fails to show the only factor that in the end defines a good or great game from a classic is fun you have while playing it and its transcendent nature. You have a pretty great list of a who’s who in Rpgs and the best games usually owe a big amount of their success to their individual factors that make Gimlet’s ranking system but between those lines there is the fun a game generates and its impact that transcends the videogame realm. The fact that a numerical scores determines how “good” a game is as a product ultimately shows how scoring systems fail since a glance at a score based system would brand this game as fairly average while its overall brilliance as a transcendent moment of videogame history would be ultimately lost...
    Chet you have on occasions granted additional points to show a certain favoritism for games that trascend its scores and the fact that you didn’t on this particular case is kind of puzzling

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  47. Thx for this nice review. Maybe U7 simply proves that the idea of giving a rational score to a game is not always appropriate. Games are works of art and subjectives.
    I would suggest U7 is an adventure RPG, with an enormous amount of text to read, and little importance given to pure RPG aspects.
    As Jimmy puts it, there are games focused on mechanisms (pure RPGs like Dungeon Master for exemple) and games focused on story (adventure games for exemple).
    Personally I often don't enjoy combat in most RPGs, feeling they are here to artificially slow the player down. Most are influenced by the odd D&D. Few RPGs are as good as Dungeon Master for combat to my mind.
    So I like the way U7 makes combat unimportant and easy, while having a great story and a great sandbox experience. Plus it tries to say something important, by criticising sects.
    For a spiritual successor, I think Original Sin 2 has a comparable atmosphere, and no obvious good guys, but with a different inventory and combat system.

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  48. As a huge fan of the game, an heartfelt thank you for your extended coverage and detailed review of The Black Gate, which I have been looking forward to as soon as discovering your blog many years ago.

    I have zero issues with either the score or the analysis; I could argue about minor points which would not invalidate the overall assessment.

    Personally, U7 is a unique game that I will always cherish; the sense of wonder and freedom that it gave me when playing it the first time has rarely been replicated by other games. No numerical score in any rating context can express that.

    Now I can't wait for you to get to U8 and U9 to chronicle the downfall of the series :)

    I think two points you make at the end are closely related: that critical consideration of U7 has grown over the years (compared to an initial lukewarm reception) and that there are not many other games that have taken it as an inspiration.

    I know that I have been looking for the same attention to world building, exploration, NPC interaction and interactivity in any CRPG I played after that, and being always disappointed (even by CRPGs that I would call objectively superior); this helped make U7 even more unique historically.

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  49. To add to the short list of games clearly influenced by Ultima, I'd suggest the 1995-1997 Exile series by indie (then "shareware") developer Spiderweb Software (Jeff Vogel). My memories of Exile II and III are a bit fuzzy, but Exile I had several elements which seem more akin to the earlier Ultimas than any other well-known antecedents: a flat, top-down, party-centered view; keyword-based dialogue; and an extraneous food/hunger system. And Roman numeral naming, of course. If you haven't played them, I hope you get up to 1995 eventually, because I think you'll enjoy them!

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    1. I'd say that Runescape (not appearing on this blog, as it's an MMORPG) is pretty clearly influenced by Ultima 7--at least in the earlier iterations that I played. It has many of the same environmental interactions, such as harvesting wheat, grinding it into flour and baking bread from it. It does one better than U7 as well, since each of these is given their own skill (cooking, smithing, mining, woodcutting, etc.)

      Where it differs from other MMOs is how much you are required to do yourself. Unlike later MMOs that just take the ingredients and give you the item, Runescape also required you to follow specific steps and use static facilities in order to make something--you can't bake a cake over a campfire, and leather needs to be tanned before you can use it. A very large number of the quests required puzzle-solving too; in fact, I think these outnumber the combat-centric quests.

      Since RS is an MMO, it's likely that their more direct inspiration was Ultima Online than U7. But since I never had the chance to play UO in its original form, that'll be a question for the unlikely person who has played both and reads this comment.

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  50. 51?

    FIFTY ONE?

    FFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. Seriously. This is as criminal as Chris Carter giving "A Link Between Worlds" a 6.5.

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    2. I guess the good will couldn't last forever. But anyone who quotes one of my ratings in absolute terms doesn't understand my scale. Objecting to where it falls in comparison to other games makes sense; objecting to the raw value on a scale deliberately designed to leave lots of room for 30+ years of additional development does not.

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  51. I did a couple of podcasts recently for Hardcore Gaming 101's "Top 47K games of all time" series. We discussed Ultima IV in one and Quest for Glory in another. (I have a third scheduled for the fall to talk about Pool of Radiance.) Each of their shows had 2-4 commenters talking about the game, and at the end they try to rank it on a list that I guess will ultimately include 47,000 games, but for now only has 678.

    Their approach to ranking left me speechless when I first experienced it. They simply fire up the list and say, "Okay, is it a better game than Whatever?" If so, they scan up the list for the next example; if not, they scan down. No attempt to quantify the different parts or even define what "better" means. We finally settled that Quest for Glory is worse than Dungeon Master but better than Deux Ex, and Ultima IV falls between Alpha Protocol and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. "All rankings are final, official and scientifically accurate," the site says.

    Of course, the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes I wonder if it isn't a better way.

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    1. "Let's rank all game ranking systems! Is the GIMLET better than Dragon Magazine's system? Ok, then what's next up the list?"

      It seems like at least sometimes you apply a similar process to your description of the Hardcore Gaming 101 system, just within each individual element of the GIMLET. But I quite like that for your blog -- how even if there is an element of subjectivity, careful consideration of individual elements decreases the impact of nostalgia etc.

      (For the record, I did not play U7 contemporarily, did not finish it when I played it ~10 years ago, and find the GIMLET ranking relative to other games I have played about right.)

      Delete

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