Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds: Summary and Rating

The box is a bit misleading. It seems to depict the ice caverns, but it suggests that there's a teleportal gem to be found here.
       
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
United States
Looking Glass Technologies (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1995 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 2 April 2022
Date Ended: 18 June 2022
Total Hours: 54
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 62
Ranking at Time of Posting: 456/460 (99%)
     
Summary:
Ultima Underworld II uses the same interface as its predecessor--a revolutionary engine that allows for three-dimensional, continuous movement, vertical navigation, and realistic environments. It sets the game more firmly in Ultima canon than the first Underworld; you have to have played Ultima VII: The Black Gate to understand key backstory elements like the Guardian, the Fellowship, and blackrock, as well as the dynamics of the castle that serves as the hub of gameplay. Some of the story elements don't make sense, and some of the interface elements don't work well, but these can be easily ignored amidst a sea of successes. The Underworld series remains a key transition point in the history of RPGs, both technically and thematically.
   
*****
    
When wrapping up a game that I really like, I have an unfortunate tendency to focus on negative things. This isn't because I'm naturally pessimistic or critical. It's because I'm holding up those games against the best in the genre. When rating most games of the 1980s and early 1990s, I try not to be too harsh because I don't really see them as contenders. I treat them like a mediocre painting done by a child. You make allowances: She hasn't really learned composition yet; vanishing points are easy to grasp but tough to master; realistic anatomical details will come with practice. You focus on the positives and trust she'll get better. But once a game crosses a certain line, I no longer feel like it needs paternalistic praise; the author is clearly a master and I'm evaluating him against other masters. Nonetheless, I'll try to maintain a positivity in this summary because I'm very positive about the game.
   
Except for some minor quibbles, there's almost nothing negative I can say about the Underworld interface, which saw only minor changes from the first game. I would have liked more spell "shelves" and the ability to select runes by typing their letters. The way one screen slides out of the way and another slides in when you transition from inventory to character sheet or inventory to rune bag is fun once or twice, but there should have been some way to make it instantaneous, particularly in the heat of combat. Beyond that, expecting the developers to do any better with the interface would be expecting them to travel through time. In an era in which customers would have been happy with only two or three of their innovations, they offered dozens. Even today, long after advanced graphics and sound have come along, there's something amazing about casting "Fly" and moving upwards and downwards in cavernous spaces, or jumping from pillar to pillar with lava flowing beneath.
         
I didn't need to watch this animation as often as I did.
       
I'm less enamored with the story--although, again, it has more detail and logic than anything else being offered in its era. While I love the Underworld engine, I remain unenthusiastic about its setting in Britannia. In the first game, that setting was forced--the game had clearly been developed for an original setting and later shoehorned into the Stygian Abyss when it was purchased by Origin. For II, the plot always seems to have been set in Britannia, but that didn't necessarily make me like it any better. This is an engine made for a dungeon crawl, multiple levels deep and dark. Starting on the first level of the Abyss with no resources, no idea what you're going to face around the bend, is so much more delicious than starting in the friendly confines of Castle Britannia. Despite the subtitle, I never got the impression I was exploring a "labyrinth of worlds" so much as a bunch of small, discrete worlds. But a few of them did rise to the quality and visceral thrill of the first game, and I appreciated them.
 
A few final things I discovered after winning: First, if you lose the air daemon, or just release it in the wrong place, Zoranthus gives you another one without complaint. Apparently, you can also find one in the Ethereal Void somewhere, allowing you to bypass a large chunk of quest. 
          
Handing out djinn is just a Tuesday for him.
      
Second, I was unable to find a path of dialogue that got me the blackrock serpent from the goblins in the Britannia sewers. They don't drop it if you kill them, I verified. If you are able to get it, it comes with this dialogue:
    
[The goblins] have agreed that we should give over to thee one of the secrets of our tribe. Over a century ago, a human appeared near our home in the rocky Serpent's Spine Half-starved he was, and there were wounds on him which seemed to have been made by arrows! . . . Before he died, he gasped out a single world to those who found him: "Pagan!" We know not what this might mean, or where he came from--our trackers traced his spoor to the foot of a sheer wall of stone. He carried this with him, though.
     
If you don't crash Killorn Keep like I did, Altara flees the keep when Mors Gotha arrives, leaving you a note. In discussions with Mors Gotha, but continuously choosing curious or non-threatening options, you can get to a point where she offers to let you join the Guardian's forces, and you can agree! She then says, "Thou hast only to hand over thy weapon, Avatar, a sign of thy decision, and we shall away, off to the palace of the Guardian in the Pagan world." I didn't realize that the name of the Guardian's homeworld was determined this early, and cited in two conversations. Anyway, if you hand over your sword, Gotha just attacks you and the game continues as if you'd never agreed to betray Lord British. But you know.

Finally, if you kill the flying eye-brains in Killorn after Mors Gotha arrives, she has some special dialogue as the keep goes down. Essentially, crashing the keep just prevents you from having to fight the first of the two final battles.
        
Mors Gotha if you crash the keep with her in it.
       
In a GIMLET, I suspect we'll see something close to a tie with the first Underworld, maybe even a slightly higher score. What this game lacks in ambiance is balanced by a slightly better equipment system, skill development system, and economy. 

1. Game World. Origin knows how to tell a story, even if they don't always make sense in the details. Even though it doesn't always make sense, we've never seen an RPG set in a castle covered by a magical dome. I appreciated references to previous Ultimas, including the notion that Lord Draxinusom was fighting the invasion outside the castle. Although none of the individual worlds were completely fleshed-out, they all had their own lore and backstory, and I liked how references in one world popped up in another, and that there were some places where you could make decisions that reverberated across worlds. Score: 6.
 
2. Character Creation and Development. A good system that allows for a variety of "builds," some easier than others. I liked the training system better than the "praying" system of the first game. I appreciated that although there's a level cap, you continue to gain skill points beyond it. I appreciated all the different ways that you can approach puzzles, and that the world doesn't have a lot of artificial barriers. I don't think you can quite play it as a stealth game--it would need a "backstab" mechanic or something similar, so you could still get skill points from combat--but it gets pretty close. If I were to play it again, I think I'd try maximizing "Charisma," "Lore," and "Appraise," and then see how far I could get in the game on potions and wands, which you can buy and recharge at the Killorn market. Score: 7.
     
My final character.
        
3. NPCs. It was fun doing regular loops around Britannia and seeing what new things the NPCs had to say. The dialogue system is relatively solid, but I think there were more dialogue options and role-playing choices in the first Underworld. No one outside of Britannia really had much personality, either. Score: 6.

4. Encounters. The game has a small but effective menagerie, well described in the game manual, with an interesting set of strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. I don't remember any respawn areas in Underworld, but this one had several optional ones. The game is full of non-combat encounters that aren't designated as such (i.e., no text box pops up with a menu of options) but that still call upon your creativity, knowledge, and skill. I appreciated the role-playing options: the different ways to deal with the servants' strike; the different ways to deal with Dorstag in the Pits; whether to crash Killorn Keep. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. I really enjoyed playing as a mage, and particularly that there are so many useful non-combat spells. There's a common sentiment that real-time combat isn't tactical, but I don't agree when it's integrated into the larger game world. An open environment offers opportunities to create chokepoints, fly or jump out of enemies' reach, shove them into lava, or just sneak or run past them. As with the first game, it's too bad that combat wasn't just a bit harder, thus requiring the full use of such options. Score: 6.
      
I try out "Flame Wind."
      
6. Equipment. A great variety of weapons, armor, magic items, and utility items, suitable to just about any build and play style. The wear-and-tear system works well. The identification system works well. The crafting system isn't really necessary for a mage, but it also works well. Encumbrance is set liberally but not generously. Other than everything is always found at the same fixed locations, I don't have much in the way of complaint here. Score: 7.

7. Economy. There ought to be more shops, but the presence of someone who will take gold to identify and recharge items, as well as sell potions, adds a lot to the gameplay. I thought the bartering system worked pretty well in the first Underworld, but in II you could really make it part of your overall gameplay strategy. Because of my particular build, the economy mostly stopped being useful to me about 3/4 of the way through the game, but that isn't inevitable. Score: 6.
  
8. Quests. A clear main quest with a few minor choices along the way, plus a few side quests to add flavor and role-playing. There are no options or alternate endings for the main quest, but there are alternate options for close to the end of the main quest. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Not much different from the first game. Graphics are state-of-the-art for the era and more than acceptable today. Sound effects are effective if not spectacular. Music is moody and well-composed even if I did turn it off. I'm not sure we've ever seen a better approach to automapping. The mouse/keyboard combo works well, though I noted a few issues during this session, most having to do with magic, that I didn't flag last time. Score: 7.

10. Gameplay. A strong final category. It's about halfway between "linear" and "open," though perhaps leaning slightly towards the "linear" side. It's reasonably replayable if you're excited to try different character options. I think it could have been a little harder and a little shorter, but only a little. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 63. Checking my review of The Stygian Abyss, I find that I've rated the sequel one point higher, landing it among the top 5 games played so far. In my memory, I think of The Stygian Abyss as the better game, but not so much that I can find anything wrong with this rating. I might be mentally giving Abyss points for doing it first, which doesn't really factor into the GIMLET.
       
It is, in fact, just a dungeon game anymore.
       
A summary of "not as fresh as the first game, but equal to it, if not better" would apply to many of the game's contemporary reviews. For instance, in the April 1993 PC Review (UK), reviewer Paul Presley writes: 
     
If Underworld I got nine stars and Underworld II got only eight, is the sequel worse? No. If someone were to hand me £40 and say buy either Underworld I or II, I'd take the sequel any time. The reason the original got nine stars is because it was the first of its kind and it did what it set out to do damn well, causing convulsions in the opposition and showing everyone that the PC is still growing as a games machine. The sequel is essentially just more of the same only different. The various elements that go to make it up are ear-wiggingly better (improved graphics, better plot, more imagination), but there isn't anything that takes it to a yet higher plateau to wait for the others to catch up.
         
Here's the March 1993 Game Players:
       
Although Ultima Underworld 2 doesn't provide any new breakthroughs such as above-ground exploration, it remains on the cutting edge of gaming software, if only because there's no other product capable of doing what Underworld 2 does. Looking Glass has listened to the complaints and comments from Stygian Abyss veterans, using their input to craft substantive improvements to the game engine. 
        
Still, innovation tends to live longer in the memory than raw quality, and it doesn't surprise me that the original Underworld gets most of the nostalgia. 

Computer Gaming World offered a curiously lukewarm review by Doug Seacat in the May 1993 issue. (The whole issue is curious. They reviewed both Legends of Valour and Ultima Underworld II without noting any of their similarities, and they wasted Scorpia on a review of The Magic Candle III.) I suppose it isn't any more negative than my own, but mine is written with 30 years of hindsight. It's odd to see the same complaints in the release year. Where the April 1993 PC Zone reviewer said, "there is really nothing you can do with this game except sit there, dribble slightly, and say 'blimey' every eight to ten minutes," Seacat finds complaints in getting hung up on doorways, redundancy in skills, and the fact that NPCs don't solve their own problems--all complaints that could be made about any modern 3D game. I would have thought there'd be more dribbling.
     
I do have to appreciate his note that "Lord British wanders around doing nothing." As we've discussed, Lord British's stature takes a series of major blows in the last few games. It started in Ultima VI but really ramped up in Ultima VII and this game. In his attitude towards the Fellowship and a lot of other things happening in Britannia, he is ignorant, negligent, and useless. I had a chance to mention this to Richard Garriott recently. I was curious if there was a deliberate effort to deconstruct the character or whether it was a matter of Garriott being less involved in the games and his employees simply not treating their boss's alter-ego with much respect. "None of the above," Garriott answered. "It was purely to give space for the player to shine!" But he did acknowledge that "perhaps I overplayed, or underplayed, the role of [Lord British]." As someone who once regarded Lord British as an Arthurian figure--the creator of a code that formed my secular religion as a teenager--I've been distressed to see him treated increasingly like a buffoon.
     
In my "summary and rating" entry for The Stygian Abyss, I covered the history of the development of the series, much drawn from Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage from 2019. Interviews with designer Paul Neurath indicate that Origin barely paid attention to the development of the first game and nearly canceled it out of sheer apathy. Only slowly, as sales spread through word-of-mouth, did Origin realize they had a mega hit on their hands. The sequel was developed under much different conditions, with Origin demanding a more integrated plot and cracking the whip on the timeline. That it has so few errors with only nine months of development time is a credit to the skill of the programmers and designers. According to a 2000 interview with project lead Doug Church, they killed themselves to release the game for Christmas 1992 but missed it by a couple of weeks, ultimately releasing in January 1993.
   
Labyrinth of Worlds only sold about half the number of copies as the first game, but as Maher points out, that was still considered a smash by contemporary standards. This success makes it all the more puzzling that Origin never commissioned an Ultima Underworld III. Neurath says that Looking Glass pitched several ideas to Origin, all of which were rejected. An internal document made public by the UK blog Pix's Origin Adventures in 2018 suggests a reason: Origin was planning to develop the sequel themselves. The 104-page design document, dated August 1997, suggests a Fall 1998 release--a snack for hungry gamers awaiting Ultima IX: Ascension. As for why develop it in-house, the document notes: "Recent external development of premium Origin titles have not received the critical praise nor met the revenue expectations they deserve."
    
Origin's plans for a third Underworld game.
       
The backstory sets the game in a new world called Jaal, far more violent and chaotic than Britannia. As the player progresses through the story, he learns that Jaal is where the Shadowlord Astaroth ended up when he was banished from Britannia in Ultima V. Astaroth intends to reunite with his fellow Shadowlords. Somehow, it serves their plot to kidnap someone from the Avatar's homeworld, who then becomes the PC of the game. The game would have used the Wing Commander: Prophecy engine, and its environments would "run the gamut from desert wastelands, jungles, caves, cramped towers, forests, steep mountains, and some underwater levels." There's a lot of talk about multiplayer options.
   
Anyway, someone at Electronic Arts said no, as there's no evidence the game ever got past the document phase. Later, an attempt by Arkane Studios to pitch an Underworld III to EA also failed and was turned into Arx Fatalis (2002). In 2013, Paul Neurath founded Otherside Entertainment and made Underworld Ascendant (2018) with permission from EA to use the Underworld title but not the Ultima name. The result is a weird half-sequel, in which the player character explores the Stygian Abyss, but the Abyss is not on Britannia. Cabirus reappears, but so do races that never appeared in Britannia, such as dwarves and dark elves. And, of course, the main character is the "Ascendant" rather than the "Avatar." It looked pretty good to me when I watched some YouTube footage, but I guess it got awful reviews.
   
Our next Ultima will be Ultima VII, Part 2, coming up later this year. But before then, we'll have a parody and one surprise.

99 comments:

  1. Excellent, glad you liked this one and pleasantly surprised it managed to pip the original. This score puts it in second place for 1993 after Dark Sun's 64, correct? I'm curious to see what else from that year can score as high (there's a few candidates, but we commentariat have probably discussed those enough).

    Arx Fatalis is a fun one. Definitely an Ultima Underworld in all but name, though with enough personality and ideas to stand out along with its truly bizarre story. Arkane's certainly come up in the world since then in terms of mainstream appeal but I'd say they hit the ground running.

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    1. The only thing I don't like about Arkane games is that since they use the ID engine their positional audio is absolutely horrendous, which detracts a lot from my enjoyment of what otherwise are games focused on stealth.

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    2. Have you tried looking at your sound hardware settings, perhaps increasing/reducing the number of output channels? I've had some games that sound very strange, inverted, or only hearing characters that were -dead centre- or only hearing far away objects but not close ones until I changed my settings. Usually turning everything -off- except plain stereo output fixes things for me.

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    3. Also Arkane's Prey (2017) is a spiritual successor to the System Shock line.

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    4. mecha_neko, no, it is nothing of the kind. Watch any youtube video of Prey or Dishonored and you will see how positional audio is totally broken even on stereo. And it is a very well known issue, you can check dozens of discussions in reddit and other forums.

      The thing is that sound design and positional audio has been totally abandoned because I am pretty sure players nowadays have some hearing disability. The only more or less recent game I recall having an incredible audio was Crysis 2. I was playing one of the recent WW2 Call of Duty games and the audio is way way worse than the first Medal of Honor one. Why is this happening? No idea.

      BUT. For a stealth game I would say that it is a capital sin. Thief (gold) and Thief 2 are absolutely fantastic in audio, to the point that you do not need to see the guards: you can orientate yourself by the sound. Why is this not happening anymore?

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    5. The original two Thief games have the best sound propagation ever. Nothing comes close. It's crazy how a 20 year old game hasn't been matched yet in what should be a pretty basic feature.

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    6. Because I am afraid it depends on whatever code it's behind, name it engine name it whatever. And probably because no absolutely no gamer journalist around is able to see the difference between how the sound works in Thief and how the sound works in Prey or Dishonored (where the voices are always next to you even when they are two floors up or in the next room or in the same room)

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    7. In Thief 1 there's an objective to get a horn (that's playing loudly during the mission) and I remember hearing that you can follow the audio of the horn and actually arrive at it.
      Designers had to do a lot of work too to make this work - they had to place a big box for a room, and a box in the next room, and a small box for the doorway overlapping them, and a different box for the window overlapping them so that sound would come _through the window_

      (The box for the room and the outside could touch as well, IIRC, but had their own settings about how much they could propagate 'through the wall')

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    8. It's a shame directional sound is so neglected. It breaks the immersion in first person single character games when instead you instead just get some ambient sound to warn about nearby monsters.
      I loved how you could keep track of dragons through illusory walls in Chaos Strikes Back using sound to "see" how they moved, so you could "waltz" them. But only in the Amiga version. Even the modern remakes of DM and CSB lack directional sound AFAIK.

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    9. I'm pretty sure the math for modeling the propagation of sound is a lot easier than what modern games are already doing to make lighting, shadows, and visibility work correctly, but it's not something anyone has chosen to explore in a rigorous sort of way in several generations.

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    10. I don't have a citation for it, but I remember reading that Creative Technology, or another similarly lawsuit-happy company, developed some fancy directional sound tech, patented it, and charged the moon for it. Whenever competing tech showed up, they sued whoever worked on it. Didn't matter if it was a legitimate grievance or not, they would sue 'em and then whenever they ran out of money, take whatever remained of their company.

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    11. Not exactly - Creative patented a hardware solution which was EAX, tried to charge the moon for it and what Microsoft did is drop Directsound support altogether so all those sound hardware extensions became unsupported. Still there are quite a few standard solutions that do not excuse why sound occlusion is so poor in games like Dishonored and why the sound mixing in Far Cry 6 is so absurd. I just believe no one thinks it's worth it to put any effort as players are happy with just a loud compressed sound like the basic drum on a tech house track.

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    12. I wonder how much console gaming has affected it? I love console gaming in that I can relax on the couch and play and games don't have to be "dumbed down"
      But one _big_ thing I don't do on consoles is play with headphones. I played Thief with headphones all the time. Doing great sound propagation is just a much lower value proposition if a significant chunk of users aren't going to be physically equipped to notice it.

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    13. @Risingson, ah, that was what it was, thanks!
      That said the thing about consoles possibly being responsible for it reminds me of how music mixing has gone downhill in recent years. Because it has to sound good on a variety of very different sounding devices. Seems like its something that could affect things, since why bother dealing with proper sound mixing when everyone's going to be playing it on crappy TV speakers?

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  2. It sounds like, from your last few paragraphs, that this game more or less marks the point where EA and Origin were so high on Wing Commander pipe dreams that even a huge success seemed like a failure to the executives. It's a shame; I'm not really an Ultima fan, but it certainly would have been interesting to see what came out of Looking Glass and Origin itself in an environment that had more realistic expectations and viewed UU2 as the success it unequivocally was.

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  3. IMO Ascendant is everything but a worthy successor. I was a backer and what I received was so bad it broke my heart since I really wanted to believe in the project headed by an ex Looking Glass guy no less. I really have no clue what they were thinking.

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    1. Either overscoped or down-prioritized. The old guard (especially those that got out of directing projects for a while) have a lot of trouble managing modern game teams.pat of the classics were made by a relatively small collection of self-directed twenty-somethings that didn’t sleep and never went home. Nowadays with modern graphics you need huge teams with competent production pipelines. It’s a massive shift from the 90’s.

      But oh boy was Ascendant dire. It made Duke Nukem Forever and Shroud of the Avatar look good.

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    2. I tried UA when it first came out and became bored slightly into it. It started with a very linear dungeon that was not very good. I tried again a few months ago to see if it had improved with patches. It had not. Reading reviews it didn’t sound like it got better later in the game so I stopped again. Very disappointing, the visuals are fine but the gameplay was linear and worse boring.

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    3. I backed UA and finally played through it last year after having done UU1 & 2. And you can clearly see the ideas they had, like burning down wooden doors with ambient fire. But I'd definitely say it's mismanaged scale; the original pitch featured several races that would intermingle and you would manage relationships with, but outside the lizardfolk they all never actually appear in person in game, just as the supposed quest givers for optional side quests and existing in the backstory.

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    4. There are many Kickstarter games that didn't come about because the devs overestimated themselves, so all that remains are dead dreams and images of ehat could have been. It's sad when a game is canceled or put on hold indefinitely.

      Yetthe result of Underworld Ascendant is so terrible, it would have been less heartbreaking had the game been canceled. Then, we could still hold onto those dreams and cling to the idea that had the devs been given just a little more budget and time, they would have created a masterpiece.

      But the game wasn't canceled. It came out, and it was so bad it made many people lose all hope in Otherside ever making anything worthwhile again. Getting this game is so much worsethan not getting any game at all.

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    5. Wow, that's pretty damning. I still don't understand what's so bad about it, though. The only specifics I get in this thread is that it's shallow and linear. Those are negatives, sure, but hardly enough to warrant JarlFrank's pathos. What is it, specifically, that makes it so heartbreaking?

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    6. "There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Underworld Ascendant is phenomenally bad, a catastrophic mess of poor design ideas, woeful execution, and bugs the size of buildings. " - pcgamer

      "Underworld Ascendant is just broken. What little roleplaying game fun there might’ve been is taken off the table by technical failings, a save system that feels like cruel and unusual punishment, and a bland story that takes place in similarly repetitive environments. Not one of the core systems for interacting with the world, be it combat, magic, or stealth impresses on its own, and that’s when they even work right." - IGN

      Meatcritic: 37 (19 critic reviews), User Score: 2.3

      I remember the Kickstarter campaign. I remember looking at the goals, and looking at the funding targets, and thinking: "They will make about 1/10th of the game they're promising with that amount of money". In my mind, there was very little chance that the project would be a fruitful one

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    7. JarlFrank is right, the game is so bad it would have been better off canceled. I remember getting emails about physical rewards long after the game has already been released DOA and just feeling bad for the guy who still had to manage the project, sifting through mounds of hate and bile to sort out shipping issues. Their lawyers must have made them do it.

      The game is just broken nothing. It takes a few pretty screenshots by indie standards but there’s just nothing to recommend and the mechanics don’t work. Lots of games feel like the devs had to rush to the shipping deadline after a while but in UA you feel that about 5 minutes in.

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    8. Y’know, I’m sure you’re not looking for special projects but it would be really interesting to get your take on Ascendant. I predict the conclusion would be: “Bad, but not as bad as its reputation.”

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    9. There's nothing compelling about the story and the exploration (other than exploration for its own sake) and the interface is just so janky.

      I've tried to go back to it and finish it and I just can't care - the moment-to-moment gameplay isn't fun on its own and the story/exploration rewards aren't there to justify pushing through it.

      The patch did improve some things (notably saving).

      Physics-based gameplay is _HARD_ to get feeling good - immersive sims have gotten harder to feel good, I think, with the advent of better physics.

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    10. Why the game was disappointing, I don’t have a lot of pathos over it, but the game starts as a long tutorial for its physics based engine. I pushed through again and found some parts difficult to do, even after the patch, and worse of all the gameplay loop was slow and boring, especially since a lot of the challenge was fighting poor UI choices. A same for a supposed sequel to some of the most influential and well design set of games. If it had decent reviews I might have pushed through to get to better parts but since it was boring and frustrating, I stopped.

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    11. I think the whole idea of remaking Underworld is undoable. Part of Underworld games was the groundbreaking technology. With even the 11 year old Skyrim having an entire world dungeon and outside for example, we have simply moved on where a dungeon crawl with smooth scrolling is exciting. It's trying to capture nostalgia but doesn't work.

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    12. Not only do I agree 100% with Blacbraun, I think the same logic could be applied to just about every game for which someone clamors for a remake.

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    13. Ooh, that sounds like a challenge! I've two gamejam entries to my name and next year I was finally planning to tackle a First Person type game as my entry... These are 10 day jams - just call me Lord Hubris.

      PS. I also 100% agree though I love to believe it's possible to distil the elements that made them work.

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    14. Remasters are pretty popular. I've been happy with the Beamdog upgrades to the Infinity Engine games, and Wonderboy: The Dragon's Trap. I wonder though, would I have given them a shot had I never played the originals?

      Game design and player expectations have come a long way, and without the power of nostalgia most old games just feel old. A new coat of paint wasn't enough to get me to engage with the original Bard's Tale trilogy, but I played and enjoyed the modern remake (Bard's Tale IV).

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  4. Another entry on the "Top Rated" list and coincidentally, it knocks "Ultima IV" out of the top 20. Ends up right below Dark Sun, which seems right.

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    1. Not seeing the "Highest Rated" list updated makes me itch for some reason. I guess I am one of the only oddballs reading the blog from a PC instead of my phone.

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  5. "Graphics are state-of-the-art for the era and more than acceptable today."

    I don't even protest, I'm simply amused by your apparently very low standards and expectations for what makes acceptable graphics.

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    1. Retro and pixelart games are very popular. So yes, games like this are considered acceptable by many.

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    2. I think this is something related to when you started playing games if you get used to onestandard of graphics growing up its easier to pick up a similar game becouse you have a connection and a bit of nostalgia for the look. Some games I play my younger friends wouldn't touch becouse they have no connection with the engine or graphics.

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    3. There's little doubt that this plays a part, but less than you'd think. The young gamer of today is likely to not only be exposed to the latest AAA games, but a huge variety of games that don't meet that graphical standard. Besides independent games like Minecraft started as, or the variety of faux-retro games that deliberately evoke a dated aesthetic, there are a host of rereleases that Kids Today are just as happy with as those of my generation were.

      That doesn't mean that there isn't an age group that demands the latest perfect graphics and derides anything even slightly dated, but that has more to do with the specific age group - it is often a phase that people hit in the early teens and age out of in the late teens/early 20s.

      All that said, the games that suffer the most in time are those like this one that don't try for stylization. They were going for as realistic as the technology allowed, and that shows. Deliberately cartoony graphics age much better.

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    4. I think the interface parts of UU look pretty good and I could imagine them being used in a modern, retro-style game. I don't think the 3D parts would be found acceptable in a modern game by most people, including people who played games in the 90s. Part of that is down to engine limitations (distortions), and less to the textures itself.

      Modern pixel art games, on the other hand, often look very beautiful. You'd play them partially because of the graphics.

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    5. stepped pyramidsJune 27, 2022 at 3:03 AM

      The only place in retro games that I see this kind of 3D is in very niche old-school shooters that are emulating the first generation of "Doomclones". Otherwise, you're more likely to see low-poly but high-res 3D like Minecraft.

      Ironically, it's hard to make games that look bad in this particular way today. You'd have to either write your own custom software renderer or you'd have to use shaders or something to distort textures.

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    6. You cannot put "pixel art" in the same sack as if all the games rendered at 320x200 have the same graphical quality, mostly when some other points have been raised: the clarity of the interface, how easy is to distinguish between elements, etc. And Chet here also likes some graphical elements more than others: this is nothing to do with pixel art or retro or any of that forced nostalgia thing that irritates me so much to be honest.

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  6. Pagan is a world conquered by the Guardian, not his birthplace. Ultima 8 takes place there.

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    1. stepped pyramidsJune 27, 2022 at 2:25 AM

      The specific nature of Pagan could be considered something of a spoiler, considering that there's an NPC in the next game whose entire role is just to tell you lore about Pagan. On the other hand, Origin did about as good a job keeping Pagan lore straight as they did for Britannia.

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    2. You know, I'd expect a box covered in fire and a pentacle and the word "pagan" to have something to do with paganism; but I suppose that's all just marketing shock factor as "pagan" is nothing but the name of the world. I'm surprised to see that they planned a world by that name several games in advance.

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    3. It's not related to real world paganism, but pagan really just means "not Christian/Abrahamic" more than a concrete religion. Personally I'd argue Pagan hits the feeling of the word fairly well, and fits the game just fine

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    4. Pagan used to mean just peasant. It's association with modern meaning was around somewhere in 5th century. The urban "coastal democrats" type of people of that era were all Christian and the "republican" country bumpkin type were superstitious, still worshiping their ancestral gods. Thus pagan, the word for country bumpkin became to be associated with not being Christian.

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    5. Relatedly "heathen" literally means "of the heath", "heath" being the uncultivated land away from the city

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    6. I'm aware of what those words literally mean; the point is that a box showing hellfire and a pentacle and the word "pagan" in huge letters is, by 1990s standards, shouting "LOOK at ME, I'm being edgy and controversial!!"

      And unlike e.g. Doom or Mortal Kombat, the content of Ultima 8 is not particularly controversial (except for its poor jumping mechanics). Hence, this looks like a weird marketing ploy, comparable to that infamous Daikatana ad.

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    7. @Ross Interesting. I did not know that. I guess it's always the country bumpkin, huh?

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    8. Ultima 8 was named in protest of Electronic Arts. Programmers Against Gameplay And Narrative

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    9. Ultima III box art had a similar demonic and fire cover. Everyone thought Exodus was some Balrog like demon. Turns out he was a 1960's mainframe.

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    10. "Everyone" including the gargoyles, whose statue of Exodus looks like a balrog-like demon. In the Ultima VII expansion, there's a hint that BOTH interpretations may be correct, with Exodus having a body separate from his mind or something, but that raises the question as to why his "body" wasn't around when the adventurers breached his fortress in U3.

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  7. I don't have citations in hand, but by most indications Pagan was originally conceived as the Guardian's homeworld--a concept that must have quickly changed during early development of Ultima 8. (Even Ultima 7 has the backward-speech "I am the Pagan Lord" bit.)

    Of course, Garriott's plans for the Guardian never seemed set in stone, given a variety of contradictory ideas he put forth in interviews at the time, so it's also possibly different team members had different notions of what Pagan would be and no final decision had been made.

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    1. Whoops. That was meant as a reply to Jogy, above, of course.

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  8. As someone whose Ultima gaming in the old days ended with V, I'm excited to see there's so much good stuff to look forward to. I have yet to give VII a proper playthrough, and I'm waiting to finish the Ultima VI-engine stuff before moving onward, so I just have to finish Martian Dreams, then it'll be time for VII and the Underworlds. (Unless I get distracted by more SSI games. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Phantasie.)

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  9. Great review and another interesting over-your-shoulder review of this game. I just finished U4 recently (again - at least the 4th or 5th time total since 1985) and am now decently into U5 (maybe for only the 2nd or 3rd time). I'll be tagging along a little bit behind you as you move through this series, unless I overtake you somehow (assuming I don't sidetrack back into Might & Magic).

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    1. I might give U4 a dust-off myself in a couple of years. I've been thinking about virtues a lot since I got assigned an ethics class. It would be fun to replay U4 but concentrate heavily on the origins and meanings of the virtues.

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    2. A more general comment, but this blog has re-inspired me and challenged me to play my RPG's more ethically and with character focus.

      Even when the game doesn't prevent an act, (or if the game would be easier performing that act but it's problematic) I have tried to do my best to consider the actions within the character and narrative world, and not just inside the mechanics.

      As RPGs, both pencil-and-paper and computer, can get very mechanical-heavy and it's easy to just think about improving numbers, it's a fascinating and very engaging way to play.

      All of this to say I would be absolutely fascinated by a U4 virtue-specific playthrough.

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    3. There is a very good fan remake of Ultima V - "Lazarus".
      It adds some side plots and ensures the plot is coherent. And it looks and feels a bit like a 3D Ultima VII - for me it was one of the best Ultima experiences.

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  10. So which did you prefer? The way Ultima Underworld 1 did a story that essentially was completely removed from the main Ultima plot? Or how UU2 integrated the main plot into its game and had lots of familiar characters? I preferred the first one since everything about UU was radically different from the other Ultima games. Though the first one did have enough Ultima elements that if I never knew about the history of its development I would've thought it was planned as an Ultima game from the start.

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    1. With this engine, what I really want, in order, is:

      1. A game that has nothing to do with Britannia and the Avatar--just a straight dungeon exploration.

      2. A game that is firmly seated in the Ultima mythos.

      3. A half-assed combination of the two.

      UU1 is #3; UU2 is #2. So to that extent, I preferred UU2. But the times when I could pretend that UU1 was #1, I liked it better. I don't know if that makes sense.

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  11. I'm surprised that the "Underworld" name was something that Otherside had to license. It's weird how that was a concern but you have at least three games on Steam that use the "Dungeon Master" name, without any hint of suing from FTL or Wizards of the Coast despite how Dungeon Master is an active WOTC Atrademark that is stated to apply to computer RPGs in its filing.

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    1. It's not just "Underworld", it's the fact that they were utilizing other parts of the IP, like it being the Stygian Abyss, and making references to the events of UU1.

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  12. stepped pyramidsJune 27, 2022 at 2:48 AM

    The increasing uselessness of Lord British from VI on bothers me, too, and I actually thought about some ways to solve it. I ended up writing (with a couple of friends) outlines for two alternate versions of the "Age of Armageddon". One was just called "Lord British Must Die", and you can probably guess the tack that one took.

    The other posited something similar to a theory posted on a thread a while back -- that LB had come away from the events of Ultima V changed. More defensive, protective of the kingdom. In VI, that results in him waging total war against the Gargoyles, rather than trying to figure out what they wanted and reach middle ground. (Doesn't he seem weirdly bloodthirsty in that game?) Once you give him access to the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, he realizes he has actually been a very bad king and pretty much renounces the throne, explicitly handing over power to the Council.

    This sets up VII, where 1) LB has no actual power anymore, political or magical, 2) The Council is thoroughly infiltrated by the Fellowship, and 3) The Avatar is doubly archaic and unwelcome as a representative both of an outdated religion and a former political regime.

    Note that pretty much all of this stuff is actually in the real games to some extent, and this still allows pretty much all of the actual game plots without major modification (although most fans would be happy to redo VIII and IX). It just clarifies the themes and fixes the most egregious plot hole. (The other major problem with the "Age of Armageddon" is that they seem to have wanted the Guardian to be a machiavellian puppet-master, but in reality all of his plots are incomprehensible and/or dumb and he has the villainous subtlety of, well, a giant red muppet.)

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    1. I think I've mentioned this before, but British isn't really that useless in U6. He just didn't understand the nature of the conflict (and it's not like the king's gonna go out and fight the Gargoyles himself). All prior Ultimas, except 4, had a straightforward villain (of course, 4 didn't have a main villain). False Prophet was the first game in the series in which the bad guys weren't really bad, just struggling to survive. LB's virtues couldn't help him figure that out, because the Gargoyles were using a completely different set of virtues, foreign to his thinking.

      "In VI, that results in him waging total war against the Gargoyles, rather than trying to figure out what they wanted and reach middle ground." Completely wrong as I understand the game, as he was waging a defensive war, not an offensive one. A Zelenskyy to Draxinusom's Putin. The Virtue Shrines were overtaken by Gargoyles, not the other way around! His attitude may not have changed much throughout the game (until the end), but that was the 1990 technology they had to work with. Lord British didn't really start to suck until U7BG, and that actually makes more sense because of the Guardian's influence over people's minds. Plus, the Fellowship was at least trying to be devious about what they were doing, to the point where at least some members really thought they were a good organization. British thought Honesty a virtue, and probably expected people to be honest, and not corrupt. But like I said, the Guardian was probably screwing with his head by that point. By the point of UU2, the political situation has changed a bit, in favor a council over a monarchy, and he had aged quite a bit, about 200 years, in the days since U6. So he's naturally gonna be a bit out of touch. He does follow the Avarar's advice however on the situation. Spoiler in ROT-13: Va Nfprafvba, ur npghnyyl nqzvgf gung ur'f ybfg pbageby bire gur lrnef, naq ibjf gb uryc lbh qrsrng gur Thneqvna bapr naq sbe nyy, vafgrnq bs whfg qrcraqvat ba lbh sbe rirelguvat.

      Please don't read that spoiler if you haven't played Ultima IX: Ascension, it might, uh, spoil things.

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    2. The surprising thing about Ultima 6 is that Lord British largely DOESN'T fight a war against the Gargoyles. All shrines have been overtaken and there is a small defeated garrison in Cove, but otherwise there is no sign of mobilizing any of the cities (not even Jhelom!) or any other plan to reclaim the shrines.

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    3. Good point about not retaking the shrines. I guess there was no "Britannia Army" as Britannia had never been invaded before. So the first (only) attempt to build an army probably results in the failed attempt to liberate the Shrine of Compassion.
      Sir Geoffrey seems to be considering what should be the next martial approach done when the Avatar shows up.

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    4. I always read the "war" against the gargoyles in U6 as not even started yet when the Avatar arrives: all of a sudden, there's strange demon-like creatures who have taken over the shrines. People are concerned, but most haven't even heard of it yet. LB has sent out a reconnaissance party to take back the shrine nearest to his capital, but other than that, he's unsure what to do. The party has been dealt with easily, however, so that's a little concerning: those red-skinned things seem to be very tough.

      Then, lo and behold! his old friend the Avatar arrives! That is good fortune, on the one hand, as that guy can kick serious butt in the problem-solving department. But on the other hand, it's possible very concerning, as the Avatar usually only drops by when things are dire. So [i]are[/i] the gargoyles a dire threat? Up until now, LB hadn't really classified them as such, or there [i]would[/i] have been a mobilization of more force than a single party of warriors. Well, since the Avatar's already here, he'll be the best there is to find out!

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    5. "Ah, the Avatar is here! Seems things are really dire! I'll let him figure it out while I pace my throne room carpet with much dedication!" ;)

      Delete
    6. stepped pyramidsJune 27, 2022 at 4:28 PM

      The nature of the Gargoyle-Britannian War is one of the inconsistencies that I was trying to resolve. When asked about the Gargoyles, LB says they "art indeed the greatest threat our realm has ever known", asks the Avatar to "drive these vile creatures back into the bowels of the earth from whence they came", because "all our efforts thus far have availed us naught", and says "our belief in [the virtues] sets us apart from the cruel invaders who would destroy all that we hold dear".

      LB could teleport directly to the Gargoyles and he's invincible. Or he could go talk to Sin'Vraal. So he's clearly decided that the only way to resolve this conflict is driving them back by force, without any hint of an attempt at diplomacy. That's what I mean by him being in a posture of "total war".

      Don't get me wrong, the Gargs are clearly in the wrong here. They're a bunch of slavedriving elitists, and their invasion of the Shrines is totally unjustified in-universe. If they're able to identify the Avatar as the source of their problems, even wrongly, why are they also attacking religious sites?

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    7. Chet and everyone else is WAY overthinking the whole LB thing. He's just there as a passive NPC. The point of the game is that you, the player, save the world. Even though LB is invulnerable in the game if he went around killing all the monsters and saving the world there would be no game to play. It's that simple. LB said exactly that to Chet when he asked him directly.

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    8. I'm alright with LB not trying to micromanage the Avatar

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    9. I think that if a game presents a narrative at a certain level of seriousness it is fair play to take the narrative seriously, including its flaws. Ultima I-III all have extremely goofy plots, but they're very clearly a minimal setup for gameplay. IV was very consciously an attempt to say something more serious with the Virtues, and V establishes Lord British as someone far more significant to the player than just an invulnerable taskmaster. V is where continuity enters the picture: Lord British, Iolo, Shamino, Dupre, etc. are no longer just cameos from the creator and his friends, but actual characters with some degree of coherent personalities. VI and beyond just build on this.

      This isn't really meant to be a harsh criticism of Ultima, Origin, or Lord British. They were charting out new territory. Ultima VII was one of the first games to actually have a professional writing staff. They did a great job, as evidenced by us talking about the stories of the games two decades later.

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    10. I don't like to overthink this stuff, but when inconsistencies pop up, it's usually something that can be explained away pretty easily, as it's often a result of nitpicking. I'm sure LB wouldn't be too eager to go marching off to war after his previous misadventure in the Underworld, in which he could have been trapped potentially forever. He'd do what most kings do: stay safe in his castle/bunker and try to decide what to do next. It seems to me that the invasion was known before the Avatar arrived, otherwise why would Iolo, Shamino and Dupre already be at the Gargoyles' altar to rescue him (they must have known the "daemons" would try something like that).

      One more point is that British may be immortal (probably not as he does age quite a bit throughout the series), but he's definitely not invincible. He can be killed 4 different ways that I know of, in 3 different games. So if he values his life as a just ruler, and a person, he'd probably just trust his army and his personal Avatar to take care of the problem.

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    11. I like SP's fan fiction in this thread. It reminds me of a thousand times that I've looked at what the creators did with something and thought I had a better way to do it.

      There's no such thing as "overthinking" on this blog. No, of course I didn't expect Lord British to go charging off with a sword in hand. I would have expected him to take a more active role in managing the crisis instead of saying, "I'm going to put Miranda in charge" and spending most of the game in his bedroom.

      The Ultima series is one in which you've always done tasks for a king. If I'm going to do that, I want to do tasks for a noble, principled, intelligent leader, not a disengaged idiot.

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    12. I do want to correct a major misconception I see here. Through most of the Middle Ages and throughout much of ancient times kings were expected to march out to war and to act as generals, often taking a personal part in the conflict. Bad things often happened when the king was not there, for example in one campaign where Ludwig the German and his sons could not personally lead the army, the two higher ranked nobles had a falling out and refused to work together, leading to defeat.

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    13. Exactly! Many european kings died in battle, as late as 16th century, e.g. the death of Luis II in 1526 in the Battle of Mohacs fighting the Turks. Through his death passed Bohemian and Hungarian crown to Habsburgs and shaped central Europe for 400 years.

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  13. In a way, System Shock can be considered as a continuation of the ideas from Ultima Underworld. It feels a lot like the Stygian Abyss, only without RPG elements and NPCs, taking place in the enclosed "dungeon" of a large space station instead of the actual underground complex. It is incredibly easy to imagine Ultima Underworld III using the engine and general mechanics from System Shock.

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  14. I pretty much fully agree with the review and final rating.

    Underworld 2 was the first CRPG I ever played with a first person view, and the second in absolute terms after U7, and it totally blew my mind.

    Exploring the sewers was a tense, terrifying experience; my 13/14 years-old self found the developing plot at the castle absolutely riveting, and the murder shocking.

    I played the first game only years later and obviously it didn't have the same impact.

    Having replayed them both at least a couple of times each since, I'll say that the first game feels more cohesive and elegant in its design, the second more varied and ambitious but at the same time a bit inconsistent and bloated.

    You can make arguments in favor of both, and it will be up to personal preference, but there is no doubt they are both landmark games far ahead of their time.

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    1. "I played the first game only years later and obviously it didn't have the same impact.

      Having replayed them both at least a couple of times each since, I'll say that the first game feels more cohesive and elegant in its design, the second more varied and ambitious but at the same time a bit inconsistent and bloated.

      You can make arguments in favor of both, and it will be up to personal preference, but there is no doubt they are both landmark games far ahead of their time."

      This is exactly my opinion on the first two Fallouts!

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    2. Yeah first two Fallouts for sure.

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  15. What I liked about UW 2 is that it was better integrated in the overall storyline - I think especially showing you all the desolate worlds that had fallen to the Guardian is what underlined his threat.

    His taunt 'This world is mine! Do you like what you see?' in the Pits of Carnage felt pretty effective to me given what a terrible place that was.

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  16. Having caught back up, I'll just note that the King's Field -> Dark Souls -> Elden Ring line of games (and influences) are, themselves, descended from Ultima Underworld 1 and 2. King's Field basically started as an attempt to implement something similar on a console.

    Eventually, over the course of the follow ups and spiritual successors, you get more and more emphasis on better-feeling combat (such that Dark Souls has one of the most influential combat systems today) and some deepening of RPG mechanics, but that's the starting place.

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    1. Is that really true or just an assumption everyone's made because they're similar games? I'm not saying its impossible, but it seems just as likely that they took inspiration from native games and Wizardry.

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    2. I will say that, while it's a common view that UU helped inspire KF, I haven't seen a specific quote to back that claim even if it's not true as a lineage of influence, I still think it's true as a lineage of sub-genre.

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    3. Severance: Blade of Darkness is an early precursor of DS that captures a very similar feel in many ways, especially where the combat system is concerned - careful management of the stamina bar and timing-based blocking and dodging very much included. Awesome game, but barely worthy of the name of RPG, unfortunately.

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    4. To me it's one of those cases where the similarities are so evident that it really doesn't matter if the devs explicitly say they were influenced by it or not.

      In addition to its 1992 release in the West, Underworld had December 1993 releases for the two major Japanese computers of the time, while King's Field had a Decenber 1994 release for the PS1.

      I cannot imagine a Japanese developer working on a first-person real-time dungeon crawler in 1994 not being aware of and at least somewhat influenced by Underworld.

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    5. It does line up, since King's Field had a very short development time, 10 months I saw quotes, short enough for that to work.
      That said, you'd be surprised, the Japanese developed quite a few genres at the same time as western developers, and as such they'd probably be unable to imagine a western developer working without the influence of some Japanese game.

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    6. Dark Souls is the antithesis of the Underworld games.

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  17. "we've never seen an RPG set in a castle covered by a magical dome". It will take some time yet, but if one day you get to play "Gothic 3" by Piranha Bytes, you will find (among many other things), a castle covered by a magical dome, which you will have to free from the orcs!

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    1. In Gothic 1 the whole game area is covered by a magical dome, which creates the same kind of dynamic. And as we all know, G1 >>>>>>> G3.

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  18. There doesn't seem to be a place for generic comments, but while it's still possible, I'd like to just say what a great site this is, and, CRPGAddict, what a great little community you have created and sustained.

    For any blog that centers on nostalgia, I suppose that it's inevitable that some of us find ourselves slowly becoming less insightful, less clever, and less witty (and those are traits that I have personally never enjoyed in great abundance :)

    One thing that has been really superb about your work is your inclusiveness: my own comments have often been all too prosaic and often contribute very little to the discussion, yet you've always been gracious and have made all of us feel as if our experiences and observations are welcome. As a result, this has turned into a really fun and welcoming community where many of us look forward to your next blog and a new cycle of observations and comments. It's a great little community.

    So, as even the past becomes a little more foggy, I'd like to take a moment to offer a well-deserved thanks to you, CRPGAddict, for the really wonderful body of work and sense of community that you have created. Keep it up as long as you can! And really, ... really ... thanks so much!

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    1. That's very kind of you, Rangerous. Thank you. I have to say, I never articulated to myself any particular goals when it came to developing a commenting community. It just sort-of grew organically. But aside from the occasional (usually anonymous) troll, I'm happy with the way things turned out.

      And don't undersell your own comments. I appreciate how deep you get into the statistics and data.

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  19. Really making me regret not taking a laptop while on vacation. I've been bouncing around your career on this blog in my downtime and it's been amazing game one after another, though I am sure you don't feel this way sometimes.

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  20. Ultimuh! lol I remember playing that for maybe 5 minutes, downloaded off a BBS back in the day.

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  21. I've caught up to you in the Ultima universe and about to pass you, since I'll move straight on to U7-P2. (I skipped replays of U1-U3, and while I have Savage Empire and Martian Chronicles, I don't currently plan to play them.) This has been an enjoyable read (as have all of your series from U4 through now) as I've been re-playing the series. I'm headed onward, though to eventually finish the series (I played, but never finished Ascension for some reason). I re-played Wizardry 6-8 and Bard's Tale 1-3 before I found your site. After I finish the Ultima series, I'll be over in Might & Magic land for about 1000 years to play that entire set. Then there's the Gold/Silver/Black box games to re-enjoy... so much to do, so little time after work! Fun times, and so enjoyable to see you and your other readers playing along!

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  22. Ok, did I miss something? The Addict casually mentions that he interacted with Richard Garriott himself and nobody inquires further in the comments section?? Details, please!

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    1. It was just a brief LinkedIn conversation, little more than what I relayed in the entry.

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    2. I see. Still very cool, though. If you went back in in time and told me during the days of me playing Ultima 3 and 4 around the clock that I would have any sort of interaction with Lord British my head would explode! I’m sure it’s the same for you, even if just a little bit!

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  23. Ah, you loved it - great to see :) This is one of my favourite games of all time and my second favourite Ultima, right behind U6 (my first CRPG)... Though if I wanted to take either game for a spin it'd have to be UW2. Having trouble reconciling U6 as my favourite RPG now ;)

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